March has been a huge month for new releases. With so many authors feeling let down about book tours and events being cancelled, it’s a great time for bloggers to step in and help. I attended two virtual book launches on Twitter on the 19th and have another one coming up on the 31st. I also have three more March releases on order from my local indie bookstore: Greenery by Tim Dee, tracking the arrival of spring; Footprints by David Farrier, about the fossil traces modern humans will leave behind; and The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, a novel about violence against women set on the Scottish coast in three different time periods.
Today I have short reviews of five March releases I recommend (plus a bonus one now out in paperback): a Victorian pastiche infused with Scottish folklore, an essay collection about disparate experiences of motherhood, a thriller about victims of domestic violence, poems in graphic novel form, a novel about natural and personal disasters in Australia, and a lovely story of friendship and literature changing a young man’s life forever. All:
The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson
(Published by Two Roads on the 19th)
Like Hannah Kent’s The Good People and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, this is an intense, convincing work of fiction that balances historical realism with magical elements. In mid-1850s Britain, in the wake of a cholera epidemic, there is a drive to ensure clean water. Alexander Aird, hired as the on-site physician for the Glasgow waterworks, moves to the Loch Katrine environs with his wife, Isabel, who has had eight miscarriages or stillbirths. With no living babies requiring her care, Isabel spends her days wandering the hills and meets a strange scarecrow of a man, Reverend Robert Kirke … who died in 1692.
A real-life Episcopalian minister, Kirke wrote a book about fairies and other Celtic supernatural beings and, legend has it (as recounted by Sir Walter Scott and others), was taken into the faery realm after his death and continued to walk the earth looking for rest. It takes a while for Isabel to learn the truth about Kirke – though her servant, Kirsty McEchern, immediately intuits that something isn’t right about the man – and longer still to understand that he wants something from her. “Whatever else, Robert Kirke could be relied on to ruffle this mind of hers that was slowly opening to experience again, and to thinking, and to life.”
This was a rollicking read that drew me in for its medical elements (premature birth, a visit to Joseph Lister, interest in Florence Nightingale’s nursing methods) as well as the plot. It often breaks from the omniscient third-person voice to give testimonies from Kirsty and from Kirke himself. There are also amusing glimpses into the Royal household when Victoria and Albert stay at Balmoral and return to open the waterworks during the “heaviest, windiest, most umbrella-savaging, face-slashing deluge that Scotland had experienced in twenty years.” Best of all, it gives a very different picture of women’s lives in the Victorian period.
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
The Best Most Awful Job: Twenty Writers Talk Honestly about Motherhood, edited by Katherine May
(Published by Elliott & Thompson on the 19th)
These are essays for everyone who has had a mother – not just everyone who has been a mother. I enjoyed every piece separately, but together they form a vibrant collage of women’s experiences. Care has been taken to represent a wide range of situations and attitudes. The reflections are honest about physical as well as emotional changes, with midwife Leah Hazard (author of Hard Pushed) kicking off with an eye-opening rundown of the intimate scarring some mothers will have for the rest of their lives. We hear from a mother of six who’s “addicted” to pregnancy (Jodi Bartle), but also from a woman who, after an ectopic pregnancy, realized “there are lots of ways to mother, even if your body won’t let you” (Peggy Riley, in one of my two favorite pieces in the book).
Women from BAME communities recount some special challenges related to cultural and family expectations, but others that are universal. An autistic mother (Joanne Limburg) has to work out how to parent a neurotypical child; queer parents (including author Michelle Tea) wonder how to raise a son at a time of toxic masculinity. There are also several single mothers, one of them disabled (Josie George – hers was my other favorite essay; do follow her on Twitter via @porridgebrain if you don’t already).
What I most appreciated is that these authors aren’t saying what they think they should say about motherhood; they’re willing to admit to boredom, disappointment and rage: “motherhood is an infinite, relentless slog from which there is no rest or recuperation … a ceaseless labour, often devoid of acknowledgment, recognition and appreciation” (Javaria Akbar); “I step barefoot on a rogue piece of Lego and it’s game over. I scream” (Saima Mir). These are punchy, distinctive slices of life writing perfectly timed for Mother’s Day. I plan to pass the book around my book club; mothers or not, I know everyone will appreciate it.
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Keeper by Jessica Moor
(Published by Viking/Penguin on the 19th)
Val McDermid and Jeanette Winterson are among the fans of this, Penguin’s lead debut title of 2020. When a young woman is found drowned at a popular suicide site in the Manchester area, the police plan to dismiss the case as an open-and-shut suicide. But the others at the women’s shelter where Katie Straw worked aren’t convinced, and for nearly the whole span of this taut psychological thriller readers are left to wonder if it was suicide or murder.
The novel alternates between chapters marked “Then” and “Now”: in the latter story line, we follow the police investigation and meet the women of the refuge; in the former, we dive into Katie’s own experience of an abusive relationship back in London. While her mother was dying of cancer she found it comforting to have a boyfriend who was so attentive to her needs, but eventually Jamie’s obsessive love became confining.
I almost never pick up a mystery, but this one was well worth making an exception for. I started suspecting the twist at maybe the two-thirds point, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. Based on Moor’s year working in the violence against women sector, it’s a gripping and grimly fascinating story of why women stay with their abusers and what finally drives them to leave.
I picked up a proof copy at a Penguin Influencers event.
Poems to See by: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry by Julian Peters
(To be published by Plough Publishing House on the 31st)
Peters is a comics artist based in Montreal. Here he has chosen 24 reasonably well-known poems by the likes of e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allan Poe, Christina Rossetti and W.B. Yeats and illustrated each one in a markedly different fashion. From black-and-white manga to a riot of color and music, from minimalist calligraphy-like Japanese watercolor to imitations of Brueghel, there is such a diversity of style here that at first I presumed there were multiple artists involved (as in one of my favorite graphic novels of last year, ABC of Typography, where the text was written by one author but each chapter had a different illustrator). But no, this is all Peters’ work; I was impressed by his versatility.
