Everywoman – Jess Phillips

If you follow me on social media, you might be aware there’s a correlation between the number of sticky tabs in the book I’ve just finished reading and my level of enjoyment. Here, then, is my copy of Everywoman by Jess Phillips.

Which leaves me with the question: how the hell do I review this? Well, maybe by doing something along these lines…

‘You will never be popular.’

It’s alright, I never have been. Oh, Harriet Harman was talking to you. Blimey, what had you done?

In my sixteen weeks in Westminster I had become, in some quarters, fairly unpopular both in and out of the parliamentary bubble […] In that short time, I’d marked myself out as an angry feminist.

Those two words have to go together, don’t they? You can’t just be angry about something or be a feminist, you have to be an angry feminist. But that means you’re doing something right, doesn’t it? People are rattled because you’ve got a point. I wish someone had told me that when I was sixteen and being called angry and scary. What were you like when you were sixteen?

When I was sixteen, I needed taking down a peg or twenty. I was not a quiet young woman; I was in-your-face and bold as brass. I was a teenager in the era of girl power, Brit Pop girl bands and grunge. I remember deciding that Courtney Love would play me in a film of my life…

Oh, Courtney. She was my hero. I wanted to be like her and Shirley Manson. Women who don’t give a fuck. Or, at least, that was how I perceived them. That’s what powerful women are like, right?

During one of our many chats on the phone when we try to keep each other going, Alison [McGovern] commented that she had convinced herself that she didn’t have the right sort of body to be on TV. My response was simply, ‘Bab, if you don’t, then we are all screwed.’ […] She was famously castigated for showing a bit too much cleavage on the Channel 4 news while talking economics. Not by anyone with sense; just some sexist fool who said that her ‘prominent cleavage’ distracted her male observers from hearing what she was saying.

I didn’t realise breasts worked like noise-reduction headphones. Have I been using them incorrectly? How come this doesn’t affect other women watching?

Do you worry about doing this stuff, Jess, about people watching everything you do?

I’ll let you in on a secret, I am terrified most of the time. Every single day I have to force myself out of the door, into a meeting or up onto my feet to make a speech. In my job I get invited along to lots of events […]En route, I always have to give myself a talking-to, I have to fight the constant urge to turn around and go back to the comfort zone of my office.

Thank fuck for that. Me too. What can we do to help women who can’t give themselves the pep talk though?

I am certain that to get women to say sod it and give something a go, they need cheerleaders along the way. We have to be those cheerleaders. If we see a woman with potential, we should tell her and then pester her with opportunities […]So now I am a pusher. We women will only succeed if we all start pushing each other.

On it. I’m ordering pompoms as we speak.

What if we want to get into parliament. How did you do it?

I have made no secret of the fact that I was selected on an all-woman shortlist (AWS). People often use this to assert that I was not the best person for the job, merely the best woman. Because, you know, women aren’t people apparently. I wonder if Jessica Ennis-Hill was ever told this? ‘Er, sorry, Jess, your Olympic gold medal isn’t a real one because you only competed against other women; instead we’ve given you this medal we call girlie gold.’

I’m with Caitlin Moran on this one: mediocre white men have been benefiting from selective discrimination for centuries, it’s time we did the same.

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So now you’re in parliament, what sort of things do your constituents contact you about?

People really care about animals and they want to tell their MP about it. […] In 2016, a woman was murdered in the UK every three days. The number of sexual offences recorded in 2015 was the highest ever. Yet the number of emails I have had lobbying for women’s services is six; the number I have had about child abuse: eight. In the same period, I have had ninety emails about bees, 324 about foxes, seventeen about dog meat and twenty-five about dogs fighting.

Wow. I don’t have any pets so maybe I’m the wrong demographic but that seems skewed to me. Don’t people care about women being murdered?

Every day, up and down the country, people fail to compute why a woman stays in an abusive relationship. This has nothing to do with knowledge and understanding; it is entirely to do with projecting our fears and discomfort onto a situation that has absolutely nothing to do with us. We are so desperate to convince ourselves that this would never happen to us, we have to diminish the credibility of the person it does happen to in order to feel safe.

That’s uncomfortable reading. You worked for a domestic violence charity before you were an MP. Is there anything we can do to support women suffering from domestic violence (while the lengthy work of dismantling the patriarchy goes on)?

I am tired of people complaining about the lack of services for men but never piping up about the fact that there are almost no special services for older women, disabled women or women with learning difficulties. These are areas that really need a champion.

Noted. Thank you. Women supporting women is important, isn’t it? I wouldn’t be where I am without other women.

Women’s relationships and friendships are so fierce that I am not sure why we have not been able to achieve more with our collective strength. Shoulder to shoulder into the fray and all that jazz. I think it is perhaps the idea of ‘the sisterhood’ has been disputed.

I agree. I hear women regularly say there’s no such thing. There is, I’ve benefitted from it (and hope I pay it back/forwards too) but I think women – by which I mean predominantly white, middle class, cis, heterosexual women – are prone to forget that this means standing alongside women of colour, working class women, trans women, disabled women. We need to be reminded that if we want to achieve more, we need to listen and ensure we’re not just trying to further our own cause.

You go out knocking on doors in your constituency; is there anything in particular you’ve become an advocate for after listening to other people’s viewpoint on it?

