All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett & I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
I’m catching up with reviews of two February releases that I spent the whole of last month submerged in. These are early entries on my Best of 2023 list: A lovely memoir about grief and gardening, caring for an ill child and a dying parent; and a riveting true crime-inspired novel, set on a boarding school campus, that rages at injustice and violence against women.
All My Wild Mothers: Motherhood, loss and an apothecary garden by Victoria Bennett
Early in February, I attended the online book launch via Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere. With conversation, readings and song, it was the ideal introduction to the themes of this debut memoir by a poet. The book is composed of dozens of brief autobiographical, present-tense essays, each titled after a wildflower with traditional healing properties. The chapters are headed by a black-and-white woodcut of each plant (by Bennett’s husband, Adam Clarke) and a précis of its medicinal uses, as well as where it is found. Again and again, these descriptions site the flora on edgelands or “disturbed ground” – the perfect metaphorical tie-in to Bennett’s tumultuous life and the comfort that creating an apothecary garden brought.
Bennett is the youngest of six children. When she was expecting her son – much longed for after multiple pregnancy losses – news came that her eldest sister had died in a canoeing accident. At age two, her son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes; managing his condition has imposed a heavy emotional burden. And years later, she was the primary caregiver for her elderly mother as she was dying of mesothelioma. The memoir’s format – which arose in part because it was written over the course of 10 years, during stolen moments – realistically presents bereavement and caring as ongoing, cyclical challenges rather than one-time events.
There are no simple solutions offered here, nothing so pat as that ‘gardening heals all hurts’, but Bennett writes into the broken places and finds joy in what comes to life spontaneously in nature or in her ramshackle yard on a social housing estate in Cumbria. She recalls a horse chestnut tree that looked over her outside the window of her childhood home; she and her son take impish delight in guerrilla gardening and sometimes disastrous cooking projects with foraged fruit. Some of my favourite individual vignettes were “Elder,” about the magic and medicine of making elderberry syrup from the few village trees that escape the chainsaw; “Dandelion,” about her trio of older sisters, who were Greenham Common protestors and always tried to protect her as well as nature; “Herb Robert,” about her sister-in-law’s funeral; and especially “Honeysuckle,” about a local agricultural show where the officious organizers make them feel like interlopers yet her son wins first place for their feral, fecund garden.
Many side topics twine into the narrative as well: a difficult relationship with a controlling mother; a family history that takes in boarding schools, cults, road trips, risk taking and mental health issues; the economic disparity that leads to one set of rules for the rich and another for those on benefits. But the core of the book is a tender mother–son relationship. “I can give him this: a seed, with all its defiant hope against the dark; and the memory that once, we grew a garden out of rock, and waste, and all things broken, and it thrived.” Sitting somewhere between creative nonfiction and nature essays, it’s a beautiful read for any fan of women’s life writing, especially if you share the interests in grief or gardening. I hope we’ll see it recognized on the Barbellion and Wainwright Prize shortlists alike.
Readalikes I have reviewed: A Still Life by Josie George, The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo, The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick
With thanks to Victoria Bennett and Two Roads for the free copy for review.
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
I’m a big fan of Makkai’s first two novels, The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and have her other two books lined up to read, so I was excited to hear about this new work and put it on my Most Anticipated list for the year. My interest was redoubled by Laura’s review, which likens it to a cross between Prep and My Dark Vanessa – irresistible.
Bodie Kane grew up in a deprived and dysfunctional family in Indiana, and has beneficent Mormon neighbours to thank for the tuition money that allowed her to attend Granby, an exclusive New Hampshire boarding school, in the early to mid-1990s. She was an angry and awkward high school student, yet her memories of Granby and the friendships she made there are still an emotional mainstay more than two decades later. In 2018, she is a successful film professor with a podcast about Hollywood starlets. Although she is separated from Jerome, her artist husband, he lives next door and they co-parent their two children.
