Three novels that range in tone from carnal allegorical excess to quiet, bittersweet reflection via low-key menace; and essays about keeping the faith in the most turbulent of times.
Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
Rachel’s body and mommy issues are major and intertwined: she takes calorie counting and exercise to an extreme, and her therapist has suggested that she take a 90-day break from contact with her overbearing mother. Her workdays at a Hollywood talent management agency are punctuated by carefully regimented meals, one of them a 16-ounce serving of fat-free frozen yogurt from a shop run by Orthodox Jews. One day it’s not the usual teenage boy behind the counter, but his overweight older sister, Miriam. Miriam makes Rachel elaborate sundaes instead of her usual abstemious cups and Rachel lets herself eat them even though it throws her whole diet off. She realizes she’s attracted to Miriam, who comes to fill the bisexual Rachel’s fantasies, and they strike up a tentative relationship over Chinese food and classic film dates as well as Shabbat dinners at Miriam’s family home.
If you’re familiar with The Pisces, Broder’s Women’s Prize-longlisted debut, you should recognize the pattern here: a deep exploration of wish fulfilment and psychological roles, wrapped up in a sarcastic and sexually explicit narrative. Fat becomes not something to fear but a source of comfort; desire for food and for the female body go hand in hand. Rachel says, “It felt like a miracle to be able to eat what I desired, not more or less than that. It was shocking, as though my body somehow knew what to do and what not to do—if only I let it.”
With the help of her therapist, a rabbi that appears in her dreams, and the recurring metaphor of the golem, Rachel starts to grasp the necessity of mothering herself and becoming the shaper of her own life. I was uneasy that Miriam, like Theo in The Pisces, might come to feel more instrumental than real, but overall this was an enjoyable novel that brings together its disparate subjects convincingly. (But is it hot or smutty? You tell me.)
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
At a glance, the cover for Fuller’s fourth novel seems to host a riot of luscious flowers and fruit, but look closer and you’ll see the daisies are withering and the grapes rotting; there’s a worm exiting the apple and flies are overseeing the decomposition. Just as the image slowly reveals signs of decay, Fuller’s novel gradually unveils the drawbacks of its secluded village setting. Jeanie and Julius Seeder, 51-year-old twins, lived with their mother, Dot, until she was felled by a stroke. They’d always been content with a circumscribed, self-sufficient existence, but now their whole way of life is called into question. Their mother’s rent-free arrangement with the landowners, the Rawsons, falls through, and the cash they keep in a biscuit tin in the cottage comes nowhere close to covering her debts, let alone a funeral.
During the Zoom book launch event, Fuller confessed that she’s “incapable of writing a happy novel,” so consider that your warning of how bleak things will get for her protagonists – though by the end there are pinpricks of returning hope. Before then, though, readers navigate an unrelenting spiral of rural poverty and bad luck, exacerbated by illiteracy and the greed and unkindness of others. One of Fuller’s strengths is creating atmosphere, and there are many images and details here that build the picture of isolation and pathos, such as a piano marooned halfway to a derelict caravan along a forest track and Jeanie having to count pennies so carefully that she must choose between toilet paper and dish soap at the shop.
Unsettled Ground is set in a fictional North Wessex Downs village not far from where I live. I loved spotting references to local places and to folk music – Jeanie and Julius might not have book smarts or successful careers, but they inherited Dot’s love of music and when they pick up a fiddle and guitar they tune in to the ancient magic of storytelling. Much of the novel is from Jeanie’s perspective and she makes for an out-of-the-ordinary yet relatable POV character. I found the novel heavy on exposition, which somewhat slowed my progress through it, but it’s comparable to Fuller’s other work in that it focuses on family secrets, unusual states of mind, and threatening situations. She’s rapidly become one of my favourite contemporary novelists, and I’d recommend this to you if you’ve liked her other work or Fiona Mozley’s Elmet.
With thanks to Penguin Fig Tree for the proof copy for review.
Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage by Anne Lamott
These are Lamott’s best new essays (if you don’t count Small Victories, which reprinted some of her greatest hits) in nearly a decade. The book is a fitting follow-up to 2018’s Almost Everything in that it tackles the same central theme: how to have hope in God and in other people even when the news – Trump, Covid, and climate breakdown – only heralds the worst.
