Cry, Mother Spain – Lydie Salvayre (translated by Ben Faccini)

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Spain, 1936. As writer, Georges Bernanos, witnesses the events he would later describe in his book Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune, José Arjona returns from Lérida with thoughts of revolution that will change his and, Montse, his fifteen-year-old sister’s lives.

The novel is narrated by Montse’s daughter. Now ninety, Montse has dementia…

Yet her memories of the summer of 1936, when the unimaginable took place, are still intact. It was a time, she says, when she discovered life – without doubt the only adventure of her existence.

She recalls that year, telling the tale through her daughter in the trans-Pyrenean language she’s spoken since she ended up in a village in the south-west of France seventy-five years earlier.

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Her story begins with a visit to the house of Jaime Burgos Obregón who’s looking to employ a new maid.

He studied my mother from head to toe, and stated with an air of assurance that my mother has never forgotten: She seems quite humble. My grandmother thanked him as if he were congratulating her, But that comment, my mother says, throws me into turmoil. For me it’s an insult, a patada in the arse, a kick in the culo, it makes me leap ten metros within my own head, it jolts my brain which had been slumbering for more than fifteen years. It makes me understand the meaning of the words my brother José had just bought back from the Anarchist communes around Lérida. So when we are in the street again, I start to shriek, to griter: “She seems quite humble”! Do you realise what he meant?…What don Jaime means – I was really boiling, my darling, ma chérie, I was boiling with rage – is that I will make a good maid, sweet and thick, and obedient with it. It means I will accept doña Sol’s orders without flinching, that I will clean up her shit without protest. It means I seem to have all the qualities of an idiot, and I won’t balk at anything, I won’t cause any sort of moleste to anyone. It means don Jaime will pay me, how do you say it? clopinettes, peanuts, and I’ll have to say muchísimas gracias with my sweet, grateful, humble face.

I’ve quoted at length because I wanted to show what an absolute firecracker Montse is (though she’d undoubtedly hate that term too!). She’s a fantastic character who spends the first section of the book watching events around her and then, inspired by the young men in the village, going off to have her own big adventure.

The day after Montse’s job interview, war breaks out. In their village, José has returned having learned the words Revolución! Comunidad! Libertad! He dreams of crushing the Nationalists and an equal future for all. At a general assembly in the town hall, José and his childhood friend Juan call for the creation of a commune. Their desires are modified by Diego, adopted son of don Jaime, who’s refusing to accept his birthright and has joined the Communist Party. Initially, the villagers ignore Diego, but as the days pass and they have time to consider the consequences a further meeting is called. This time the villagers, including José and Montse’s father, support Diego.

When José tells Montse he’s leaving, she goes with him, heading for Barcelona and freedom. Or so she thinks.

Interspersed with Montse’s recommendations are comments from her daughter as to what Bernanos was doing at this time. Where he’d travelled to and what atrocities he’d uncovered, including the corruption within the church. It leads her to comment:

I’m starting to see the weight of tragedy carried by the word “national”, and how every time it has been bandied about in the past, regardless of the cause (Ligue de la nation française, Révolution nationale, National Union of the People, National Fascist Party, etc.) it has inevitably brought violence with it, in France and elsewhere. History is awash with appalling examples.

A quick look at the world today tells you that it’s not just history that contains all the examples.

I absolutely loved Cry, Mother Spain. It’s a superb coming-of-age tale for its protagonist and the young men in the village, with a backdrop of a civil war which will change everyone’s lives. Montse’s a fabulous character; I would happily have spent more time with her.

Credit must also go to Ben Faccini whose translation fizzes. There are wonderful moments where he maintains the sense of Montse’s trans-Pyrenean language by not translating every word or by repeating it in English after the original. It was an utter joy to read.

 

Thanks to MacLehose for the review copy.