The illustrations range from realistic to abstract, with some more obviously cartoon-like. A couple of sequences reminded me of the style of Raymond Briggs. For “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou, lines are inlaid on the squares of a painted patchwork quilt. Other sets look to have been done via wood engraving, or with old-fashioned crayons. You could quibble with the more obvious poetry selections, but I encountered a few that were new to me, including “Buffalo Dusk” by Carl Sandburg and “Conscientious Objector” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Peters has grouped them into six thematic categories: self, others, art, nature, time and death. Teenagers, especially, will enjoy the introduction to a variety of poets and comics styles.
I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts
(Published by ONE/Pushkin on the 5th)
“Emergency police fire, or ambulance?” The young female narrator of this debut novel lives in Sydney and works for Australia’s emergency call service. Over her phone headset she gets appalling glimpses into people’s worst moments: a woman cowers from her abusive partner; a teen watches his body-boarding friend being attacked by a shark. Although she strives for detachment, her job can’t fail to add to her anxiety – already soaring due to the country’s flooding and bush fires.
Against that backdrop of natural disasters, a series of minor personal catastrophes play out. The narrator is obsessed with a rape/murder case that’s dominating the television news, and narrowly escapes sexual assault herself. She drinks to excess, keeps hooking up with her ex-boyfriend, Lachlan, even after he gets a new girlfriend, and seems to think abortion and the morning after pill are suitable methods of birth control. Irresponsible to the point of self-sabotage, she’s planning a move to London but in the meantime is drifting through life, resigned to the fact that there is no unassailable shelter and no surefire way to avoid risk.
The title comes from the quest of John Oxley (presented here as the narrator’s ancestor), who in 1817 searched for a water body in the Australian interior. Quotations from his journals and discussions of the work of Patrick White, the subject of Lachlan’s PhD thesis, speak to the search for an Australian identity. But the inland sea is also the individual psyche, contradictory and ultimately unknowable. Like a more melancholy version of Jenny Offill’s Weather or a more cosmic autofiction than Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist, this is a timely, quietly forceful story of how women cope with concrete and existential threats.
My thanks to the publisher for the PDF copy for review.
And a bonus…
The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)
(Paperback published by Bloomsbury on the 5th)
With the Second World War only recently ended and nothing awaiting him apart from the coal mine where his father works, sixteen-year-old Robert Appleyard sets out on a journey. From his home in County Durham, he walks southeast, doing odd jobs along the way in exchange for food and lodgings. One day he wanders down a lane near Robin Hood’s Bay and gets a surprisingly warm welcome from a cottage owner, middle-aged Dulcie Piper, who invites him in for tea and elicits his story. Almost accidentally, he ends up staying for the rest of the summer, clearing scrub and renovating her garden studio.
Dulcie is tall, outspoken and unconventional – I pictured her as (Meryl Streep as) Julia Child in the movie Julie & Julia. She introduces Robert to whole new ways of thinking: that not everyone believes in God, that Germans might not be all bad, that life can be about adventure and pleasure instead of duty. “The offing” is a term for the horizon, as well as the title of a set of poems Robert finds in the dilapidated studio, and both literature and ambition change his life forever. Bright, languid and unpredictable, the novel delights in everyday sensual pleasures like long walks with a dog, dips in the ocean and an abundance of good food. I can’t think of another book I’ve read that’s quite like it – how refreshing is that?
I pre-ordered the paperback using a Waterstones voucher I got for Christmas.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Two rather different books to start off #WITMonth: a brief (c. 70 pp.) account of a mother’s decline with dementia; and a haiku-inspired novel of the quest for life and death in disorienting modern Japan. Both are admirable but detached – a judgment I seem more likely to make about work in translation – so don’t earn my wholehearted recommendation. My rating for both:
I Remain in Darkness by Annie Ernaux (1997; English translation, 1999)
[Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie]
This is the second short, somewhat harrowing autobiographical work I’ve read by Ernaux this year (after Happening, her account of her abortion, in March). A collection of mostly present-tense fragments, it’s drawn from the journal she kept during her mother’s final years, 1983–6. “I Remain in Darkness” were the last words her mother wrote, in a letter to a friend (“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit,” which more literally means “I have not left my night,” strikes me as cryptic and poetic, though maybe I’m missing a colloquialism). Slipping into Alzheimer’s, her mother spent these years in a long-term hospital geriatric ward. Ernaux could see her mother becoming like a child again:
This morning she got up and, in a timid voice, said: ‘I wet the bed. I couldn’t help it.’ The same words I would use when I was a child.
Now her room is on the third floor. A bunch of women circle us, addressing my mother with the familiar tu form: ‘You’re going to be in our group?’ They are like kids talking to the ‘new girl’ at school. When I take leave of her, she looks at me in panic and confusion: ‘You’re not leaving, are you?’
—and herself becoming like her mother: “It’s crystal-clear: she is me in old age and I can see the deterioration of her body threatening to take hold of me – the wrinkles on her legs, the creases in her neck”. Ernaux vacillates between guilt, fear and cruelty in how she approaches her mother. She tenderly shaves the older woman’s face every week when she visits, and buys her all manner of sweets. Food is one of her mother’s last remaining pleasures, though she often misses her mouth when she tries to eat the cakes her daughter brings.
Superficially, this is very similar to another book I’ve reviewed this year, Be With by Mike Barnes, a series of short letters written during his time as a caregiver to his mother, who also has Alzheimer’s. But where Barnes is reassuring and even humorous at times, Ernaux refuses to give any comfort, false or otherwise. This hospital is a bleak place that reeks of urine and is hiding excrement everywhere (really). A lazier reviewer than I generally try to be would brandish the word “unflinching.”
The entries from a few days after her mother’s death explain what the author is trying to do with her work, whether memoir or autofiction: “I am incapable of producing books that are not precisely that – an attempt to salvage part of our lives, to understand, but first to salvage … I’ll have to tell her story in order to ‘distance myself from it’.” That dual purpose, saving and distancing, makes her work honest yet unemotional, such that I have trouble warming to it.
