Today I’m featuring three more works of fiction that were released this month, as a supplement to yesterday’s review of Mrs Death Misses Death. Although the four are hugely different in setting and style, and I liked some better than others (such is the nature of reading and book reviewing), together they’re further proof – as if we needed it – that female authors are pushing the envelope. I wouldn’t be surprised to see any or all of these on the Women’s Prize longlist in March.
The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin
What happens next for Cinderella?
Grushin’s fourth novel unpicks a classic fairy tale narrative, starting 13.5 years into a marriage when, far from being starry-eyed with love for Prince Roland, the narrator hates her philandering husband and wants him dead. As she retells the Cinderella story to her children one bedtime, it only underscores how awry her own romance has gone: “my once-happy ending has proved to be only another beginning, a prelude to a tale dimmer, grittier, far more ambiguous, and far less suitable for children”. She gathers Roland’s hair and nails and goes to a witch for a spell, but her fairy godmother shows up to interfere. The two embark on a good cop/bad cop act as the princess runs backward through her memories: one defending Roland and the other convinced he’s a scoundrel.
Part One toggles back and forth between flashbacks (in the third person and past tense) and the present-day struggle for the narrator’s soul. She comes to acknowledge her own ignorance and bad behaviour. “All I want is to be free—free of him, free of my past, free of my story. Free of myself, the way I was when I was with him.” In Part Two, as the princess tries out different methods of escape, Grushin coyly inserts allusions to other legends and nursery rhymes: a stepsister lives with her many children in a house shaped like a shoe; the witch tells a variation on the Bluebeard story; the fairy godmother lives in a Hansel and Gretel-like candy cottage; the narrator becomes a maid for 12 slovenly sisters; and so on.
The plot feels fairly aimless in this second half, and the mixture of real-world and fantasy elements is peculiar. I much preferred Grushin’s previous book, Forty Rooms (and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, one of her chief inspirations). However, her two novels share a concern with how women’s ambitions can take a backseat to their roles, and both weave folktales and dreams into a picture of everyday life. But my favourite part of The Charmed Wife was the subplot: interludes about Brie and Nibbles, the princess’s pet mice; their lives being so much shorter, they run through many generations of a dramatic saga while the narrator (whose name we do finally learn, just a few pages from the end) is stuck in place.
With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the free copy for review.
Outlawed by Anna North
I was a huge fan of North’s previous novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, which cobbles together the story of the title character, a bisexual filmmaker, from accounts by the people who knew her best. Outlawed, an alternative history/speculative take on the traditional Western, could hardly be more different. In a subtly different version of the United States, everyone now alive in the 1890s is descended from those who survived a vicious 1830s flu epidemic. The duty to repopulate the nation has led to a cult of fertility and devotion to the Baby Jesus. From her mother, a midwife and herbalist, Ada has learned the basics of medical care, but the causes of barrenness remain a mystery and childlessness is perceived as a curse.
Ada marries at 17 and fails to get pregnant within a year. After an acquaintance miscarries, rumours start to spread about Ada being a witch. Kicked out by her mother-in-law, she takes shelter first at a convent and then with the Hole in the Wall gang. She’ll be the doctor to this band of female outlaws who weren’t cut out for motherhood and shunned marriage – including lesbians, a mixed-race woman, and their leader, the Kid, who is nonbinary. The Kid is a mentally tortured prophet with a vision of making the world safe for people like them (“we were told a lie about God and what He wants from us”), mainly by, Robin Hood-like, redistributing wealth through hold-ups and bank robberies. Ada, who longs to conduct proper research into reproductive health rather than relying on religious propaganda, falls for another gender nonconformist, Lark, and does what she can to make the Kid’s dream a reality.
Reese Witherspoon choosing this for her Hello Sunshine book club was a great chance for North’s work to get more attention. However, I felt that the ideas behind this novel were more noteworthy than the execution. The similarity to The Handmaid’s Tale is undeniable, though I liked this a bit more. I most enjoyed the medical and religious themes, and appreciated the attention to childless and otherwise unconventional women. But the setup is so condensed and the consequences of the gang’s major heist so rushed that I wondered if the novel needed another 100 pages to stretch its wings. I’ll just have to await North’s next book.