…I meet single people or couples without kids who feel that they are ignored by Westminster […] This is one of the reasons why I am an advocate of the idea of a universal basic income for everyone, regardless of whether you have 2.4 children or you live on your own with seventeen cats. As someone who lived on welfare benefits when my children were little, I am constantly riled by the distinction made in Parliament between taxpayers and benefit claimants. They are the same thing; they are not two distinct groups who can be pitted against each other […] If everyone received some universal benefit from the government, we could stop the ‘othering’ of people on benefits; we could stop people who don’t have children feeling like they get nothing; we could all be in the same boat.

Yes! I’m a big fan of the universal basic income. From my perspective, also because it would allow people to pursue creative endeavours, explore new options for work. I think we’d all be more fulfilled if we weren’t worrying about how to pay the bills all the time. It might also leave people from a wider range of backgrounds able to pursue a career in politics…

Have you got any advice for people who want to follow in your footsteps, Jess? Women, in particular, because we know we need more women – from all backgrounds – in parliament.

A little bit of delusion goes a long way.

I suppose this is my Lean In moment, but I want to say in no uncertain terms to people reading this: you are better than you think. Ordinary, everyday people should be much more delusional than they are. […] Every day I meet women who say, ‘I could never do what you did.’ Or ‘How on earth did you cope with everything in your life?’ Women everywhere are convincing themselves that they don’t have the right to be in their position, or the right to get into positions. Imposter syndrome afflicts each and every one of us. I’d ask everyone who thinks they will look a fool if they speak up in a meeting to remember all the times they encountered someone who was not at all brilliant or amazing but seemed to have a really good job.

Hmmm. I’m not the only person thinking of a rollcall of white men right now, am I?

So Jess, I found your book empowering. It reminded me of all the women who’ve supported me; it made me angry about women who are marginalised, ignored and abused; it made me want to fight for change for all of us. What do you want people to take away from the book?

I hope that if nothing else, this book shows you that I am not exceptional, that I am worried and scared about using my voice. I hate it when people shout me down or call me thick, as they do every day. I always think there is someone better for the job than me. I’m just like you; you are kick-ass too, just like every woman.

 

Thanks to Hutchinson for the review copy.

 

 

 

Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

‘Seriously though, I think the cowards are the one over there killing harmless little girls like you.’

Yuki Oyama is a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl in 1968. She’s living in New York City with her family, following a move due to her father’s work. She describes America as ‘an interruption’ in her parent’s ‘Tokyo life’. While it might be a transitional period for them, Yuki knows little of Japanese customs and traditions so when her family return to Tokyo, she remains in NYC.

All year Yuki had felt like wet tarmac: sticky and stinking; but she didn’t want to dry, she wanted to crack open so her molten core spilled out fire.

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Yuki lives with her schoolfriend, Odile, who she meets on the fire escape outside the girls’ toilets and Odile’s mother, Lillian Greychild, a romance writer. Odile has a wild streak which is both an attraction and a concern for Yuki. With Odile she has her first drink, bought for her by a man in a bar. Odile spends more and more time with men as her modelling career begins to take off and Yuki is left behind. As well as dealing with Odile’s absences, Lillian’s love life invades the flat in the form of Lou, her reporter boyfriend.

Slam – a noise like a fly being smashed. Before Yuki could look up, another thwack. Lillian yelped, and there was the heavy noise of a body falling. Leather hissed against wood. By the time Yuki’s eyes had focused, Lillian was sitting on the floor, touching her jaw.

Despite Lou’s violent behaviour, Yuki takes a job as a receptionist at the paper he works on and eventually ends up in a relationship with Lou herself.

Amongst all of this, Yuki’s desire is to be an artist. She takes classes and attempts to organise exhibitions of her work, although Lou and his writer friends rarely take her ambition seriously.

Told parallel to Yuki’s late 1960s/early 1970s story is that of Jay, her son, in 2016. We know Yuki left Jay’s father to bring him up and that Jay hasn’t seen her since he was as a baby. It’s his job to deliver the deeds to the house he grew up in, the house his father has left to Yuki.

Jay’s story is told in a relatively short space but has an interesting trajectory. His wife’s recently given birth to a daughter but Jay’s rejected her as far as he can whilst continuing to live in the same apartment.

The baby didn’t look like me, or my wife, or anyone I knew. It looked like a bag of veins. In my arms, I held this beating, bloated heart. ‘She has your eyes.’ I had my mother’s. Was it also genetic, the twitching I felt in my hands, and the great desire to just let go?

Buchanan lays several threads for the reader to follow through the story: who’s Jay’s father? How will the meeting between Jay and Yuki go? Will Jay return home and become a good father? Has Yuki been successful as an artist?

The novel considers how difficult it is to be seen as an artist when you’re a Japanese American woman. There are several mentions of Yoko Ono but often in the context of John Lennon; we know it was years before Ono was taken even slightly seriously as an artist. The core of the story though is what a patriarchal society expects women to endure: the behaviour we tolerate, the restrictions that are placed on us.

Harmless Like You is a thoughtful novel, beautifully written. It deserves the many prize listings it’s garnered since publication.

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Considering one’s life requires a horribly delicate determination, doesn’t it? To get to the truth, to the heart of the trouble. You wake and your dreams disband, in a mid-brain void. At the sink, in the street, other shadows crowd in: dim thugs (they are everywhere) who’d like you never to work out anything.