One key thing that has changed in Lamott’s life since her last book is getting married for the first time, in her mid-sixties, to a Buddhist. “How’s married life?” people can’t seem to resist asking her. In thinking of marriage she writes about love and friendship, constancy and forgiveness, none of which comes easy. Her neurotic nature flares up every now and again, but Neal helps to talk her down. Fragments of her early family life come back as she considers all her parents were up against and concludes that they did their best (“How paltry and blocked our family love was, how narrow the bandwidth of my parents’ spiritual lives”).
Opportunities for maintaining quiet faith in spite of the circumstances arise all the time for her, whether it’s a variety show that feels like it will never end, a four-day power cut in California, the kitten inexplicably going missing, or young people taking to the streets to protest about the climate crisis they’re inheriting. A short postscript entitled “Covid College” gives thanks for “the blessings of COVID: we became more reflective, more contemplative.”
The prose and anecdotes feel fresher here than in several of the author’s other recent books. I highlighted quote after quote on my Kindle. Some of these essays will be well worth rereading and deserve to become classics in the Lamott canon, especially “Soul Lather,” “Snail Hymn,” “Light Breezes,” and “One Winged Love.”
I read an advanced digital review copy via NetGalley. Available from Riverhead in the USA and SPCK in the UK.
Brood by Jackie Polzin
Polzin’s debut novel is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. As in recent autofiction by Rachel Cusk and Sigrid Nunez, readers find observations of other people (and animals), a record of their behaviour and words; facts about the narrator herself are few and far between, though it is possible to gradually piece together a backstory for her. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of those houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions.
See my full review at BookBrowse. I was also lucky enough to do an interview with the author.
I read an advanced digital review copy via Edelweiss. Available from Doubleday in the USA. To be released in the UK by Picador tomorrow, April 1st.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Literary prize season is in full swing! The Women’s Prize longlist, revealed on the 10th, contained its usual mixture of the predictable and the unexpected. I correctly predicted six of the nominees, and happened to have already read seven of them, including Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground (more on this below). I’m currently reading another from the longlist, Luster by Raven Leilani, and I have four on order from the library. There are only four that I don’t plan to read, so I’ll be in a fairly good place to predict the shortlist (due out on April 28th). Laura and Rachel wrote detailed reaction posts on which there has been much chat.
Rathbones Folio Prize
This year I read almost the entire Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist because I was lucky enough to be sent the whole list to feature on my blog. The winner, which the Rathbones CEO said would stand as the “best work of literature for the year” out of 80 nominees, was announced on Wednesday in a very nicely put together half-hour online ceremony hosted by Razia Iqbal from the British Library. The Folio scheme also supports writers at all stages of their careers via a mentorship scheme.
It was fun to listen in as the three judges discussed their experience. “Now nonfiction to me seems like rock ‘n’ roll,” Roger Robinson said, “far more innovative than fiction and poetry.” (Though Sinéad Gleeson and Jon McGregor then stood up for the poetry and fiction, respectively.) But I think that was my first clue that the night was going to go as I’d hoped. McGregor spoke of the delight of getting “to read above the categories, looking for freshness, for excitement.” Gleeson said that in the end they had to choose “the book that moved us, that enthralled us.”
All eight authors had recorded short interview clips about their experience of lockdown and how they experiment with genre and form, and seven (all but Doireann Ní Ghríofa) were on screen for the live announcement. The winner of the £30,000 prize, author of an “exceptional, important” book and teller of “a story that had to be told,” was Carmen Maria Machado for In the Dream House. I was delighted with this result: it was my first choice and is one of the most remarkable memoirs I’ve read. I remember reading it on my Kindle on the way to and from Hungerford for a bookshop event in early March 2020 – my last live event and last train ride in over a year and counting, which only made the reading experience more memorable.
I like what McGregor had to say about the book in the media release: “In the Dream House has changed me – expanded me – as a reader and a person, and I’m not sure how much more we can ask of the books that we choose to celebrate.”
There are now only two previous Folio winners that I haven’t read, the memoir The Return by Hisham Matar and the novel Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, so I’d like to get those two out from the library soon and complete the set.
Other literary prizes
The following day, the Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist was announced. Still in the running are two novels I’ve read and enjoyed, Pew by Catherine Lacey and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, and one I’m currently reading (Luster). Of the rest, I’m particularly keen on Kingdomtide by Rye Curtis, and I would also like to read Alligator and Other Stories by Dima Alzayat. I’d love to see Russell win the whole thing. The announcement will be on May 13th. I hope to participate in a shortlist blog tour leading up to it.