This is easily read in a sitting. I may try again to get into Ernaux’s novel The Years, which, like the Poschmann (below), was on this past year’s Man Booker International Prize shortlist.
I Remain in Darkness will be released on September 18th. With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (2017; English translation, 2018)
[Translated from the German by Jen Calleja]
(Though I read this mostly in July, I finished it on August 1st, so I’m including it in my WIT Month coverage. It’s the first of the author’s books to be made available in English.)
A man wakes up from a dream convinced that his wife is cheating on him, and sets off for Tokyo on a whim, where he embarks on a Bashō-inspired pilgrimage to the pine islands of Matsushima. This Gilbert Silvester, a beard historian, acquires an unlikely companion: a young man named Yosa, who’s looking for the best place to kill himself and takes Gilbert along to cliffs and forests famous for their suicide rates. Although there are still cherry blossoms and kabuki theatre, Gilbert soon learns that this isn’t Bashō’s Japan anymore.
From the haikus he composes and the letters he writes to Mathilda back home, we track his inward journey as it contrasts with the outward ones he undertakes. I enjoyed the surreal touches – Yosa says he once dated a woman who was actually a fox – and the Murakami setup (the wife’s adultery and the hair patterns are reminiscent of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle).
Somehow, though, for me this is a book that succeeds more in its ideas (searching for the essence of a place but only finding the clichés; coniferous versus deciduous trees as a metaphor for what lasts in life versus what fades) than in its actual execution. It never all quite comes together, and the inconclusive ending makes you question how much of this has been a dream or a fantasy. It’s ambitious and intellectually impressive, but something about its dignified aloofness is hard to be enthusiastic about.
Do watch Lost in Translation, one of my favorite films, afterwards…
And a DNF: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. The time has come to admit that I simply do not appreciate Ferrante’s work. I could only make it 25 pages into this one; I’ve read a different short novel of hers (The Lost Daughter), and skimmed another (My Brilliant Friend). While I enjoyed the narrator’s voice well enough, and loved the scene in which her errant husband finds broken glass in his dinner, I found that I had no interest in how this seemingly predictable story of the end of a marriage might play out.
Up next for Part II: The Wind that Lays Waste by Selva Almada, on its way from Charco Press, and The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmarin Fenollera.
Are you doing any special reading for Women in Translation month this year?
While very different, these three books tie together nicely with their themes of the hunger for food, adventure and/or love.
Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
(Coming on July 11th from Sceptre [UK])
Buchanan’s second novel reprises many of the themes from her first, Harmless Like You, including art, mental illness, and having one’s loyalties split across countries and cultures. Oscar and Mina have been together for over a decade, but their marriage got off to a bad start six months ago: on their wedding night Mina took an overdose, and Oscar was lucky to find her in time. The novel begins and ends with her contemplating suicide again; in between, Oscar takes her from New York City to England, where he grew up, for a change of scenery and to work on getting his father’s London flats ready to sell. For Mina, an adjunct professor and Classics tutor, it will be labeled a period of research on her monograph about the rare women who survive in Greek and Roman myth. But when work for his father’s Japanese import company takes Oscar back to New York, Mina is free to pursue her fascination with Phoebe, the sister of Oscar’s childhood friend.
Both Oscar and Mina have Asian ancestry and complicated, dysfunctional family histories. For Oscar, his father’s health scare is a wake-up call, reminding him that everything he has taken for granted is fleeting, and Mina’s uncertain mental and reproductive health force him to face the fact that they might never have children. Although I found this less original and compelling than Buchanan’s debut, I felt true sympathy for the central couple. It’s a realistic picture of marriage: you have to keep readjusting your expectations for a relationship the longer you’re together, and your family situation is inevitably going to have an impact on how you envision your future. I also admired the metaphors and the use of color.
The title is, I think, meant to refer to a sort of time outside of time when wishes can come true; in Mina’s case that’s these few months in London. Bisexuality is something you don’t encounter too often in fiction, so I guess that’s reason enough for it to be included here as a part of Mina’s story, though I wouldn’t say it adds much to the narrative. If it had been up to me, instead of birds I would have picked up on the repeated peony images (Mina has them tattooed up her arms, for instance) for the title and cover.
Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World by Jeff Gordinier
(Coming on July 9th from Tim Duggan Books [USA] and on October 3rd from Icon Books [UK])
Noma, René Redzepi’s restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, has widely been considered the best in the world. In 2013, though, it suffered a fall from grace when some bad mussels led to a norovirus outbreak that affected dozens of customers. Redzepi wanted to shake things up and rebuild Noma’s reputation for culinary innovation, so in the four years that followed he also opened pop-up restaurants in Tulum, Mexico and Sydney, Australia. Journalist Jeff Gordinier, food and drinks editor at Esquire magazine, went along for the ride and reports on the Noma team’s adventures, painting a portrait of a charismatic, driven chef. For foodies and newbies alike, it’s a brisk, delightful tour through world cuisine as well as a shrewd character study. (Full review coming soon to BookBrowse.)
Supper Club by Lara Williams
(Coming on July 9th from G.P. Putnam’s Sons [USA] and July 4th from Hamish Hamilton [UK])
“What could violate social convention more than women coming together to indulge their hunger and take up space?” Roberta and Stevie become instant besties when Stevie is hired as an intern at the fashion website where Roberta has been a writer for four years. Stevie is a would-be artist and Roberta loves to cook; they decide to combine their talents and host Supper Clubs that allow emotionally damaged women to indulge their appetites. The pop-ups take place at down-at-heel or not-strictly-legal locations, the food is foraged from dumpsters, and there are sometimes elaborate themes and costumes. These bacchanalian events tend to devolve into drunkenness, drug-taking, partial nudity and food fights.