With thanks to W&N for the proof copy for review.
little scratch by Rebecca Watson
I love a circadian narrative and had heard interesting things about the experimental style used in this debut novel. I even heard Watson read a passage from it as part of the Faber Live Fiction Showcase and found it very funny and engaging. But I really should have tried an excerpt before requesting this for review; I would have seen at a glance that it wasn’t for me. I don’t have a problem with prose being formatted like poetry (Girl, Woman, Other; Stubborn Archivist; the prologue of Wendy McGrath’s Santa Rosa; parts of Mrs Death Misses Death), but here it seemed to me that it was only done to alleviate the tedium of the contents.
A young woman who, like Watson, works for a newspaper, trudges through a typical day: wake up, get ready, commute to the office, waste time and snack in between doing bits of work, get outraged about inconsequential things, think about her boyfriend (only ever referred to as “my him” – probably my biggest specific pet peeve about the book), and push down memories of a sexual assault. Thus, the only thing that really happens happened before the book even started. Her scratching, to the point of open wounds and scabs, seems like a psychosomatic symptom of unprocessed trauma. By the end, she’s getting ready to tell her boyfriend about the assault, which seems like a step in the right direction.
I might have found Watson’s approach captivating in a short story, or as brief passages studded in a longer narrative. At first it’s a fun puzzle to ponder how these mostly unpunctuated words, dotted around the pages in two to six columns, fit together – should one read down each column, or across each row, or both? – but when all the scattershot words are only there to describe a train carriage filling up or repetitive quotidian actions (sifting through e-mails, pedalling a bicycle), the style soon grates. You may have more patience with it than I did if you loved A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing or books by Emma Glass.
A favourite passage: “got to do this thing again, the waking up thing, the day thing, the work thing, disentangling from my duvet thing, this is something, this is a thing I have to do then,” [appears all as one left-aligned paragraph]
With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.
Tomorrow I’ll review three nonfiction works published in January, all on a medical theme.
What recent releases can you recommend?
I didn’t manage a traditional classic this month: I stalled on Cider with Rosie and gave up on Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust after just 16 pages. Instead, I’m highlighting three books from Fiction Advocate’s new series about re-reading modern classics, “…Afterwords.” Their tagline is “Essential Readings of the New Canon,” and the concept is to have “acclaimed writers investigate the contemporary classics.”
As Italo Calvino notes in his invaluable essay “Why Read the Classics?”, “The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading…’.” Harold Bloom agrees in The Western Canon: “One ancient test for the canonical remains fiercely valid: unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify.” But readers will also encounter books that strike such a chord with them that they become personal classics. Calvino exhorts readers that “during unenforced reading … you will come across the book which will become ‘your’ book…‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.”
For the Afterwords series, the three writers below have each chosen a modern classic that they can’t stop reading for all it has to say to their own situation and on humanity in general.
I Meant to Kill Ye: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian by Stephanie Reents (2018)
Blood Meridian must be one of the two or three bleakest books I’ve ever read. I was led to it by Bloom, who speaks about it as a, if not the, Great American Novel. It’s over 10 years since I’ve read it now, but I still remember some of the specific incidences of violence, like skewering babies and sodomizing corpses on a battlefield, as well as the overall feeling of nihilism: there’s no reason for the evil promulgated by characters like the Judge; it is simply a reality – perhaps the human condition.
Reents, who teaches English at the College of the Holy Cross, returns to Blood Meridian, a novel she has re-read compulsively over the years, to ask why it continues to have such a hold over her. Its third-person perspective is so distant that we never understand characters’ motivations or glimpse their inner lives, she notes; everyone seems like a pawn in a fated course. She usually shies away from violence and long descriptive passages; she has an uneasy relationship with the West, having moved away from Idaho to live on the East coast. So why should this detached, brutal Western based on the Glanton Gang’s Mexico/Texas killing spree have so captivated her? “Often, we most admire the books that we could never produce, the writing styles or intellects so different from our own that we aren’t even tempted to try imitating them,” she offers as explanation. “It’s a pure kind of admiration, unsullied by envy.” (I feel that way about Faulkner and Steinbeck.)