After an invitation comes from Granby to teach a two-week course on podcasting, Bodie trades Los Angeles for a bitter New England winter. It’s the perfect excuse to indulge her obsession with the 1995 murder of her former Granby roommate, Thalia Keith, who was found dead in the swimming pool one March morning after a play performance. Bodie has never been comfortable with the flawed case against the Black athletics coach, Omar Evans, who has been imprisoned ever since. When one of her students chooses to make Thalia’s murder the subject of a podcast, it’s all the justification Bodie needs to dive deep into her pet hypothesis: Thalia was sleeping with the music director, Denny Bloch, and he was involved in her death in some way. Her blinkered view threatens to exclude a key explanation. Still, the informal sleuthing she and her students do is enough to warrant a follow-up hearing in 2022, but they – and Omar – are up against a broken system.
Makkai has taken her cues from the true crime genre and constructed a convincing mesh of evidence and theories. There’s a large cast of secondary characters, from Dorian, the bully who once humiliated Bodie with sexual slurs, to Fran, the faculty kid/gay best friend who now lives and works on campus herself and continues to be Bodie’s trusty backup. The combinations of background + teenage behaviour + 40-something lives all feel authentic in their randomness (when I saw that Makkai sourced 24 names from indie bookstore supporters, I realized afresh just how real, as opposed to ‘made-up’, these characters feel).
At times I wondered if there was too much detail on the case and the former classmates; I might even have streamlined the novel by doing away with the 2022 section altogether, though it ends up being crucial to the plot. But Makkai has so carefully crafted these pen portraits, and so intimately involved us in Bodie’s psyche, that it’s easy to become invested in the story. What’s more, the novel introduces a seam of rage about violence towards women – so predictably excused and allowed to recur by a justice system weighted against victims –
What’s as perfect as a girl stopped dead, midformation? Girl as blank slate. Girl as reflection of your desires, unmarred by her own. Girl as sacrifice to the idea of girl.
let’s say it was the one where the rugby team covered up the girl’s death and the school covered for the rugby team. Actually it was the one where the therapist spent years grooming her. It was the one where the senator, then a promising teenager, shoved his d*ck in the girl’s face. … It was the one where her body was never found. It was the one where her body was found in the snow. It was the one where he left her body for dead under the tarp.
– yet also finds nuance in the situation when Bodie’s ex-husband is subjected to exaggerated #MeToo accusations. It’s timely, daring, intelligent, enthralling storytelling. Susan (review here) and I are both hoping to see this make the Women’s Prize longlist next week.
Readalikes I have reviewed: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
With thanks to Fleet for the proof copy for review.
What are the best 2023 books you’ve read so far?
Book Serendipity, Mid-December 2022 to Mid-February 2023
I call it “Book Serendipity” when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. This is a regular feature of mine every few months. Because I usually have 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. The following are in roughly chronological order.
My biggest overall coincidence set this time was around Korean culture, especially food:
- A demanding Korean/American mother (“Umma”) in Sea Change by Gina Chung, Camp Zero by Michelle Min Sterling, and Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner.
- In the Chung and Zauner, she has eyebrows tattooed on.
- In the Chung and Sterling, there’s also a mall setting.
- Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin was set in South Korea and mentioned a lot of the same cultural factors and foods. KIMCHI (which I’ve never had) was inescapable in these four books.
And the rest…
- The concept of Satan as “the enemy” in God’s Ex-Girlfriend by Gloria Beth Amodeo and All of Us Together in the End by Matthew Vollmer, two 2023 memoirs I reviewed for Foreword Reviews.
- A mention of the Newsboys (my favourite Christian rock band when I was a teenager) in God’s Ex-Girlfriend by Gloria Beth Amodeo and, of all places, Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (the context: a list of songs with “Born” in the title; theirs is called – you guessed it! – “Born Again”).
- Two Moores in my stack at once: Birds of America by Lorrie Moore and The Distance from Slaughter County by Steven Moore.
- A chapter in The Distance from Slaughter County by Steven Moore is called “Fight Night” and I was reading the early pages of Fight Night by Miriam Toews at the same time.
- A story in Birds of America by Lorrie Moore is called “Real Estate” and I was reading Real Estate by Deborah Levy at the same time.