I also tuned into the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards ceremony (on YouTube), which was unfortunately marred by sound issues. This year’s three awards went to women: Dervla Murphy (Edward Stanford Outstanding Contribution to Travel Writing), Anita King (Bradt Travel Guides New Travel Writer of the Year; you can read her personal piece on Syria here), and Taran N. Khan for Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul (Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year in association with the Authors’ Club).
Other prize races currently in progress that are worth keeping an eye on:
- The Jhalak Prize for writers of colour in Britain (I’ve read four from the longlist and would be interested in several others if I could get hold of them)
- The Republic of Consciousness Prize for work from small presses (I’ve read two; Doireann Ní Ghríofa gets another chance – fingers crossed for her)
- The Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction (next up for me: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, to review for BookBrowse)
Yesterday evening, I attended the digital book launch for Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground (my review will be coming soon). I’ve read all four of her novels and count her among my favorite contemporary writers. I spotted Eric Anderson and Ella Berthoud among the 200+ attendees, and Claire’s agent quoted from Susan’s review – “A new novel from Fuller is always something to celebrate”! Claire read a passage from the start of the novel that introduces the characters just as Dot starts to feel unwell. Uniquely for online events I’ve attended, we got a tour of the author’s writing room, with Alan the (female) cat asleep on the daybed behind her, and her librarian husband Tim helped keep an eye on the chat.
After each novel, as a treat to self, she buys a piece of art. This time, she commissioned a ceramic plate from Sophie Wilson with lines and images from the book painted on it. Live music was provided by her son Henry Ayling, who played acoustic guitar and sang “We Roamed through the Garden,” which, along with traditional folk song “Polly Vaughn,” are quoted in the novel and were Claire’s earworms for two years. There was also a competition to win a chocolate Easter egg, given to whoever came closest to guessing the length of the new novel in words. (It was somewhere around 89,000.)
Good news – she’s over halfway through Book 5!
In previous years I’ve been a half-hearted follower of the Women’s Prize – often half or more of the longlist doesn’t interest me – but given that nearly two-thirds of my annual reading is by women, and that I so enjoyed catching up on the previous winners last year, I somehow feel more invested this year. Following literary prizes is among my greatest bookish joys, so this time round I’ve made more of an effort to look back through a year of UK fiction releases by women, whether I’ve read the books or not, and make some informed predictions.
Here is the scope of the prize: “Any woman writing in English – whatever her nationality, country of residence, age or subject matter – is eligible. Novels must be published in the United Kingdom between 1 April in the year the Prize calls for entries, and 31 March the following year, when the Prize is announced.” (Note: no novellas or short stories; the judges are looking for the best work by a woman – or a trans person legally defined as a woman.)
Based on the books by women that I have admired, loved, or found most relevant in 2020‒21, here are my predictions for the longlist, which will be revealed on March 10th (two weeks from today) and will contain 16 titles. I’ve aimed for a balance between new and established voices, and a mix of genres. I link to my reviews where available.
- The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
- Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
- Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
- Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
- Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden
- Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
- Sisters by Daisy Johnson
- Pew by Catherine Lacey
- No One Is Talking about This by Patricia Lockwood – currently reading
- A Burning by Megha Majumdar*
- The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
- Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley**
- Outlawed by Anna North
- Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud
- The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey***
- The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams
* Not read yet. It seems like this year’s Home Fire.
** Not read yet, but I loved Elmet so much that I’m confident this will be a hit with me, too.
*** Not read yet. I plan to read it, but after its Costa win there’s a long library holds queue.
Note: “The Prize only accepts novels entered by publishers, who may each submit a maximum of two titles per imprint and one title for imprints with a list of five fiction titles or fewer published in a year. Previously shortlisted and winning authors are awarded a ‘free pass’ in addition to a publisher’s general submissions.”
- Because of all the funds the publishers are expected to contribute to the Prize’s publicity at each level of judging, the process unfairly discriminates against small, independent publishers.
Bernardine Evaristo is the chair of judges this year, so I expect a strong showing from BIPOC and LGBTQ authors AND a leaning towards experimental prose, probably even more so than my above list reflects.