Neve is a writer in her mid-thirties, exploring her marriage to an older man, Edwyn, and the impact previous relationships, both romantic and familial, have had on who they are now. We know from the opening pages that Neve and Edwyn’s relationship is one of extremes. He calls her ‘little smelly puss’, ‘little cleany puss’, ‘little compost heap’ and ‘little cabbage’ between cuddles and kisses.

There have been other names, of course.

‘Just so you know,’ he told me last year, ‘I have no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had…green acid shoved up it.’

Edwyn tells Neve she needs to get behind ‘the project’, the project being not to wind Edwyn up. Of course, it’s impossible to know exactly what will irritate Edwyn and cause an irrational outburst, or violence, or gaslighting.

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Neve positions her marriage in the context of other relationships, particularly those with her parents. Her father is abusive. She recalls a day when she read some of the list of things her father had done to her mother, documented by her mother for her solicitor:

‘Listen to this,’ I said. ‘Slapped, strangled, thumbs twisted. Hit about head while breast-feeding. Hit about head while suffering migraine. Several kicks at the base of the spine. Hot pan thrown, children screaming.’

Edwyn questions Neve’s mother’s memory. Could she remember all eight years of her marriage? Did she keep a diary? His attitude mirrors that of society towards women who verbalise the abuse they’re suffering. He ends the exchange referring to the things on the list as ‘incidents’ when Neve refers to them as ‘assaults’.

Neve also suffers abuse from her father. Her brother stopped visiting after he was punched in the face, but Neve’s mother, becoming complicit in the abuse, pleads with Neve to continue seeing him in order to ‘keep the peace’. On one visit when a friend from work is present, he sends Neve to the bathroom to ‘clean up’. There, under the seat, she finds ‘two drops of dried blood, both tiny’. When she’s returns to the living room, her father declares, ‘Women just aren’t naturally clean are they?’ He punctuates his abuse with invitations to dinner and concerts, lavishing money on Neve, attempting to push her to question what type of person he really is.

Riley writes with precision and perception, forcing the gap between how we view ourselves and how others see us. She shows how people exploit that perception to their own ends, how insecurities can manifest as abuse towards others. There’s an excruciating moment when Neve meets up with an ex. Despite initially saying he’s not interested in a relationship, he makes a play for her saying ‘I don’t think I can think of you…outside the context of – loving you?’ After they sleep together, he leaves and Neve emails him telling him she’s in love with him. He responds a week later telling her he doesn’t feel the same way.

Despite being a slim 162 pages, I read First Love over several days, having to take regular breaks after feeling as though I’d been punched in the stomach. Again and again and again. So many of the conversations, the ‘incidents’ as Edwyn might refer to them, felt real. Riley’s dialogue, in particular, reads as it might be spoken in real life and when Neve questions her own perception, I couldn’t help but feel she spoke for many of us:

…had I been very naïve? Was this what life was like, really, and everyone knew it but me?

Through a fragmented structure, Riley circles back to Neve and Edwyn, lacking a clear conclusion as to where their relationship is headed and whether Neve will ever break the cycle her parents began.

First Love is superb. A taut exploration of love and the behaviour which binds us to the past as we attempt to move into the future.

 

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.

Orangeboy – Patrice Lawrence

For a moment, I saw inside Mum’s head. A pretty blonde girl had died. And me, I was the Hackney youth with the gangboy brother. The papers would be quick to pick up on it, probably scanning Facebook for a photo already. Drug-Toting Gangboy ‘Kills’ Innocent Girl, with pictures of us both underneath for compare and contrast.

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Sixteen-year-old Marlon Sunday is, by his own admission, ‘Not cool enough, not clever enough, not street boy enough for anyone to take notice.’ He reads non-fiction about the brain and listens to old funk records. When Sonya Wilson, seventeen, blonde, gorgeous, comes knocking at his door, he’s not asking why, he’s down the local fair taking ecstacy with her and riding the ghost train, despite all his promises to his mum that he’d stay home, work hard and definitely not find himself in the sort of trouble his older brother Andre did.

Things take a turn for the worst when Sonya gets on the ghost train alive but is dead before they’ve reached the other end of the track. Not only that but just before they embarked, she convinced Marlon to pocket her stash of pills.

Marlon’s convinced that the boys who spoke to Sonya a few minutes before her death have something to do with all of this. When he goes to visit her grandmother and give his condolences, he leaves with Sonya’s Blackberry. Soon he’s getting calls about Mr Orange and, despite his mum’s best efforts, finds himself having to finish something his brother Andre appears to have started.

Marlon’s best friend Tish is a brilliant, straight-talking counterpoint to him. She takes no shit and makes sure people know it.

‘Look what that girl dropped you in!’ Tish’s eyes were wide and furious. ‘All this crap landing at you mum’s house, just because you were following your dick…’

But this isn’t really about Sonya, she’s as much a victim as Marlon.

Lawrence takes the reader into the ganglands of South London, to the young men and women who control their territory through drugs, knives, guns and fear. Where loyalty is everything and betrayal comes with the highest price.

Three things about the novel are particularly impressive: the first is the plotting. I’m not a fan of the ‘I couldn’t put it down’ cliché but every chapter ends at a point that makes you desperate to continue reading. I left the house late for work and to meet friends; I propped up my eyelids with matchsticks and kept reading long after I should’ve been asleep.

