Barkskins – Annie Proulx

“But there is no better subject than trees,” put in Harkiss. “For this timber family it is the bread and butter subject.”

Forgive me if I disagree with the first half of the above statement; I can think of a dozen better subjects without much effort. However, if you’d told me three weeks ago, when the Baileys Prize longlist was announced, that I’d thoroughly enjoy a 750 page novel about trees, I’d have laughed. But here we are.

Barkskins begins in 1693 with the arrival of René Sel and Charles Duquet in New France. Illiterate Sel has been employed by Monseiur Claude Trépagny to clear an area of forest. He’ll work for Trépagny for three years, allowing his master products from the land he clears, after which René will be entitled to his own patch of land in this newly conquered country. Duquet, ‘a scrawny engagé from the ship, weakling from the Paris slums who during the voyage often folded up in a corner like a broken stick’ is along for the same reason but has his eye on the fur trade as he believes that’s where the money is.

René begins to learn the land through Mari, a member of the Mi’kmaq First Nations people, who Trépagny lives with. When Trépagny’s treachery is revealed, René and Mari are forced to marry. They then raise a family whose story form one thread of the book.

Duquet’s descendants form the other. Early in the book, Duquet goes missing, “eaten by the loup-garou – forest spirits that had followed them from France – according to Trépagny. At the start of the second section of the novel, he’s discovered alive, although not at all well, by Odawa traders:

The mud had dried and to get at the man underneath they had to crack and break it away. They carried him to the river and soaked him in the waters until he emerged from his clay armour. They doubted he would live, but the Indian woman with them took his case in hand. In treating him she smelled the foul infection in his mouth. In her medicine bag she had a small wooden stick with a leather loop at the end. With this she removed his rotting teeth, gave him an infection fighting mouthwash and an opiate.

“Not die,” she said.

The voyageurs put him in their worn canoe and set out for a distant Ojibwa village to the northwest.

Duquet learns to read the water, learns the intricacies of the fur trade and learns to use a French tomahawk, giving himself an advantage over his musket using competitors.

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While the book is about colonisation – the behaviour of white Europeans and the effects on the First Nations peoples – not only in what we now know as Canada but also in North America, Australia and New Zealand, it is also about white European’s attitudes to the forest.

At the start of the novel, the forest René and Duquet find themselves in is vast:

“How big is this forest?” asked Duquet in his whinging treble voice. He was scarcely larger than a child.

“It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning. No one has ever seen its farthest dimension.”

While Duquet tries to settle on a sure-fire way to make his fortune, he contemplates the forest:

The forest was unimaginably vast and it replaced itself. It could supply timber and wood for ships, houses, warmth. The profits will come forever.

Duquet kidnaps a priest who teaches him to read and write, then following a trip to China, in which he believes the following, he sets up his own timber business:

Duquet thought it likely that the forests of China and France and Italy had been puny in their beginnings, he believed that the uniquely deep forests of the New World would endure. That was why men came to the unspoiled continent – for the mind-numbing abundance of virgin resources.

Despite clear signs to the contrary, this belief persists for many years.

It’s not only the forest which appears vast; covering 320 years, so does the scope of the book. Inevitably this comes with its own issues: there are too many characters, some die before the reader’s barely got to know them, at certain points there are just too many descendants for the reader to keep track of who’s who; sometimes events are skimmed over too quickly, at other points the detail of trees and business means the plot sags. However, not only is the work an admirable achievement, if you’re prepared to invest some time on it, it pays off.

As a whole, Barkskins is a fascinating story about two families which tells a significant portion of the history of the Western world and the damage that white Europeans inflicted across it. It’s a worthy addition to the Baileys Prize longlist and I wouldn’t bet against seeing it on the shortlist either.

 

Thanks to 4th Estate for the review copy.

 

 

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

Gustav Pearle lives with his mother, Emilie, in Matzlingen, Switzerland. His father, Erich, is dead. Emilie tells Gustav that his father was a hero and he died helping the Jews. As a result, Emilie dislikes Jews.

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Aged five in 1947, Gustav meets Anton Zwiebel at kindergarten. Gustav’s the only person able to stop Anton from crying; he does so by repeating his mother’s phrase that ‘you have to master yourself’. Gustav and Anton become firm friends and are soon spending time with each other outside of school. This disconcerts Emilie, not only because Anton and his family are Jewish but also because they are rich while she has fallen on hard times. She worries that Gustav will expect a certain type of lifestyle because he’s been exposed to it. At six, Anton is already a talented pianist:

There was so much that had been confusing about ‘The Linden Tree’ that Gustav almost wished Anton hadn’t played it. It wasn’t just the business about the notes sounding like rustling leaves (and yet they didn’t, not quite), or the sad man who was and was not there; it was the fact of Anton being able to play this complicated song. How could he have learned it? When?

