There was a phenomenal program for this year’s digital Hay Festival. I signed up to a whopping eight events and enjoyed them all. If you missed watching live, it’s not too late to donate and catch up on the archived talks. For three of these, the host-cum-interviewer appeared in person on a studio stage, with the guest(s) joining, perhaps from thousands of miles away, on a large screen mounted on the wall behind them. I thought this was a neat hybrid approach. The rest of my sessions had interviewer and interviewee appearing remotely on a split screen. Let me know which, if any, events you attended and how you found them.
Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is my novel of 2021 so far (my review), so it was a delight to hear him say more (and in that fantastic accent) about it in the course of a conversation with Stephanie Merritt. Tasmania, where he lives, had always seemed like an ark for species, but now they are vanishing. Ninety percent of the kelp forest has disappeared within the last 20 years because of warming oceans; there are only 300 swift parrots remaining; and the bushfires of 2018–19 were unprecedented in severity. Although he had already roughed out the novel by the time of the fires, Flanagan said he rewrote it in response to the sense of accelerating environmental collapse.
The novel’s twin themes are species extinction and personal extinction, with an elderly family matriarch being kept alive at all costs. Flanagan spoke of the “evasions of the soul” that make us ignore the environmental losses around us and refuse to die – “the final avoidance of life.” He thinks the pandemic has forced people to rethink these ideas and ponder the meaning of life. At age 21, he nearly drowned while kayaking, and ever since he has been frightened not of death, but of the pain of dying. He is not optimistic per se, but hopeful because the world is still so beautiful – on the island he goes to for writing, he is surrounded by wild creatures.
Merritt asked about the novel’s magic realist element and how stylistically different his novels have been from each other. He was glad she found the book funny, as “life is tragicomic.” In an effort not to get stuck in a rut, he deliberately ‘breaks the mould’ after each book and starts over. This has not made him popular with his publisher!
- The one obligation of a writer? “Not to be boring.”
- Novels are not about messages; “that’s what Twitter is for.”
- “To despair is rational, but to hope is the very essence of what it means to be human.”
Rachel Clarke interviewing Jim Down and Michael Rosen
All three authors have written books about the coronavirus pandemic (I have reviewed Clarke’s Breathtaking and Rosen’s Many Different Kinds of Love). Clarke said that the belief foundational to the NHS is that all lives have equal value, but as an ICU doctor Down found that the question of who would benefit most from the use of ventilation was creeping in as there was a risk that there would be more patients than there was equipment to treat them with. With decisions needing to be made very quickly, his hospital adopted the “three wise people” collaborative method. The element that often felt lost, however, was the patient’s wishes, since they might be unresponsive and no family or other visitors were around.
Rosen, who contracted Covid-19 in March 2020 and was in an induced coma for six weeks, included letters from his medical team in his book to give a 360° view of NHS treatment. He thinks of the NHS as being almost in the role of parents, giving altruistic care and support. “Tell the truth about herd immunity” was his pithy message to the government. He read the poem “These Are the Hands,” which he wrote for the 60th anniversary of the NHS, to close.
Bryan Washington and Raven Leilani
Last year’s Dylan Thomas Prize winner interviewed this year’s winner, and it was clear that the mutual admiration was strong. Though I had mixed feelings about Luster (my review), I was blown away by this high-level intellectual discussion. Both authors are invested in the debate around what it means to be a Black artist. Leilani said she did not want to make concessions in the form of Edie comporting herself better; this character is open about her wants, giving the novel a libidinal flavour. She said she almost envies her protagonist her autonomy, and thinks of the novel as a letter to her old self, granting permission and reassuring herself that “the mess has merit.”
- Writing offers Leilani a sanctuary or sense of control.
- While Washington sees works full of strife, grief, and malice as most likely to be considered the pinnacle of American literary fiction, he admires Luster for its theme of communion (especially via the character Akila).
- Leilani sees her novel as being in conversation with Queenie, Sula, The New Me, and Detransition, Baby.
Shipstead (also a Dylan Thomas Prize winner) echoed something Leilani had said: that she starts a novel with questions, not answers. Such humility is refreshing, and a sure way to avoid being preachy in fiction. Her new novel, Great Circle, is among my most anticipated books of the year and tells the stories of a fictional female pilot from the golden age of aviation and the actress playing her in a biopic. The book was long in the gestation: In 2012 Shipstead saw a sculpture commemorating a female pilot in Auckland, and in 2014 she started researching. She came to appreciate the miracle of flight and read many books by and about female pilots. The book is dedicated to her brother, recently retired from 20 years in the Air Force. She told Sameer Rahim that, although she used to say this is not a love story, she has since changed her mind.
- Shipstead was a competitive show jumper and applied to a creative writing program on a whim.
- She has made a name for herself as a travel writer, too, often combining magazine assignments with her research for the novel (e.g., various trips to Antarctica).
- While she has appreciated the year off from Covid, she is looking forward to getting back to travelling; her first booking is a women’s wilderness experience in Alaska.
Lockwood is the only novelist to be included on the Atlantic’s roster of best tweets. She and Nina Stibbe, who interviewed her, agreed that 1) things aren’t funny when they try too hard and 2) the Internet used to be a taboo subject for fiction – producing time-stamped references that editors used to remove. “I had so many observations and I didn’t know where to put them,” Lockwood said, and it seems to her perverse to not write about something that is such a major part of our daily lives. The title of her Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel, No One Is Talking About This (my review), refers to many things, including this reticence to grant the Internet a place in our discourse.
Lockwood said she has been delighted by the high-quality literary pieces coming out about her book, often in comparison with Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts. The timing of the publication meant that her initial (U.S.) media interviews ended up being more about Trump than she would have liked. “I think I’m not a natural fiction writer,” she said; it’s true that the novel is so autobiographical it can only be described as autofiction – the second half is all true and all sincere, she was careful to point out – but it’s a gem.
Like Lockwood, Pachico was part of the “10 @ 10” series featuring debut novelists (though her first book, the linked story collection The Lucky Ones, was marketed as a novel in the USA). Her new book, The Anthill, another of my most anticipated books of the year, is about a young woman returning to Medellín, Colombia, where Pachico spent her formative years. Although she is not a citizen and only goes back on a tourist visa, it feels like going home each time. For her, writing fiction has been a way of sorting out her feelings about the place. She wrote 50,000 words of the novel at her sister’s apartment in Medellín. Pachico told Rosie Goldsmith that, though she considers herself part of the Latin American literary tradition, she is conscious of presenting the country to English-speaking readers: a politically divided place that has gentrified in pockets, but is still plagued by extreme poverty and hardship. She described The Anthill as “a ghost story without ghosts.” I can’t wait to dive into my copy.
