Tag Archives: suicide

Short Stories in September, Part II: Tove Jansson, Brandon Taylor, Eley Williams

Each September I make a special effort to read short stories, which otherwise tend to languish on my shelves and TBR unread. After my first four reviewed last week, I have another three wonderfully different collections, ranging from bittersweet children’s fantasy in translation to offbeat, wordplay-filled love notes via linked stories suffused with desire and desperation.

 

Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson (1962; 1963)

[Trans. from the Swedish by Thomas Warburton]

I only discovered the Moomins in my late twenties, but soon fell in love with the quirky charm of Jansson’s characters and their often melancholy musings. Her stories feel like they can be read on multiple levels, with younger readers delighting in the bizarre creations and older ones sensing the pensiveness behind their quests. There are magical events here: Moomintroll discovers a dragon small enough to be kept in a jar; laughter is enough to bring a fearful child back from literal invisibility. But what struck me more was the lessons learned by neurotic creatures. In “The Fillyjonk who believed in Disasters,” the title character fixates on her belongings—

“we are so very small and insignificant, and so are our tea cakes and carpets and all those things, you know, and still they’re important, but always they’re threatened by mercilessness…”

—but when a gale and a tornado come and sweep it all away, she experiences relief and joy:

“the strange thing was that she suddenly felt quite safe. It was a very strange feeling, and she found it indescribably nice. But what was there to worry about? The disaster had come at last.”

My other favourite was “The Hemulen who loved Silence.” After years as a fairground ticket-taker, he can’t wait to retire and get away from the crowds and the noise, but once he’s obtained his precious solitude he realizes he needs others after all. The final story, “The Fir Tree,” is a lovely Christmas one in which the Moomins, awoken midway through their winter hibernation, get caught up in seasonal stress and experience the holiday for the first time. (Public library)

 

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor (2021)

Real Life was one of my five favourite novels of 2020, and we are in parallel fictional territory here. Lionel, the protagonist in four of the 11 stories, is similar to Wallace insomuch as both are gay African Americans at a Midwestern university who become involved with a (straight?) white guy. The main difference is that Lionel has just been released from hospital after a suicide attempt. A mathematician (rather than a biochemist like Wallace), he finds numbers soothingly precise in comparison to the muddle of his thoughts and emotions.

In the opening story, “Potluck,” he meets Charles, a dancer who’s dating Sophie, and the three of them shuffle into a kind of awkward love triangle where, as in Real Life, sex and violence are uncomfortably intertwined. It’s a recurring question in the stories, even those focused around other characters: how does tenderness relate to desire? In the throes of lust, is there room for a gentler love? The troubled teens of the title story are “always in the thick of violence. It moves through them like the Holy Ghost might.” Milton, soon to be sent to boot camp, thinks he’d like to “pry open the world, bone it, remove the ugly hardness of it all.”

Elsewhere, young adults face a cancer diagnosis (“Mass” and “What Made Them Made You”); a babysitter is alarmed by her charge’s feral tendencies (“Little Beast”); and same-sex couples renegotiate their relationships (Simon and Hartjes in “As Though That Were Love” and Sigrid and Marta in “Anne of Cleves,” one of my favourites). While the longer Lionel/Charles/Sophie stories, “Potluck” and “Proctoring,” are probably the best and a few others didn’t make much of an impression, the whole book has an icy angst that resonates. Taylor is a confident orchestrator of scenes and conversations, and the slight detachment of the prose only magnifies his characters’ longing for vulnerability (Marta says to Sigrid before they have sex for the first time: “I’m afraid I’ll mess it up. I’m afraid you’ll see me.” To which Sigrid replies, “I see you. You’re wonderful.”). (New purchase, Forum Books)


A bonus story: “Oh, Youth” was published in Kink (2021), an anthology edited by Garth Greenwell and R.O. Kwon. I requested this from NetGalley just so I could read the stories by Carmen Maria Machado and Brandon Taylor. All of Taylor’s work feels of a piece, such that his various characters might be rubbing shoulders at a party – which is appropriate because the centrepiece of Real Life is an excruciating dinner party, Filthy Animals opens at a potluck, and “Oh, Youth” is set at a dinner party.

Grisha is here with Enid and Victor, his latest summer couple. He’s been a boytoy for hire since his architecture professor, Nate, surprised him by inviting him into his open marriage with Brigid. “His life at the time was a series of minor discomforts that accumulated like grit in a socket until rotation was no longer possible.” The liaisons are a way to fund a more luxurious lifestyle and keep himself in cigarettes.

While Real Life brought to mind Virginia Woolf, Taylor’s stories recall E.M. Forster or Thomas Mann. In other words, he’s the real deal: a blazing talent, here to stay.

 

Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams (2017)

After enjoying her debut novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, this time last year, I was pleased to find Williams’s first book in a charity shop last year. Her stories are brief (generally under 10 pages) and 15 of the 17 are first-person narratives, often voiced by a heartbroken character looking for the words to describe their pain or woo back a departed lover. A love of etymology is patent and, as in Ali Smith’s work, the prose is enlivened by the wordplay.

The settings range from an art gallery to a beach where a whale has washed up, and the speakers tend to have peculiar careers like an ortolan chef or a trainer of landmine-detecting rats. My favourite was probably “Synaesthete, Would Like to Meet,” whose narrator is coached through online dating by a doctor.

I found a number of the stories too similar and thin, and it’s a shame that the hedgehog featured on the cover of the U.S. edition has to embody human carelessness in “Spines,” which is otherwise one of the standouts. But the enthusiasm and liveliness of the language were enough to win me over. (Secondhand purchase from the British Red Cross shop, Hay-on-Wye – how fun, then, to find the line “Did you know Timbuktu is twinned with Hay-on-Wye?”)

 

I’ll have one more set of short story reviews coming up before the end of the month, with a few other collections then spilling into October for R.I.P.

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler (1991)

This year I’ve been joining in Liz’s Anne Tyler readalong for the novels I own and hadn’t read yet – I have one each lined up for the next three months as well. Saint Maybe was Tyler’s twelfth novel and forms part of what I consider to be her golden mid-period. It’s most like Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, my absolute favourite, in that both might be classed as linked short story collections: each chapter is a standalone narrative with knockout first and last lines; together they build a careful picture of a dysfunctional family over the years.

As the novel opens in the 1960s, Ian Bedloe is a lazy teenager contemplating college. When his older brother Danny marries Lucy, mother to Agatha and Thomas, Ian can’t help but comment on the timing of his sister-in-law’s third pregnancy. Danny didn’t realize he’s not the father of this new baby, Daphne, and the newfound knowledge pushes him over the edge. Lucy also fails to cope, and Ian is consumed with guilt at how he inadvertently caused the collapse of their family. In an effort to atone, he joins the puritanical Church of the Second Chance and drops out of college to help his parents raise the three children. Others have to convince him that life is not just about penance and that he deserves happiness, too.