The second is the way in which Lawrence shows how easy it is for a kid from a comfortable background to be drawn into gang culture. Marlon has a stable home life – his mum and her long-term partner – a good friend in Tish, he does okay at school and yet his loyalty to the people in his life and his desire to protect them is exactly what lures him in.

Thirdly, and connected to the previous point, Lawrence explores the part class plays; how structural inequality and poverty exacerbates gang-related crime.

After Tayz was arrested, the police raided his Mum’s flat and found money, weed, knives, a gun. She lost her home and D-Ice was kicked out.

Jesus, if me, Mum and Andre had been in a council place, that could have been us. Who knew what Andre used to have in his room? But we weren’t in the middle of an estate, we were here, in this road, with tidy hedges and Tesco deliveries and the bus going up and down.

Orangeboy is a fantastic book. Gripping, smart and a nuanced portrait of a world that’s easily open to stereotyping. If I was still teaching in secondary schools, I’d be pushing it into the hands of every kid I came across. 

Orangeboy is on the longlist for the Jhalak Prize; I’d be delighted if it makes the shortlist on the 6th February.

In the Media, January 2017

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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Image by Abigail Grey Swartz

Where is there to start other than with articles about the new American regime?

On the Women’s March:

On Melania:

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On American society under Trump:

On Trump:

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

Watch Her Disappear – Eva Dolan

Watch Her Disappear is the fourth book in Eva Dolan’s Zigic and Ferreira series. I’ve loved all three previous books and found Dolan to explore sensitive, politically charged subjects in interesting and, ultimately, sensitive ways. Watch Her Disappear is no different in that Dolan’s starting point is the murder of a trans woman. The number of trans women murdered each year has increased significantly in the last five years, a disproportionate number of these women are women of colour, and many are then misgendered in media reports following their death.

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At the beginning of Watch Her Disappear, Corrine Sawyer is out for her morning run when she’s pushed from behind into the ground, dragged into the trees and strangled with the cord of her headphones.

‘You get why this needs to be in Hate Crimes, right?’ Adams said, slightly less aggressively now. ‘A murdered trans woman, we can’t have any mistakes. Someone makes a stupid slip of the tongue and we’re going to be accused of prejudice against the LGBTQ community. How’s that going to look?’

When the body’s first discovered, the police don’t know whether the murder is connected to a series of sexual attacks on joggers. The attacks have all taken place on cis women but the police can’t rule out the possibility that this is the same perpetrator. Equally, they could be looking for someone who’s targeting trans women who either hasn’t been active in their area previously or has carried out attacks that have gone unreported. These possibilities mean that while the investigation is given to Zigic and Ferreira, a member of CID, Colleen Murray, is assigned to work with them.

While potential suspects stack up and tensions between the Hate Crimes Unit and CID run high, Dolan explores a number of issues effecting trans women: unreported attacks; the support – or lack of – from family and friends, particularly spouses and children; passing and the cost of doing so or not doing so, both financially and psychologically, and treatment by the police. The latter forms a significant part of the novel, as you might expect, but Dolan also uses it to explore societal attitudes to trans women, confronting some unpalatable transphobic views.

‘Right, your man down at Ferry Meadows,’ Riggott said, taking an e-cigarette from his shirt pocket. ‘What’s the story?’

‘It was a woman. Didn’t Adams brief you already?’

Riggott rolls his eyes. ‘I know how he was dressed and I realise you’re a stickler for notions of political correctness but unless he was legally declared female – which I gather he’d not been – then you’re dealing with a man who happened to be wearing ladies’ clothing.’

‘Corinne Sawyer was transitioning,’ Zigic said firmly, knowing better than to give ground at this early stage. ‘She was living as a woman full-time. Her friends and family knew her as a woman and her killer attacked her as a woman. I think that’s more significant than the state of her genitalia.’

While this repeatedly makes for uncomfortable reading, Dolan seamlessly incorporates education around trans issues into a page-turning plot. (There is, however, an inconsistency in the writing where on at least one occasion the words trans woman have been run together as one.)

The nature of the case also forces Zigic and Ferreira to step up. CID are on their territory; Zigic’s superior DCS Riggott is a bigot (now I’m wondering whether that name choice was a deliberate bit of rhyming), and the trans community are – quite rightly – wary of the police. An incident during the investigation leads to Ferreira having a Jack Bauer moment and going rogue. If you’ve read any of the previous books in the series, you’ll know that Ferreria going rogue can only be spectacular. She’s also got other issues stemming from the fact she’s sleeping with her superior, DCI Adams, on the quiet. It’s in this book that Ferreria becomes more forceful than ever before; she’s moved out of her family’s pub and it’s not just her living situation that’s become more independent.

Watch Her Disappear is a well-considered look at the violence and societal stigma trans women face. More than ever in this book, Dolan sets out to educate her audience while maintaining a gripping plot throughout. Her brand of social issues crime is timely and well-researched. Another Zigic and Ferreira success.

 

Thanks to Harvill Secker for the review copy.

 

 

The Girl of Ink and Stars – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

On the 5th of January, the longlist for the inaugural Jhalak Prize was announced. The prize, launched to award the best writing from UK writers of colour, has a list which spans young adult and adult fiction – including short stories – as well as non-fiction. Of the eleven longlisted titles (there were twelve but Shappi Khorsandi, author of Nina Is Not OK, withdrew from the prize), six are by women. I intend to review all six and, purely because they were the first titles available at my local library, I’m starting with the young adult novels.