And then Gustav had another thought which he found very disturbing. He imagined that at the very time when he and Emilie were on their hands and knees cleaning the Church of Sankt Johann, on Saturday mornings, Anton was with his piano teacher. He and Emilie were scrubbing and dusting and polishing while Anton was playing music by Schubert.

The novel’s divided into three sections: the first covers Gustav’s childhood, his friendship with Anton, Anton’s attempts to become a concert pianist, and Emilie’s illnesses both mental and physical. The second goes back in time and tells the story of Emilie and Erich’s relationship, and the third travels forward to Gustav and Anton’s middle age. What connects all three sections is love.

Tremain explores love in different forms: parent and child, friends, lovers, spouses, companions. What’s particularly interesting is the disparity between the picture Emilie paints of Erich and the revelation about his past behaviour. It raises questions about coping mechanisms for those who remain after someone close to them has died and very skilfully questions whether Erich’s heroism at helping Jews remain in Switzerland is compromised through his behaviour in his private life.

Some of the books on the longlist for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize have caused serious debate and disagreement between the shadow panel; The Gustav Sonata is one of those books – we’re absolutely split in terms of our opinions on it. For me, it never really came off the page. The issue here, I suspect, is mine: I’ve recently been reading and writing about women writing women and the number of books by women about women which go on to win major literary prizes. (See Nicola Griffith’s analysis of this.) I was frustrated then that this is largely a book about men; it would scrape through The Bechdel Test. It’s also a very measured book and I prefer something more high wire. For balance, therefore, I’ll direct you to my fellow shadow panel member, Eric, who had a very different reaction to me.

 

Thanks to Chatto and Windus for the review copy.

The Mare – Mary Gaitskill

Eleven-year-old Velvet takes part in the Fresh Air Fund summer scheme, two weeks staying ‘with rich white people’. She’s paired with forty-seven-year-old Ginger, an artist, married to a man she met in AA. The couple are considering adopting, although Ginger’s keener than Paul. Taking Velvet into their home is a trial to see what it’s like to have an older child around.

We called the organization and they sent us information, including a brochure of white kids and black kids holding flowers and smiling, of white adults hugging black kids and a slender black girl touching a white woolly sheep. It was sentimental and flattering to white vanity and manipulative as hell. It was also irresistible. It made you think the beautiful sentiments you pretend to believe in reality really might be true.

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Velvet soon becomes acquainted with the stables next door to Ginger’s house. There she takes a shine to Fugly Girl, the most dangerous horse in the yard. While there’s a clear parallel to be drawn between Fugly Girl’s behaviour and Velvet’s, the stable and Velvet’s subsequent ability as a rider is also used to highlight the difference in the attitudes of Ginger and Silvia, Velvet’s mother, to Velvet’s new hobby. Ginger is delighted and encourages Velvet, seeing it as a way to develop their relationship further, allowing Velvet to spend weekends with her and Paul. Silvia is adamant that Velvet can’t ride horses, she’s worried it’s too dangerous, a worry that both Ginger and Velvet ignore.

Silvia’s not the only person concerned, Paul also worries, but his fears are directed towards Ginger’s relationship with Velvet, to the need he sees in both of them, to the addiction that’s forming on Ginger’s side.

What Gaitskill does well with all of these elements is complicate them. Silvia appears to be a bad mother, she’s angry and abusive, belittling her daughter. But how much of what the reader understands about Silvia is lost in translation? She speaks Spanish and her words are almost always conveyed in English by her daughter, son or an independent translator. When Gaitskill does give us Silvia’s words directly, we see a woman worn down by her situation and a mother concerned about the effect Ginger’s influence is having on Velvet, about how it will prevent her fitting in to the community which she belongs.

Ginger also struggles to translate Velvet. She views her through a prism of idealism, even when there’s sufficient evidence to show Violet’s lying or being lazy or rude.

I was the adult. But I never knew from one moment to the next if I was or not. Being this kind of adult was like driving a car without breaks at night around hairpin turns. My body tensed and relaxed constantly. I was always nearly ruining dinner or forgetting to pick something up. I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to drink – really wanted to, for the first time in years. Was this what parenting was like, 24/7? My God, how did anyone do it? How did her mother do it, in a foreign country, in a bad neighbourhood where she didn’t speak the language?