This is one of those books where every character, no matter how minor, shines. I particularly loved Reverend Emmett, whose well-meaning doctrines have been taken further than he intended; Rita, whom the family hires to declutter the house (she’s reminiscent of the dog trainer in The Accidental Tourist); and Daphne, who turns into a rebellious teen for whom Ian will always have a soft spot. Ian’s parents could have faded into the background, but the book probes their grief and their feelings of purposelessness in retirement. My only slight qualm was about how Tyler describes the foreigners who live nearby: Middle Eastern graduate students at Johns Hopkins, they’re there simply to provide comic relief with their harebrained home maintenance schemes; the depiction is good-natured, yet seems dated.

In a few other Tyler novels, I’ve been put off by what can seem like flippancy or inconsequentiality. The works of hers that I love best emphasize both the humour and the sadness: the absurdity and tragedy of these ordinary suburban lives. Here, I especially noted the double-edged portrait of the nature of childcare: Ian “wondered how people endured children on a long-term basis—the monotony and irritation and confinement of them,” yet “They were all that gave his life color, and energy, and …well, life.” I also kept finding personal resonances – for instance, the whole theme of the short homily the pastor delivered at my mother’s wedding ceremony was second chances, my stepfather has a failing old dog like the Bedloes’ Beastie, and the account of Church summer camp rang all too true.

At the sentence level as well as the plot level, this is a very strong showing from Tyler, and a close second to Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant for me. I reckon anyone will be able to find themselves and their family in this story of the life chosen versus the life fallen into, and the difficult necessity of moving past regrets in the search for meaning. (Source: Charity shop) See also Liz’s review.

Favourite lines:

Bee (Ian’s mother): “We’ve had such extraordinary troubles, and somehow they’ve turned us ordinary. That’s what’s so hard to figure. We’re not a special family anymore. … We’ve turned uncertain. We’ve turned into worriers.”

“‘Mess up, I say!’ Daphne crowed. ‘Fall flat on your face! Make every mistake you can think of! Use all the life you’ve got.’”

“When is something philosophical acceptance and when is it dumb passivity? When is something a moral decision and when is it scar tissue?”

My rating:

 

The 14 Tyler novels I’ve read, in order of preference (greatest to least), are:

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

Saint Maybe

Ladder of Years

The Accidental Tourist

Earthly Possessions

Breathing Lessons

Digging to America

Vinegar Girl

Back When We Were Grown-ups

Clock Dance

A Blue Spool of Thread

The Beginner’s Goodbye

Redhead by the Side of the Road

The Clock Winder

 

Next up for me will be A Patchwork Planet in late July.

20 Books of Summer, #1–4: Adichie, de Bernières, Egan, and Styron

The first four books for this summer’s colour theme took me from Australia to New York City to Nigeria, and into a mind plagued by depression.

 

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2003)

This was my last remaining unread book by Adichie, and that probably goes a long way toward explaining why I found it underwhelming. In comparison to her two later novels, and even her short stories (of which this reminded me the most), the canvas is small and the emotional scope limited. Kambili is a Nigerian teenager caught between belief systems: her grandfather’s traditional (“pagan”) ancestor worship versus the strict Catholicism that is the preserve of her abusive father, but also of the young priest on whom she has a crush. She and her brother try to stay out of their father’s way, but they are held to such an impossibly high standard of behaviour that it seems inevitable that they will disappoint him.

Adichie’s debt to her literary hero, Chinua Achebe, is evident from the first line onward: “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.” It also sets up, with a certain lack of subtlety, the way in which religion is wielded as a weapon in the novel. Meanwhile, the title suggests rarity, beauty, and fragile hope. Had this been my first taste of Adichie’s fiction, I probably would have stopped there, so in a way I’m glad that I read her first book last. Now I just have to wait with tapping fingers for the next one… (Free from a neighbour)

 

Blue Dog by Louis de Bernières (2016)

A sweet coming-of-age novella about a boy moving to the Australian Outback to live with his grandfather in the 1960s and adopting a stray dog – a red cloud kelpie, but named Blue. I didn’t realize that this is a prequel (to Red Dog), and based on a screenplay. It was my third book by de Bernières, and it was interesting to read in the afterword that he sees this one as being suited to 12-year-olds, yet most likely to be read by adults.

Mick’s father is dead and his mother has had a breakdown, so Granpa is the only one around to look after him, though out at the cattle station the boy mostly fends for himself, having adventures with stinging lizards and cyclones and bushfires and cursed caves. All along, Blue and his motorcycle are constant companions. Taylor Pete, a wry Aboriginal man, and Betty Marble, a pretty blonde hired as his teacher, are two amusing secondary characters.

This reminded me of Gerald Durrell’s writing about his childhood, and was pleasant airport and plane reading for me: light and fun, but not fluffy, and offering an armchair traveling opportunity. I especially liked the Australian lingo and the blue and black illustrations at the head and foot of each chapter, with a flipbook-style cartoon of a running dog in the upper right corner of each odd-numbered page. (Public library)

 

Emerald City by Jennifer Egan (1993)

Each of these 11 stories has a fantastic first line – my favorite, from “Sacred Heart,” being “In ninth grade I was a great admirer of Jesus Christ” – but often I felt that these stories of relationships on the brink did not live up to their openers. Most take place in a major city (Chicago, New York, San Francisco) or a holiday destination (Bora Bora, China, Mexico, Spain), but no matter the setting, the terrain is generally a teen girl flirting with danger or a marriage about to implode because the secret of a recent or long-ago affair has come out into the open.

Recurring elements include models/stylists/fashion photographers and people getting conned out of money. The title story is set in New York, described as “a place that glittered from a distance even when you reached it.”

To me the best story, for offering something a bit different, was “One Piece,” about a brother who seems to hurt everything he touches but comes through for his sister when it counts. Egan’s characters are caught between emotional states: remembering a golden age, regretting a moment that changed everything, or hoping that the best is yet to come. “The Stylist” was the one story that reminded me most of A Visit from the Goon Squad. As soon as I closed the book, I found that I had trouble remembering details of any of the stories. (Little Free Library in suburban Philadelphia, May 2019)

 

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron (1990)

(Visible darkness must have a colour, right?) I had long wanted to read this and finally came across a secondhand copy the other day. What I never realized was that, at 84 pages, it is essentially an extended essay: It started life as a lecture given at Johns Hopkins in 1989, was expanded into a Vanity Fair essay, and then further expanded into this short book.