Speaking to Arifa Akbar about The Vanishing Half, Bennett admitted that she was worried a historical setting was a cop-out, but reassured herself that she was not writing out of nostalgia and that she did not allow readers a sense of distance – the characters are so ordinary that we know we’d do the same sorts of things. She thinks of passing as a distinctly American project of self-reinvention but acknowledged that we have no definitive statistics on it because, if someone succeeds, they disappear. Some of Stella’s psychology – a very interior character who makes decisions that are difficult to understand – came from her reading of Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood. She loves writing about small towns because they force people to interact with each other. Akbar noted that passing is a double-edged sword, involving subterfuge but also offering liberation (e.g. for a trans character later in the book).
- “That’s the most exciting place to be, writing into a mystery.”
- “Race is a fiction, but racism is a reality.”
- An HBO adaptation is in the works, but Bennett doesn’t know if it will cast real twins, two actors, or meld separate people using CGI.
Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti
I’ve read more of and gotten on better with Heti’s work than Cusk’s, so this was a rare case of being perhaps more interested in interviewer than interviewee. Heti said that, compared with the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s new novel Second Place feels wilder and more instinctual. Cusk, speaking from the Greek island of Tinos, where she is researching marble quarrying, described her book in often vague yet overall intriguing terms: it’s about exile and the illicit, she said; about femininity and entitlement to speak; about the domestic space and how things are legitimized; about the adoption of male values and the “rightness of the artist.”
Ironically, given that Cusk initially hesitated over revealing her debt to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir Lorenzo in Taos, much of the discussion ended up revolving around Luhan and D.H. Lawrence, about whom Cusk now considers herself an amateur scholar. In his personal writings he reserved special scorn for Luhan, with whom he stayed in New Mexico in the 1920s. This was something Cusk wanted to explore: misogyny and Luhan’s “voice of obscurity.” She hopes that her book will contribute to a better understanding of Luhan’s; not vice versa.
- A reviewer noted the use of exclamation points, counting 189 of them in the novel. Cusk equates an exclamation point to a laying down of arms – proof that someone (especially her protagonist, M) means to be nonthreatening.
- Cusk thinks of this book as being like a play: staged and in the moment.
- A woman observing but not being noticed is, like in the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s basic framework.
Three new books with medical themes (no surprise there), including the first Covid wave in the UK; fertility and body issues in a new queer family; and pain management strategies.
Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic by Rachel Clarke
Clarke is a palliative care doctor based in Oxfordshire. She runs the Katharine House hospice but during the coronavirus pandemic has also been on active duty in the Oxford University Hospitals system. If you’re on social media you have likely come across some of her postings as she has been equally vocal in her praise of the NHS and her criticism of Boris Johnson’s faltering policies, which are often of the too little, too late variety. So I was eager to read her insider’s account of hospital treatment of the first wave of Covid in the UK, especially because her previous book, Dear Life, was one of my top two nonfiction releases of last year.
The focus is on the first four full months of 2020, and the book originated in Clarke’s insomniac diaries and notes made when, even after manically busy shifts, she couldn’t rest her thoughts. Her pilot husband was flying to China even as increasingly alarming reports started coming in from Wuhan. She weaves in the latest news from China and Italy as well as what she hears from colleagues and disease experts in London. But the priority is given to stories: of the first doctor to die in China; of a Yorkshire ICU nurse’s father, who comes down with Covid and is on a ventilator in an Oxford hospital; and of her patients there and in the hospice. She is touched that so many are making great sacrifices, such as by deciding not to visit loved ones at the end of their lives so as not to risk spreading infection.
A shortage of PPE remained a major issue, though Dominic Pimenta (whose Duty of Care was my first COVID-19 book) pulled through for her with an emergency shipment for the hospice – without which it would have had to close. Clarke marvels at the NHS’s ability to create an extra 33,000 beds within a month, but knows that this comes at a cost of other services, including cancer care, being stripped back or cancelled, meaning that many are not receiving the necessary treatment or are pushing inescapable problems further down the road.
A comparison with Gavin Francis’s Intensive Care, published earlier in the month, is inevitable. Both doctors bounce between headlines and everyday stories, government advice and the situation on the ground. Both had their own Covid scare – Clarke didn’t meet the criteria to be tested so simply went back to work two weeks later, when she felt well enough – and had connections to regions that foreshadowed what would soon happen in the UK. Both give a sense of the scope of the crisis and both lament that, just when patients need compassion most, full PPE leads to their doctors feeling more detached from them than ever.
However, within the same page count, Francis manages to convey more of the science behind the virus and its transmission, and helpfully explores the range of effects Covid is having for different groups. He also brings the story more up to the minute with a look back from November, whereas Clarke ends in April and follows up with an epilogue set in August. A book has to end somewhere, yes, but with this crisis ongoing, the later and more relevant its contents can be, the better. And in any book that involves a lot of death, mawkishness is a risk; Clarke so carefully avoided this in Dear Life, but sometimes succumbs here, with an insistence on how the pandemic has brought out the best in people (clapping and rainbows and all that). Her writing is as strong as ever, but I would have appreciated a sharper, more sombre look at the situation a few months later. Perhaps there will be a sequel.
With thanks to Little, Brown UK for the free copy for review.
Some Body to Love: A Family Story by Alexandra Heminsley
From Heminsley’s previous book, Leap In, I knew about her getting married and undergoing IVF. It was also a book about outdoor swimming; I appreciated her words on acquiring a new skill as an adult and overcoming body issues. This memoir continues the story: in 2017, after a gruelling journey through infertility treatment, Heminsley finally got the baby she wanted. But not before a couple more heart-wrenching moments: the lab made an error and notified her that she shared no DNA with this last embryo, and while heavily pregnant she was assaulted by a drunk man on a train. Both incidents left her feeling a loss of agency. “Why was I consistently being deemed the least reliable witness of my own reality?” she asks.
As they adjusted to new life with a baby, Heminsley started to notice that she wasn’t connecting with her husband, D, like she used to. She felt emotionally unsupported and, in fact, jealous of D’s relationship with their son, L. And while they’d never been the most conventional couple, D’s changes of appearance and wardrobe seemed like a sign of something bigger. Indeed, when L was six months old, D told Heminsley, “this body doesn’t represent who I am” and announced a decision to begin transitioning.