The Defenceless – Kati Hiekkapelto (translated by David Hackston)

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Vilho Karppinen can’t sleep because of the music in the flat below. Feeling old and doddery, he goes downstairs to ask the young men to turn it down. In the stairwell, one of them grabs him by his nightshirt and drags him into the flat. After an exchange of words, Vilho turns to leave:

Just then a wave of dizziness over came him and his legs buckled beneath him. Vilho grabbed the first lad for support. The boy bellowed angrily and clocked him in the face with his fist. Vilho fell to the floor, knocking his head on the edge of the table. Blood gushed on the stinking living-room rug, forming a pool between an empty syringe and a can of beer.

The following morning when Senior Constable Anna Fekete arrives at work, she’s given the task of interviewing a woman who hit an old man with her car the following evening. The woman is Hungarian, as is Anna.

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More crimes are revealed as a bloodied knife is found by two school girls sneaking a cigarette in the woods behind their houses, and members of the Danish-Swedish street gang The Black Cobras, begin to infiltrate the city along with their drug trade.

Then there’s the case of Sammy, the other young man in the flat on the night Vilho Karppinen hit his head. Sammy came to Finland from Pakistan hidden in a truck. He applied for asylum, tried to quit heroin and waited for a verdict. When he received notice of his deportation, he moved on to the streets and discovered the heroin substitute Subutex.

Sammy started to feel that the only sensible option would be to go straight to the Hazileklek pizzeria the following day and explain it all to Farzad and Maalik, the whole sorry story from start to finish, the drugs, everything. He hadn’t the courage to tell the pizzeria owners about the refusal of his asylum application, though they were the only people with whom he had something resembling a normal contact. He didn’t want to cause them any trouble. He already felt ashamed of himself in their presence, unable to trust them. Sammy was convinced he would never be able to trust anyone on earth ever again. And yet, by himself, it was impossible to survive. He desperately needed help. He needed food and sleep. He needed to be at peace in his soul. He needed money; he needed Subutex.

Things with Sammy are complicated by the fact that the pizzeria owners who are so kind to him are also friends of Anna Fekete.

In traditional cop style, Anna’s life is also complicated: her brother is an alcoholic and it’s her who checks on him to ensure he’s okay; she also sleeps with her former friend’s husband sporadically. Work isn’t made any easier for her by her colleague, Esko Niemi, who is racist, sexist, unhealthy, an alcoholic and miserable. He veers from determination to show the young police officers how it’s done, hoping to capture members of The Black Cobras, to imagining a different life for himself.

The Defenceless has all the ingredients of a good, socially motivated, crime novel: two complex detectives; a diverse cast of characters including three elderly people, an asylum seeker, gang members and their relatives, and a number of seemingly disparate strands that are nicely weaved together by Hiekkapelto.

There are two small things I didn’t like, however. The first was, I think, an issue with the translation of some of the dialogue which meant that it felt very stilted in places. The second was with the character of Esko. I usually have a high tolerance for language used in novels but even I blanched at the racist names Esko’s character chose to use. I’ve no doubt police officers like Esko exist but his language was unpalatable and only vaguely challenged within the book.

Overall though, I found The Defenceless an interesting and engaging take on a changing society.

 

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.

 

One Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

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Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg are friends. Indeed, Feinberg is Markovitch’s only friend and the pair couldn’t be more different:

[…]there are people who walk through the world as if they were there by mistake, as if at any moment someone would put a hand on their shoulder and shout in their ears, “What is this? Who let you in? Get out, fast.” And there are people who don’t walk through the world at all. Just the opposite, they sail through it, slicing the water in two wherever they pass, like a boat full of confidence.

Feinberg is the latter, while Markovitch is ‘gloriously average […his] face was remarkably free of distinguishing features. So much that your eyes could not linger on him, but slipped onwards to other objects’.

The book begins with Markovitch saving Feinberg’s life; a young Arab almost shoots him as he has sex with Rachel Mandelbaum. However, Rachel is the wife of Avraham Mandelbaum, the slaughterer, who will not hesitate to kill. The following morning when the moustache rash on Rachel’s chest confirms that she was having sex with Feinberg, he and Markovitch are forced to go on the run.