Approaching age 60 and on his way to Paris to accept a prestigious award, Styron could feel his depression worsening. Rather than being proud or grateful, he could only doubt his own talent. The pills his doctor prescribed him for insomnia exacerbated his feelings of despair. When he threw away the journal he had been keeping, he knew it was a potential prelude to suicide. Hearing a piece by Brahms on a movie soundtrack was the one thing that reminded him of the beauty of the world and the richness of his life, enough for him to reach out and get seven weeks of treatment at a mental hospital, which was what saved him. These experiences, recounted in sections VI and VII, are the highlight of the book.

Styron also muses on the creative temperament and the ubiquity of suicide among writers, especially those who, like him, had an early trauma (his mother died when he was 13). The prose is forthright and intimate, ably evoking a psychic pain that is “quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it.” This made me want to try his fiction, too. (Secondhand purchase, June 2021)

Favourite lines:

“each day’s pattern of distress exhibits fairly predictable alternating periods of intensity and relief. The evening’s relief for me—an incomplete but noticeable letup, like the change from a torrential downpour to a steady shower—came in the hours after dinnertime and before midnight, when the pain lifted a little and my mind would become lucid enough to focus on matters beyond the immediate upheaval convulsing my system.”

“Alcohol was an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I sought daily—sought also, I now see, as a means to calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long somewhere in the dungeons of my spirit.”

 

Next two in progress: A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy and Ruby by Ann Hood.

 

Read any of these? Interested?

Three on a Theme for Mother’s Day

In advance of (American) Mother’s Day, I picked up two novels and a set of short stories that explore the bonds between mothers and their children, especially daughters. The relationships can be fraught or fractured, but always provide good fodder for psychologically astute fiction.

 

Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander (2020)

Hope: A Tragedy, Auslander’s 2012 debut, is among my absolute favorites, an outrageously funny novel that imagines Anne Frank is alive and dwelling in a suburban attic, frantically tapping out her endless magnum opus. Solomon Kugel, the sap blessed to have an icon sharing his home, has a deluded mother who actually grew up in Brooklyn but believes she survived the Holocaust and now hoards food and curses the Nazis who ruined her life.

I start with that bit of synopsis because Mother for Dinner showcases rather analogous situations and attitudes, but ultimately didn’t come together as successfully for me. It’s a satire on the immigrant and minority experience in the USA – the American dream of ‘melting pot’ assimilation that we see contradicted daily by tribalism and consumerism. Seventh Seltzer works in Manhattan publishing and has to vet identity stories vying to be the next Great American Novel: “The Heroin-Addicted-Autistic-Christian-American-Diabetic one” and “the Gender-Neutral-Albino-Lebanese-Eritrean-American” one are two examples. But Seventh is a would-be writer himself, compelled to tell the Cannibal-American story.

For years Mudd, the Seltzer family matriarch, has been eating Whoppers for each meal in a customary fattening-up called the Cornucopiacation. She expects her 12 children, who are likely the last of the Cannibal kind, to carry on the tradition of eating her corpse after her death. It’s a way for ancestors to live on in their descendents. The Cannibal Guide, disguised as a deer processing manual, sets out the steps: Drain (within two hours), Purge, Partition, Consume (within 24 hours). Unclish, the Seltzers’ uncle, drilled the rules into them when they were kids through rhymes like “A bite and half / and you won’t need another, / whether it’s your father, your sister, / or even your mother.” From her deathbed, Mudd apportions her body parts to her offspring, some tenderly and some vengefully. Their inheritance – a Brooklyn dump that will still net $5.2 million – is conditional on them performing the ritual.

Interspersed with sections on the practicalities of butchering and cooking a morbidly obese woman are flashbacks to key moments of Cannibal history, which has turned into myth. In 1914, Julius Seltzer left the paradisiacal “Old Country” with his sister Julia, who pretended to be his wife and traveled with him to Detroit to work for Henry Ford. (An overt parody of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.) Mudd is vocally intolerant of all other minority groups, from Blacks to homosexuals, and always chooses the version of history that reflects best on her own ancestors, while the Seltzers’ father was more willing to admit flaws.

My proof copy, with a joke on the cover, came with a napkin!

Auslander is pushing the boundary of what an author can get away with, not just with a literal cannibalism storyline but also with jokes about historical atrocities and the recent trend for outing beloved figures as reprehensible (what Seventh calls “Contemporary Assholization Studies”). He shares Lionel Shriver’s glee for tipping sacred cows. I did appreciate his picture of the pervasiveness of xenophobia – the “You’re Not Me” look that anyone can get when walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood – and his willingness to question the value of beliefs and ceremonies once they’ve stopped being reasonable or of use. But with all the siblings known by numbers, it’s hard to distinguish between them. The novel ends up heavy on ideas but light on characterization, and as a whole it leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.

My rating:


With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.

 

The Mothers by Brit Bennett (2016)

{CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS.}

Like so many who were impressed with the Women’s Prize-shortlisted The Vanishing Half, I rushed to get hold of Bennett’s California-set first novel, which, while not as skillfully put together, is nearly as emotionally engaging. After her mother’s suicide, 17-year-old Nadia Turner only has her father, a Marine, but they are bolstered by their church family at Upper Room Chapel. Nadia is a bright girl headed to Michigan for college, but in her senior year she gets mixed up with Pastor Sheppard’s 21-year-old son, Luke, leading to a pregnancy and abortion that his parents swiftly cover up / pay for. Luke drops her at the clinic and hands over the money, but doesn’t pick her up; that looks the acrimonious end of their relationship.

But in the years to come, especially when Nadia takes a break from law school to care for her father, their lives will intersect again. Nadia’s best friend in that final year of high school was Aubrey Evans, who is estranged from her mother, who failed to protect the girl from sexual abuse at the hands of her own boyfriend. Now Aubrey wears a purity ring, enamored with the idea that faith will make her clean again. Once Nadia leaves, she starts dating Luke, ignorant of her best friend’s history with him. This sets up a love triangle mired in layers of secrets.

There is dramatic irony here between what the characters know about each other and what we, the readers, know – echoed by what “we,” the church Mothers, observe in the first-person plural sections that open most chapters. I love the use of a Greek chorus to comment on a novel’s action, and The Mothers reminded me of the elderly widows in the Black church I grew up attending. (I watched the video of a wedding that took place there early this month and there they were, perched on aisle seats in their prim purple suits and matching hats.)