As D moved towards having a body that fit their identity, Heminsley, too, needed to get back in touch with her body. After books like Running Like a Girl, she was considered an exercise guru, but she didn’t see herself in the new obsession with Instagram-ready images of fitness perfection. This is not, then, primarily a memoir of queer family-making, because D’s transitioning was not Heminsley’s story to tell and mostly occurs in the background. Instead she focuses on what she does know and can control: her relationship to her own body.
However, this entails what can feel like irrelevant flashbacks to her teenage years of undergoing rehab at a military clinic in Germany for hypermobility, trips to Trinidad and Italy, and the genesis of her two sporting memoirs. Much as I applaud the sensitivity to trans and body issues, the book ends up feeling scattered. Still, the writing is so candid and the narrative so eventful that you’ll race through this even if you don’t normally pick up nonfiction. (For a bit more information, see my short write-up of the virtual book launch.)
With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.
Pain: The Science of the Feeling Brain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen
Originally from South Africa, Dr Lalkhen is an anaesthesiology and pain specialist based in Manchester. In a nutshell, his approach is “biopsychosocial,” meaning that he seeks to understand pain not just as a physical phenomenon resulting from acute injury or damage but as an ongoing process that is affected by emotional and psychological factors. Particularly in the context of chronic syndromes, he acknowledges that pain can continue even when its immediate cause has been repaired. Mental preparation can come into the equation: if a patient assumes they’ll wake up from surgery healed, they may be alarmed if pain persists. Lalkhen talks about managing patient expectations, perhaps with something as simple as the promise, “we’ll aim to get your pain down to a 4 after surgery.” In part, he blames Western society’s Cartesian philosophy for treating mind and body as separate rather than a system.
There are genetic and psychological reasons people might be predisposed to chronic pain. Pain itself can then change the brain chemistry, making the body more alert to pain signals. People can choose one of three paths, Lalkhen observes: “You can spend your time agitating about the alarm going off, you can try to ignore it (but the ignoring of it actually takes up more energy), or the final alternative is to learn to live with this deeply unpleasant situation.” Those who opt for pharmacological solutions can become addicted to opiates, which are less effective over time. Non-drug-related therapies involve the desensitization of nerves, the injection of anaesthetics or steroids, or the implanting of spinal cord stimulators. But all of these strategies have their limitations, and can diminish in efficacy. The patients he sees in his pain clinics may be disappointed that, rather than offering a panacea, he wants to wean them off their current pain relief and help them develop a new way of thinking about pain.
I felt I learned a lot from reading this. Lalkhen is careful to state that he is only referring to non-cancer pain (cancer pain in terminal patients will take all the morphine you can throw at it). Like many physicians, he worries about the modern epidemic of overtreatment and our obsession with wellness. I especially enjoyed the discussion of the understanding of pain and its treatment from the ancient world onward, and in particular the history of opiates. The prose is not literary, but this is an accessible and informational read if the subject matter draws you.
With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.
What recent nonfiction releases can you recommend?
The end of the year is fast approaching, and one of my main reading goals is to follow through on all the rest of the review books I’ve received from publishers. I have another handful on the go, including a few holiday- and snow-themed ones I’ll review together.
Today, I have a history-rich travelogue that explores the Atlantic coast of Britain and Ireland, a memoir by an Anglican priest who has transitioned and experienced chronic illness, and a humorous, offbeat novel about finding the real Ireland.
The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel by David Gange (2019)
This was one of the 2020 Wainwright Prize finalists. Having now experienced the entire nature writing shortlist, I stick with my early September pronouncement that it should have won. I was consistently impressed with the intricacy of the interdisciplinary approach. While kayaking down the western coast of the British Isles and Ireland, Gange delved into the folklore, geology, history, local language and wildlife of each region and island group. From the extreme north of Scotland at Muckle Flugga to the southwest tip of Cornwall, he devoted a month to each Atlantic-facing area, often squeezing in expeditions between commitments as a history lecturer at Birmingham.
Gange’s thesis is that the sea has done more to shape Britain and Ireland than we generally recognize, and that to be truly representative history books must ascribe the same importance to coastal communities that they do to major inland cities. Everywhere he goes he meets locals, trawls regional archives and museums, and surveys the art and literature (especially poetry) that a place has produced. Though dense with information, the book is a rollicking travelogue that – in words no less than in the two sections of stunning colour photographs – captures the elation and fear of an intrepid solo journey. He hunkers on snowy cliffs in his sleeping bag and comes face to face with otters, seals and seabirds in his kayak; at the mercy of the weather, he has deep respect for the Atlantic waves’ power.
I enjoyed revisiting places I’ve seen in person (Shetland, the Orkney Islands, Skomer) and getting a taste of others I’ve not been to but would like to go (like the Western Isles and the west coast of Ireland). Gange’s allusive writing reminds me of Tim Dee’s and Adam Nicolson’s, and Madeleine Bunting’s Love of Country is a similar read I also loved.
With thanks to William Collins for the free copy for review.
Dazzling Darkness: Gender, sexuality, illness and God by Rachel Mann (2012; 2020)
I’ve so enjoyed discovering Rev. Rachel Mann’s work: poetry collection A Kingdom of Love, Advent devotional In the Bleak Midwinter, and novel The Gospel of Eve. This is a revised edition of her memoir, which is less an autobiographical blow-by-blow of becoming a trans priest in the Church of England than it is a vibrant theological meditation based around keywords like loneliness, reconciliation and vocation. She reflects on the apparent contradictions of her life: she was a typical boy who loved nothing more than toy guns, and then a young man obsessed with drugs and guitars; as ‘Nick’, she was married to a woman at the time of coming out, but continued to have relationships with women after transitioning and undergoing reassignment surgery, so considers herself a lesbian.
Ambiguities like this make us uncomfortable, Mann notes, but change and loss, and making the best of impossible situations, are all a part of the human condition. I appreciated how she characterizes herself as a perennial beginner: having to face the world anew after the second adolescence of becoming a woman as well as after the end of a long-term relationship and the last in a series of hospitalizations for severe Crohn’s disease.
While I’ve read other trans memoirs (Amateur by Thomas Page McBee and Conundrum by Jan Morris), this is my first from a Christian perspective, apart from the essays in The Book of Queer Prophets. Mann describes her early faith as intense but shallow, like falling in love; later it became deeper but darker as she followed Jesus’s path of suffering. Ministry has been a gift but is not without challenges: At synod meetings she is unsure whether to speak out or remain silent, but at least she bears witness to the presence of trans people in the Church.
With thanks to Wild Goose Publications for the free copy for review.
Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue (2020)
Charlotte “Charlie” Regan is a 29-year-old filmmaker based in London. Her father has had cancer on and off for four years, but he got his ‘survivor’ label in a different way: when he was a child on an island off the western coast of Ireland, his teacher and 18 classmates died of carbon monoxide poisoning from the faulty secondhand oil burner in the schoolhouse; he was the only one left alive. Although her film commemorates this story, Charlie has never actually been to Ireland, so an invitation to Cork Film Festival is the perfect opportunity to see the place before her father dies. Travelling with her is her former best friend and roommate, Laura Shingle. There’s sexual tension between these two: Charlie is a lesbian, but Laura is determined to think of herself as straight even though she and Charlie would occasionally share a bed. To prove herself, Laura goes too far the other way, making homophobic comments about strangers.
If initially Charlie thinks this trip to Ireland will be about shamrock-green nostalgia, she soon snaps out of her idealism as she has to face some tough truths about the film and her family’s history. Charlie is a companionable narrator, but, while I enjoyed the pub scenes and found some of the one-liners very funny (“Everything in our room is a faint brown, as though it were daubed very gently by a child with a teabag” and “He had an X-ray and there’s legumes all over it.” / “Legumes? Do you mean lesions?”), I was underwhelmed overall. My interest peaked at the halfway point and waned thereafter. This is one I might recommend to fans of Caoilinn Hughes.
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
(A rare second post in a day from me, to make way for tomorrow’s list of the best books of the first half of the year.) My four new releases for June are a novel about the complications of race and sexuality in 1950s–80s America, a novella in translation about a seabird researcher struggling through a time of isolation, and two new poetry books from Carcanet Press. As a bonus just in time for Pride Month, I finish with a mini write-up of The Book of Queer Prophets, an anthology of autobiographical essays that was published late last month.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity and seems sure to follow in the footsteps of Ruby and An American Marriage with a spot in Oprah’s book club and on Barack Obama’s summer reading list.
It’s the story of light-skinned African American twins Stella and Desiree Vignes, and how their paths divide in 1954. Both are desperate to escape from Mallard, Louisiana, where their father was lynched and their mother cleans white people’s houses. Desiree works in fingerprinting for the FBI in Washington, D.C., but in 1968 leaves an abusive marriage to return to Mallard with her dark-skinned daughter, Jude Winston. Stella, on the other hand, has been passing as white for over a decade. She was a secretary for the man who became her husband, Blake Sanders, and now lives a life of comfort in a Los Angeles subdivision.
The twins’ decisions affect the next generation, too. Both have one daughter. Jude goes to college in L.A., where she meets and falls in love with photographer Reese (born Therese), who is, in a different sense, “passing” until he can afford the surgery that will align his body with his gender. In a coincidence that slightly strains belief, Jude runs into Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, and over the next seven years the cousins – one a medical student; the other an actress – continue to meet occasionally, marvelling at how two family lines that started in Mallard, a tiny town that doesn’t even exist anymore, could have diverged so dramatically.
This is Bennett’s second novel, after The Mothers, which I’m keen to read. It’s perceptive and beautifully written, with characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent. Though its story line ends in the late 1980s, it doesn’t feel passé at all. The themes of self-reinvention and running from one’s past resonate. I expected certain characters to be forced into moments of reckoning, but the plot is a little messier than that – and that’s more like real life. A shoo-in for next year’s Women’s Prize list.
My thanks to Dialogue Books for the free copy for review.
Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen (2017)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin]
The unnamed narrator of Gabrielsen’s fifth novel is a 36-year-old researcher working towards a PhD on the climate’s effects on populations of seabirds, especially guillemots. During this seven-week winter spell in the far north of Norway, she’s left her three-year-old daughter behind with her ex, S, and hopes to receive a visit from her lover, Jo, even if it involves him leaving his daughter temporarily. In the meantime, they connect via Skype when signal allows. Apart from that and a sea captain bringing her supplies, she has no human contact.
Daily weather measurements and bird observations still leave too much time alone in a cramped cabin, and this starts to tell in the protagonist’s mental state: she’s tormented by sexual fantasies, by memories of her life with S, and by the thought of a local family, the Berthelsens, who experienced a disastrous house fire in 1870. More and more frequently, she finds herself imagining what happened to Olaf and Borghild Berthelsen. Solitude and this growing obsession with ghosts of the past make her start to lose her grip on reality.
I’d encountered an unreliable narrator and claustrophobic setting before from Gabrielsen with her second novel, The Looking-Glass Sisters. Extreme weather and isolation account for this being paired with Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini as the first two books in Peirene’s 2020 “Closed Universe” trilogy. I was also reminded of Sarah Moss’s Night Waking. However, I found this novella’s metaphorical links – how seabirds and humans care for their young; physical and emotional threats; lowering weather and existential doom – too obvious.
My thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
Moving House by Theophilus Kwek
This is the first collection of the Chinese Singaporean poet’s work to be published in the UK. Infused with Asian history, his elegant verse ranges from elegiac to romantic in tone. Many of the poems are inspired by historical figures and real headlines. There are tributes to soldiers killed in peacetime training and accounts of high-profile car accidents; “The Passenger” is about the ghosts left behind after a tsunami. But there are also poems about the language and experience of love. I also enjoyed the touches of art and legend: “Monologues for Noh Masks” is about the Pitt-Rivers Museum collection, while “Notes on a Landscape” is about Iceland’s geology and folk tales. In most places alliteration and enjambment produce the sonic effects, but there are also a handful of rhymes and half-rhymes, some internal.
My individual favorite poems included “Prognosis,” “Sophia” (made up of two letters Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles writes home to his wife while surveying in Singapore), and “Operation Thunderstorm.” As an expat and something of a nomad, I especially loved the title poem, which comes last and explains the cover image: “every house has a skeleton – / while the body learns it must carry less / from place to place, a kind of tidiness / that builds, hardens. Some call it fear, // of change, or losing what we cannot keep. / Others, experience.” Recommended to fans of Mary Jean Chan, Nausheen Eusuf, Kei Miller and Ocean Vuong.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the PDF copy for review.
Red Gloves by Rebecca Watts
I noted the recurring comparison of natural and manmade spaces; outdoors (flowers, blackbirds, birds of prey, the sea) versus indoors (corridors, office life, even Emily Dickinson’s house in Massachusetts). The style shifts from page to page, ranging from prose paragraphs to fragments strewn across the layout. Most of the poems are in recognizable stanzas, though these vary in terms of length and punctuation. Alliteration and repetition (see, as an example of the latter, her poem “The Studio” on the TLS website) take priority over rhymes. I was reminded of Elizabeth Bishop in places, while “Whereas” had me thinking of Stephen Dunn’s collection of that name (Layli Long Soldier also has a poetry book of the same title). A few of my individual favorite poems were “Surveillance,” “Building” and “Admission” (on a medical theme: “What am I afraid of? / The breaching of skin. / Violation of laws that / separate outside from in. / Liquidation of the thing / I call me.”).