The novel is largely told from Velvet and Ginger’s first person perspectives, in short chapters which run immediately on from each other. Gaitskill uses the structure to support her theme of people being unknowable, making it all the more interesting when the occasional chapter from the perspective of Paul or Silvia or Dante, Velvet’s younger brother, comes along.

The Mare explores themes of motherhood, race, class, addiction, marriage and love. It asks whether it’s possible to offer someone a different kind of life and whether it’s the right thing to do. It’s gripping, challenging and provocative. A gem.

 

Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.

In the Media, March 2017, Part One

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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This fortnight’s seen a number of prize lists announced. The big ones for women writers are the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist and the Stella Prize shortlist.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments on trans women have prompted a number of responses.

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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:

The Rules Do Not Apply – Ariel Levy

People have been telling me since I was a little girl that I was too fervent, too forceful, too much. I thought I had harnessed the power of my own strength and greed and love in a life that could contain it. But it has exploded.

You may be aware of Ariel Levy and, therefore, why this memoir is a big deal. Levy is a staff writer at The New Yorker and in 2013 wrote a piece called ‘Thanksgiving in Mongolia’. It’s one of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever read and went on to win the National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism in 2014. The Rules Do Not Apply grew out of that piece.

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Levy had it all: a great job, a wife, a baby on the way. And then she was left with just the job, her personal life in ruins. This is the story of how that happened.

Unpopular as a child because she preferred to pretend to be an explorer than play house. She was also ‘domineering, impatient, relentlessly verbal, and, as an only child, baffled by the mores of other kids’.

She loved books and became a journalist after deciding to write a story about a nightclub for obese women in Queens and presenting it to the editor at New York magazine where she was an assistant. The story gave her the focus for the journalism she wanted to produce:

I was writing about an unconventional kind of female life. What does it mean to be a woman? What are the rules? What are your options and encumbrances? I wanted to tell stories that answered, or at least asked, those questions.

If you’re looking for confidence, Levy has it by the bucket load.

But there was one area of life she was unsure about:

To becomes a mother, I feared, was to relinquish your status as the protagonist of your own life. Your question was answered, your freedom was gone, your path would calcify in front of you. And yet it still pulled at me. Being a professional explorer would become largely impossible if I had a child, but having a kid seemed in many ways like the wildest possible trip.

The Rules Do Not Apply combines three strands of Levy’s life: how her journalism evolved to the point where she was offered a position at The New Yorker; her marriage, including her wife’s alcoholism and Levy’s affair; the lengthy debate over whether or not to have a child and her subsequent pregnancy.

What’s most striking about the memoir is Levy’s apparent honesty; no one comes out looking great, least of all Levy herself. But this is not a misery memoir, rather it is the story of those women who ‘were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism – a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we would live, what would become of us’.

Levy’s aware of her own privilege but is stunned to discover that it won’t protect her from all of life’s sorrows and hardships. She is ill-equipped to deal with them and the memoir appears to be her attempt to come to terms with this. By writing her story, she wrests back control.

Daring to think that the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary. It’s also a symptom of narcissism.

Levy’s prose is crystal clear and never mawkish, although there are many points in her story where a lesser writer would’ve descended into the sentimental. What I found most interesting – and surprisingly endearing – is the degree to which Levy, the protagonist, could be described as ‘unlikeable’ (by people who are wont to do so). The quotation I headed the review with – that she was too much, even as a child – says more about society’s views of girls and, ultimately, women than it does about Levy herself. That she owns this, writes unabashedly about it, is a triumph of its own.

The Rules Do Not Apply is a gripping, multi-layered, non-fiction narrative about a woman coming to terms with the limits of her own agency. It’s a book that ought to contribute to a change in the way we view women.

 

Thanks to Fleet for the review copy.

The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso

Their rivalry was infamous enough for the other committee women to hang back and watch the show. It was known that the two women shared a hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages.

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino live in Katterijn, in the suburb of Constantia, Cape Town. Hortensia is the only black person living there. Her (white) husband, Peter, is dying. Their marriage long since descended into tolerance, Hortensia goes out walking, allowing her space to catch her breath and him the opportunity to take his last.

Marion lives next door. Both women are in their eighties and intolerant of each other.