Nadia and Aubrey are relatable characters, and Luke earns our sympathy after the cruel return of his football injury. (I was intrigued to see that Peter Ho Davies was one of Bennett’s teachers – his novel A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself is a rare picture of male grief after abortion, also present here.) Bennett explores multiple facets of motherhood: memories of a mother, the absence of a mother, the choice to become a mother, and people who act in the place of a mother by providing physical care or being a source of moral support.

The timeline is a bit too long, which makes the plot wander more than it needs to, but this is a warm and bittersweet novel that always held my interest. Bennett has produced two winners in a row, and I look forward to seeing what she’ll do next.

A favorite line: “Maybe mothers were inherently vast and unknowable.” (not literally vast like in the Auslander!)

Source: Birthday gift (secondhand) from my wishlist last year

My rating:

 

Close Company: Stories of Mothers and Daughters, ed. by Christine Park and Caroline Heaton (1987)

I read 14 of 25 stories, skipping to the ones that most interested me (by familiar names like Sue Miller, Sylvia Plath, and Jeanette Winterson), and will read the rest next year. The only story I’d encountered before was Margaret Atwood’s “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother,” originally published in Bluebeard’s Egg. The title phrase comes from Jamaica Kincaid’s story. A recurring theme is women’s expectations for their daughters, who might repeat or reject their own experiences. As the editors quote from Simone de Beauvoir in the introduction, “the daughter is for the mother at once her double and another person.”

I particularly liked “The Pangs of Love” by Jane Gardam, a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of “The Little Mermaid,” and “Swans” by Janet Frame, in which a mother takes her two little girls for a cheeky weekday trip to the beach. Fay and Totty are dismayed to learn that their mother is fallible: she chose the wrong beach, one without amenities, and can’t guarantee that all will be well on their return. A dusky lagoon full of black swans is an alluring image of peace, quickly negated by the unpleasant scene that greets them at home.

Two overall standouts thus far were “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker and “The Unnatural Mother” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In Walker’s story, which draws on the parable of the Prodigal Son, a hip Afro-wearing daughter returns to her mother’s rural home and covets the quilts and butter churn – to her this is quaint folk art that she wants to take away and display, but her mother and sister resent her condescension towards their ‘backward’ lives.

Gilman is best known for The Yellow Wallpaper, but this story has a neat connection with another classic work: the main character is named Esther Greenwood, which is also the protagonist’s name in Plath’s The Bell Jar (consider this a preview of my next Book Serendipity roundup!). A gossiping gaggle of women discuss Esther’s feral upbringing and blame it for her prioritizing altruism over her duty to her child. A perfect story.

Source: Free mall bookshop

My rating: (so far)

 

If you read just one … Make it The Mothers. (But do also pick out at least a few stories from the Close Company anthology.)

Book Serendipity, Mid-March to Early May 2021

In early April, the publisher Canongate ran a newsletter competition for one reader to win a stack of their recent releases. All you had to do was reply with your favourite word. On Twitter they gave a rundown of the most popular responses. Turning up several times each were petrichor, mellifluous, and oleaginous. Most frequent of all was serendipity: I was one of 15 to submit it! And one of those entries, but not mine, won. Anyway, fun little story there.

I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (usually 20‒30), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. I’ve realized that, of course, synchronicity is really the more apt word, but this branding has stuck.

The following are in roughly chronological order.

  • A white peacock is mentioned in Indelicacy by Amina Cain and The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey, both of which were on the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
  • Speaking of that Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist, four of the eight were paperbacks with French flaps.

 

  • The main character takes ballet lessons in Indelicacy by Amina Cain and A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez.

 

  • Mermaids! A big theme in The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (of course) and The Republic of Love by Carol Shields, but they’re also mentioned in the opening story of The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans and are main characters in “The Pangs of Love” by Jane Gardam in the anthology Close Company.

  • The Brothers Grimm story about brothers who have been transformed into swans and their sister who sews shirts out of nettles to turn them back is reworked in The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin and used as a metaphor in Dusk, Night, Dawn by Anne Lamott.

 

  • An electric carving knife is mentioned as a means of suicide (yipes!) in The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.

 

  • A discussion of the distinction between the fear of dying and the fear of being dead in This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist and The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart.

 

  • Two novels in a row in which an older man is appalled by the squalor of his young girlfriend’s apartment, and she calls him “daddy” during sex (double yipes!), made the Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist: Luster by Raven Leilani and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell.
  • Architect husbands in The Push by Ashley Audrain and The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin (and, last year, in A Celibate Season by Blanche Howard and Carol Shields), as well as a female architect as a main character in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan earlier this year.

 

  • The next-to-last essay in the Trauma anthology quotes from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which I was also reading at the time.

 

  • A mention of the eels in London absorbing cocaine from the Thames in the final essay in the Trauma anthology; I then moved right on to the last 40 pages of Nobody Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood and the same bizarre fact was mentioned. A week and a half later, there it was again, this time in Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic.

 

  • A mention of sailors’ habit of getting tattoos of swallows in The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell (who has a swallow tattoo, even though he’s not a sailor) and Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt.
  • A father and teenage child wander an unfamiliar city and enter a sex shop together (yipes yet again!) in Three O’Clock in the Morning by Gianrico Carofiglio and Ten Days by Austin Duffy.

 

  • A mention of the same University of Virginia study in which people self-administered electric shocks to alleviate the boredom of sitting alone with their thoughts in Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy.

 

  • Basho’s poetry and George Monbiot’s Feral are both cited in The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell and Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

 

  • A dead sister named Mattie in Consent by Annabel Lyon and Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz.
  • A young Black female protagonist and the same family dynamic (the mother committed suicide and the father is in the Marines/Navy) in The Mothers by Brit Bennett and Luster by Raven Leilani.

 

  • On the same night, I read about two pets encountering snow for the first time: a cat in Close Encounters of the Furred Kind by Tom Cox and a dog in Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson.

 

  • A character is described as being as wide as they are tall in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander and The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox.
  • A character is known as Seventh in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander and the story “The Pangs of Love” by Jane Gardam in the Close Company anthology. Plus, there’s Septimus in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, which I’m reading concurrently with those two.

 

What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?

BanksRead 2021: Espedair Street (1987)

The dead end just off Lonely Street

It’s where you go, after Desperation Row

Espedair Street

I had my first taste of Iain Banks’s work last year with The Crow Road and was glad to have an excuse to read more by him for Annabel’s BanksRead challenge.

I chose Espedair Street, which was in surprisingly high demand at my local library: I was in the middle of a queue of five people waiting for a novel released nearly 35 years ago! Luckily, the system’s single copy came in for me in early April.

This was Banks’s fourth novel. I recognized the Glasgow and western Scotland settings and witty dialogue as recurring elements. The Scottish dialect and slang were somehow easier to deal with here than in books like Shuggie Bain. Daniel Weir (nicknamed “Weird”) is a former rock star, washed up though only in his early thirties and contemplating suicide. He has all the money he could ever want, but his relationships seem to have fizzled.