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the PDF copy for review.
And a bonus for Pride Month:
The Book of Queer Prophets: 24 Writers on Sexuality and Religion, edited by Ruth Hunt
There isn’t, or needn’t be, a contradiction between faith and queerness, as the authors included in this anthology would agree. Many of them are stalwarts at Greenbelt, a progressive Christian summer festival – Church of Scotland minister John L. Bell even came out there, in his late sixties, in 2017. I’m a lapsed regular attendee, so a lot of the names were familiar to me, including those of poets Rachel Mann and Padraig O’Tuama.
Most of the contributors are Christian, then, including ordained priests like Desmond Tutu’s daughter, Mpho, and LGBT ally Kate Bottley, but we also hear from Michael Segalov, a gay Jewish man in London, and from Amrou Al-Kahdi (author of Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen), who describes the affirmation they found in the Sufi tradition. Dustin Lance Black tells of the exclusion LGBT Mormons still encounter.
Jarel Robinson-Brown addresses his lament on mistreatment to his nephew, as James Baldwin did in “My Dungeon Shook” (in The Fire Next Time). Tamsin Omond recounts getting married to Melissa on a London bridge in the middle of an Extinction Rebellion protest. Erin Clark, though bisexual, knows she can pass as straight because she’s marrying a man – so is she ‘gay enough?’ Two trans poets write of the way cathedrals drew them into faith. The only weaker pieces are by Jeanette Winterson (there’s nothing new if you’ve read her memoir) and Juno Dawson (entirely throwaway; ‘I’m an atheist, but it’s okay to be religious, too’).
Again and again, these writers voice the certainty that they are who God means them to be. A few of them engage with particular passages from the Bible, offering contextual critiques or new interpretations, but most turn to scripture for its overall message of love and justice. Self-knowledge is a key component of their search for truth. And the truth sets people free.
I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
What recent releases can you recommend?
I’ve grouped these three prize-winning novels from the late 1980s and 1990s together because they all left me scratching my head, wondering whether they were jumbles of random elements and events or if there was indeed a satisfyingly coherent story. While there were aspects I admired, there were also moments when I thought it indulgent of the authors to pursue poetic prose or plot tangents and not consider the reader’s limited patience. I had to think for ages about how to rate these, but eventually arrived at the same rating for each, reflecting my enjoyment but also my hesitation.
The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987)
[Whitbread Prize for Fiction (now Costa Novel Award)]
This is the second-earliest of the 13 McEwan books I’ve read. It’s something of a strange muddle (from the protagonist’s hobbies of Arabic and tennis lessons plus drinking onwards), yet everything clusters around the title’s announced themes of children and time.
Stephen Lewis’s three-year-old daughter, Kate, was abducted from a supermarket three years ago. The incident is recalled early in the book, as if the remainder will be about solving the mystery of what happened to Kate. But such is not the case. Her disappearance is an unalterable fact of Stephen’s life that drove him and his wife apart, but apart from one excruciating scene later in the book when he mistakes a little girl on a school playground for Kate and interrogates the principal about her, the missing child is just subtext.
Instead, the tokens of childhood are political and fanciful. Stephen, a writer whose novels accidentally got categorized as children’s books, is on a government committee producing a report on childcare. On a visit to Suffolk, he learns that his publisher, Charles Darke, who later became an MP, has reverted to childhood, wearing shorts and serving lemonade up in a treehouse.
Meanwhile, Charles’s wife, Thelma, is a physicist researching the nature of time. For Charles, returning to childhood is a way of recapturing timelessness. There’s also an odd shared memory that Stephen and his mother had four decades apart. Even tiny details add on to the time theme, like Stephen’s parents meeting when his father returned a defective clock to the department store where his mother worked.
This is McEwan, so you know there’s going to be a contrived but very funny scene. Here that comes in Chapter 5, when Stephen is behind a flipped lorry and goes to help the driver. He agrees to take down a series of (increasingly outrageous) dictated letters but gets exasperated at about the same time it becomes clear the young man is not approaching death. Instead, he helps him out of the cab and they celebrate by drinking two bottles of champagne. This doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the rest of the book, but is the scene I’m most likely to remember.
Other noteworthy elements: Stephen has a couple of run-ins with the Prime Minister; though this is clearly Margaret Thatcher, McEwan takes pains to neither name nor so much as reveal the gender of the PM (in fear of libel claims?). Homeless people and gypsies show up multiple times, making Stephen uncomfortable but also drawing his attention. I assumed this was a political point about Thatcher’s influence, with the homeless serving as additional stand-ins for children in a paternalistic society, representing vulnerability and (misplaced) trust.
This is a book club read for our third monthly Zoom meeting, coming up in the first week of June. While it’s odd and not entirely successful, I think it should give us a lot to talk about: the good and bad aspects of reverting to childhood, whether it matters if Kate ever comes back, the caginess about Thatcher, and so on.
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)
[Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize for Fiction)]
“One can look deeply for meaning or one can invent it.”
Poland, Greece, Canada; geology, poetry, meteorology. At times it felt like Michaels had picked her settings and topics out of a hat and flung them together. Especially in the early pages, the dreamy prose is so close to poetry that I had trouble figuring out what was actually happening, but gradually I was drawn into the story of Jakob Beer, a Jewish boy rescued like a bog body or golem from the ruins of his Polish village. Raised on a Greek island and in Toronto by his adoptive father, a geologist named Athos who’s determined to combat the Nazi falsifying of archaeological history, Jakob becomes a poet and translator. Though he marries twice, he remains a lonely genius haunted by the loss of his whole family – especially his sister, Bella, who played the piano. Survivor’s guilt never goes away. “To survive was to escape fate. But if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into?”
The final third of the novel, set after Jakob’s death, shifts into another first-person voice. Ben is a student of literature and meteorological history. His parents are concentration camp survivors, so he relates to the themes of loss and longing in Jakob’s poetry. Taking a break from his troubled marriage, Ben offers to go back to the Greek island where Jakob last lived to retrieve his notebooks – which presumably contain all that’s come before. Ben often addresses Jakob directly in the second person, as if to reassure him that he has been remembered. Ultimately, I wasn’t sure what this section was meant to add, but Ben’s narration is more fluent than Jakob’s, so it was at least pleasant to read.