Other novels I considered:
Runners-up – books that I enjoyed and would be perfectly happy to see nominated:
- Milk Fed by Melissa Broder – not reviewed yet
- Here Is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan
- The Group by Lara Feigel
- Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller – not reviewed yet
- Artifact by Arlene Heyman
- The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
- A Town Called Solace by Sue Lawson – not reviewed yet
- Monogamy by Sue Miller
- What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
- Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain
Reads that didn’t match up for me, but would be eligible:
- When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray
- The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
- Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey
- The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
- As You Were by Elaine Feeney (DNF)
- The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin
- Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce
- The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay
- Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue
- True Story by Kate Reed Petty (DNF)
- Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
- The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex – currently reading
- Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler
- little scratch by Rebecca Watson
- Three Women and a Boat by Anne Youngson
Haven’t had a chance to read yet / don’t have access to, so can only list without comment (most likely alternative nominees in bold):
- Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa
- You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat
- The Push by Ashley Audrain
- If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha
- [The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi] – Update: would not be eligible according to the new requirement that trans people be legally defined as female; before that regulation was in place, Emezi was longlisted for Freshwater.
- Sea Wife by Amity Gaige
- The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes
- How We Are Translated by Jessica Gaitán Johannesson
- Consent by Annabel Lyon
- A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion
- The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy
- The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin
- His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie
- A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
- Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan
- Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler
- An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon
- Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
- Jack by Marilynne Robinson – gets a “free pass” entry as MR is a previous winner
- Belladonna by Anbara Salam
- Kololo Hill by Neema Shah
- All Adults Here by Emma Straub
- Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan
- Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught
- We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan
- How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang
I overlapped with this Goodreads list (which I didn’t look at until after compiling mine) on 28 titles. It erroneously includes The Anthill by Julianne Pachico – not released in the UK until May 2021 – but otherwise has another nearly 50, mostly solid, ideas, such as Luster by Raven Leilani, Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh, and Death in her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh.
Any predictions or wishes for the Women’s Prize longlist?
In this 25th anniversary year of the Women’s (previously Orange/Baileys) Prize, people have been encouraged to read all of the previous winners. I duly attempted to catch up on the 11 winners I hadn’t yet read, starting with Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels; Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne as part of a summer reading post; and When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant, Property by Valerie Martin and Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (a reread) in this post.
This left just four for me to read before voting for my all-time favorite in the web poll. I managed two as recent buddy reads but had to admit defeat on the others, giving them just the barest skim before sending them back to the library.
The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville (1999; 2001 prize)
(Buddy read with Laura T.; see her review here)
This is essentially an odd-couple romance, but so awkward I don’t think any of its scenes could accurately be described as a meet-cute. Harley Savage, a thrice-married middle-aged widow, works for the Applied Arts Museum in Sydney. The tall, blunt woman is in Karakarook, New South Wales to help the little town launch a heritage museum. Douglas Cheeseman is a divorced engineer tasked with tearing down a local wooden bridge and building a more suitable structure in its place. Their career trajectories are set to clash, but the novel focuses more on their personal lives. From the moment they literally bump into each other outside Douglas’ hotel, their every meeting is so embarrassing you have to blush – she saves him from some angry cows, while he tends to her after a bout of food poisoning.
Grenville does well to make the two initially unappealing characters sympathetic, primarily by giving flashes of backstory. Douglas is the posthumous child of a war hero, but has never felt he’s a proper (macho) Australian man. In fact, he has a crippling fear of heights, which is pretty inconvenient for someone who works on tall bridges. Harley, meanwhile, is haunted by the scene of her last husband’s suicide and is also recovering from a recent heart attack.
The title is, I think, meant to refer to how the protagonists fail to live up to ideals or gender stereotypes. However, it more obviously applies to the subplot about Felicity Porcelline, a stay-at-home mother who has always sought to be flawless – a perfect pregnancy, an ageless body (“Sometimes she thought she would rather be dead than old”), the perfect marriage – but gets enmired in a dalliance with the town butcher. I was never convinced Felicity’s storyline was necessary. Without it, the book might have been cut from 400 pages to 300.
Still, this was a pleasant narrative of second chances and life’s surprises. The small-town setting reminded Laura of Olive Kitteridge in particular, and I also thought frequently of Anne Tyler and her cheerfully useless males (“There was a lot to be said for being boring, and it was something [Douglas] was good at”). But I suspect the book won’t remain vivid in my memory, especially with its vague title that doesn’t suggest the contents. I enjoyed Grenville’s writing, though, so will try her again. In my mind she’s more known for historical fiction. I have a copy of The Secret River, so will see if she lives up to that reputation.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith (2014)
(Buddy read with Marcie of Buried in Print.)