The men go to see the deputy commander of the Irgun, a friend of Feinberg’s. He sends them to Europe where they will marry ‘a Jewish girl’ and bring them back to Palestine, thus circumventing the closed gates of Europe. Once the men return, they will divorce and the women will be free to remain.

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Three women form the backbone of the story: Rachel Mandelbaum, Sonya, and Bella Zeigerman.

Rachel Mandelbaum came to Palestine five years prior to the beginning of the book. As she stood at the port, Avraham arrived, as he had every few weeks, looking for some one to fill his loneliness.

In her green dress she looked to him like a bottle that had been thrown out to sea and washed up on the shore, and he, the lonely survivor, would pick it up and read what was inside it. He took her home and married her but never succeeded in deciphering the words that were in the bottle.

Rachel never reveals herself to anyone. She abandons the German language of her childhood and keeps the Austrian soldier she loved locked inside her. Her story is one of loneliness and sadness.

Sonya is Feinberg’s girlfriend who he swears he’ll marry once he and Markovitch return from Europe because:

[…] that woman has the strength of ten men […] a heart the size of a dove, and a vagina of sweet water. […]she can make you laugh until your balls twist themselves around each other.

While Feinberg is gone, Sonya spends every day standing at the edge of the water, waiting for his return.

[…] if she was doomed to wait, even if she was cursed with the humiliating tendency of women everywhere to find a piece of sand on which to stand and look at the sea, waiting for their man to return, at least she had the strength to be angry about it. And so she cursed Zeev Feinberg with all her heart and soul, loudly and resolutely.

But after the deputy commander of the Irgun returns a visit she paid to him, she finds herself in bed with Feinberg’s friend through sheer boredom. Unfortunately, she has quite an affect on the deputy commander and it isn’t sated by her marriage to Feinberg on his return.

Bella Zeigerman is the woman Yaacov Markovitch marries in Europe.

[…]Bella Zeigerman was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most beautiful woman in the apartment. And although, unlike Yaacov Markovitch, [Feinberg] didn’t think she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, she undeniably belonged to the Olympus of goddess-like women which would never admit Yaacov Markovitch, even as a servant.

On their return, Markovitch refuses to divorce her and the two stay locked in a frosty marriage which sees Markovitch fall out with his best friend, Bella leave and return, and Markovitch raise someone else’s child.

Gundar-Goshen covers several, intertwined lives in this novel. The ups-and-downs of marriage, parenthood, war, death …basically all of life is here. The relationships and the children, born to different fathers struck me as Shakespearian. These twists could have become farcical and the fact that they do not demonstrates Gundar-Goshen’s ability to plot on a large scale. Her characters are fully-rounded and it was refreshing to read about three women who were distinctly different people.

Credit must also go to the translator, Sondra Silverston: the writing fizzes throughout. It was an utter joy to read.

I finished reading One Night, Markovitch bathed in a warm glow. Although the novel has difficult and sometimes tragic elements to it, there’s something truly life-affirming about it. Like all great literature, it has eternal truths about humanity at its core, while telling a truly individual story. It is a wonderful book.

 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

 

Panty – Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (translated by Arunava Sinha)

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So, ultimately, she – who had no name, no identity, no family, no city or village, no property or assets – had still retained a religion.

A woman arrives at an apartment at eleven o’clock at night. She lets herself in only to discover that none of the lights work. She showers and lies on the bed. The next day, the man who owns the flat calls twice.

The phone rang again. It was him. ‘Should I call your friend and tell her you’ve settled down?’

‘Please, no. There’s no need to tell her anything. I…I want to be lost to everyone forever. Just tell her I’ve arrived.’

He tells her she can stay as long as she likes.

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The following day, the woman unpacks her few belongings. When she looks in the wardrobe she finds a pair of crumpled leopard print knickers. She examines them, discovers a white, mouldy stain inside them and then, feeling that they offer a presence in the flat, throws them back inside the wardrobe.