As part of her quest, Reents recreated some of the Gang’s desert route and traveled to the Texas State University library near Austin to look at McCarthy’s early drafts, notes and correspondence. She was intrigued to learn that the Kid was a more conventional POV character to start with, and McCarthy initially included more foreshadowing. By cutting all of it, he made it so that the book’s extreme violence comes out of nowhere. Reents also explores the historical basis for the story via General Samuel Chamberlain’s dubious memoir. Pondering the volatility of the human heart as she drives along the Mexican border, she ends on the nicely timely note of a threatened Trump-built wall. I doubt I could stomach reading Blood Meridian again (though I’ve read another two McCarthy novels since), but I enjoyed revisiting it with Reents as she finds herself “re-bewildered by its beauty and horror.”
A Little in Love with Everyone: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home by Genevieve Hudson (2018)
Alison Bechdel is one of Hudson’s queer heroes (along with James Baldwin, Tracy Chapman, and seven others), portrayed opposite the first page of each chapter in black and white drawings by Pace Taylor – the sort of people who gave her the courage to accept her lesbian identity after a conventional Alabama upbringing.
As portrayed in her landmark graphic memoir Fun Home, Bechdel was in college and finally coming to terms with her sexuality at the same time that she learned that her father was gay and her parents were about to divorce. Her father died in an accident just a few months later and, though he had many affairs, had never managed to live out his homosexuality openly. As Bechdel’s mother scoffed, “Your father tell the truth? Please!” By contrast, Hudson appreciates Bechdel so much because of her hard-won honesty: “In her work, Bechdel does the opposite of lying. She excavates the real. She dredges up the stuff of her life, embarrassing parts and all.”
Hudson looks at how people craft their own coming-out narratives, the importance of which cannot be overemphasized, in her experience. “Coming out was a tangible thing with tangible effects. For every friend who left my life, a new person arrived—usually someone with broader horizons, exciting stories, and a deviance that seemed sweet and sexy and sincere. After I came out, roaming the streets of Charleston in fat sunglasses and thin dresses, a group of beautiful lesbians appeared out of nowhere. … Everyone was a little in love with everyone.”
A Cool Customer: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking by Jacob Bacharach (2018)
I made the mistake of not taking any notes on, or even marking out any favorite passages in, this, so all I can tell you is that for me it was the most powerful of the three I’ve tried from the series. The author re-examines Didion’s work in the light of his own encounter with loss – his brother’s death from a drug overdose – and ponders why it has become such a watershed in bereavement literature. Didion really is the patron saint of grief thanks to her two memoirs, Magical Thinking and Blue Nights – after she was widowed she also lost her only daughter – even though she writes with a sort of intellectual detachment; you have to intuit the emotion between the lines. Bacharach smartly weaves his family story with a literate discussion of Didion’s narratives and cultural position to make a snappy and inviting book you could easily read in one sitting.
Indeed, all of the Afterwords books are 120–160-page, small-format paperbacks that would handily slip into a pocket or purse.
My thanks to the publisher for the free copies for review.
The other titles in the series are An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom by Jonathan Russell Clark (on 2666 by Roberto Bolaño), New Uses for Failure by Adam Colman (on 10:04 by Ben Lerner, and Bizarro Worlds by Stacie Williams (on The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem).
Next month’s plan: The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa will be my classic to get me in the mood for traveling to Italy for the first week of July.
You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.
~ C. S. Lewis
Here’s to doorstoppers! Books of 500 pages or more [the page count is in brackets for each of the major books listed below] can keep you occupied for entire weeks of a summer – or for just a few days if they’re gripping enough. There’s something delicious about getting wrapped up in an epic story and having no idea where the plot will take you. Doorstoppers are the perfect vacation companions, for instance. I have particularly fond memories of getting lost in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke  on a week’s boating holiday in Norfolk with my in-laws, and of devouring The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber  on a long, queasy ferry ride to France.