‘So you see, Hortensia, this is not about your favourite topic, the race card. For once we’re on the same side.’ Marion’s smile looked set to burst and set the world alight.

‘Not so.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Not so, Marion. We are not on the same side. You should know this by now. Whatever you say, I disagree with. However you feel, I feel the opposite. At no point in anything are you and I on the same side. I don’t side with hypocrites.’

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Both women have problems they’re going to have to deal with: Marion’s husband spent all their money before he died. The debt collectors are close to taking their share but Marion has a painting she hasn’t declared and she needs somewhere to hide it. Would next door be the perfect place?

When Hortensia’s husband dies, a secret he’s been hiding for decades is revealed and Hortensia has to decide how she’s going to deal with it, what sort of person she wants to be.

Alongside both of these personal issues, the Katterijn committee discovers a land claim from a family called the Samsodiens, disenfranchised when the land Katterijn was eventually built on was given to a Dutch man, Von Struiker, who put a vineyard upon it. The claim puts their properties in jeopardy. The committee also receives a letter from a woman whose mother was a slave woman on the farm which stood where Hortensia’s house is now. She says the Silver Tree in Hortensia’s garden is where this woman’s children were buried and she wishes to be buried with them.

Omotoso takes the women’s stories both forwards and backwards; as events play out on the street, she fills in their backstories, showing the reader how they became the difficult, stubborn old women to whom we’ve been introduced. They have more in common than they’d like to believe, both successful in their own right before marriage and children or, in Hortensia’s case, the lack of them. Hortensia runs a highly successful haberdashery firm; Marion was an architect, ‘top of her class, a position she wrestled from a male student who not only found her presence in the school annoying, but her ambition and fierce competitiveness vulgar’.

This is where Marion’s real issues with Hortensia are revealed. Firstly, Marion’s racist; happy enough to hire a black maid but not to allow their children to play together or for any of them to use the same toilet. Secondly, the house Hortensia lives in was Marion’s first commission, the house she designed to her own spec, the house she put her heart into:

A house is a person, she’d argued, to the sound of guffaws from the rest of the class. But she’d pressed on and turned in her essay. What was house design if it wasn’t the study of armour, of disguises, of appearances? The most intimate form of space-making, the closest architects might ever come to portraiture.

By living in No. 10, Hortensia has pierced Marion’s armour, taken residency under her skin.

Omotoso looks at the trials life delivers these two women and how they shape the people they’ve become. Marriage, children, work, money, apartheid all play a part. For a book with a number of heavy themes, it’s very funny in parts; the two women play off each other, Omotoso making it clear at times that these women enjoy winding each other up, it’s something to do in their old age.

My only criticism of The Woman Next Door is that we’re given a little too much backstory. I would’ve preferred a little room to make my own connections between events, draw my own conclusions as to the effect events in the past had on the main characters. However, that doesn’t prevent the book from being an engaging read.

What particularly impressed me about The Woman Next Door was that it was about two elderly women – how often are they allowed to take centre stage? – who had forged big successful careers – one in a male dominated environment, who were allowed to be snarky and unpleasant. It’s everything we’re told the book industry won’t publish. Hurrah to Yewande Omotoso for writing it and to Chatto & Windus for publishing it. More, please.

 

Thanks to Chatto & Windus for the review copy.

Part of the Territory – Caroline Lea

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Last year, I reviewed Caroline Lea’s debut novel When the Sky Fell Apart, which looks at the occupation of Jersey in the Second World War. When Caroline appeared at Jersey Festival of Words, along with local historian, Ian Ronayne, it was the story of the women, of those accused of being collaborators, that really interested me. To celebrate the paperback publication of When the Sky Fell Apart, I’m delighted that Caroline’s written a guest post on women in the war.

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War is very often a male domain, or so history would have us believe.  The narratives about war—taught in schools and retold around tables—routinely focus on stories of male heroism and sacrifice.  But this is often not the case in occupied territories, where it is usually women who remain to resist the invading forces, however they can. The fight on domestic turf can be quieter; the strategies are more varied, but the struggle is just as heroic.

Jersey was occupied by German forces from June 1940 to May 1945. 12,000 soldiers invaded—for every four islanders, there was a gun-wielding German.  Many of the local men had joined up to fight on the mainland, so the population primarily comprised of those who were too old, too sick or too weak to fight. Women were plunged into caring for their children in a world that was horrifyingly unrecognisable. Food became scarce, and the familiar routines of domestic life were increasingly constrained by the occupying forces.