The central two-thirds of the book alternates chapters between the present day, when Roberta is 28–30, and her uni days. I don’t think it can be coincidental that Roberta and Stevie are both feminized male names; rather, we are meant to ask to what extent all the characters have defined themselves in terms of the men in their lives. For Roberta, this includes the father who left when she was seven and now thinks he can send her chatty e-mails whenever he wants; the fellow student who raped her at uni; and the philosophy professor she dated for ages even though he treated her like an inconvenient child. Supper Club is performance art, but it’s also about creating personal meaning when family and romance have failed you.
I was slightly disappointed that Supper Club itself becomes less important as time goes on, and that we never get closure about Roberta’s father. I also found it difficult to keep the secondary characters’ backstories straight. But overall this is a great debut novel with strong themes of female friendship and food. Roberta opens most chapters with cooking lore and tips, and there are some terrific scenes set in cafés. I suspect this will mean a lot to a lot of young women. Particularly if you’ve liked Sweetbitter (Stephanie Danler) and Friendship (Emily Gould), give it a taste.
With thanks to Sapphire Rees of Penguin for the proof copy for review.
Have you read any other July releases you would recommend?
Two nonfiction books: a frank account of an abortion; clutter-busting techniques.
Two novels: amusing intellectual fare featuring a big dog or the Parisian Surrealists.
Happening by Annie Ernaux (2000; English translation, 2019)
[Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie]
“I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled,” Ernaux writes. In 1963, when she was 23 and living in a student residence in Rouen, she realized she was pregnant. An appointment with a gynecologist set out the facts starkly: “Pregnancy certificate of: Mademoiselle Annie Duchesne. Date of delivery: 8 July, 1964. I saw summer, sunshine. I tore up the certificate.” Abortion was illegal in France at that time. Ernaux tried to take things into her own hands – “plunging a knitting needle into a womb weighed little next to ruining one’s career” – but couldn’t go through with it. Instead she went to the home of a middle-aged nurse she’d heard about…
This very short book (just 60-some pages) is told in a matter-of-fact style – apart from the climactic moment when her pregnancy ends: “It burst forth like a grenade, in a spray of water that splashed the door. I saw a baby doll dangling from my loins at the end of a reddish cord.” It’s such a garish image, almost cartoonish, that I didn’t know whether to laugh or be horrified. Mostly, Ernaux reflects on memory and the reconstruction of events. I haven’t read many nonfiction accounts of abortion/miscarriage and for that reason found this interesting, but it was perhaps too brief and detached for me to be fully engaged.
With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018)
“Does something bad happen to the dog?” We animal lovers are wary when approaching a book about a pet. Nunez playfully anticipates that question as she has her unnamed female narrator reflect on her duty of care to her dead friend’s dog. The narrator is a writer and academic – like her late friend, a Bellovian womanizer who recently committed suicide, leaving behind two ex-wives, a widow, and Apollo the aging Great Dane. She addresses the friend directly as “you” for almost the whole book, which unfolds – in a similar style to Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation – via quotations, aphorisms, and stories from literary history as well as mini-incidents from a life.
This won the 2018 National Book Award in the USA and is an unashamedly high-brow work whose intertextuality comes through in direct allusions to many classic works of autofiction (Coetzee, Knausgaard and Lessing) and/or doggy lit (Ackerley; Coetzee again – Disgrace). As Apollo starts to take up more physical, mental and emotional space in the narrator’s life, she waits for a miracle that will allow her to keep him despite an eviction notice and muses on lots of questions: Is all writing autobiographical? Why does animal suffering pain us so much (especially compared to human suffering)? I was impressed: it feels like Nunez has encapsulated everything she’s ever known or thought about, all in just over 200 pages, and alongside a heart-warming little plot. (Animal lovers need not fear.)
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness by Gretchen Rubin (2019)
What with all the debate over Marie Kondo’s clutter-reducing tactics, the timing is perfect for this practical guide to culling and organizing all the stuff that piles up around us at home and at work. Unlike the rest of Rubin’s self-help books, this is not a narrative but a set of tips – 150 of them! It’s not so much a book to read straight through as one to keep at your bedside and read a few pages to summon up motivation for the next tidying challenge.
Famously, Kondo advises one to ask whether an item sparks joy. Rubin’s central questions are more down-to-earth: Do I need it? Do I love it? Do I use it? With no index, the book is a bit difficult to navigate; you just have to flip through until you find what you want. The advice seems in something of a random order and can be slightly repetitive. But since this is really meant as a book of inspiration, I think it will be a useful jumping-off point for anyone trying to get on top of clutter. I plan to work through the closet checklist before I pass the book to my sister – who’s dealing with a basement full of stuff after she and her second husband merged their households. If I could add one page, it would be a flowchart of what to do with unwanted stuff that corresponds to the latest green recommendations.
With thanks to Two Roads for the free copy for review.
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer (2019)
This novel about Lee Miller’s relationship with Man Ray is in the same vein as The Paris Wife, Z, Loving Frank and Frieda: all of these have sought to rescue a historical woman from the shadow of a celebrated, charismatic male and tell her own fascinating life story. Scharer captures the bohemian atmosphere of 1929–30 Paris in elegant but accessible prose. Along with the central pair we meet others from the Dada group plus Jean Cocteau, and get a glimpse of Josephine Baker. The novel is nearly 100 pages too long, I think, such that my interest in the politics of the central relationship – Man becomes too possessive and Lee starts to act out, longing for freedom again – started to wane.
Miller was a photographer as well as a model and journalist, and this is an appropriately visual novel that’s interested in appearances, lighting and what gets preserved for posterity. It’s also fairly sexually explicit for literary fiction, sometimes unnecessarily so, so keep that in mind if it’s likely to bother you. I especially enjoyed the brief flashes of Lee at other points in her life: in London during the Blitz, photographing the aftermath of the war in Germany (there’s a famous image of her in Hitler’s bathtub), and hoping she’s more than just a washed-up alcoholic in the 1960s. It would be a boon to have a prior interest in or some knowledge of the Surrealists.
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I’ve now read eight of the 12 titles longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2019 and skimmed another two, leaving just two unexplored.