A book of two halves, one of which I thoroughly enjoyed; the other I struggled to engage with. I remembered vaguely as I was reading it that this was published in two different versions. As it happened, my library paperback opened with the contemporary storyline.
New Year’s Day marks the start of George’s first full year without her mother, a journalist who died at age 50. Her mother’s major project was “Subvert,” which used Internet pop-ups to have art to comment on politics and vice versa. George remembers conversations with her mother about the nature of history and art, and a trip to Italy. She’s now in therapy, and has a flirty relationship with Helena (“H”), a mixed-race school friend.
Smith’s typical wordplay comes through in the book’s banter, especially in George and H’s texts. George is a whip-smart grammar pedant. Her story was, all in all, a joy to read. There is even a hint of mystery here – is it possible that her mother was being monitored by MI5? When George skips school to gaze at her mother’s favorite Francesco del Cossa painting in the National Gallery, she thinks she sees Lisa Goliard, her mother’s intense acquaintance, who said she was a bookbinder but acted more like a spy…
The second half imagines a history for Francesco del Cossa, who rises from a brick-making family to become a respected portrait and fresco painter. The artist shares outward similarities with George, such as a dead mother and homoerotic leanings. There are numerous tiny connections, too, some of which I will have missed as my attention waned. The voice felt all wrong for the time period; I sensed that Smith wasn’t fully invested in the past, so I wasn’t either. (In dual-timeline novels, I pretty much always prefer the contemporary one and am impatient to get back to it; at least in books like Unsheltered and The Liar’s Dictionary there are alternate chapters to look forward to if the historical material gets tedious.)
An intriguing idea, a very promising first half, then a drift into pretension. Or was that my failure to observe and appreciate? Smith impishly mocks: “If you notice, it changes everything about the picture.” With her format and themes, she questions accepted binaries. There are interesting points about art, grief and gender, even without the clever links across time. But had the story opened with the other Part 1, I may never have gotten anywhere.
I made the mistake of leaving the three winners that daunted me the most stylistically – McBride, McInerney and Smith – for last. I eventually made it through the Smith, though the second half was quite the slog, but quickly realized these two were a lost cause for me.
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride: I’d glanced at the first few pages in a shop before and found the style immediately off-putting. When I committed to this #ReadingWomen project, I diligently requested a copy from the university library even though I seriously doubted I’d have the motivation to read it. It turns out my first impression was correct: I would have to be paid much more than I’ve ever been paid for writing about a book just to get through this one. From the first paragraph on, it’s deliberately impenetrable in a sub-Joycean way. Ron Charles, the Washington Post book critic and one of my literary heroes/gurus, found the subject matter relentlessly depressing and the obfuscating style elitist. (Might it work as an audiobook? I can’t say; I’ve never listened to one.)
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: Not as stylistically difficult as expected, though there is mild dialect and long passages in italics (one of my reading pet peeves). But I’m not drawn to gangster stories, and after a couple of chapters didn’t feel like pushing myself through the book. I did enjoy the setup of Maureen killing an intruder with a holy stone, eliciting this confession: “I crept up behind him and hit him in the head with a religious ornament. So first I suppose God would have to forgive me for killing one of his creatures and then he’d have to forgive me for defiling one of his keepsakes.” For Anna Burns and Donal Ryan fans, perhaps?
It’s been many years since I’ve read some of these novels, such that all I have to go on is my vague memories and Goodreads ratings, and there are a handful there towards the bottom that I couldn’t get through at all, but I still couldn’t resist having a go at ranking the 25 winners, from best to least. My completely* objective list:
(*not at all)
Larry’s Party by Carol Shields
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne
The Road Home by Rose Tremain
When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant
The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
Property by Valerie Martin
Small World by Andrea Levy
Home by Marilynne Robinson
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
You can see the arbitrary nature of prizes at work here: some authors I love have won for books I don’t consider their best (Adichie, Kingsolver, O’Farrell, Patchett), while some exceptional female authors have been nominated but never won (Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler). Each year the judges are different, and there are no detailed criteria for choosing the winner, so it will only ever be the book that five people happen to like the best.
As she came out top of the heap with what is, coincidentally, the only one of the winning novels that I have managed to reread, my vote goes to Carol Shields for Larry’s Party. (People’s memory for prize winners is notoriously short, so I predict that one of the last two years’ winners, Tayari Jones or Maggie O’Farrell, will win the public’s best of the best vote.)