When I was writing WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, I was struck by the way in which the idea of collaboration (particularly when it involved women) was referred to with a sneering contempt and embarrassment. Sometimes, this was directed at instances of actual betrayal (anonymous letters, informing the Germans about illegal radios owned by neighbours, or extra rations in someone’s cellar), but often what has been condemned as ‘collaboration’ was far more nuanced. Many women accepted washing for the soldiers, or undertook other domestic tasks, in exchange for rations to feed themselves and their children. Other women formed relationships with Germans: sometimes from necessity, but often from a genuine emotional bond.  These women were labelled as ‘Jerry Bags’ and, even today, there is a certain degree of local shame about the women who betrayed their island by sleeping with the enemy. It is easy to apply our twenty-first century moral compass to these alliances and to roundly condemn them as unpatriotic, as acts of betrayal.  But to do so is to assume that we can empathise with the sense of powerlessness, fear and horror that these women must have endured on a daily basis. This is something I’ve thought about a lot since becoming a mother: I would do anything to feed my children. Anything.  And in war, the moral absolutes that dominate peacetime must become subject to our instinct for survival.

The idea of ‘collaboration’ as a dirty little word, focussed on dirty little relationships, also ignores the fact that many of the women fell in love.  They were isolated and afraid, and had no idea when—if ever—the Occupation would end, and, contrary to expectations, many of the German soldiers were not evil or monstrous.  In WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, Edith describes them as just boys. Boys with guns. In many cases, the soldiers were almost as lonely and hungry and frightened as the islanders themselves. There is a harrowing true account of a woman who sheltered her German lover when he decided that he would no longer be part of the army.  When they were discovered, he was put in front of a firing squad and she was shipped to a concentration camp. As the soldier was led out to face the bullets, his lover could be heard sobbing as she waved her handkerchief from her cell window.  Her behaviour was roundly condemned, with much of the criticism focussed on her lack of sexual morals.  Indeed, it seems to be women’s sexual behaviour in times of war that summons the most contradictory of responses: war often sees women being used as sexual objects—part of the victory ‘booty’, and yet, women who willingly engage in sexual relationships are vilified.

The narrative of occupation, as we have seen it enacted time and again—from the expansion of the Roman Empire, to the current war in Syria, from the systematic rape of women in Berlin in 1945, to Boko Haram’s deliberate use of girls as sex slaves—is that women are conquered as part of the territory. Their homes are seized; their bodies are possessed. The conquering army’s ‘right’ to rape local women is a tragic and horrifying consequence of invasion. And, hideously, reportage and history seem to provide us with two opposing archetypes for sexual interactions with women in occupied territories: the woman is either judged to be an unwilling victim or a wilful whore.

Perhaps one of the more disturbing aspects of this dichotomy is the way in which these denigrations of sexual behaviour often involve women passing judgement on each other—a common problem both in and out of war zones. The concept of ‘slut-shaming’ is a familiar beast in the modern media, but it is particularly tragic when the same attitude seeps through the consciousness of societies that have been systematically occupied and oppressed. Surely times of hardship should encourage female solidarity, not create a breeding ground for a particularly virulent form of misogyny? In France, after WWII, women who’d had relationships with German soldiers were stripped in the streets, their heads shaved before they were tarred and feathered. After the occupying forces left Jersey, the ‘Jerry Bags’ faced similarly harsh treatment, as well as social exclusion—small communities run on rumours, and the gossip machine turned these women into social pariahs.

Our judgment over women’s behaviour, clothing and sexual mores is deeply embedded into our psyche; it is entrenched within our language.  I spent many years as an English teacher and worked with some wonderful young people: they were intelligent, curious and, in many cases, keen to challenge their own prejudices. Yet still, the older boys would berate each other’s sexual behaviour with the term ‘man-whore’ or ‘man-slut’. The ‘insult’ was delivered with grudging, arm-punching respect, and with a total lack of recognition for the way in which, for a woman, the term ‘slut’ is impossible to separate from its shameful roots.  The difference, as I explained to the boys time and again (much to their delight, I am sure), is the question of women’s ownership of their bodies: if a woman enjoys and freely engages in sex, she is ‘giving’ her body away—she is cheap, dirty, damaged. Perhaps she is a ‘slut’ because she is emotionally scarred in some way—what else could possibly lead a woman to want to devalue herself so? But this is the problem: we still see women’s bodies as objects of value, to be taken or given or exchanged or possessed. Men are the purchasers, the possessors who set our price. And this is seen clearly in war, where women, devastatingly, are still part of the conquered land, and are taken and owned along with the territory. In WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, Edith, describes how the island is in her blood. I was conscious of creating a female character who felt inextricably tied to the landscape, because so many women are. In many war-torn countries, women are unable to leave their homes, and so they, too, are occupied.