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‘You’re a boy. And so what? Girls can go on adventures too.’
‘Have you ever heard of a girl going on an adventure?’
I flushed in the darkness. I had only heard of one. ‘Arinta.’

The Girl of Ink and Stars is set on the isle of Joya. When the Governor – Governor Adori – arrived on the island, he closed the ports and made the forest between the village of Gromera and the rest of the island into a border. Anyone who resisted his rule was banished to the other side. The only map that exists of the island is one passed down the narrator Isabella’s mum’s side of the family, even though it is her father who is a cartographer.

Each of us carries the map of our lives on our skin, in the way we walk, even in the way we grow. Da would often say. See here, how my blood runs not blue at my wrist, but black? Your mother always said it was ink. I am a cartographer through to my heart.

Thirteen-year-old Isabella lives with her da. Her mum and brother, Gabo, are dead from sweating sickness. She has two friends, Pablo, the fifteen-year-old who lives opposite and is known for his strength, and Lupe, the Governor’s daughter.

We made an odd set, Lupe and I: she as tall as a near-grown boy, and I barely reaching her shoulder. She seemed to have got even taller in the month since I had last seen her. Her mother would not be pleased. Señora Adori was a petite, elegant woman with sad eyes and a cold smile. Lupe said she never laughed and believed girls should not run, nor have any right to be as tall as Lupe was getting.

On the day the story begins, Isabella goes to meet Lupe to walk to school, as usual. On the way to their meeting point, she is grabbed by the mother of one of her classmates, Cata Rodriguez. Cata is missing. It’s soon revealed that Lupe sent Cata into the forest to get her some dragon fruit. Isabella speculates that Cata will have been caught and thrown into the Délado, the labyrinth which serves as a prison beneath the Governor’s house. It turns out to be much worse than that: Cata is dead and there are claw marks on her body, ‘Deep gouges, thick as my thumb’.

A combination of the Governor’s decision to leave Joya for Afrik with his family, the dark forces that appear to have been unleashed on the island, and Lupe’s ignorance at her father’s behaviour culminate in harsh words between her and Isabella. The consequences of this exchange are that Lupe leaves for the forest to discover who killed Cata. Soon, Isabella, disguised as a boy and serving the Governor, is following in an attempt to save her best friend and possibly the entire population of Joya.

In Isabella, Hargrave has created a character who is both smart and, when she needs to, kicks arse. She stands up to inherited, insecure power and points out its shortcomings. She journeys into unmapped territory and maps it herself. She channels her hero Arinta, using her stories for guidance when she needs to survive.

The Girl of Ink and Stars is inventive, fast-paced, thrilling and a hugely satisfying narrative. Girls can indeed go on adventures and turn out not only to be the hero in their own story but in other people’s too.

Interview with Fiona Melrose

I’m delighted to welcome the author of the superb debut novel Midwinter, Fiona Melrose, to the blog.image

Where did the idea for Midwinter come from?

The entire book came out of a short story I wrote as a course requirement for my MA in writing at Birkbeck. I knew as soon as I had written the story that this was not a self contained piece of writing, but that what I had written was the end of a larger story involving the older farmer I had written about. He became Landyn Midwinter and I then set about writing my way towards that end.

Landyn came to me, clear as a bell. One sentence dropped into my head and I knew it was someone other than myself speaking, neither my internal voice nor my public one. He said: I found a fox in a field, dead.

That was enough.

But, He needed someone else. I knew he was a farmer and so I thought, a son would be a good thing for him to have, in life and in a narrative sense, so I gave him Vale.

But all of the characters were suggested to me by all the men I was meeting in Suffolk, coming to the farm to deliver this or ask about that. Younger men too, that we had hired to help with fencing or odd jobs. I was so struck by their lives. There never seemed to be any women around and they never spoke of any. They were clearly uncomfortable with me too. I liked them all though and liked to listen to them telling me about their work: moles, small scale farming, pig rearing. One of the younger ones in particular was what I would call a lost boy, he seemed to drift, structurally un-parented.  He worked on the farm for about a year and over that time made increasingly bad decisions, falling further from anywhere he wanted to be. He was a basically good person, wanted more for himself, had a sweetness to him, but that wasn’t enough somehow. He gave me Vale, in a loose form.

I’m really interested in your portrayals of masculinity: Landyn and Vale’s inability to discuss the death of Cecelia and how this presents itself in different ways, and Vale’s struggle with the consequences of Tom’s accident. What is it about masculinity that interests you as a writer?

I think it is related to the above, it came out of my daily direct contact with a community of men who were slightly unfathomable and yet I could sense that they were all basically good, trying and not always succeeding. Which is how life is in the end. We don’t always end up where we planned.

I am a person who naturally has girl friends, I’m attracted towards a feminine energy in both male and female friends and am not comfortable with hyper-masculinity and yet, that is what I found myself confronted with. I found that interesting. What struck me most, and I think some of this is a function of Suffolk, which has a reticence to it, the men had no idea how to talk to me and yet I could tell they wanted to, out of basic inquisitiveness or interest.

Also, I am interested on the effects of a patriarchal system on men themselves. There have to be consequences that aren’t all positive. Access to privilege doesn’t make you emotionally astute and resilient, it makes you privileged.