After meeting a man later that evening, she’s lying in bed when she realises her period has started. Not having a second pair of knickers with her, she decides to wear the leopard print ones, thinking that the sanitary towel will provide a layer between her skin and the mouldy stain on the knickers.

I slipped into the panty.

What I did not know was that I had actually stepped into a woman.

I stepped into her womanhood.

Her sexuality, her love.

I slipped into her desire, her sinful adultery, her humiliation and sorrow, her shame and loathing.[…]Although I do not admit that I fell asleep, it is undeniable that I was woken by a series of sounds in the room.

They were making out. Kissing. Fucking wildly. They were panting, but could not stop. Hours seemed to pass this way. They remained engaged in their sex – till I passed out.

I had not understood them that first night. I had opened my eyes at the sounds of passion and felt afraid – who were these people in the bedroom! But they weren’t in the room – they were on the wall.

The couple appear on the days she wears the leopard print knickers.

Panty is a fragmented tale of a woman unsure of her own identity. The chapters – which run in a seemingly random order (29, 15, 11…) – build a picture of a mother, a lover, a writer, an escapee but it’s impossible to pin down a true sense of this woman. She’s also waiting for surgery, for what we’re never told, but this adds to the sense of a shifting identity.

This is a bold book both in terms of the content, which caused a furore in the world of Bengali literature, and the enigmatic style and structure. I’m sure there are readers that would find this book infuriating but if you prefer your literature to be elusive, challenging and require some work to decipher what the writer’s intensions might be then Panty is a great and fascinating book.

 

Thanks to Tilted Axis Press for the review copy.

Book Lists for All Humans #5

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It’s been a while…not because there haven’t been lists published that weren’t gender balanced, I’m sure there have been, more because while I’m not compiling In the Media, I’m not in my media Twitter feed and so I’m not seeing them. However, I was on the Guardian website this afternoon and they’d published a new ‘Top 10 books’ list. DBC Pierre deserves some sort of award for producing the whitest, most male list I’ve seen so far. Apparently, women/people of colour don’t write books that writers should read. Be told people, only white men know how to write.

Here’s my alternative list, please feel free to suggest your own additions/alternatives in the comments:

To create a setting that feels as though it really exists: The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

To see complex characters, whose behaviour raises questions about morality, in action: Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

To write successfully from a child’s point-of-view: My Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

To manage a complex structure based on a lunar cycle and as good as any box set: The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

To change point-of-view in every chapter, including that of a dead body, and detail some of the atrocities of which humans are capable: Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

To incorporate your own life and letters into fiction/essay/critique: I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

To bring a historical character to life: Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

To write a coming-of-age story in fragmented sentences: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

To write a metafictional account of a massacre: The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandasamy

To create an unreliable, first person narrator: The Private Life of Mrs Sharma – Ratika Kapur

 

Links are to my reviews.

Ladivine – Marie NDiaye (translated by Jordan Stump)

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Clarisse Rivière felt herself floating back and forth on a warm, thick swell, whose density stilled any move she might try to make. […] She had to place her faith in the mindless but confident perseverance of the heavy, dense tide now carrying her off, and when she spotted the edge of the dark, overgrown forest, its treetops towering and black against the black sky, her only thought was “I’ve never been in a deep forest”, but she put up no resistance, certain that there she would be just where she was meant to be.

Ladivine is the story of three generations of women from the same family. It centres on Clarisse Rivière, a woman who has reinvented herself, denying her past.

On the first Tuesday of each month, Clarisse Rivière reverts to being Malinka and visits her mother. Throughout the period of time in which these visits take place, Clarisse marries and has a child – a daughter – who grows to adulthood. She never mentions any aspect of her life to her mother and her mother never asks. Clarisse is embarrassed of her upbringing: a mother who worked as a servant and cleaner in offices and apartments in Paris; two tiny rooms to live in, and an absent father.