And this is just as true now, in the twenty-first century, as it has been for hundreds of years We can attempt to convince ourselves that we are enlightened, that women have been empowered by a modern transformation of social values, but we don’t have to look very far to see the ways in which, even outside of war zones, women’s bodies still provide the landscape for political and moral battles.  The rise of Islamophobia has found a convenient focus in the form of condemnations of the burqa. The question of whether women should be allowed to wear something that conceals their bodies has been met with violent opposition.  In some cases, this antagonism has taken on the form of women’s head coverings being ripped from them.  Defenders of this violent (and violating) action argue that women who choose to wear the burqa are being oppressed, and that the concealment of the woman’s body is somehow offensive. The irony: that we live in a culture where the sexualisation and objectification of women’s bodies is the norm, yet a woman’s choice to conceal her body somehow makes her morally repugnant.

Unfortunately, this use of women’s bodies as the landscape for battles doesn’t seem to be losing momentum in the current political climate. Donald Trump’s recent attempts to place constraints on overseas funding for birth control also reveals a disturbing trend, whereby male power-struggles can be executed on the territory of women’s bodies. The message is clear: women’s bodies, their minds and their choices are canvases for political point-scoring.

While writing WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, I was surprised by how many relevant and pertinent issues it raised: I had assumed, I think, that seventy-five years would be a large enough gap for the concerns faced by the islanders to seem very much in the past.  But, as I wrote, I thought again about how times and beliefs might change, but human behaviour and emotions often remain the same.  We will always fall in love, sacrifice ourselves for others or betray them; we will always find that the world around us conflicts with our inner values.  And I think this is one of the things which makes writing (and reading) historical fiction feel so rewarding: the past helps us to hold up a mirror to the who we are today, and reflects the myriad possibilities of the people we might become.  For the sake of my nieces and my sons, I hope our treatment and judgement of women’s bodies is something that can change.

Thanks to Caroline Lea for the guest post.

 

Dorthe Nors: We’re constantly telling these myths about femininity and about womanhood that keep biting us in the tush.

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Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is Dorthe Nors’ fourth novel but the first to be translated from her native Danish into English (by Misha Hoekstra), following the success of her short story collection Karate Chop and the novella Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. 

In Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, Sonja, a woman over 40, translator of misogynistic Swedish crime writer Gösta Svensson, decides to learn to drive. Her driving instructor won’t let her change the gears, her masseur treats her like a therapy client, her sister won’t speak to her and she spends a lot of time daydreaming about the farm that was her childhood home.

“Your buttocks are hard,” Ellen says. “That’s because, if you’ll pardon a vulgar phrase, you’re a tight-ass with your feelings. An emotional tight-ass, a tight fisted tightwad. Can’t you hear how everything’s right there in the words?”

With the job Sonja has, that’s something she knows quite well. Language is powerful, almost magic, and the smallest alteration can elevate a sentence or be its undoing.

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I spoke to Dorthe Nors about the novel by telephone last week. Here’s what we discussed…

Sonja, a middle-aged woman, decides to learn to drive. The idea of someone deciding to do so at that age is quite unusual. Where did the idea come from?

It came from the idea that it’s not unusual in Copenhagen. Most people my age, I’m 46, will not have a driver’s licence because they’ve been living in big cities all their lives. Therefore, there’s no need to have a licence. Most of the friends I had when I lived in Copenhagen did not have a driver’s licence. But then I started craving one and started contemplating getting one because I needed the freedom. I didn’t want to live in Copenhagen anymore. I wanted to move out of the city, move into the landscape, move away, but the only way I could do that was if I had a driver’s licence. That whole idea about being stuck unless you liberate yourself by controlling a vehicle was interesting. But it’s not unusual, it’s quite usual. Most times when I’m out doing readings about this people will come up to me afterwards and say, ‘I don’t have a licence, I’m so scared that I won’t be able to take it’. Middle aged men and women who don’t drive.

It’s interesting that Sonja wants to move somewhere but her driving instructor doesn’t allow her to do the gears. She gets stuck and has to change instructors before she can move any further forward.