My latest two reads are books that I hugely enjoyed yet would be surprised to see make the shortlist (both ):
The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein (2017)
I guarantee you’ve never read a biography quite like this one. For one thing, its subject is still alive and has never been much of a public figure, at least not outside Victoria, Australia. For another, your average biography is robustly supported by archival evidence; to the contrary, this is a largely oral history conveyed by an unreliable narrator. And lastly, whether a biography is critical or adulatory overall, the author usually at least feigns objectivity. Sarah Krasnostein doesn’t bother with that. Sandra Pankhurst’s life is an incredible blend of ordinary and bizarre circumstances and experiences, and it’s clear Krasnostein is smitten with her. “I fall in love … anew each time I listen to her speak,” she gushes towards the book’s end. At first I was irked by all the fawning adjectives she uses for Sandra, but eventually I stopped noticing them and allowed myself to sink into this astonishing story.
Sandra was born male and adopted by a couple whose child had died. When they later conceived again, they basically disowned ‘Peter’, moving him to an outdoor shed and making him scrounge for food. His adoptive father was an abusive alcoholic and kicked him out permanently when he was 17. Peter married ‘Linda’ at age 19 and they had two sons in quick succession, but he was already going to gay bars and wearing makeup; when he heard about the possibility of a sex change, he started taking hormones right away. Even before surgery completed the gender reassignment, Sandra got involved in sex work, and was a prostitute for years until a brutal rape at the Dream Palace brothel drove her to seek other employment. Cleaning and funeral home jobs nicely predicted the specialty business she would start after the hardware store she ran with her late husband George went under: trauma cleaning.
Krasnostein parcels this chronology into tantalizing pieces, interspersed with chapters in which she accompanies Sandra and her team on assignments. They fumigate and clean up bodily fluids after suicides and overdoses, but also deal with clients who have lost control of their possessions – and, to some extent, their lives. They’re hoarders, cancer patients and ex-convicts; their homes are overtaken by stuff and often saturated with mold or feces. Sandra sympathizes with the mental health struggles that lead people into such extreme situations. Her line of work takes “Great compassion, great dignity and a good sense of humour,” she tells Krasnostein; even better if you can “not … take the smell in, ’cause they stink.”
The author does a nice job of staying out of the narrative: though she’s an observer and questioner, there’s only the occasional paragraph in which she mentions her own life. Her mother left when she was young, which helps to explain why she is so compassionate towards the addicts and hoarders she meets with Sandra. Some of the loveliest passages have her pondering how things got so bad for these people and affirming that their lives still have value. As for Sandra herself – now in her sixties and increasingly ill with lung disease and cirrhosis – Krasnostein believes she’s never been unconditionally loved and so has never formed true human connections.
This book does many different things in its 250 pages. It’s part journalistic exposé and part “love letter”; it’s part true crime and part ordinary life story. It considers gender, mental health, addiction, trauma and death. It’s also simply a terrific read that should draw in lots of people who wouldn’t normally pick up nonfiction. I don’t expect it to advance to the shortlist, but if it does I’ll be not-so-secretly delighted.
A favorite passage:
Sometimes, listening to Sandra try to remember the events of her life is like watching someone reel in rubbish on a fishing line: a weird mix of surprise, perplexity and unexpected recognition. No matter how many times we go over the first three decades of her life, the timeline of places and dates is never clear. Many of her memories have a quality beyond being merely faded; they are so rusted that they have crumbled back into the soil of her origins. Others have been fossilised, frozen in time, and don’t have a personal pull until they defrost slightly in the sunlit air between us as we speak. And when that happens there is a tremor in her voice as she integrates them back into herself, not seamlessly but fully.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)
If you’ve read her Booker-shortlisted debut, Eileen, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that Moshfegh has written another love-it-or-hate-it book with a narrator whose odd behavior is hard to stomach. This worked better for me than Eileen, I think because I approached it as a deadpan black comedy in the same vein as Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. Its inclusion on the Wellcome longlist is somewhat tenuous: in 2000 the unnamed narrator, in her mid-twenties, gets a negligent psychiatrist to prescribe her drugs for insomnia and depression and stockpiles them so she can take pill cocktails to knock herself out for days at a time. In a sense this is a way of extending the numbness that started with her parents’ deaths – her father from cancer and her mother by suicide. But there’s also a more fantastical scheme in her mind: “when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay, I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person.”
Ever since she was let go from her job at a gallery that showcases ridiculous modern art, the only people in this character’s life are an on-again, off-again boyfriend, Trevor, and her best (only) friend from college, longsuffering Reva, who keeps checking up on her in her New York City apartment even though she consistently treats Reva with indifference or disdain. Soon her life is a bleary cycle of sleepwalking and sleep-shopping, interspersed with brief periods of wakefulness, during which she watches a nostalgia-inducing stream of late-1990s movies on video (the kind of stuff I watched at sleepovers with my best friend during high school) – she has a weird obsession with Whoopi Goldberg.
It’s a wonder the plot doesn’t become more repetitive. I like reading about routines, so I was fascinated to see how the narrator methodically takes her project to extremes. Amazingly, towards the middle of the novel she gets herself from a blackout situation to Reva’s mother’s funeral – about the only time we see somewhere that isn’t her apartment, the corner shop, the pharmacy or Dr. Tuttle’s office – and this interlude is just enough to break things up. There are lots of outrageous lines and preposterous decisions that made me laugh. Consumerism and self-medication to deaden painful emotions are the targets of this biting satire. As 9/11 approaches, you wonder what it will take to wake this character up to her life. I’ve often wished I could hibernate through British winters, but I wouldn’t do what Moshfegh’s antiheroine does. Call this a timely cautionary tale about privilege and disengagement.
“Initially, I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything. I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.”
“Oh, sleep, nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness.”
Reva: “you’re not changing anything in your sleep. You’re just avoiding your problems. … Your problem is that you’re passive. You wait around for things to change, and they never will. That must be a painful way to live. Very disempowering.”