Although this is undoubtedly overwritten in places, too often resorting to weighty one-liners, I found myself entranced by the stylish writing most of the time. I particularly enjoyed the puns, palindromes and rhyming slang that Jakob shares with Athos while learning English, and with his first wife. If I could change one thing, I would boost the presence of the female characters. I was reminded of other books I’ve read about the interpretation of history and memory, Everything Is Illuminated and Moon Tiger, as well as of other works by Canadian women, A Student of Weather and Fall on Your Knees. This won’t be a book for everyone, but if you’ve enjoyed one or more of my readalikes, you might consider giving it a try.
Sacred Country by Rose Tremain (1992)
[James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Prix Fémina Etranger]
In 1952, on the day a two-minute silence is held for the dead king, six-year-old Mary Ward has a distinct thought: “I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.” Growing up on a Suffolk farm with a violent father and a mentally ill mother, Mary asks to be called Martin and binds her breasts with bandages. Kicked out at age 15, she lives with her retired teacher and then starts to pursue a life on her own terms in London. While working for a literary magazine and dating women, she consults a doctor and psychologist to explore the hormonal and surgical options for becoming the man she believes she’s always been.
Meanwhile, a hometown acquaintance with whom she once shared a dentist’s waiting room, Walter Loomis, gives up his family’s butcher shop to pursue his passion for country music. Both he and Mary/Martin are sexually fluid and, dissatisfied with the existence they were born into, resolve to search for something more. The outsiders’ journeys take them to Tennessee, of all places. But when Martin joins Walter there, it’s an anticlimax. You’d expect their new lives to dovetail together, but instead they remain separate strivers.
At a bare summary, this seems like a simple plot, but Tremain complicates it with many minor characters and subplots. The story line stretches to 1980: nearly three decades’ worth of historical and social upheaval. The third person narration shifts perspective often to show a whole breadth of experience in this small English village, while occasional first-person passages from Mary and from her mother, Estelle, who’s in and out of a mental hospital, lend intimacy. Otherwise, the minor characters feel flat, more like symbols or mouthpieces.
To give a flavor of the book’s many random elements, here’s a decoding of the extraordinary cover on the copy I picked up from the free bookshop:
Crimson background and oval shape = female anatomy, menstruation
Central figure in a medieval painting style, with royal blue cloth = Mary
Masculine muscle structure plus yin-yang at top = blended sexuality
Airplane = Estelle’s mother died in a glider accident
Confederate flag = Tennessee
Cards = fate/chance, conjuring tricks Mary learns at school, fortune teller Walter visits
Cleaver = the Loomis butcher shop
Cricket bat = Edward Harker’s woodcraft; he employs and then marries Estelle’s friend Irene
Guitar = Walter’s country music ambitions
Oyster shell with pearl = Irene’s daughter Pearl, whom young Mary loves so much she takes her (then a baby) in to school for show-and-tell
Cutout torso = the search for the title land (both inward and outer), a place beyond duality
Tremain must have been ahead of the times in writing a trans character. She acknowledged that the premise was inspired by Conundrum by Jan Morris (who, born James, knew he was really a girl from the age of five). I recall that Sacred Country turned up often in the footnotes of Tremain’s recent memoir, Rosie, so I expect it has little autobiographical resonances and is a work she’s particularly proud of. I read this in advance of writing a profile of Tremain for Bookmarks magazine. It feels very different from her other books I’ve read; while it’s not as straightforwardly readable as The Road Home, I’d call it my second favorite from her. The writing is somewhat reminiscent of Kate Atkinson, early A.S. Byatt and Shena Mackay, and it’s a memorable exploration of hidden identity and the parts of life that remain a mystery.
A week from today, on the 14th (my birthday, as well as Susan’s – be sure to wish her a happy one!), this year’s Booker Prize will be announced. The Prize’s longlist didn’t contain much that piqued my interest this time around; I read one book from it and didn’t get on with it well at all, and I also DNFed another three.
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson does her darndest to write like Ali Smith here (no speech marks, short chapters and sections, random pop culture references). Cross Smith’s Seasons quartet with the vague aims of the Hogarth Shakespeare project and Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last and you get this odd jumble of a novel that tries to combine the themes and composition of Frankenstein with the modern possibilities of transcending bodily limitations. Her contemporary narrator is Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor sponsored by the Wellcome Trust who supplies researcher Victor Stein with body parts for his experiments in Manchester. In Memphis for a tech expo, Ry meets Ron Lord, a tactless purveyor of sexbots.
Their interactions alternate with chapters narrated by Mary Shelley in the 1810s; I found this strand much more engaging and original, perhaps because I haven’t read that much about Shelley and her milieu, whereas it feels like I’ve read a lot about machine intelligence and transhumanism recently (To Be a Machine, Murmur, Machines Like Me). I think Winterson’s aim was to link the two time periods through notions of hybridness and resistance to death. It never really came together for me.
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – I read the first 76 pages. The other week two grizzled Welsh guys came to deliver my new fridge. Their barely comprehensible banter reminded me of that between Maurice and Charlie, two ageing Irish gangsters. The long first chapter is terrific. At first these fellas seem like harmless drunks, but gradually you come to realize just how dangerous they are. Maurice’s daughter Dilly is missing, and they’ll do whatever is necessary to find her. Threatening to decapitate someone’s dog is just the beginning – and you know they could do it. “I don’t know if you’re getting the sense of this yet, Ben. But you’re dealing with truly dreadful fucken men here,” Charlie warns at one point. I loved the voices; if this was just a short story it would have gotten a top rating, but I found I had no interest in the backstory of how these men got involved in heroin smuggling.
The Wall by John Lanchester – I lost interest in it and wasn’t drawn in by the first pages.
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy – I read the first 35 pages. There’s a lot of repetition; random details seem deliberately placed as clues. I’m sure there’s a clever story in here somewhere, but apart from a few intriguing anachronisms (in 1988 a smartphone is just “A small, flat, rectangular object … lying in the road. … The object was speaking. There was definitely a voice inside it”) there is not much plot or character to latch onto. I suspect there will be many readers who, like me, can’t be bothered to follow Saul Adler from London’s Abbey Road, where he’s hit by a car in the first paragraph, to East Berlin.
There’s only one title from the Booker shortlist that I’m interested in reading: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I’ll be reviewing it later this month as part of a blog tour celebrating the Aké Book Festival, but as a copy hasn’t yet arrived from either the publisher or the library I won’t have gotten far into it before the Prize announcement.