I always write about existential structures. This is rule number one about my writing. Everything that goes on in that car mirrors an existentialist idea. The one thing that happens when you put yourself in that predicament is that you deposit your free will with the driving instructor because you can’t drive that car and in order not to kill anyone while you’re driving around, the responsibility of the whole situation is put with the driving instructor. So you deposit your free will with this person, who might not be a very nice person but who has the responsibility of the car. And what happens when people deposit their free will is that they also deposit their right to say, ‘Shut up and let me drive’. It’s a psychological dilemma. It takes a while until Sonja builds herself up to take back that freedom and say to her boss that she wants a new driving instructor.

That’s really interesting and links nicely, I think, to the piece you wrote for Literary Hub last year about invisible women and the idea that, particularly if you’re childfree, you become invisible at a certain age. I’m interested in what draws you to that idea.

There are some myths about women in general and we’re completely stuck with them. For instance, you said to me, that’s very unusual that people don’t know how to drive when they’re 40 and no, it’s not. For instance, that’s very unusual that women don’t have children. I go, no it’s not. There are a lot of women out there who don’t have children but we’re not supposed to talk about that. We’re not supposed to talk about how they might have chosen that for themselves. Why they might actually have selected the option of not having children. We’re constantly telling these myths about femininity and about womanhood that keep biting us in the tush. I know a lot of women who don’t have children. I’m middle aged now and at one point I suddenly found out that there’s a lot of liberty from not having children but when you add to that that you’re no longer young and sexy, you sort of disappear. It’s like you become transparent. That was the idea I wrote on. If I had had kids, these structures still make me visible to the world but I don’t have children so the only thing I have that makes me visible is my being, as such. I love to investigate these things. I also do that in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and in two of my other books where I try to figure out what is a woman. If we take all these typecast roles that we’re supposed to play, if we take them away, what is a woman then?

Along these ideas of myths that we make about women, there’s been a lot of discussion in the last few years about unlikeable female characters. I find this really frustrating, particularly the idea that we should all be likeable and then we fit into a box and do as we’re told. I’m interested in what your stance in the debate is and how you feel about likeability in relation to your own characters, particularly as I think there’s something unlikeable about most of the women in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal.

I completely agree with you. I mean, what bullshit is that to say that women are supposed to be likeable? We’re supposed to be typecast into some patriarchal system that we’re supposed to sound like that, look like that, be like that? We’re full blown existences. We do all kinds of crappy things. We’re not always nice to each other. We have weird ideas, we manipulate, we drop ourselves on the floor. We’re full blown human beings. Of course, we will be incredibly annoying at times. But what I tried to add to that in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a sort of compassion for that so that even the annoying women in this book are sheltered by a kind of love and care for them; a way of understanding them and also understanding the structures that created them. In this book it’s some quite political structures that are sketched out in the background. For instance, Jytte, the driving instructor, she’s been forced to leave the rural area. Her destiny has been to better herself through urbanisation and that has not left her in a good place. The same with Molly. All these women have tried to better themselves, to gain more status in life from moving to the cities and they’ve not turned out well.

Linked with that, Sonja’s quite nostalgic for where she came from but it doesn’t exist anymore. I wondered whether you were linking that to current society or whether it’s the thing that’s within us all that it’s what we desire when things aren’t going particularly well?

I think it’s double. There’s this existential thing that you can never return to a place that you have left. You can’t, it’s not possible; you’re not the same anymore and the place that you left is also changed. It’s an existential rule, it’s a rule that we all have to abide. The other thing is, for instance, in Denmark, which is a small country and we have one big city, which is Copenhagen, throughout the last twenty-five to fifty years, everything has been centralised and people have moved to Copenhagen and left the rural areas and, therefore, there are no schools in the rural areas, there are no hospitals, there are no jobs for the women. People keep on drifting from these areas. That means there’s a big decay in some rural areas in Denmark. It’s also a literal thing; the place Sonja came from doesn’t exist anymore, not in the form that she knew it. There is no grocery store, no butcher, no school, nothing. If she wanted to move back, there would not be a job for her because they closed down all the stuff that women are going to work with in these areas. All the women can’t live out there because there are no jobs for them. She wouldn’t be able to go home.

I’m interested in the fact you write in English as well as Danish. When your fiction’s translated into English, do you work with your translator because you understand the language?

Yes, we work very closely together. His name is Misha Hoekstra. He’s American and he lives in Denmark. We send it back and forth. The only thing he translates primarily is my fiction because I still prefer to write that in my mother tongue but essays and articles and other stuff, for instance the Lit Hub piece, I wrote directly in English. I’m toying with trying to write fiction in English, that could be quite challenging, quite interesting to try. Perhaps one day, who knows.