Dan takes us back to the start of his time with the band Frozen Gold in the 1970s. He acknowledges that he only ever had limited musical talent; although he can play the bass well enough, his real gift is for lyrics. Songwriting was mostly what he had to offer when he met bandmates Dave and Christine after their gig at the Union:

What am I doing here? I thought once more. They don’t need me, no matter how good the songs are. They’ll always be heading in different directions, moving in different circles, higher spheres. Jesus, this was life or death to me, my one chance to make the great working class escape. I couldn’t play football; what other hope was there to get into the supertax bracket?

Boldly, he told them that night that they were a good covers band but needed their own material, and he had sheaves of songs at the ready. From here, it was an unlikely road to a world tour in 1980, but a perhaps more predictable slide into the alcohol abuse and gratuitous displays of wealth that will leave Dan questioning what of true value he retains.

Dan’s voice, as in the passage above, is mischievous yet confessional. The sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll theme made me think of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & the Six, a rather more enjoyable novel for its interview format and multiple perspectives, but both include pleasing made-up lyrics. Here Dan’s frequent use of ellipses threatened to drive me mad. It might seem a small thing but it’s one of my pet peeves.

I think I’ll make The Bridge my next from Banks – my library owns a copy, and he called it his favourite of his books.

Do check out all of Annabel’s coverage from the past week: she’s given a great sense of the breadth of Banks’s work, from science fiction to poetry.

February Releases by de Visser, George, Lawson, and Smiley

Nonfiction about doctors’ memorable patients and a life of chronic pain and disability; novels set in 1970s Canada and contemporary (but magically outside-of-time) Paris.

 

That One Patient: Doctors’ and nurses’ stories of the patients who changed their lives forever by Ellen de Visser

[Translated from the Dutch by Brent Annable]

Ellen de Visser is a science writer for the most popular newspaper in the Netherlands, De Volkskrant. Her “That One Patient” column, which began in the summer of 2017, turns interviews with medical professionals into punchy first-person narratives. A collection of them was published in Dutch in 2019. This English translation tacks on 10 additional pieces based on conversations with English and American practitioners (including Dr. Anthony Fauci, immunologist and presidential medical advisor), four of them explicitly reflecting on COVID-19.

Many of the cases are decades old yet stuck with the doctor or nurse in question because of a vital lesson learned. Overtreatment is regretted just as much as an omission of care. Again and again, these medical professionals conclude that it’s impossible to judge someone else’s decisions or quality of life. For instance, a surgeon admits he had a hard time empathizing with his obese patients undergoing stomach reduction until he followed up with a young woman who told him about how invisible she’d felt before her surgery. Premature and disabled children bring grief or joy, not always in the expected doses. A doctor resents the work his team puts into repairing a woman who jumped from an eighth-floor window – why the heroic measures for someone who wanted to die? – until he learns she was pushed. A cancer surgeon develops breast cancer and now knows exactly what her patients go through.

Some of these stories are disturbing: being stalked by a patient with a personality disorder, a man poisoning his girlfriend, a farmer predicting the very day and time of his death. A gynaecologist changes his mind about abortion after he meets a 15-year-old who gave birth at home and left her baby outside in a plastic bag to die of exposure. Other pieces are heart-warming: A paramedic delivers a premature, breech baby right in the ambulance. Staff throw a wedding at the hospital for a dying teen (as in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke). A woman diagnosed with cancer while pregnant has chemotherapy and a healthy baby – now a teenager. There’s even a tale from a vet who crowdfunded prostheses for a lively terrier.

One unique thing about the Netherlands is that euthanasia is legal and provided by doctors upon the express request of a patient suffering from a terminal illness. It is taken for granted in these essays, yet some interviewees express their discomfort with it as an option for young patients. De Visser is careful to note that, even with the situation as it is, only 4% of deaths in the Netherlands are by euthanasia, and the majority of these are end-stage cancer cases.

As with any collection of this nature, some stories are more enticing than others, but overall I found it a surprising and moving set of reflections that is alive to ethical complexities and grapples with tough issues like disability, doctor error, loneliness, pain, and sense of purpose.

Two quotes, in particular, stood out to me, one from a nurse – “We are only ever guests in other people’s lives, and that’s how we ought to behave” – and the other from Dr. Fauci’s piece. In 2014 he treated a doctor who had been volunteering in Sierra Leone after an Ebola outbreak but became ill with the virus and had to be evacuated. “He cited Hippocrates: ‘It is far more important to know what sort of person has the disease, rather than what sort of disease the person has.’ You treated me like a person, not a disease, he said. And that’s what medicine is all about.”

With thanks to 4th Estate for the proof copy for review.

 

A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George

Over a year of lockdowns, many of us have become accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (My full review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Times Literary Supplement. See also Eleanor’s thorough review.) This is top of my wish list for next year’s Barbellion Prize shortlist.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.

 

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson

I discovered Mary Lawson in 2015 with Road Ends and caught up with Crow Lake in the summer of 2019. All four of her books are set in fictional locations inspired by the villages and rural areas of Northern Ontario, where the author grew up before moving to England in 1968. So Solace, while not a real town, is true to her memory and, despite the sometimes gruff or know-it-all locals, an emotional landmark for the three central characters, all of whom are processing trauma and looking for places of comfort where they can start over.

1972. First we meet Clara, a plucky seven-year-old sitting vigil. She’s waiting for the return of two people: her sixteen-year-old sister, Rose, who ran away from home; and their next-door neighbour, Mrs. Orchard, whose cat, Moses, she’s feeding until the old lady gets back from the hospital. As days turn into weeks, though, it seems less likely that either will come home, and one day Clara sees a strange man moving boxes around in Mrs. Orchard’s house. This is Liam Kane, who’s inherited the house from a family friend. In his thirties and recently divorced, he’s taking a break in this tiny town, never imagining that he might find a new life. The third protagonist, and only first-person narrator, is Elizabeth, who lies in a hospital bed with heart trouble and voices her memories as a monologue to her late husband.

As we cycle through these three characters’ perspectives in alternating chapters, we gradually come to understand the connections between them. There are satisfying parallels in that, on multiple occasions but in slightly different ways, a child attaches to an older person or an adult stands in as a guardian for a neglected child. All of Lawson’s creations, even the secondary figures, are dealing with distressing memories or a loss of some kind, the details of which might only emerge much later on. Solace offers myriad opportunities for recovery, whether kitty playtime at Mrs. Orchard’s or diner food and homemade ice cream.