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During a summer in Arcachon looking after the children she babysits in Paris, Malinka decides she doesn’t have to stay at home with her mother. On their return, she resigns and leaves for Bordeaux. She changes her name to Clarisse and becomes a waitress. Her mother finds her, taking a room and a cleaning job but then Clarisse meets Richard Rivière, a car salesman, and follows him to Langon.

Was it then, Clarisse Rivière would later wonder, that she’d first vowed forever to be good to Richard Rivière, a vow that would determine the whole of her life with him?

Because she must have realised, then or just a little later, that there was no other escape from what she had deliberately done to the servant, Malinka’s mother, who was never to know of Clarisse Rivière, never to delight in anything good that happened to her daughter, never to broaden her narrow circle to include those her daughter loved most, on whom she herself might lavish her vast, unused love – no, no other escape from that violence, that shame, than the deepest, most indisputable goodness in every other way.

That goodness, however, the veneer Clarisse constructs, is what eventually leads to Richard Rivière leaving her. At that point, when their daughter is an adult with her own husband and children, Clarisse meets a man who she finally opens up to. She takes Freddy Molinger to meet her mother, who thinks he’s wonderful. But Molinger is a dangerous man and his appearance in their lives will have shattering consequences.

In Ladivine, NDiaye explores the role of women in society and the relationship between mothers and daughters. Clarisse, while partially rejecting her mother, is unfailingly ‘good’ in the other areas of her life, meeting society’s expectations of how a woman should behave. This isn’t enough for either of the men in her life, however. Her daughter, Ladivine, whose story comes to the fore in the second half of the novel, seems destined to repeat her mother’s actions. She has physically distanced herself from her parents by moving to Berlin. Her father has never met his grandchildren and Clarisse only sees them occasionally.

Ladivine’s story becomes one of coincidences, déjà vu, violence and hauntings. A layer of terror hangs over her, partially driven by the loss of their luggage in the unnamed place in which they are on holiday and partially by the appearance of a dog which follows Ladivine. This may or may not be the same dog Richard Rivière’s parents acquired to guard their shop around the same time that Ladivine was born:

The dog was lying on Ladivine’s bed, a little crib whose bars were lowered on one side so the baby could be picked up more easily, and its outstretched head, lightly grazing the child’s, had a deathly stillness about it.

Equally immobile, Clarisse saw in a single sweeping glance, were the baby’s body, her colourless face, her wide eyes looking deep into the dog’s staring gaze, as if she’d plunged into an abyss of sibylline knowledge and perhaps become lost.

Yet Clarisse had the strong sense of a bond not to be rashly broken, a secret union with no immediate danger for the child. Not for a moment did she doubt the dog’s good intentions.

Ladivine is not an easy read; it asks questions about identity, erasure and women’s place in society. It moves into dark, occasionally fantastical, territory and has an ending that some readers will hate. However, it marks NDiaye out as a talented writer, unafraid to transgress boundaries and left this reader keen for more.

 

Thanks to MacLehose for the review copy.

Daughters of Decadence and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This week, my favourite publishing imprint (for obvious reasons) Virago is reissuing the short story collection Daughters of Decadence: Stories by Women Writers of the Fin de Siècle, edited by Elaine Showalter. The collection includes stories by Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Mew and Constance Fenimore Woolson, amongst others. Possibly the most famous story included is feminist classic ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Rather than cover the whole collection, Virago asked whether I’d focus on this one story and, having last read it as an undergraduate student some twenty years ago, I’m delighted to revisit it.

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‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is narrated by an unnamed woman. She has moved, along with her husband, John, into an ‘ancestral hall’ for the summer whilst work is carried out on their home. The house is cheap and has been uninhabited for some time which leads her to believe ‘there is something queer about it’. Her husband disagrees. He also disagrees with her when she tells him she is ill.

If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?

My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.

[…]

Personally, I disagree with their ideas.

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.

But what is one to do?