You have until midnight GMT on Sunday November 1st to vote for your favorite winner at this link. That’s less than a week away now, so get voting!
Note: If you’re interested in tracking your Women’s Prize reading over the years, check out Rachel’s extremely helpful list of all the nominees. It comes in spreadsheet form for you to download and fill out. I have read 138 nominees (out of 477) and DNFed another 19 so far.
Who gets your vote?
A quick second post from me today since tonight is the announcement of the winners of the Wainwright Prize and tomorrow, September 9th, will be the announcement of the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
I’d read 10 of the nominees before the shortlists were announced (see my mini-reviews and predictions). Since then I’ve managed to read one-third each of the two other books on the UK nature writing shortlist (I correctly predicted four of the seven on it), The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange and On the Red Hill by Mike Parker. This is the first year that I’ve read nearly an entire Wainwright shortlist before the announcement. Even though I’m only partway through it … for its interdisciplinary approach – folklore, geology, history, nature writing and more, all wrapped up in a rollicking, well-written travelogue as he kayaks down the western coasts of the British Isles – I feel Gange should win, but the judges pretty much never pick what I think is the best book.
I’ve only read one of the books from the new global conservation shortlist, so I can’t make any kind of informed prediction. However, as it was my top nonfiction book of last year, I’d be delighted to see Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman win.
It feels like an age since this shortlist was announced. I think the reason for delaying the winner announcement from early June to September was for there to be a chance of the ceremony going ahead as normal (though of course it will be online after all); it also gave people a chance to read the Mantel. If I’m being cynical, it was to drum up more interest and publicity in this 25th anniversary year, but I think that may have backfired – I was quite excited early on (see my thoughts on the longlist; my wish list correctly predicted four of the six on the shortlist), but long ago wearied of hearing about the Prize. It seems forever ago that I read some of the nominees.
I don’t think Cruz or Haynes has a chance of winning, but I could see a case for any of the other four taking the Prize. I’d love for it to go to Jenny Offill’s sharp, timely Weather; I’d be perfectly happy for it to go to Bernardine Evaristo’s stylish, multivocal Girl, Woman, Other; I’d not be surprised at all if it went to Hilary Mantel’s accomplished epic, The Mirror & The Light, though I think her work more suited to the Booker Prize; and I personally did not rate Hamnet (which has something of a pandemic theme) but would still be glad to see some recognition for Maggie O’Farrell. Evaristo or O’Farrell thus seems like the safest bet to me.
Typically for the late August bank holiday, it’s turned chilly and windy here, with a fair bit of rain around. The past two weeks have felt more like autumn, but I’ve still been seeing out the season with a few summery reads.
What makes for good summer reading? I love reading with the seasons, picking up a book set during a heat wave just as the temperature is at a peak, but of course there can also be something delicious about escaping by reading about Arctic cold. Marcie of Buried in Print wrote here that she likes her summer books to offer just the right combination of the predictable and the unexpected, and that probably explains why I’m more likely to dip into genre fiction in the summer than at any other time of year. To her criteria I would also add addictiveness and a strong sense of place so as to be transporting – especially important this year when so many of us haven’t been able to have the vacations we might have planned on.
My best two summer binge reads this year were Rodham and Americanah; my two summery classics, though more subtle, were also perfect. Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, which I’m reading for a Shiny New Books review, has also felt apt for its swampy Florida setting. More recently, I picked up a couple of books with “sun” in the title, plus two novels set entirely in the course of one summer. Two of my selections are also towards my project of reading all of the Women’s Prize winners by November so I can vote on my all-time favorite.
Here comes the sun…
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)
Adichie filters an epic account of Nigeria’s civil war through the experience of twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, and those closest to them. The wealthy chief’s daughters from Lagos drift apart: Olanna goes to live with Odenigbo, a math professor; Kainene is a canny businesswoman with a white lover, Richard Churchill, who is fascinated by Igbo art and plans to write a book about his experiences in Africa. Gradually, though, he realizes that the story of Biafra is not his to tell.