I am interested in groups of men, the kinds of rules and restrictions that seem to self govern those groups, this is allowed, that isn’t and all are within this unspoken range of what is considered masculine and what isn’t. The language that defines that is often extremely aggressive too, it makes it very clear what is acceptable and what is not.

The town where the book is set is a military town, endless parades and talk of heroes and sacrifice- all the traditional masculine ideal and then side by side are these men, boys who can never fit that ideal. But there is also something very positive and wonderful about male friendship bonds that is immensely powerful.

Chisongo is a victim to this –  he is Vale’s doppelgänger. They have the same job, we meet them at the same age, both are fairly truculent and reluctant, both argue with their employers and make increasingly bad decisions, both are forced to face life changing consequences for decisions on a drunken night out with a group of friends. Vale even looks at a picture of Chisongo and thinks it is himself. This was important to me – there are no good outcomes anywhere in the world for a young man who finds himself struggling and can find no support or language to express that. And we tend to afford white western young men the open door of mental health issues, isolation, whereas no such questions are ever asked of Chisongo. His drunken night has much more dire consequences than Vale’s though they are at their core suffering the same traumas.

I also very consciously included other types of men. Mole Boy is the exact opposite of everything he is “meant” to be. He does not speak well but tries against the odds to express himself, he is kind and considerate, he is sensitive to the fluctuations of his friends needs and emotions, is upset by their trials and failures and carries himself with a wonderful quiet stoicism despite his own sorrows. And while all his peers are flailing about he is quietly building his mole business, getting ahead, improving his life. I liked using him as the bell that chimed differently, with a lighter, higher call. I am very fond of him. I can reveal that soon after the book ends he falls in love with a girl who adores him. She works in the dry cleaners and they eventually marry. I would love to be at that wedding!

Landyn becomes fixated with the idea that a vixen he sees is the spirit of Cecelia. There’s a lovely passage where he talks about being haunted: If you don’t crave the thing that stalks you it’s just a thing, or a person or a fox, maybe, because it has no meaning. What a haunting is, though, is all your longing for someone in a shape you can wrap your brain around. So we allow the thing that haunts us to take up home with us and then, the magic happens. Why did you choose a vixen?

It may sound self consciously dramatic but they demanded it. I was haunted by foxes from the moment I arrived on the farm in Suffolk where I lived on my own for a spell. I found them extremely confronting, their barking through the trees in the middle of the night, their ability to suddenly appear and stare one down across a field, then disappear though the bracken leaving one wondering if indeed you had seen them. I kept finding dead ones, once a kit. That was a terrible day, I was deeply, primally upset about it.

There was a small, beautiful woodland on the farm and I could always smell them in there, would track their prints – the connection to them was entirely visceral, Pagan even. I do believe in animals having a very powerful totemic power and energy, that each animal brings its own set of challenges and questions into our lives. (Max Porter’s Grief is The Thing With Feathers is just the most exquisite embodiment of this, the book itself becomes a familiar, it is extraordinary, yes?)

I am very immersed in that belief system and very much appreciate Ted Hughes as a result. His poem ‘The Thought Fox’ was an early inspiration for this book. And the “hot stink of fox” really stayed with me until this book was written. I don’t think writing from inside an animal’s energy is a comfortable place, and this was a very uncomfortable book to write, but, that is simply how this work presented itself.

The vixen was perfect for the narrative, for Cecelia, partly because of the foxes shape shifting ways but also because foxes have a tricky energy. They aren’t straight forward. The problem with writing Cecelia through the first person narrative of Landyn and Vale is that as mourners in chief, they will be prone to elegise her life. And time has passed. Nostalgia is no friend of the story teller. Cecelia was not blameless in the troubles the family endured. Her marriage to Landyn was in jeopardy and there is never simply one guilty party, she was complicit in that disaster. She behaved badly in Zambia, was haughty and dismissive of Chisongo etc. A fox is a magical, beautiful creature, a fierce motherly protector but, she also steals chickens, let’s not forget.

Your editor has spoken about your ability to write about the emotional core of people. Is this instinctual or something you’ve worked on?

My editor (Sarah Castleton at Corsair) is much too kind. I would hope that one day I can hone that, really work at it over the course of a writing career, but in the end Midwinter is just a starting point.

In the mean time though I think it must be intuitive as I have never thought about it and hadn’t realised I did that. Having said that, it is what interests me in people. I am not interested in what people are acting out publicly, their words and responses. I am interested in what the drivers are that sit deep, deep underneath that all. For example very few people are simply angry (worth considering in the current political climate). Anger is a fragile, surface, externalised expression of a deep primal fear.

That is what interests me in people. If someone is being a pompous arse at a dinner table, I’m interested in the fragility driving it, why they need to be that pompous arse. Something rather less aggrandising is going on.

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The book’s very rooted in nature both in terms of the general setting/atmosphere and working on the land, both in Suffolk and Zambia. What is it about the land that interests you and how do you create its presence in words?

The natural world is my instinctive home. Most of my closest friends are creatures. I understand weather before I understand humans. I seem to have more of a nose for it and it is a very safe place for me to be. Not without its terrors of course but they strike me as a more honest affront.