And one more that I got out from the library and skimmed:
Murmur by Will Eaves (2018)
The subject is Alec Pryor, or “the scientist.” It’s clear that he is a stand-in for Alan Turing, quotes from whom appear as epigraphs at the head of most chapters. Turing was arrested for homosexuality and subjected to chemical castration. I happily read the first-person “Part One: Journal,” which was originally a stand-alone story (shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017), but “Part Two: Letters and Dreams” was a lot harder to get into, so I ended up just giving the rest of the book a quick skim. If this is shortlisted, I promise to return to it and give it fair consideration.
These two memoirs may be very different in terms of the setting (Texas and Yale versus rural Lancashire) and particulars, but I’m reviewing them together because they are both about dysfunctional families and the extent to which external circumstances determine how others see us – and how we view ourselves.
There Will Be No Miracles Here: A Memoir from the Dark Side of the American Dream by Casey Gerald (2018)
The title comes from a seventeenth-century sign in a French village that was intended to get the God-dazzled peasants back to work. For Gerald it’s a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reminder that his life, even if he has made good after an unpromising beginning, is not some American dream or fairytale. It’s more complicated than that. Still, there’s no sugar-coating his family issues. His father missed his tenth birthday party because he was next door with dope fiends; his bipolar mother was in the psych ward while his father was in jail, and then disappeared for several years. Gerald and his older sister, a college dropout, got an apartment and set their own lax rules. In the meantime, he was coming to terms with the fact that he was gay and trying to reconcile his newfound sexual identity with his Christian faith.
In spite of it all, Gerald shone academically and athletically. He was his Texas high school’s valedictorian and followed his father into a thriving college football career – at Yale, where he accidentally fell into leadership via a Men of Color council across the Ivy League schools. It wasn’t until he got to Yale that it even occurred to him that he was poor. (I was reminded of the moment in Michelle Obama’s memoir when she got to Princeton and experienced being a minority for the first time.) As he neared graduation, he decided to go into investment banking “simply because I did not have any money and none of my people had any money.” Back in Texas after a year in a Washington, D.C. think tank, he even considered a run for Congress under the slogan “We can dream again.”
I loved the prologue, which has the 12-year-old Gerald cowering with his church congregation on the last night of 1999, in fear of being left behind at the end of the world. I think I expected religion to continue as a stronger theme throughout the book. The style wasn’t really what I imagined either: it’s a coy combination of reader address, stream-of-consciousness memories, and remembered speech in italics that often set me skimming. Whereas landmark events like his mother’s departure are left impressionistic, football games and the inner workings of Yale’s societies are described in great detail. Scenes in the classroom and with boyfriends, though still occasionally tedious, at least feel more relevant.
Gerald proudly calls himself a “faggot” and is going for a kind of sassy, folksy charm here. For me the tone only landed sometimes. Mostly I appreciated his alertness to how others (often wrongly) perceived him – a great instance of this is when he meets George W. Bush in 2007 and tells him the bare bones of his story, only for Dubya to later twist it into an example in a speech. The memoir tails off into a rather odd and sudden ending, and overall I wasn’t sure it had enough to say to fill close to 400 pages. Perhaps Gerald could have waited another 10 years? As a more successful take on similar themes, I’d recommend the memoir-in-essays Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race by Clay Cane.
There Will Be No Miracles Here was hand-picked by Colm Tóibín for publication by Tuskar Rock Press, a new imprint of Serpent’s Tail, on January 10th. It was published in the USA by Riverhead Books in October 2018. My thanks to the UK publisher for the free copy for review.
When I Had a Little Sister: The Story of a Farming Family that Never Spoke by Catherine Simpson (2019)
On December 7, 2013, Simpson’s younger sister, Tricia, was found dead by their 87-year-old father at the family farmhouse where she lived in Lancashire. She was 46 and had been receiving daily mental health visits for her bipolar disorder, but the family had never been notified about a previous suicide attempt just three weeks before. Simpson excavates her family history to ask how things could have gotten so bad that they didn’t realize that Tricia’s depression had reached suicidal levels.
Simpson’s grandparents – her grandfather a World War I veteran – moved into the property in 1925, so by this time there was literally generations’ worth of stuff to clear out. “I ask myself now: is it possible to dispose of a person’s effects with dignity?” Simpson frets. As she and her father sifted through antique furniture, gadgets and craft supplies, she recalls the previous death in the family: her mother’s from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma seven years before. Growing up on a cattle farm in the 1970s, the three daughters were expected to be practical and unsentimental; there was never any discussion of emotions, and they got the sense that their overworked, unfulfilled mother would rather they weren’t around at all. In this context, it was hard for Tricia to cope with everyday challenges like struggling with schoolwork and the death of a beloved cousin. She started smoking at 12 and went on antidepressants at 19.
Simpson started writing this family memoir on a fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in February 2016. The first step of her project was to read all of Tricia’s diaries, from age 14 on. There were happy experiences, like six months as a nanny in Vienna and a travel grant to a kibbutz in Israel. There were also unwelcome surprises, like a 1981 suicide note – from when Tricia was just 15. Simpson had never realized just how prone her little sister was to all-or-nothing thinking. She dove headlong into short-lived relationships and, when they failed, feared she would never find love again. Over the years Tricia grew increasingly paranoid, believing she was being watched on the farm and her sisters were plotting to sell the property and leave her with nothing. One time she even locked her parents in to keep them safe.
Although the subtitle is melodramatic, it conveys all that went unsaid in this family: not just sadness, but also love and tenderness. The cover image shows Simpson crying over a dead duckling; Tricia is at the left, her look of consternation startlingly intense for a three-year-old. “It’s only a duck. There’s plenty more where that came from” was their father’s hardhearted response. There are many other family photographs printed in black and white throughout the text; Tricia loved fashion, and is stunning in her glamour shots. While the book is probably overlong, I was absorbed in the family’s story, keen to see how Simpson would reconstruct events through objects, photographs and journals. (My sister is a Tricia, too.) Recommended to readers of Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide and Clover Stroud’s The Wild Other.