Not two pages in and already I’m furious at Freud – he’s got a lot to answer for when it comes to society’s views of women. Did someone mention the patriarchy?

The narrator goes on to describe the room which they’ve taken for their bedroom. The room was her husband’s choice – ‘I don’t like our room a bit’ – and she’s particularly perturbed by the wallpaper:

I never saw a worse paper in my life.

One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.

The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.

It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur in others.

No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long.

As the story progresses, the narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper, convinced that there are two different patterns to it and that they change with the light. Then she discovers there’s a woman behind it, trying to get out…

Two key things I haven’t mentioned yet are – one – that the narrator is a writer but her husband and her sister-in-law disapprove of her pursuit. She writes the story in snatched moments, hiding her work when one of them enters the room. By making her a writer, Gilman highlights how women have been denied their own voices and the right to tell their own stories. Two – that the narrator is a mother. It’s four pages into the story before she mentions the baby and we never see him. Here the possibility that the narrator is suffering from post-natal depression is raised. Why don’t the men in her life consider this? At the time the story was written it had only recently been recognised as a condition. Also, why would a new mother be depressed? Having a child is what women are made for, isn’t it?

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ considers the merits of the rest cure and finds them lacking. It looks at the feelings of entrapment women experience trying to survive in a patriarchal society which dictates their emotions to them, tells them what they need and expects them to conform to marriage and motherhood without protest. It’s an incredibly powerful story and one that continues to resonate more than a century after it’s initial publication.

 

Thanks to Virago for the review copy.

#WITMonth and Soft in the Head – Marie-Sabine Roger (translated by Frank Wynne)

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August 1st means it’s my favourite month in the whole of the book community calendar – Women in Translation Month or WITMonth for short. It’s the month when I discover the most new-to-me books and authors. All month I’ll be featuring reviews of books written by women from around the world and translated into English. Join in by choosing something to read, blogging/tweeting about it using the #WITMonth hashtag to share your thoughts. If you want to know more about why the focus on translated books by women, have a look at founder Meytal’s blog where she discusses some bookish stats about the gender balance of translated works. Rachel Cooke also wrote a good piece for The Guardian recently on why translated fiction is having a moment in the UK. I look forward to hearing/reading about the books you’ve all chosen. My first review is of an international bestseller from France…

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I’ve decided to adopt Margueritte. She’ll be eighty-six any day now so there seemed no point putting it off. Old people have a tendency to die.

Our narrator, Germain, spends his days measuring trees with his hands, training to run for as long as possible, shooting tin cans with an air rifle, whittling wood to make animals and figurines and going to the park to count the pigeons. On the way to the park, he adds his name in capital letters to the war memorial. It’s repeatedly cleaned off and Germain gets a bollocking but he continues to do it.

One Monday at the park, he meets Margueritte, who’s sitting on a bench also counting the pigeons. They strike up a conversation.

I don’t often laugh when I’m with women. Not old women, at any rate.

It’s strange, I felt like we were friends, the two of us. Well, not really, but something quite like it. Since then, I’ve tracked down the work I needed: allies.

Germain’s not very intelligent. His mother has referred to him as a ‘halfwit’, ‘the retard’, ‘the idiot’ and ‘you stupid bastard’. She’s not a model parent. She wasn’t bothered whether he went to school or not, so he didn’t. Turned off by a primary school teacher who bullied and humiliated him: To be that much of a bastard takes talent, I think. Margueritte, however, has plenty of patience. As she and Germain begin to meet regularly on the bench in the park, she discovers he doesn’t like reading. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Margueritte has quietly resolved to turn the functionally illiterate Germain into a reader. She shares with him a short passage about pigeons from Camus’ The Plague and then…

“Would you like me to read you a few passages? I enjoy reading aloud and I so rarely have the opportunity. As I’m sure you understand, if I started to read aloud sitting here alone on my bench, I think people might start to worry about my sanity…”

I said:

“You’re absolutely right, they’d take you for a doddery old bat – no offence…”

[…]

Margueritte started to read, in her quiet, muffled voice. And then, maybe because she got caught up in the story, she started talking louder, and using different voices to let you know when there were different characters.