- The Virgil quote “there are tears at the heart of things” and the theme of melancholy link Bittersweet by Susan Cain and The Heart of Things by Richard Holloway.
- A character who stutters in Bournville by Jonathan Coe and A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale.
- (Werther’s) butterscotch candies are mentioned in Leila and the Blue Fox by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng, What Napoleon Could Not Do by DK Nnuro, and How to Be Sad by Helen Russell.
- A mother who loves going to church in Bournville by Jonathan Coe and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah.
- The metaphor of a girl trapped in a block of marble ready to have her identity carved out in Sea Change by Gina Chung and Everything’s Changing by Chelsea Stickle.
- When I read a short story about a landmine-detecting rat in Everything’s Changing by Chelsea Stickle, I knew it wasn’t the first time I’d encountered that very specific setup. It took some digging, but I found out the other was in Attrib. by Eley Williams.
- Shane McCrae, whose forthcoming memoir Pulling the Chariot of the Sun I was also reading, is a named poetic influence/source in More Sky by Joe Varrick-Carty.
- I’m sure that after the one in Margaret Atwood’s The Door I encountered another poem about a frozen cat … but can’t now find it for the life of me.
- A character named Marnie in Martha Quest by Doris Lessing and City of Friends by Joanna Trollope.
- Cape Verdean immigrants in the Boston area, then and now, in Daughters of Nantucket by Julie Gerstenblatt and The War for Gloria by Atticus Lish.
- Someone swaps green tea for coffee in Bittersweet by Susan Cain and City of Friends by Joanna Trollope.
- A half-French, half-Asian protagonist in a novella translated from the French: A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery and Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin.
- A (semi-)historical lesbian couple as a subject of historical fiction in Daughters of Nantucket by Julie Gerstenblatt and Chase of the Wild Goose by Mary Gordon.
- A lesbian couple with a ten-year age gap breaks up because the one partner wants a baby and the other does not in My Mother Says by Stine Pilgaard and City of Friends by Joanna Trollope.
- After I specifically read three Frost Fairs books … 18th-century frolics on the frozen Thames were mentioned in The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph.
- As I was reading The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph, I saw him briefly mentioned in How to Be Sad by Helen Russell.
- From one 139-page book about a foreigner’s wanderings in Kyoto (often taking in temples) to another: I followed up A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery with How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow.
- Persimmon jam is mentioned in Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin and How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow.
- A brave post-tragedy trip to a mothers and babies group ends abruptly when people are awkward or rude in All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett and How to Be Sad by Helen Russell.
- As I was reading What We Talk about when We Talk about Love by Raymond Carver, I encountered a snippet from his poetry as a chapter epigraph in Bittersweet by Susan Cain.
- Sexologist Havelock Ellis inspired one of the main characters in The New Life by Tom Crewe and is mentioned in passing in Martha Quest by Doris Lessing.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
Dylan Thomas & Folio Prize Lists and a Book Launch
Literary prize season is upon us! I sometimes find it overwhelming, but mostly I love it. Last month I submitted a longlist of my top five manuscripts to be considered for the McKitterick Prize. In the past week the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist and Folio Prize shortlists have been announced. The press release for the former notes “an even split of debut and established names, with African diaspora and female voices dominating.”
- Limberlost by Robbie Arnott (Atlantic Books) – novel (Australia)
- Seven Steeples by Sara Baume (Tramp Press) – novel (Ireland)
- God’s Children Are Little Broken Things by Arinze Ifeakandu (Orion, Weidenfeld & Nicolson) – short story collection (Nigeria)
- Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer (Picador, Pan Macmillan) – novel (UK)
- Phantom Gang by Ciarán O’Rourke (The Irish Pages Press) – poetry collection (Ireland)
- Things They Lost by Okwiri Oduor (Oneworld) – novel (Kenya)
- Losing the Plot by Derek Owusu (Canongate Books) – novel (UK)
- I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel (Rough Trade Books) – novel (UK)
- Send Nudes by Saba Sams (Bloomsbury Publishing) – short story collection (UK)
- Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire (Chatto & Windus) – poetry collection (Somalia-UK)
- Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens (Picador, Pan Macmillan) – novel (UK)
- No Land to Light On by Yara Zgheib (Atlantic Books, Allen & Unwin) – novel (Lebanon)
I happen to have already read Warsan Shire’s poetry collection and Nell Stevens’ debut novel (my review), which I loved and am delighted to see get more attention. I had Seven Steeples as an unsolicited review copy on my e-reader so have started reading that, and Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is one of the books I treated myself to with Christmas money. There’s a possibility of a longlist blog tour, so for that I’ve requested the poetry book Phantom Gang. The shortlist will be announced on 23 March and the winner on 11 May.