As for the other five on the shortlist…
- I’m a conscientious objector to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I haven’t appreciated her previous dystopian sequels, and I’ve never really understood all the hype around The Handmaid’s Tale.
- I don’t plan on reading Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport – unless some enterprising soul produces an abridged version of no more than 250 pages.*
- I didn’t rate The Fishermen highly enough to give Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities a try.
- I forced myself through Midnight’s Children some years back. What a pointless slog! Lukewarm reviews of his recent work mean I’m now doubly determined to avoid Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte.
- Although the setup appeals to me (a prostitute’s whole life spooling out in front of her in the moments before her death) and I enjoyed her previous novel well enough, I’ve not heard enough good things to pick up Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World.
*However, I was delighted to find a copy of her 1991 novel, Varying Degrees of Hopelessness (just 182 pages, with short chapters often no longer than a paragraph and pithy sentences) in a 3-for-£1 sale at our local charity warehouse. Isabel, a 31-year-old virgin whose ideas of love come straight from the romance novels of ‘Babs Cartwheel’, hopes to find Mr. Right while studying art history at the Catafalque Institute in London (a thinly veiled Courtauld, where Ellmann studied). She’s immediately taken with one of her professors, Lionel Syms, whom she dubs “The Splendid Young Man.” Isabel’s desperately unsexy description of him had me snorting into my tea:
He had a masculinity.
His broad shoulders and narrow hips gave him a distinctive physique.
He held seminars and wore red socks.
To hold seminars seemed to indicate a wish to develop a rapport with his students.
The red socks seemed to indicate testosterone.
I swooned in admiration of him.
Unfortunately, the Splendid Young Man is more interested in Isabel’s portly flatmate, Pol. There’s a screwball charm to this campus novel full of love triangles and preposterous minor characters. I laughed at many of Ellmann’s deadpan lines, and would recommend this to fans of David Lodge’s academic comedies. But if you wish to, you could read this as a cautionary tale about the dangers of romantic fantasies. Ellmann even offers two alternate endings, one melodramatic and one more prosaic but believable. I’ll seek out the rest of her back catalogue – so thanks to the Booker for putting her on my radar.
In the meantime, I did a bit better with the “Not the Booker Prize” (administered by the Guardian) shortlist, reading three out of their six:
Flames by Robbie Arnott
This strange and somewhat entrancing debut novel is set in Arnott’s native Tasmania. The women of the McAllister family are known to return to life – even after a cremation, as happened briefly with Charlotte and Levi’s mother. Levi is determined to stop this from happening again, and decides to have a coffin built to ensure his 23-year-old sister can’t ever come back from the flames once she’s dead. The letters that pass between him and the ill-tempered woodworker he hires to do the job were my favorite part of the book. In other strands, we see Charlotte traveling down to work at a wombat farm in Melaleuca, a female investigator lighting out after her, and Karl forming a close relationship with a seal. This reminded me somewhat of The Bus on Thursday by Shirley Barrett and Orkney by Amy Sackville. At times I had trouble following the POV and setting shifts involved in this work of magic realism, though Arnott’s writing is certainly striking.
A favorite passage:
“The Midlands droned on, denuded hill after denuded hill, until I rolled into sprawling suburbs around noon. Here’s a list of the places I’d choose to visit before the capital: hell, anywhere tropical, the Mariana Trench, a deeper pit of hell, my mother’s house.”
My thanks to Atlantic Books for the free paperback copy for review.
See Susan’s review for a more enthusiastic response.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James: A twisty, clever meta novel about “Daniel James” trying to write a biography of Ezra Maas, an enigmatic artist who grew up a child prodigy in Oxford and attracted a cult following in 1960s New York City, where he was a friend of Warhol et al. (See my full review.)
Supper Club by Lara Williams: A great debut novel with strong themes of female friendship and food. The Supper Club Roberta and Stevie create is performance art, but it’s also about creating personal meaning when family and romance have failed you. (See my full review.)
The other three books on the shortlist are:
- Skin by Liam Brown: A dystopian novel in which people become allergic to human contact. I think I’ll pass on this one.
- Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin: A debut novel by a Norwegian author that proceeds backwards to examine the life of a woman struggling with endometriosis and raising a young daughter. I’m very keen to read this one.
- Spring by Ali Smith: I’ve basically given up on Ali Smith – and certainly on the Seasons quartet, after DNFing Winter.
(The Not the Booker Prize will be announced on the Guardian website this Friday the 11th.)
Have you read something from the (Not the) Booker shortlist(s)? Any predictions for next week?
Many thanks to the publisher for free print or e-copies of these three books for review.
In Nearby Bushes by Kei Miller
“Are there stories you have heard about Jamaica? / Well here are the stories underneath.” The last two lines of “The Understory” reveal Miller’s purpose in this, his fifth collection of poetry. The title is taken from Jamaican crime reports, which often speak of a victim’s corpse being dumped in, or perpetrators escaping to, “nearby bushes.” It’s a strange euphemism that calls to mind a dispersed underworld where bodies are devalued. Miller persistently contrasts a more concrete sense of place with that iniquitous nowhere. Most of the poems in the first section open with the word “Here,” which is also often included in their titles and repeated frequently throughout Part I. Jamaica is described with shades of green: a fertile, feral place that’s full of surprises, like an escaped colony of reindeer.
As usual, Miller slips in and out of dialect as he reflects on the country’s colonial legacy and the precarious place of homosexuals (“A Psalm for Gay Boys” is a highlight). Although I enjoyed this less than the other books I’ve read by Miller, I highly recommend his work in general; the collection The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion is a great place to start.
Some favorite lines:
“Here that cradles the earthquakes; / they pass through the valleys // in waves, a thing like grief, / or groaning that can’t be uttered.” (from “Hush”)
“We are insufficiently imagined people from an insufficiently imagined place.” (from “Sometimes I Consider the Names of Places”)
“Cause woman is disposable as that, / and this thing that has happened is … common as stone and leaf and breadfruit tree. You should have known.” (from “In Nearby Bushes” XIII.III)
In Nearby Bushes was published on 29th August.
So Many Rooms by Laura Scott
Art, Greek mythology, the seaside, the work of Tolstoy, death, birds, fish, love and loss: there are lots of repeating themes and images in this debut collection. While there are a handful of end rhymes scattered through, what you mostly notice is alliteration and internal rhyming. The use of color is strong, and not just in the poems about paintings. A few of my favorites were “Mulberry Tree” (“My mother made pudding with its fruit, / white bread drinking / colour just as the sheets waited / for the birds to stain them purple.”), “Direction,” and “A Different Tune” (“oh my heavy heart how can I / make you light again so I don’t have to // lug you through the years and rooms?”). There weren’t loads of poems that stood out to me here, but I’ll still be sure to look out for more of Scott’s work.