Like Lawson’s other works, this is a slow burner featuring troubled families. Her characters, often full of regret and sorrow, take a shadowy past as a prompt to reset their lives. They’re charming in spite of their flaws. I recalled that Crow Lake also looks back to the climactic happenings experienced by a seven-year-old girl. And like Road Ends, A Town Called Solace makes a convincing case for present decisions being influenced by historical trauma. It’s a tender and inviting story I’d recommend to readers of Wendy McGrath and Anne Tyler, with Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley and Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout as specific readalikes. (My dilemma now is whether to read my only remaining Lawson novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, right away or save it: she’s not the most prolific author, with four books in 19 years.)

A favorite passage:

[Liam’s] life prior to coming north seemed to be taking on the quality of an old movie, one in which he’d been deeply engrossed while watching it but which now seemed trivial, unconvincing and profoundly lacking in either colour or plot. Solace had colour and plot in spades, maybe too much. In every way it was coming to seem more real than Toronto, with its endless malls and traffic jams and high-powered jobs. Though maybe, if he went back to Toronto, the same would be true in reverse. Maybe when he’d been back for a couple of months he’d find that it was Solace that seemed unreal, its unremarkable streets and stores like something from a dream, its dramatic landscape fading to nothing, like a holiday photo left in the sun.

With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.

 

The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley

(Published in the USA in December 2020 under the title Perestroika in Paris. It’s been given a The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse treatment for its UK release.)

My summary for Bookmarks magazine: “A racehorse, Perestroika—nicknamed Paras—strays from her unlocked suburban stable one day, carrying her groom’s purse in her mouth, and ends up in Paris’s Place du Trocadéro. Here she meets Frida the dog, Sid and Nancy the mallards, and Raoul the raven. Frida, whose homeless owner died, knows about money. She takes euros from the purse to buy food from a local market, while Paras gets treats from a baker on predawn walks. Etienne, an eight-year-old orphan who lives with his ancient great-grandmother, visits the snowy park to feed the wary animals (who can talk to each other), and offers Paras a home. A sweet fable for animal lovers.”

Yes, this is a talking animal book, but the animals only talk to each other; they communicate with humans through their gestures and soulful eyes. Kindly shopkeepers work out what Frida wants to buy based on what she stares at or points to with a paw; the baker whose window Paras passes on her early morning walks intuits that the horse is hungry; Etienne, who gives a couple of the stray animals a home during a chill winter, learns to understand when Paras needs to go out to relieve herself, after piles of dung build up in the sitting room.

I liked how patiently and convincingly Smiley builds the portrait of each character – human or animal – and the overall situation of kindness and good fortune. Raoul is particularly amusing for his birdsplaining: “It is a feature of age. I have learned so many things in my life that they just force their way out of my beak,” he says. However, a crow would be much more realistic for Paris (or any city) than a raven, and, overall, this was a little twee and farfetched for my tastes. It was nice to read something a bit different from Smiley, who I haven’t tried since her Last Hundred Years Trilogy. She has a sideline in YA horse novels; this should probably have been lumped with those. (Annabel liked it a bit more.)

I was sent an unsolicited review copy by Picador/Mantle.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler (1972)

This year I’m joining in Liz’s Anne Tyler readalong for all of the Tyler novels that I own and haven’t read yet (at least the ones I can access; others are marooned in a box in the States). The Clock Winder was Tyler’s fourth novel and the first to take place in Baltimore, her trademark setting. It’s the earliest of her works that I’ve read. (See also Liz’s review.)

When I reviewed Clock Dance back in 2018, I wondered if there could be a connection between the two novels beyond their titles. A clock, of course, symbolizes the passage of time, so invites us to think about how the characters change and what stays the same over the years. But there is, in fact, another literal link: in both books, there is a fairly early mention of a gun – and, if you know your Chekhov quotes, that means it’s going to go off. Whereas in Clock Dance the gunshot has no major consequences, here it’s a method of suicide. So the major thing to surprise me about The Clock Winder is that it goes to a dark place that Tyler’s fiction rarely visits, though an additional later threat comes to nothing.

As the novel opens in 1960, Pamela Emerson fires the Black handyman who has worked for her for 25 years. “The house had outlived its usefulness,” what with Mr. Emerson dead these three months and all seven children grown up and moved out. Mrs. Emerson likes to keep up appearances – her own hair and makeup, and the house’s porch furniture, which a passerby helps her move. This helpful stranger is Elizabeth Abbott, a Baptist preacher’s daughter from North Carolina who is taking on odd jobs to pay for her senior year of college. Mrs. Emerson hires Elizabeth as her new ‘handyman’ for $40 a week. One of her tasks is to wind all the clocks in the house. Though she’s a tall tomboy, Elizabeth attracts a lot of suitors – including two of the Emerson sons, Timothy and Matthew.

We meet the rest of the Emerson clan at the funeral for the aforementioned suicide. There’s a very good post-funeral meal scene reminiscent of Carol Shields’s party sequences: disparate conversations reveal a lot about the characters. “We’re event-prone,” Matthew writes in a letter to Elizabeth. “But sane, I’m sure of that. Even Andrew [in a “rest home” for the mentally ill] is, underneath. Probably most families are event-prone, it’s just that we make more of it.” In the years to come, Elizabeth tries to build a life in North Carolina but keeps being drawn back into the Emersons’ orbit: “Life seemed to be a constant collision … everything recurred. She would keep running into Emersons until the day she died”.

The main action continues through 1965 and there is a short finale set in 1970. While I enjoyed aspects of the characters’ personalities and interactions, the decade span felt too long and the second half is very rambly. A more condensed timeline might have allowed for more of the punchy family scenes Tyler is so good at, even this early in her career. (There is a great left-at-the-altar scene in which the bride utters “I don’t” and flees!) Still, Elizabeth is an appealing antihero and the setup is out of the ordinary. I liked comparing Baltimore then and now: in 1960 you get a turkey being slaughtered in the backyard for Thanksgiving, and pipe smoking in the grocery store. It truly was a different time. One nice detail that persists is the 17-year cicadas.

You can see the seeds of some future Tyler elements here: large families, sibling romantic rivalries, secrets, ageing and loss. The later book I was reminded of most was Back When We Were Grown-ups, in which a stranger is accepted into a big, bizarre family and has to work out what role she is to play. A Tyler novel is never less than readable, but this ended up being my least favorite of the 12 I’ve read so far, so I doubt I’ll read the three that preceded it. Those 12, in order of preference (greatest to least), are:

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

Ladder of Years

The Accidental Tourist

Breathing Lessons

Digging to America

Vinegar Girl

Clock Dance

Back When We Were Grown-ups

A Blue Spool of Thread

The Beginner’s Goodbye

Redhead by the Side of the Road

The Clock Winder

 

Source: Charity shop

My rating:

 

Next up for me will be Earthly Possessions in mid-April.