The novel alternates between the close third-person perspectives of Olanna, Richard and Ugwu, Odenigbo’s houseboy, and moves between the early 1960s and the late 1960s. These shifts underscore stark contrasts between village life and sophisticated cocktail parties, blithe prewar days and witnessed atrocities and starvation. Kainene runs a refugee camp, while Ugwu is conscripted into the Biafran army. Violent scenes come as if out of nowhere, as suddenly as they would have upturned real lives. A jump back in time reveals an act of betrayal by Odenigbo, and apparently simple characters like Ugwu are shown to have hidden depths.
In the endmatter of my paperback reissue, Adichie writes, “If fiction is indeed the soul of history, then I was equally committed to the fiction and the history, equally keen to be true to the spirit of the time as well as to my artistic vision of it.” Copious research must have gone into a book about events that occurred before her birth (both of her grandfathers died in the conflict), but its traces are light; this is primarily about storytelling and conveying emotional realities rather than ensuring readers grasp every detail of the Biafran War. This was my second attempt to read the novel, and while again I did not find it immediately engaging, by one-quarter through it had me gripped. I’m a firm Adichie fan now, and look forward to reading her other three new-to-me books sooner rather than later.
Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize) for Fiction winner, 2007
Source: Birthday gift from my wish list some years back
The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life by Ryszard Kapuściński (1998)
[Translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska in 2001]
Kapuściński was a foreign correspondent in Africa for 40 years and lent his name to an international prize for literary reportage. This book of essays spans several decades and lots of countries, yet feels like a cohesive narrative. The author sees many places right on the cusp of independence or in the midst of coup d’états – including Nigeria, a nice tie-in to the Adichie. Living among the people rather than removed in some white enclave, he develops a voice that is surprisingly undated and non-colonialist. While his presence as the observer is undeniable – especially when he falls ill with malaria and then tuberculosis – he lets the situation on the ground take precedence over the memoir aspect. I’m only halfway through, but I fully expect this to stand out as one of the best travel books I’ve ever read.
Evocative opening lines:
“More than anything, one is struck by the light. Light everywhere. Brightness everywhere. Everywhere, the sun.”
Source: Free bookshop
It happened one summer…
A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne (1997)
Berne, something of a one-hit wonder, is not among the more respected Women’s Prize alumni – look at the writers she was up against in the shortlist and you have to marvel that she was considered worthier than Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible) and Toni Morrison (Paradise). However, I enjoyed this punchy tale. Marsha remembers the summer of 1972, when her father left her mother for Aunt Ada and news came of a young boy’s sexual assault and murder in the woods behind a mall. “If you hadn’t known what had happened in our neighborhood, the street would have looked like any other suburban street in America.”
Laid up with a broken ankle from falling out of a tree, 10-year-old Marsha stays out of the way of her snide older twin siblings and keeps a close eye on the street’s comings and goings. Like Harriet the Spy or Jimmy Stewart’s convalescent character in Rear Window, she vows to note anything relevant in her Book of Evidence to pass on to the police. Early on, her suspicion lands on Mr. Green, the bachelor who lives next door. Feeling abandoned by her father and underappreciated by the rest of her family, Marsha embellishes the facts to craft a more exciting story, not knowing or caring that she could ruin another person’s life.
The novel is set in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I grew up, and the descriptions of brutally humid days fit with my memory of the endless summer days of a childhood in the Washington, D.C. area. Although I usually avoid child narrators, I’ve always admired novels that can point to the dramatic irony between what a child experiences at the time and what a person can only understand about their situation when looking back. Stylish and rewarding.
Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize) for Fiction winner, 1999
Source: Free bookshop
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub (2016)
Just as the Berne is a coming-of-age story masquerading as a mystery, from the title and cover this looked like it would be chick lit, but – though it has an overall breezy tone – it’s actually pretty chewy New York City literary fiction that should please fans of The Nest and/or readers of Jennifer Egan and Ann Patchett.
Elizabeth Marx and Zoe Kahn-Bennett have been best friends ever since starting the student band Kitty’s Mustache at Oberlin. Now in their forties with a teenager each, they live half a block apart in Brooklyn. Zoe and her wife Jane run a neighborhood restaurant, Hyacinth; their daughter Ruby is dragging her feet about college and studying to retake the SAT over the summer. Elizabeth, a successful real estate agent, still keeps the musical flame alive; her husband Andrew, her college sweetheart from the band, is between jobs, not that his parents’ money isn’t enough to keep him afloat forever; their son, Harry, is in puppy love with Ruby.