When you hear how brilliantly she does it, it doesn’t matter how unwilling or uninterested you are, it’s too late. You’re trapped. Or at least I was, that first time – I was knocked for six.

The précis for Soft in the Head made me think that the book might be too twee or syrupy for my taste but Germain’s voice, which is blunt and brash, and his back story, which Roger treats with a light touch but is really quite dark and upsetting, prevents it from being so. And really, what book lover could resist a tale of someone’s life changing when they’re taught to read in adulthood?

 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

 

 

Nina Is Not OK – Shappi Khorsandi

To drink to this level, to stay this fucked up, you need focus and determination and stacks of willpower. If it wasn’t so awful, I’d insist on a medal.

Seventeen-year-old Nina has a drink problem, although she’s not going to acknowledge it any time soon. We meet her being thrown out of a nightclub after giving a guy a blow job by the bar. She’s lost her friends but the guy and his mate come to look for her and walk her down the road to an alley. Sometime later, Nina’s in the back of a taxi.

I clutched my knickers in my hand. They were nice ones. Part of a set from Topshop. Thank God I’d retrieved them. I wanted to put them on but I couldn’t move. Why were my knickers in my hand? Did I fuck one of them? Both of them? Oh dear God no! Shit. No condoms. Not good. The gluey tang of spunk was in my hair.

It doesn’t occur to Nina that she’s been raped. When she returns home, her mum pulls her out of the taxi – alerted by the driver after Nina fell asleep and he couldn’t wake her. The following morning, Nina’s mortified at the thought of her six-year-old sister seeing her and her mum lectures her about her ‘party animal’ behaviour, comparing her to her dad who was also an alcoholic.

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Nina’s finding life particularly difficult of late after her boyfriend, Jamie, left to spend a year in Hong Kong with his dad. He went promising to message every day and then nothing. Eventually he let her know he’d met someone else. Nina’s not taking it well, sending emails to him that veer from total hatred to declarations of undying love. And then he posted pictures of himself and his new girlfriend on Facebook.

Beth had said, ‘Well, that’s a kick in the cunt.’ But it hadn’t been like that. It had been like a thousand kicks in the cunt and a giant fist around my heart squeezing until it burst, again and again and again.

Nina’s friend, Beth, is a feminist. She disagrees with Nina’s attempts to put Jamie’s new girlfriend down, refuses to let Nina be slut-shamed for giving a guy a blow job in a club, and thinks glossy magazines are ‘trash’. She’s a good foil for Nina’s thoughts about pretty much everything. Their other friend, Zoe, is completely gorgeous and really nice. That is until she begins dating Alex, the guy Zoe gave a blow job to.

Throughout the novel, Nina continues on a path of self-destruction, drinking more and more and sleeping with a range of guys in a variety of scenarios. Khorsandi writes without judging Nina although, of course, society has conditioned us to. It’s very difficult to read some of the situations Nina finds herself in and not blame her for failing to keep herself safe. Again, this societal construction wouldn’t apply if the sex of the protagonist were reversed and, as the novel progressed, I found myself increasingly angry at the men who didn’t acquire enthusiastic consent from Nina or, when they did, failed to give any consideration as to how intoxicated she was.

Khorsandi doesn’t shy from putting Nina in a whole range of plausible scenarios in terms of her abuse of alcohol, her sexual encounters, and the role that social media plays in teenagers’ lives. This is a complex, gripping look at a young woman struggling to come to terms with who she is and how society treats females who go against the virginal, nice girl stereotype they’re expected to conform to.

Khorsandi’s a comic so expect some laughs along the way too, although I found that some of the parts that were supposed to be funny – and a teenager would probably laugh at – I couldn’t find amusing: they were just too close to a reality that I find horrifying in my late 30s.