When I Had a Little Sister will be published by Fourth Estate on February 7th. My thanks to the publisher for an early proof copy for review.
“Why Aren’t You Laughing?” is one of the essay titles in Calypso, David Sedaris’s tenth book; it’s an ironically appropriate question you might ask of the whole book. It’s not that this isn’t funny – it is, very much so, in places – but that there’s a melancholy aura I hadn’t sensed in his work before. “Now We Are Five,” the second piece, sets the tone, explaining that Tiffany, Sedaris’s youngest sister, committed suicide in 2013, aged 49. He hadn’t spoken to her for the eight years prior to that. The siblings learn that she did it with pills plus a plastic bag over her head. These facts are just thrown out there for us: there’s no getting around how horrific it all was, but Sedaris doesn’t do much obvious hand-wringing or soul-searching.
Tiffany’s suicide is an occasional point of reference in these 21 short essays, as is their mother’s alcoholism and death from cancer. The remaining middle-aged family members – and their 90-something dad – make an effort to stay close, chiefly through meet-ups at the beach cottage Sedaris and his partner, Hugh Hamrick, buy in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. They name the place Sea Section, and it’s the setting for about a third of the book. Two-thirds of these essays were published previously, which entails some repetition, especially in the setup of each piece. I wondered if an adjustment to the sequencing and some editing out of repeated details could have made the Emerald Isle material flow together a bit better.
Sedaris’s trouble communicating with his father, a thrift-conscious hoarder, is one major theme of the book. “We’re like a pair of bad trapeze artists, reaching for each other’s hands and missing every time,” he writes. Their relationship mostly consists of trying to avoid talk of politics lest his father spout pro-Trump propaganda, and his father nagging him about his health. Despite advancing age, Sedaris’s medical crises are trivial and turned to humorous effect: broken ribs from falling off a ladder, an awful stomach virus that provides scatological background to a reading tour, and a fatty tumor he decides to freeze and feed to the snapping turtles the next time he’s on Emerald Isle.* O-kaaaay.
There are echoes of Me Talk Pretty One Day and When You Are Engulfed in Flames in the delight in languages and travel. “Your English Is So Good” skewers the annoyances of small talk and jargon, especially as used by waitstaff and shop assistants. Another essay is about what people in various countries shout when they get cut off in traffic – unsurprisingly, this one is rather foul-mouthed. Sedaris gets addicted to clothes shopping in Tokyo and obsesses over achieving his daily Fitbit steps goal while litter picking near his home in West Sussex. Some of my favorite essays were “A Modest Proposal,” reflecting on the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage; “Untamed,” about feeding a local fox; and “Boo-Hooey,” in which he scoffs at ghost stories yet wonders if his dead mother visits him in dreams.
This collection doesn’t quite live up to the two I’ve already mentioned, and there were moments when I was put off by the author’s unthinking adherence to a luxurious lifestyle, but this is a solid book you wouldn’t have to be an existing fan to enjoy.
“The battle for gay marriage was, in essence, the fight to be as square as straight people, to say things like ‘My husband tells me that the new Spicy Chipotle Burger they’ve got at Bennigan’s is awesome!’”
“We’re not pessimists, exactly, but in late middle age, when you envision your life ten years down the line, you’re more likely to see a bedpan than a Tony Award.”
*The topic of the title essay. He’s affronted when he learns that the local kids know about ‘his’ snapping turtle and even have a name for it – he likens this to finding out that your cat is being secretly fed by the neighbors, who call it “Calypso.” It’s an obscure reference, definitely; then again, this is the same man who titled books Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. The cover design even has some slight relevance within the book: “Calypso” mentions an old friend he meets up with on an American book tour, Janet, and her woodgrain art.
Calypso comes out today, July 5th, in the UK from Little, Brown. It was released in the USA on May 29th. My thanks to the publisher for sending a free copy for review.
“Now that it’s all over I find myself thinking about family history and family memories; the stories that hold a family together and the acts that can split it apart.”
Sigrid Rausing’s brother, Hans, and his wife, Eva, were wealthy philanthropists – and drug addicts who kept it together long enough to marry and have children before relapsing. Hans survived that decade-long dive back into addiction, but Eva did not: in July 2012 the 48-year-old’s decomposed body was found in a sealed-off area of the couple’s £70 million Chelsea mansion. The postmortem revealed that she had been using cocaine, which threw her already damaged heart into a chaotic rhythm. She’d been dead in their drug den for over two months.
Those are the bare facts. Scandalous enough for you? But Mayhem is no true crime tell-all. It does incorporate the straightforward information that is in the public record – headlines, statements and appearances – but blends them into a fragmentary, dreamlike family memoir that proceeds through free association and obsessively deliberates about the nature and nurture aspects of addictive personalities. “We didn’t understand that every addiction case is the same dismal story,” she writes, in a reversal of Tolstoy’s maxim about unhappy families.
Rausing’s memories of idyllic childhood summers in Sweden reminded me of Tove Jansson stories, and the incessant self-questioning of a family member wracked by remorse is similar to what I’ve encountered in memoirs and novels about suicide in the family, such as Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide and Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows. Despite all the pleading letters and e-mails she sent Hans and Eva, and all the interventions and rehab spells she helped arrange, Rausing has a nagging “sense that when I tried I didn’t try hard enough.”
The book moves sinuously between past and present, before and after, fact and supposition. There are a lot of peculiar details and connections in this story, starting with the family history of dementia and alcoholism. Rausing’s grandfather founded the Tetra Pak packaging company, later run by her father. Eva had a pet conspiracy theory that her father-in-law murdered Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986.