Several things turn this one ordinary-seeming summer on its head. First, a biopic is being made about the Kitty’s Mustache singer turned solo star turned 27 Club member, Lydia, and the filmmaker needs the rest of the band on board – and especially for Elizabeth to okay their use of the hit song she wrote that launched Lydia’s brief career. Second, Andrew gets caught up in a new cult-like yoga studio run by a charismatic former actor. Third, the Kahn-Bennetts have marital and professional difficulties. Fourth, Harry and Ruby start sleeping together.
Short chapters flip between all the major characters’ perspectives, with Straub showing that she completely gets each one of them. The novel is about reassessing as one approaches adulthood or midlife, about reviving old dreams and shoring up flagging relationships. It’s nippy and funny and smart and sexy. I found so many lines that rang true:
Elizabeth was happy in her marriage, she really was. It was just that sometimes she thought about all the experiences she’d never gotten to have, and all the nights she’d listened to the sound of her husband’s snores, and wanted to jump out a window and go home with the first person who talked to her. Choices were easy to make until you realized how long life could be.
Andrew was always surprised by people’s ages now. When he was a teenager, anyone over the age of twenty looked like a grown-up, with boring clothes and a blurry face, only slightly more invisible than Charlie Brown’s teacher, but life had changed. Now everyone looked equally young, as if they could be twenty or thirty or even flirting with forty, and he couldn’t tell the difference. Maybe it was just that he was now staring in the opposite direction.
“I mean, it’s never too late to decide to do something else. Becoming an adult doesn’t mean that you suddenly have all the answers.”
I’ll definitely read more by Straub. I’d especially recommend picking this up if you enjoyed Writers & Lovers.
Source: Free bookshop
What was your best summery read this year?
(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’m a #6Degrees regular now: this is my fifth time participating. This month (see Kate’s introductory post) we start with Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018). I loved Conversations with Friends but wasn’t so enamored with Rooney’s second novel (see my review), so I haven’t been tempted to watch the television adaptation; I don’t have a TV anyway.
#1 Picking out one of the words from the book title, and echoing the question that Rooney’s characters seem to be asking themselves, I’ll hop over to a memoir I enjoyed a lot in late 2011, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. Adopted into a strict religious household, Winterson had to hide her sexuality. Here you get the full story behind her autobiographical debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
#2 Adoption is my link to The Leavers by Lisa Ko. When he’s abandoned by his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant in the USA, Daniel is adopted by a pair of white professors. This is an achingly beautiful story of searching for a mother and a sense of belonging. It won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
#3 Barbara Kingsolver created and funds the biennial Bellwether Prize for unpublished fiction that addresses issues of social justice. I have vague ambitions to read as many Bellwether and Women’s Prize winners as I can. While it’s not one of my favorites by Kingsolver, The Lacuna (2009) won her the (then) Orange Prize. A historical novel, it’s largely set in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
#4 Frida Kahlo is my link to Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, autobiographical essays about the female body in pain. Kahlo is one of Gleeson’s gurus in that she turned her chronic pain and pregnancy loss into art – “making wounds the source of inspiration.” Constellations was our Not the Wellcome Prize winner during this hiatus year for the official prize.
#5 The first winner of the Wellcome Book Prize, in 2009, was Keeper by Andrea Gillies, a memoir of her mother-in-law Nancy’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. I also intend to read as many WBP winners and nominees as possible, so I recently ordered a secondhand copy of this and read the introduction before setting it aside for another time. Already I can tell it will be an engaging if harrowing book; Gillies pulls no punches in her depiction of the misery of the years when Nancy lived with her family and then in an institution.
[#5.5 Another book called Keeper, this one by Jessica Moor, provides my cheaty half-step. I found this debut novel to be a gripping and grimly fascinating story of why women stay with their abusers and what finally drives them to leave.]
#6 Violence against women is also the theme of The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, my novel of 2020 so far. While it ranges across the centuries, it always sticks close to the title location, an uninhabited island off the east coast of Scotland. It cycles through its three strands in an ebb and flow pattern that is appropriate to the coastal setting and creates a sense of time’s fluidity. This is not a puzzle book where everything fits together. Instead, it is a haunting echo chamber where elements keep coming back, stinging a little more each time. A must-read, especially for fans of Claire Fuller, Sarah Moss and Lucy Wood. (See my full Shiny New Books review.)
I’ve featured only books by women this month, and there have been quite a number of prize winners in here, too.
Join us for Six Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already!
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
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.