October Releases by Rachel Mann, Sigrid Nunez and Ruth Janette Ruck

A calmer month for new releases after September’s bumper crop. I read a sophisticated mystery set at a theological college, a subtle novel about empathy and being a good friend, and a memoir of raising one of Britain’s first llamas.

 

The Gospel of Eve by Rachel Mann

Last year I dipped into Mann’s poetry (A Kingdom of Love) and literary criticism/devotional writing (In the Bleak Midwinter); this year I was delighted to be offered an early copy of her debut novel. The press materials are full of comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History; it’s certainly an apt point of reference for this mystery focusing on clever, Medieval-obsessed students training for the priesthood at a theological college outside Oxford.

It’s 1997 and Catherine Bolton is part of the first female intake at Littlemore College. She has striven to rid herself of a working-class accent and recently completed her PhD on Chaucer, but feels daunted by her new friends’ intelligence and old-money backgrounds: Ivo went to Eton, Charlie is an heiress, and so on. But Kitty’s most fascinated with Evie, who is bright, privileged and quick with a comeback – everything Kitty wishes she could be.

If you think of ordinands as pious and prudish, you’ll be scandalized by these six. They drink, smoke, curse and make crude jokes. In seminars with Professor Albertus Loewe, they make provocative mention of feminist theory and are tempted by his collection of rare books. Soon sex, death and literature get all mixed up as Kitty realizes that her friends’ devotion to the Medieval period goes as far as replicating dangerous rituals. We know from the first line that one of them ends up dead. But what might it have to do with the apocryphal text of the title?

I didn’t always feel the psychological groundwork was there to understand characters’ motivations, but I still found this to be a beguiling story, well plotted and drenched in elitism and lust. Mann explores a theology that is more about practice, about the body, than belief. Kitty’s retrospective blends regret and nostalgia: “We were the special ones, the shining ones,” and despite how wrong everything went, part of her wouldn’t change it for the world.

My thanks to publicist Hannah Hargrave for the proof copy for review. Published today by Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd.

 

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez

A perfect follow-up to The Friend and very similar in some ways: again we have the disparate first-person musings of an unnamed narrator compelled to help a friend. In Nunez’s previous novel, the protagonist has to care for the dog of a man who recently killed himself; here she is called upon to help a terminally ill friend commit suicide. The novel opens in September 2017 in the unfamiliar town she’s come to for her friend’s cancer treatments. While there she goes to a talk by an older male author who believes human civilization is finished and people shouldn’t have children anymore. This prophet of doom is her ex.

His pessimism is echoed by the dying friend when she relapses. The narrator agrees to accompany her to a rental house where she will take a drug to die at a time of her choosing. “Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia,” the ex jokes. And there is a sort of slapstick joy early in this morbid adventure, with mishaps like forgetting the pills and flooding the bathroom.

As in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, the voice is not solely or even primarily the narrator’s but Other: her friend speaking about her happy childhood and her estrangement from her daughter; a woman met at the gym; a paranoid neighbor; a recent short story; a documentary film. I felt there was too much recounting of a thriller plot, but in general this approach, paired with the absence of speech marks, reflects how the art we consume and the people we encounter become part of our own story. Curiosity about other lives fuels empathy.

With the wry energy of Jenny Offill’s Weather, this is a quiet novel that sneaks up to seize you by the heartstrings. “Women’s stories are often sad stories,” Nunez writes, but “no matter how sad, a beautifully told story lifts you up.” Like The Friend, which also ends just before The End, this presents love and literature as ways to bear “witness to the human condition.”

With thanks to Virago for the proof copy for review.

 

Along Came a Llama: Tales from a Welsh Hill Farm by Ruth Janette Ruck

Originally published in 1978 (now reissued with a foreword by John Lewis-Stempel), this is an enjoyably animal-stuffed memoir reminiscent of Gerald Durrell and especially Doreen Tovey. Ruck (d. 2006) and her family – which at times included her ill sister, her elderly mother and/or her sister-in-law – lived on a remote farm in the hills of North Wales. On a visit to Knaresborough Zoo, Ruck was taken with the llamas and fancied buying one to add to their menagerie of farm animals. It was as simple as asking the zoo director and then taking the young female back to Wales in a pony box. At that time, hardly anyone in the UK knew anything about llamas or the other camelids. No insurance company would cover their llama in transit; no one had specialist knowledge on feeding or breeding. Ruck had to do things the old-fashioned way, finding books and specialist scientific papers.

But they mostly learned about Ñusta (the Quechua word for princess) by spending time with her. At holidays they discovered her love of chocolate Easter eggs and cherry brandy. The cud-chewing creature sometimes gave clues to what else she’d been eating, as when she regurgitated plum stones. She didn’t particularly like being touched or trailed by an orphaned lamb, but followed Ruck around dutifully and would sit sociably in the living room. Life with animals often involves mild disasters: Ñusta jumps in a pool and locks Ruck’s husband in the loo, and the truck breaks down on the way to mate her with the male at Chester Zoo.

A vintage cover I found on Goodreads.

From spitting to shearing, there was a lot to get used to, but this account of the first three years of llama ownership emphasizes the delights of animal companionship. There were hardships in Ruck’s life, including multiple sclerosis and her sister’s death, but into the “austere but soul-rewarding life of a hill firm … like a catalyst or a touch of magic, the llama came along.” I was into llamas and alpacas well before the rest of the world – in high school I often visited a local llama farm, and I led a llama in a parade and an alpaca in a nativity play – so that was my primary reason for requesting this, but it’s just right for any animal lover.

With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

Completing the Women’s Prize Winners Reading Project and Voting

In this 25th anniversary year of the Women’s (previously Orange/Baileys) Prize, people have been encouraged to read all of the previous winners. I duly attempted to catch up on the 11 winners I hadn’t yet read, starting with Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels; Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne as part of a summer reading post; and When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant, Property by Valerie Martin and Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (a reread) in this post.

This left just four for me to read before voting for my all-time favorite in the web poll. I managed two as recent buddy reads but had to admit defeat on the others, giving them just the barest skim before sending them back to the library.