Rausing did anthropology fieldwork in Estonia and is now the publisher of Granta Books and Granta magazine. True to her career in editing, she’s treated this book project like a wild saga that had to be tamed, “all the sad and sordid details redacted,” but “I fear I have redacted too much,” she admits towards the end. She’s constantly pushing back against the more sensational aspects of this story, seeking instead to ground it in family experience. The book’s sketchy nature is in a sense necessary because information about her four nieces and nephews, of whom she took custody in 2007, cannot legally be revealed. But if she’d waited until they were all of age, might this have been a rather different memoir?
Mayhem effectively conveys the regret and guilt that plague families of addicts. It invites you to feel what it is really like to live through the “years of failed hope” that characterize this type of family tragedy. It doesn’t offer any easy lessons seen in hindsight. That makes it an uncomfortable read, but an honest one.
With thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review.
My gut feeling: This book’s style could put off more readers than it attracts. I can think of two other memoirs from the longlist that I would have preferred to see in this spot. I suppose I see why the judges rate Mayhem so highly – Edmund de Waal, the chair of this year’s judging panel, describes the Wellcome shortlist as “books that start debates or deepen them, that move us profoundly, surprise and delight and perplex us” – but it’s not in my top tier.
See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:
Annabel’s review: “Rausing is clearly a perceptive writer. She is very hard on herself; she is brutally honest, knowing that others will be hurt by the book.”
Clare’s review: “Rausing writes thoughtfully about the nature of addiction and its many contradictions.”
Laura’s review: “One of the saddest bits of Mayhem is when Rausing simply lists some of the press headlines that deal with her family story in reverse order, illustrating the seemingly inescapable spiral of addiction.”
Paul’s review: “It is not an easy read subject wise, thankfully Rausing’s sparse but beautiful writing helps makes this an essential read.”
Also, be sure to visit Laura’s blog today for an exclusive extract from Mayhem.
Shortlist strategy: Tomorrow I’ll post a quick response to Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race.
If you are within striking distance of London, please consider coming to one of the shortlist events being held this Saturday and Sunday.
I was delighted to be asked to participate in the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews and extracts have appeared or will be appearing soon.
Five of the books I’ve read recently (most of them while traveling to and from the States) have shared an overarching theme of loss, with mental illness, alcoholism, suicide, and dogs as subsidiary topics running through two or more of them. I hadn’t deliberately chosen these books for their commonalities, so it was uncanny to see the same elements keep popping up. I wanted to come up with some kind of impressively complex Venn diagram to show off these unexpected connections but couldn’t quite manage it, so you’ll have to imagine it instead.
The Archivist by Martha Cooley
Matthias Lane is the archivist of the Mason Room, a university collection of rare books and literary papers. One of its treasures is a set of letters that passed between T.S. Eliot and his friend Emily Hale (held at Princeton in real life). Matt is haunted by memories of his late wife, Judith, a poet incarcerated in a mental hospital for over five years. A reckoning comes for Matt when he’s approached by Roberta Spire, a graduate student determined to view the Eliot–Hale letters even though they’re legally sealed until 2020. The more time Matt spends with Roberta, the more similarities start to arise between her and Judith; and between his situation and Eliot’s when the latter also put his wife away in a mental hospital. The novel asks what we owe the dead: whether we conform to their wishes or make our own decisions.
The Summer without Men by Siri Hustvedt
Thirty years on, poet Mia Fredricksen’s husband Boris asks her for a pause in their marriage so he can explore his feelings for his young French lab assistant. First things first: Mia goes crazy and ends up in a mental hospital for a short time. But then she sucks it up and goes back to her Minnesota hometown to teach poetry writing to teen girls for a summer, getting sucked into a bullying drama. This is a capable if not groundbreaking story of the shifts that occur in a long marriage and the strange things we all do as we face down the possibility of death. There are also wry comments about the unappreciated talents of the female artist. However, compared to the other two novels I’ve read from Hustvedt, this seemed feeble. Still, a quick and enjoyable enough read.
The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
A delicious debut novel intellectual enough to bypass labels like ‘women’s fiction’ and ‘mystery’. One thing that sets it apart is how successfully Parkhurst writes from the perspective of a male narrator, Paul Iverson, who’s been knocked for six by the sudden death of his wife Lexy, a mask designer. While he was at the university where he teaches linguistics, she climbed to the top of the apple tree in their backyard and – what? fell? or jumped? The only ‘witness’ was their Rhodesian Ridgeback, Lorelei; in his grief Paul uses his sabbatical to research efforts to teach dogs to communicate, hoping one day Lorelei might tell all. Woven through are scenes from Paul and Lexy’s courtship and marriage; though Lexy occasionally struggled with her mental health, their dialogue is fun and zippy, like you might hear on The Gilmore Girls.
The Archivist by Martha Cooley & The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
A classic memoir that conjures up all the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of Africa on the cusp of a colonial to postcolonial transition. Fuller’s family were struggling tobacco and cattle farmers in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Malawi and Zambia. She had absorbed the notion that white people were there to benevolently shepherd the natives, but came to question it when she met Africans for herself. While giving a sense of the continent’s political shifts, she mostly focuses on her own family: the four-person circus that was Bobo (that’s her), Van (older sister Vanessa), Dad, and Mum (an occasionally hospitalized manic-depressive alcoholic who lost three children) – not to mention an ever-changing menagerie of horses, dogs and other pets. This really takes you away to another place and time, as the best memoirs do, and the plentiful black-and-white photos are a great addition.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
If you loved Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, pick this up immediately. It’s a similar story of best friends: one who dies and one who survives. Caldwell’s best friend was Caroline Knapp (author of Drinking: A Love Story, among other nonfiction), whom she met via puppy ownership in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were both single and childless, full-time authors with a history of alcoholism. Besides long walks with their dogs, they loved swimming and rowing together. In 2002 Caroline was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, inoperable and already metastasized. Despite all their proactive optimism, she was dead a matter of weeks later. In this moving and accessible short memoir, Caldwell drifts through her past, their friendship, Caroline’s illness, and the years of grief that followed the loss of Caroline and then her beloved Samoyed, Clementine, sharing what she learned about bereavement.
The Dogs of Babel, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight & Let’s Take the Long Way Home