This is the first year of the new Rathbones Folio Prize format: as in the defunct Costa Awards, the judges will choose a winner in each of three categories and then the category winners will go on to compete for an overall prize.
- The Passengers by Will Ashon
- In Love by Amy Bloom
- The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland
- Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson
- The Social Distance Between Us by Darren McGarvey
- Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley
- Ephemeron by Fiona Benson
- Cane, Corn & Gully by Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa
- England’s Green by Zaffar Kunial
- Manorism by Yomi Ṣode
- Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo
- Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser
- Pure Colour by Sheila Heti
- Emergency by Daisy Hildyard
- Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout
Amy Bloom’s memoir In Love was one of my favourites last year, but I’m unfamiliar with the rest of the nonfiction shortlist and all the poetry collections are new to me (though I’ve read Zaffar Kunial’s Us). From the fiction list, I’m currently reading Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea and I’ve read part of Sheila Heti’s bizarre Pure Colour and will try to get back into it on my Kindle at some point. In 2021 I was sent the entire Folio Prize shortlist to feature on my blog, but last year there was no contact from the publicists. I’ve expressed interest in receiving the poetry nominees, if nothing else.
The Women’s Prize longlist is always announced on International Women’s Day (8 March). Very unusually for me, I have already put together a list of novels we might see on that. I actually started compiling the list in 2022, and then last month spent some bookish procrastination time scouring the web for what I might have missed. There are 124 books on my list. Before cutting that down by 90% I have to decide if I want to be really thorough and check the publisher for each one (bar some exceptions, each publisher can only submit two books). I’ll work on that a bit more and post it in the next couple of weeks.
Last night I attended an online book launch (throwback to 2020!) via Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere, for All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett. Vik saw me express interest in her book on Twitter and had her publisher, Two Roads, send me a copy. I knew I had to attend the launch event because the Bookshop Band wrote a song about the book and premiered it as a music video partway through the evening. I’ve read the first 50 pages so far and it’s a lovely book I’ll review in full later in the month.
The brief autobiographical essays, each titled after a wildflower and headed by a woodcut of it, sit somewhere between creative nonfiction and nature writing, with Bennett reflecting on her sister’s sudden accidental death, her years caring for elderly parents and an ill son, and the process of creating an “apothecary garden” from scratch on a social housing estate in Cumbria. Interviewed by Catherine Simpson (author of When I Had a Little Sister), she said that the book is about “what grows not in spite of brokenness, but because of it.” The format is such in part because it was written over the course of 10 years and Bennett could only steal moments at a time from full-time caregiving. She has also previously published poetry, but this is her prose debut.
Simpson asked if she found the writing of All My Wild Mothers cathartic and Bennett replied that she went to therapy for that purpose, but that time and words have indeed helped to mellow anger and self-pity. She found that she was close enough in time to the events she writes about to remember them, but not so close as to get lost in grief. The Bookshop Band’s song “Keeping the Magic,” mostly on cello and guitar, has imagery of wildflowers and trees and dwells on the maternal and muddling through.
Yesterday was a day of bad family news for me, both a diagnosis and another sudden death, so this was a message I needed, of beauty and hope alongside the grief. It’s why I’m so earnestly seeking warmth and spring flowers this season. I found snowdrops in the park the other day, and crocuses in a neighbour’s garden today.
Which literary prize races will you follow this year?
What’s bringing joy into your life these days?