I have an MA in Victorian Literature, so I was used to picking up novels that ranged between 600 and 900 pages. Of course, one could argue that the Victorians were wordier than necessary due to weekly deadlines, the space requirements of serialized stories, and the popularity of subsequent “triple-decker” three-volume publication. Still, I think Charles Dickens’s works, certainly, stand the test of time. His David Copperfield [~900] is still my favorite book. I adore his sprawling stories crammed full of major and minor characters. Especially in a book like David Copperfield that spans decades of a character’s life, the sheer length allows you time to get to know the protagonist intimately and feel all his or her struggles and triumphs as if they were your own.
I felt the same about A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara , which I recently reviewed for Shiny New Books. Jude St. Francis is a somewhat Dickensian character anyway, for his orphan origins at least, and even though the novel is told in the third person, it is as close a character study as you will find in contemporary literature. I distinctly remember two moments in my reading, one around page 300 and one at 500, when I looked up and thought, “where in the world will this go?!” Even as I approached the end, I couldn’t imagine how Yanagihara would leave things. That, I think, is one mark of a truly masterful storyteller.
Speaking of Dickensian novels, in recent years I’ve read two Victorian pastiches that have an authentically Victorian page count, too: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton  and Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis . The Luminaries, which won the 2013 Booker Prize, has an intricate structure (based on astrological charts) that involves looping back through the same events – making it at least 200 pages too long.
It was somewhat disappointing to read Jarvis’s debut novel in electronic format; without the physical signs of progress – a bookmark advancing through a huge text block – it’s more difficult to feel a sense of achievement. Once again one might argue that the book’s digressive nature makes it longer than necessary. But with such an accomplished debut that addresses pretty much everything ever written or thought about The Pickwick Papers, who could quibble?
John Irving’s novels are Dickensian in their scope as well as their delight in characters’ eccentricities, but fully modern in terms of themes – and sexual explicitness. Along with Dickens, he’s a mutual favorite author for my husband and me, and his A Prayer for Owen Meany  numbers among our collective favorite novels. Most representative of his style are The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules.
Here are a handful of other long novels I’ve read and reviewed within the last few years (the rating is below each description):
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr  – The 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner; set in France and Germany during World War II.
In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman  – Digressive intellectualizing about race, class and war as they pertain to British immigrants.
The Son by Philipp Meyer  – An old-fashioned Western with hints of Cormac McCarthy.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach  – Baseball is a window onto modern life in this debut novel about homosocial relationships at a small liberal arts college.
“A Discovery of Witches” fantasy trilogy by Deborah Harkness: A Discovery of Witches , Shadow of Night , and The Book of Life  – Thinking girl’s vampire novels, with medieval history and Oxford libraries thrown in.
And here’s the next set of doorstoppers on the docket:
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham  – A Dickensian bildungsroman about a boy with a clubfoot who pursues art, medicine and love.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt  – I have little idea of what this is actually about. A boy named Theo, art, loss, drugs and 9/11? Or just call it life in general. I’ve read Tartt’s other two books and was enough of a fan to snatch up a secondhand paperback for £1.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James  (as with A Little Life, the adjective in the title surely must be tongue-in-cheek!) – The starting point is an assassination attempt on Bob Marley in the late 1970s, but this is a decades-sweeping look at Jamaican history. I won a copy in a Goodreads giveaway.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth [1,474!] – A sprawling Indian family saga. Apparently he’s at work on a sequel entitled A Suitable Girl.
This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson  – A novel about Charles Darwin and his relationship with Robert FitzRoy, captain of the Beagle.
The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope  – As the title suggests, this is the final novel in Trollope’s six-book “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series. Alas, reading this one requires reading the five previous books, so this is more like a 5,000-page commitment…
Now, a confession: sometimes I avoid long books because they just seem like too much work. It’s sad but true that a Dickens novel takes me infinitely longer to read than a modern novel of similar length. The prose is simply more demanding, there’s no question about it. So if I’m faced with a choice between one 800-page novel that I know could take me months of off-and-on reading and three or four 200–300-page contemporary novels, I’ll opt for the latter every time. Part of this also has to do with meeting my reading goals for the year: when you’re aiming for 250 titles, it makes more sense to read a bunch of short books than a few long ones. I need to get better about balancing quality and quantity.
How do you feel about long books? Do you seek them out or shy away? Comments welcome!