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville (1999; 2001 prize)

(Buddy read with Laura T.; see her review here)

This is essentially an odd-couple romance, but so awkward I don’t think any of its scenes could accurately be described as a meet-cute. Harley Savage, a thrice-married middle-aged widow, works for the Applied Arts Museum in Sydney. The tall, blunt woman is in Karakarook, New South Wales to help the little town launch a heritage museum. Douglas Cheeseman is a divorced engineer tasked with tearing down a local wooden bridge and building a more suitable structure in its place. Their career trajectories are set to clash, but the novel focuses more on their personal lives. From the moment they literally bump into each other outside Douglas’ hotel, their every meeting is so embarrassing you have to blush – she saves him from some angry cows, while he tends to her after a bout of food poisoning.

Grenville does well to make the two initially unappealing characters sympathetic, primarily by giving flashes of backstory. Douglas is the posthumous child of a war hero, but has never felt he’s a proper (macho) Australian man. In fact, he has a crippling fear of heights, which is pretty inconvenient for someone who works on tall bridges. Harley, meanwhile, is haunted by the scene of her last husband’s suicide and is also recovering from a recent heart attack.

The title is, I think, meant to refer to how the protagonists fail to live up to ideals or gender stereotypes. However, it more obviously applies to the subplot about Felicity Porcelline, a stay-at-home mother who has always sought to be flawless – a perfect pregnancy, an ageless body (“Sometimes she thought she would rather be dead than old”), the perfect marriage – but gets enmired in a dalliance with the town butcher. I was never convinced Felicity’s storyline was necessary. Without it, the book might have been cut from 400 pages to 300.

Still, this was a pleasant narrative of second chances and life’s surprises. The small-town setting reminded Laura of Olive Kitteridge in particular, and I also thought frequently of Anne Tyler and her cheerfully useless males (“There was a lot to be said for being boring, and it was something [Douglas] was good at”). But I suspect the book won’t remain vivid in my memory, especially with its vague title that doesn’t suggest the contents. I enjoyed Grenville’s writing, though, so will try her again. In my mind she’s more known for historical fiction. I have a copy of The Secret River, so will see if she lives up to that reputation.

My rating:

 

How to Be Both by Ali Smith (2014)

(Buddy read with Marcie of Buried in Print.)

A book of two halves, one of which I thoroughly enjoyed; the other I struggled to engage with. I remembered vaguely as I was reading it that this was published in two different versions. As it happened, my library paperback opened with the contemporary storyline.

New Year’s Day marks the start of George’s first full year without her mother, a journalist who died at age 50. Her mother’s major project was “Subvert,” which used Internet pop-ups to have art to comment on politics and vice versa. George remembers conversations with her mother about the nature of history and art, and a trip to Italy. She’s now in therapy, and has a flirty relationship with Helena (“H”), a mixed-race school friend.

Smith’s typical wordplay comes through in the book’s banter, especially in George and H’s texts. George is a whip-smart grammar pedant. Her story was, all in all, a joy to read. There is even a hint of mystery here – is it possible that her mother was being monitored by MI5? When George skips school to gaze at her mother’s favorite Francesco del Cossa painting in the National Gallery, she thinks she sees Lisa Goliard, her mother’s intense acquaintance, who said she was a bookbinder but acted more like a spy…

The second half imagines a history for Francesco del Cossa, who rises from a brick-making family to become a respected portrait and fresco painter. The artist shares outward similarities with George, such as a dead mother and homoerotic leanings. There are numerous tiny connections, too, some of which I will have missed as my attention waned. The voice felt all wrong for the time period; I sensed that Smith wasn’t fully invested in the past, so I wasn’t either. (In dual-timeline novels, I pretty much always prefer the contemporary one and am impatient to get back to it; at least in books like Unsheltered and The Liar’s Dictionary there are alternate chapters to look forward to if the historical material gets tedious.)

An intriguing idea, a very promising first half, then a drift into pretension. Or was that my failure to observe and appreciate? Smith impishly mocks: “If you notice, it changes everything about the picture.” With her format and themes, she questions accepted binaries. There are interesting points about art, grief and gender, even without the clever links across time. But had the story opened with the other Part 1, I may never have gotten anywhere.

My rating:

 

Skims

I made the mistake of leaving the three winners that daunted me the most stylistically – McBride, McInerney and Smith – for last. I eventually made it through the Smith, though the second half was quite the slog, but quickly realized these two were a lost cause for me.

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride: I’d glanced at the first few pages in a shop before and found the style immediately off-putting. When I committed to this #ReadingWomen project, I diligently requested a copy from the university library even though I seriously doubted I’d have the motivation to read it. It turns out my first impression was correct: I would have to be paid much more than I’ve ever been paid for writing about a book just to get through this one. From the first paragraph on, it’s deliberately impenetrable in a sub-Joycean way. Ron Charles, the Washington Post book critic and one of my literary heroes/gurus, found the subject matter relentlessly depressing and the obfuscating style elitist. (Might it work as an audiobook? I can’t say; I’ve never listened to one.)

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: Not as stylistically difficult as expected, though there is mild dialect and long passages in italics (one of my reading pet peeves). But I’m not drawn to gangster stories, and after a couple of chapters didn’t feel like pushing myself through the book. I did enjoy the setup of Maureen killing an intruder with a holy stone, eliciting this confession: “I crept up behind him and hit him in the head with a religious ornament. So first I suppose God would have to forgive me for killing one of his creatures and then he’d have to forgive me for defiling one of his keepsakes.” For Anna Burns and Donal Ryan fans, perhaps?


It’s been many years since I’ve read some of these novels, such that all I have to go on is my vague memories and Goodreads ratings, and there are a handful there towards the bottom that I couldn’t get through at all, but I still couldn’t resist having a go at ranking the 25 winners, from best to least. My completely* objective list:

(*not at all)

Larry’s Party by Carol Shields

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

Property by Valerie Martin

Small World by Andrea Levy

Home by Marilynne Robinson

How to Be Both by Ali Smith

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride


You can see the arbitrary nature of prizes at work here: some authors I love have won for books I don’t consider their best (Adichie, Kingsolver, O’Farrell, Patchett), while some exceptional female authors have been nominated but never won (Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler). Each year the judges are different, and there are no detailed criteria for choosing the winner, so it will only ever be the book that five people happen to like the best.

As she came out top of the heap with what is, coincidentally, the only one of the winning novels that I have managed to reread, my vote goes to Carol Shields for Larry’s Party. (People’s memory for prize winners is notoriously short, so I predict that one of the last two years’ winners, Tayari Jones or Maggie O’Farrell, will win the public’s best of the best vote.)

You have until midnight GMT on Sunday November 1st to vote for your favorite winner at this link. That’s less than a week away now, so get voting!

Note: If you’re interested in tracking your Women’s Prize reading over the years, check out Rachel’s extremely helpful list of all the nominees. It comes in spreadsheet form for you to download and fill out. I have read 138 nominees (out of 477) and DNFed another 19 so far.

Who gets your vote?