The book’s so compelling that I found myself having to finish reading it in a taxi queue at 1.15am following a trip on the last train home from London on which I usually fall asleep. I highly recommend it whatever age you are but I really think Nina Is Not OK should be handed out on Freshers’ Week and taught in schools as part of sexual consent classes. Not only is Nina Is Not OK a great read, it’s an important one too.

 

Thanks to Ebury for the review copy.

Uptown Thief – Aya de León

“If I was God, women would get paid to sit on our asses and think profound thoughts. We’d only fuck people who turned us on. But as long as the female ass out earns the female brain, there are gonna be sex workers who need our clinic.”

Marisol Rivera runs The María de la Vega Health Clinic for sex workers on Avenue C, downtown New York. She combines it with an escort service to help pay the mortgage. Money’s always tight so she’s found another interesting, lucrative and very much illegal way of covering the mortgage and paying her staff: robbing the safes of a group of CEOs (Chief Executive Officers). All of the CEOs are members of an organisation called Ivy Alpha, ‘the national men’s organization whose members are all Ivy League alumni and Fortune 500 CEOs’. Riveria’s grudge against them is due to a sex trafficking charge against the group which was ‘dropped despite several first-hand accounts by the women allegedly involved’. What better revenge than to have them bankroll a clinic for sex workers?

Marisol’s past includes a sexually and physically abusive uncle from whom she protected her younger sister, Cristina, and a period as a sex worker in order to pay the rent. In her twenties, ‘she spent two years as a mistress to a Fortune 500 VP named Campbell’. Bored, living in his apartment, she began to read the books in his library which mostly consisted of texts included on reading lists for MBA students. Marisol read them all and then taught herself how to crack his safe, for the thrill of it. Clearly both sets of skills have come in handy in her current life.

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In the first few chapters of the novel, three key things happen: firstly, Marisol returns from a heist to find a young girl, Dulce, outside her apartment. Prevented by her codirector, Eva, from admitting her on fire safety grounds, Marisol takes her to her apartment. It’s not long before Dulce’s pimp, Jerry, shows up, true to his word:

“He dumped me at the ER and said to come home when I could walk. There ain’t many places in the city a beat-down whore can go. He said he knew all of them and he’d be watching.”

Secondly, Marisol meets Raul, the brother of her best friend from high school. Raul’s an ex-cop but there’s something about him that gets under Marisol’s skin. Thirdly, she meets Jeremy VanDyke, a billionaire with a proposition for her.

Uptown Heist isn’t the sort of book I’d usually choose to read: it combines what should be an unbelievable heist plot alongside the stories of a range of sex workers and Marisol’s personal life. I agreed to read it because I’ve included Aya de León’s blog posts in my In the Media round-up and I think her pieces on feminism are interesting and thought-provoking. I’m glad I did; I was gripped throughout the whole book. This is a fast-paced tale, cinematic in style, with a clear vein of smart thinking with regards to women and sex – whether for work or pleasure.

Marisol doesn’t work alone, she surrounds herself with other intelligent women – Kim and Jody, who are a couple, and Tyesha, who’s studying for a Masters in Public Health. All three work as escorts in the service attached to the clinic but also as part of Marisol’s heist team. They acknowledge that they’re part of a patriarchal society that sees women as commodities and use this to their advantage. The book’s sex positive both with regards to the women’s choice to work as escorts and their personal sex lives. However, this doesn’t mean that de León avoids showing the other side of sex work, that which is controlled by men and can be unsafe in a range of ways.

Uptown Thief considers victims and villains, often contained within the same person. It raises questions about power and exploitation and the forms they come in. It asks whether women can carve a path through a patriarchal society for themselves and if there are men who can respect that. It’s pacy, dark, funny and empowering. If you’re looking for a summer read that’s smarter than your average crime cum romantic fiction cum sisterhood novel, Uptown Thief is your book.

 

Thanks to Kensington Books for the review copy.