The book is also very much the product of a time in my life when I was thrust into the natural world, suddenly living in the English countryside after having lived in cities (Johannesburg, London) before. I do find the English countryside slight more eerie and strange than in other countries. And I do think some of that has to do with its original, native magic. It is the same energy that allowed me to look at a fox and see not just an animal but also an energy system, an archetype. I suppose I am a natural witch too which allows me level of comfort with nature’s shadow side. Which is not to romanticise it, rather that was my experience of it at first exposure and that is something that has remained true.

As a writer the natural world is a gift. How could you not use it? Instant drama! I like a lot of weather in books. Even if a character is in the city I like to have the full feel of their atmosphere, temperature, relative humidity. These things seems to complete the book for me. I like to know how many leaves have fallen on a pavement, it will make a difference to how the character walks through them or over them.

I grew up reading the Romantic Poets, they were my rockstars (so handsome!) and that has, I think, given me an exaggerated sensitivity to nature and the words we use to describe it, our relative role as hand maidens to its power.

I live in Johannesburg now, a huge sprawling city and still, I am always looking for the moon, the height of Venus on the sky, the birds I see daily and have a relationship with. It is very much an instinct to keep myself whole, to survive.

The cover of the book is absolutely beautiful; did you have a say in the design?

I can’t lie, I do love the cover and feel the designers really got a sense of the energy of the book in it. Much of that will have come from my editor Sarah Castleton’s cover brief. She asked to see any images I had used for the book so I shared my Pinterest board and any others that were important for me. And she (being magnificent) put together a Spotify list to give a sense of the pace and pallor of the text which I think (if I am not mistaken) the designers had access to.

The design is a woodcut by Raquel Leis Allion. I was so moved at the appropriateness of a someone using their hands, working with wood and tools to create this little scene- it feel so honest and appropriate to the environment of the narrative. I love its physicality.

Are you working on anything at the moment? Can you tell us anything about it?

My second novel is complete. It is called Johannesburg which is, as the title suggests, a million miles away from Suffolk. It is a circadian novel based on Mrs Dalloway and is set on the day Nelson Mandela died.

It may seem far from Suffolk but I think my concerns remain the same; the human impulse to seeking moments of redemption, moments of grace, when there is very little to suggest these will be found, the connectedness of communities when it appears there is none, what it means to belong/ to be home and, of course, love.

My relationship to the city of Johannesburg is the most enduring and complicated of my life and I tried to interrogate that.

I manage to get quite a lot of weather in there too.

Johannesburg is for me a very personal book, it’s very political and I felt an incredible urgency as well as a terrible discomfort while writing it. I had any number of tantrums over it and threw it in a bottom drawer for 8 months too yet all the while could feel it prickling and bristling in there every time I entered the room.

Hopefully you will be hearing more about that soon.

I am now onto the next but I am not yet ready to talk about it, partly because I am still juggling it around as I write- it is a great unruly octopus of a thing. I had a screaming headache for the 6 weeks it took me to get the first 100 pages down. Writing is a miserable business.

I also have a first draft of what might be called biographical bodice-ripper which has been my abiding joy to write. Sex and sword fights are always good to read and write. I make light of it, I have taken its writing very seriously and am incredibly fond of my characters. But am still deciding its path and it still needs a lot of work.

I am a terrible short story writer but am trying to work on one at the moment too – a kind of fable. Don’t expect to hear any more about that any time soon. I fight for every word. It is nothing short of guerrilla warfare. I so admire story writers.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Oh Naomi, where do I start? I suppose for me always and forever, everything always begins and ends with Virginia Woolf. I feel I will never fully understand the reach of her work, both in fiction and in activism. I am re-reading sections of her diary at the moment and a single entry can leave me fizzing for days.

She is so much a part of my thinking that some days I swear I can feel her sitting next to me in the writing cafe, prodding and interrogating and coaxing me on.

Early influences were Jean Rhys, Toni Morrison and Nadine Gordimer, later French feminist philosophy writers like Julia Kristeva etc

Deborah Levy is a favourite. My second novel was partly a response to her collection of short stories Black Vodka. It affected me so profoundly.

I do read a lot of non-fiction and Rebecca Solnit continues to be a marvel. And as a student I read Susan Sontag, bell hooks, Joan Didion and so many more.  I also loved diaries: Anais Nin, Sylvia Plath, Woolf again – the journal as a place of transgression for women remains something that interests me.

Recent fiction from Ali Smith, Han Kang and Eowyn Ivey have been very inspiring to me and I think we are still absorbing how important Ferrante is for women’s fiction and fiction in general. I mean this both in terms of her writing and in her challenge to our consumption of it, our consumption of the female writer along with her fiction. I could give you ten pages of bristling and charged writing on women’s writing, the devaluing of imagination in women (the strange insistence many women’s novels must be in some way autobiographical) and how that negatively impacts our ability to explore/ expand and live in a deeply, radically democratic space. To devalue imagination is to devalue empathy, the possibility of imagining another sorrow or distress or joy.

See…. I’m off again….

Naomi, thank you for you questions and your support of women writers. You are a marvel for your energy and commitment  and your work is so necessary, an important project. And by the way I am expecting this little paragraph to be included in the full post. No false modesty please, I demand you include it or I will complain and expose you.

A huge thanks to Fiona Melrose for her time and her wonderful responses.

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

Landyn and Vale Midwinter are a father and son united in grief but unable to communicate their thoughts and feelings to each other.