So Many Rooms was published on 29th August.
A Kingdom of Love by Rachel Mann
Rachel Mann, a transgender Anglican priest, was Poet-in-Residence at Manchester Cathedral from 2009 to 2017 and is now a Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing and English at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her poetry is full of snippets of scripture and liturgy (both English and Latin), and the cadence is often psalm-like. The final five poems are named after some of the daily offices, and “Christening” and “Extreme Unction” are two stand-outs that describe performing rituals for the beginning and end of life. The poet draws on Greek myth as well as on the language of Christian classics from St. Augustine to R.S. Thomas.
Human fragility is an almost comforting undercurrent (“Be dust with me”), with the body envisioned as the site of both sin and redemption. A focus on words leads to a preoccupation with mouths and the physical act of creating and voicing language. There is surprisingly anatomical vocabulary in places: the larynx, the palate. Mann also muses on Englishness, and revels in the contradictions of ancient and modern life: Chaucer versus a modern housing development, “Reading Ovid on the Underground.” She undertakes a lot of train rides and writes of passing through stations, evoking the feeling of being in transit(ion).
You wouldn’t know the poet had undergone a sex change unless you’d already read about it in the press materials or found other biographical information, but knowing the context one finds extra meaning in “Dress,” about an eight-year-old coveting a red dress (“To simply have known it was mine / in those days”) and “Give It a Name,” about the early moments of healing from surgery.
This is beautiful, incantatory free verse that sparkles with alliteration and allusions that those of a religious background will be sure to recognize. It’s sensual as well as headily intellectual. Doubt, prayer and love fuel many of my favorite lines:
“Love should taste of something, / The sea, I think, brined and unsteady, / Of scale and deep and all we crawled out from.” (from “Collect for Purity”)
“I don’t know what ‘believe in’ means / In the vast majority of cases, / Which is to say I think it enough // To acknowledge glamour of words – / Relic, body, bone – I think / Mystery is laid in syllables, syntax” (from “Fides Quarens”)
“Offer the fact of prayer – a formula, / And more: the compromise of centuries / Made valid.” (from “A Kingdom of Love (2)”)
Particularly recommended for readers of Malcolm Guite and Christian Wiman.
Official release date: September 26th – but already available from the Carcanet website.
Any recent poetry reads you’d recommend?
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.
The 2019 Wellcome Book Prize longlist was announced on Tuesday. From the prize’s website, you can click on any of these 12 books’ covers, titles or authors to get more information about them.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the prize. As always, it’s a strong and varied set of nominees, with an overall focus on gender and mental health. Here are some initial thoughts (see also Laura’s thorough rundown of the 12 nominees):
- I correctly predicted just two, Sight by Jessie Greengrass and Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar, but had read another three: This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein, Amateur by Thomas Page McBee, and Educated by Tara Westover (reviewed for BookBrowse).
- I’m particularly delighted to see Edelstein on the longlist as her book was one of my runners-up from last year and deserves more attention.
- I’m not personally a huge fan of the Greengrass or McBee books, but can certainly see why the judges thought them worthy of inclusion.
- Though it’s a brilliant memoir, I never would have thought to put Educated on my potential Wellcome list. However, the more I think about it, the more health elements it has: her father’s possible bipolar disorder, her brother’s brain damage, her survivalist family’s rejection of modern medicine, her mother’s career in midwifery and herbalism, and her own mental breakdown at Cambridge.
- Books I knew about and was keen to read but hadn’t thought of in conjunction with the prize: The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.
- Novels I had heard of but wasn’t necessarily interested in beforehand: Murmur by Will Eaves and Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. I went to get Freshwater from the library the afternoon of the longlist announcement and am now 60 pages in. I’d be tempted to call it this year’s Stay with Me except that the magic realist elements are much stronger here, reminding me of what I know about work by Chigozie Obioma and Ben Okri. The novel is narrated in the first person plural by a pair of (gods? demons? spirits?) inhabiting Ada’s head.
- And lastly, there are a few books I had never even heard of: Polio: The Odyssey of Eradication by Thomas Abraham, Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery by Arnold Thomas Fanning, and Astroturf by Matthew Sperling. I’m keen on the Fanning but not so much on the other two. Polio will likely make it to the shortlist as this year’s answer to The Vaccine Race; if it does, I’ll read it then.
Some statistics on this year’s longlist, courtesy of a press release sent by Midas PR:
- Five novels (two more than last year – I think we can see the influence of novelist Elif Shafak), five memoirs, one biography, and one further nonfiction title
- Six debut authors
- Six titles from independent publishers (Canongate, CB Editions, Faber & Faber, Oneworld, Hurst Publishers, and The Text Publishing Company)
- Most of the authors are British or American, while Fanning is Irish (Emezi is Nigerian-American, Jauhar is Indian-American, and Krasnostein is Australian-American).
Chair of judges Elif Shafak writes: “In a world that remains sadly divided into echo chambers and mental ghettoes, this prize is unique in its ability to connect various disciplines: medicine, health, literature, art and science. Reading and discussing at length all the books on our list has been fascinating from the very start. We now have a wonderful longlist, of which we are all very proud. Although it sure won’t be easy to choose the shortlist, and then, finally, the winner, I am thrilled about and truly grateful for this fascinating journey through stories, ideas, ground-breaking research and revolutionary knowledge.”
We of the shadow panel have divided up the longlist titles between us as follows (though we may well each get hold of and read more of the books, simply out of personal interest) and will post reviews on our blogs within the next five weeks.
Amateur: A true story about what makes a man by Thomas Page McBee – LAURA
Astroturf by Matthew Sperling – PAUL
Educated by Tara Westover – CLARE
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi – REBECCA
Heart: A history by Sandeep Jauhar – LAURA
Mind on Fire: A memoir of madness and recovery by Arnold Thomas Fanning – REBECCA
Murmur by Will Eaves – PAUL
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh – CLARE
Polio: The odyssey of eradication by Thomas Abraham – ANNABEL
[Sight by Jessie Greengrass – 4 of us have read this; I’ll post a composite of our thoughts]
The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster by Sarah Krasnostein – ANNABEL
This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein – LAURA
The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist will be announced on Tuesday, March 19th, and the winner will be revealed on Wednesday, May 1st.
We plan to choose our own shortlist to announce on Friday, March 15th. Follow along here and on Halfman, Halfbook, Annabookbel, A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall for reviews and predictions.