Ten years previously, Landyn had uprooted the family from Suffolk and taken them to Zambia. Money was tight and an advertisement titled ‘Farmers Wanted for a New Life in Africa’s Fertile Bread Basket’ seemed like a new start, a last chance to make a success of himself and provide for his family. What he couldn’t have anticipated was that the venture would result in the death of his wife and Vale’s mother, Cecelia.

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The family’s time in Zambia is told in flashbacks between the story of Landyn and Vale’s current life in Suffolk. The novel begins as Vale and his friend, Tom, try to make their way through cold water, drunk and in the dark, to the boat they’ve stolen.

Nothing prepared us and we lost each other just as soon as we hit the water. The gully beat us and beat us again. I was just struggling to breathe. Then I heard Tom choke and rasp, and suddenly felt a huge weight. I thought I was dying then, but I kept fighting. And I still don’t know why.

Vale has to deal with the consequences of the night’s events, consequences that will force him to confront the death of his mother too. But Vale’s a young man and he doesn’t know how he feels, never mind what to do with these feelings:

Sometimes I just got angry when I should have been worried or upset. It was like I only knew one way to feel stuff. Ma would have asked, ‘What is it you’re really feeling love.’ And then I would realise I was sad or mostly, afraid. Afraid of all kinds of things, like looking stupid or failing at something. I tried to ask myself questions that Ma would ask but it wasn’t the same. She would have taught me to find a way through.

The novel’s narrated in alternate chapters by Vale and Landyn. Melrose uses this to show us the similarities between the two characters and explore why they’re finding it so difficult to communicate. The answers to this lie in the circumstances of Cecelia’s death – circumstances for which Vale blames his father – and in the unspoken, longstanding masculine code which prevents men from sharing their feelings with each other. These two things create the tension which runs throughout the book and which spills over into violence at several points.

The events of the novel are played out against the landscape, whether in Zambia or in Suffolk. Melrose treats nature as an additional character using the water, the land and the animals to place the reader in the natural world and show us how the characters relate to it. This becomes particularly pertinent in the case of Landyn who is haunted by a vixen he believes is Cecelia:

If you don’t crave the thing that stalks you it’s just a thing, or a person or a fox, maybe, because it has no meaning. What a haunting is, though, is all your longing for someone in a shape you can wrap your brain around. So we allow the thing that haunts us to take up home with us and then, the magic happens.

Midwinter is a taut, tense, beautifully crafted debut. Melrose cuts to the core of masculinity, convincingly portraying a number of men dealing with catastrophic life events. Highly recommended.

 

If you’re interested in discovering more about Midwinter, I’ll have an interview with Fiona Melrose up tomorrow.

 

Thanks to Corsair for the review copy.

Relativity – Antonia Hayes

Twelve-year-old Ethan isn’t simply obsessed with the cosmos and physics, he understands complex ideas far beyond his age. Inevitably, the other kids at school think he’s a weirdo. Not only is he prime target for the school bully, Daniel Anderson, his best friend Will has recently switched sides. When Will tells Daniel, ‘Ethan’s such a freak, even his dad left him right after he was born’, Ethan beats his best friend up, triggering a series of events that will change his life and uncover long held secrets.

Claire is Ethan’s mum, single since his dad, Mark, left when Ethan was still a baby. She gave up her dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer to parent Ethan. Devoted to her son, she indulges his interest in astronomy, taking him out late at night to the park to watch a meteoroid shower.

But on nights like this, when the dark sky was crisp and cloudless, Claire hated looking at the stars. After sunset, she’d taught herself to keep her eyes fixed on the ground. Star visibility wasn’t great in Sidney but sometimes they came out to shine, reminding the city they were still there. That night they were sharp, flaring, and Claire looked up. She still knew where to find her star – it was always there. It never seemed to wander the night sky.

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Unbeknownst to Claire, Mark’s on his way back to Sidney; his father’s dying, his brother breaking a nine-year silence to call him and tell him he should come. Mark’s father’s dying wish is to see his grandson, the boy that neither he nor Mark have seen since he was a few months old.

Hayes uses this set-up to explore two major themes: shaken baby syndrome and gender.

Ethan suffered a brain injury at four-months old. His symptoms were consistent with shaken baby syndrome but Mark has always maintained his innocence. Now new research suggests that diagnoses of SBS probably missed an underlying condition which was more likely to have caused brain damage in babies. However, twelve-years after the initial injury, Ethan has new symptoms.

Gender roles are questioned throughout the novel. Hayes repeatedly questions society’s views of mothers and the expectations placed on them – to curtail their own ambitions, to be the main carer, to maintain an angelic disposition, and, even when those expectations are met, for it still not to be enough if you’re a single mother.

Helen looked at her husband with a pinched expression. ‘I read a recent study that said children from single-parent families are responsible for the epidemic of violence in schools. He’s wild. He’s clearly not getting enough discipline at home.’
[…]
‘Not to mention,’ Helen continued, ‘that it’s a well-known fact kids raised by single mothers are twice as likely to have behavioural issues than those born into traditional two-parent families.’

Relativity is an engaging read which considers a subject I’ve not seen in fiction before, certainly not in a way which considers the extended aftermath of the event. Hayes uses physics to pose questions without answers and to explore the messiness of existence. She doesn’t allow any easy solutions and this is a real strength of the novel. That so much of what is covered here exists in a moral grey area would make it a perfect read for book groups.

 

Thanks to Corsair for the review copy.