It’s something Jhumpa Lahiri’s done recently; she learnt Italian and then wrote in it.

Yes, and Yiyun Li, the American-Chinese writer who completely denounced her mother tongue. There’s an essay in The New Yorker about that, ‘To Speak Is to Blunder’, it’s amazing. But I’m not quite there yet.

I’m interested in something you said in your essay ‘A Wolf in Jutland’. When you talk about a writer needing to be familiar with the literature of her own country. Do you feel your work’s in dialogue with other Danish work?

Yes, I do. I think you will always be part of the culture you’re trained in, schooled in. I would say I belong to a minimalist tradition which is very contemporary Danish. I studied literature at university but my primary focus was Swedish literature. There’s a lot of Swedish literature in there.

What’s the difference?

The difference is that the Danish minimalism is not too keen on staring too long into darkness. It’s more playful. It’s a stylistic playfulness. The Swedish tradition, I just have to say Ingmar Bergman. They’re not very funny but they’re really really good at looking into the existential abyss. They’re really good at looking at psychological structures and sticking to them and observing them and describing them. That has my interest more than anything else. I’m completely interested in human behaviour in existential structures and psychology and what happens when we’re under pressure. That’s not that normal in Danish literature. But the minimalism is very Danish.

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

Good question. It changes through life, I would say. There are some writers that really mean a lot to you in your twenties and then some in your thirties. In my twenties, my favourite writer was a Swedish writer called Kerstin Ekman. Right now it’s an American writer called Claudia Rankine; I love her. Flannery O’Connor is also one of my favourites.

Thanks to Dorthe Nors and Pushkin Press for the interview and review copy.

5 Graphic novels for International Women’s Day

Giveaway now closed.

iwd-logo-landscapeeps

Happy International Women’s Day. Hurrah for all the brilliant women out there, yes, that includes you. To help celebrate the day, I’ve gone against convention and invited a man on the blog. I know, it’s outrageous. What happened was this: Will Rycroft, the brilliant Community Manager at Vintage Books, who some of you will know from the Vintage Vlog, suggested we do a vlog for International Women’s Day. So we did and you can watch it here. On it, I recommend to Will five fantastic books by women writers from marginalised backgrounds. In return, I asked Will for a recommendation or two as well…

Before we even start, this post isn’t ‘Will mansplains graphic novels’! When I was chatting with Naomi about International Women’s Day she pointed out that in her reading of female authors she had a small blind spot: graphic novels and this got me excited. I love graphic novels and if there’s one thing worth celebrating in the world of graphic novels it’s the fact that female writers are producing some of the most fantastic work and that the UK in particular has several female artists worth getting very excited about. Choosing just five books to put before you today was tough, there are so many that I’d like to mention, but I hope this selection gives a nice variety of tone and style and will introduce you to authors you may not have read before. It goes without saying (although here I am saying it) that Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is a graphic novel classic that would fit the bill here but after Emma Watson chose it for Our Shared Shelf, her feminist book club, I figured it’s one you may have read already. But if you haven’t, then you must, it’s brilliant.

Heathcote

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette
Bryan Talbot, Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

Bryan Talbot is the godfather of the British graphic novel scene and, working together with his wife, Mary, has been producing graphic biographies or histories to tell the stories of lesser-known figures. Sally Heathcote may be fictional but she meets plenty of the real figures from the Suffragette movement in this book which puts you right in the entre of women’s fight for equality. You can hear the authors talking about the book in this edition of the Vintage Podcast.

Fun Home

Fun Home
Alison Bechdel

You may recognise the name Bechdel from the Bechdel Test, which a movie only passes if it features two female characters having a conversation about something other than a man – as featured in her comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For below.

Bechdel Test

Given that, it may seem strange to highlight this graphic memoir about her father but Fun Home is a brilliant exploration of family dynamics, homosexuality and the literature that makes us. For anyone struggling to tell their family or others about their own sexuality this is a must read. And if you love it then there’s her follow-up, Are You My Mother?, to enjoy afterwards, telling the other side of the family story.

Hero

The One Hundred Nights of Hero
Isabel Greenberg

There is nothing not to like about this wonderful feminist fairy tale. Beautifully illustrated and featuring the story of two women united in their love for each other, for storytelling, and their resilience against the plotting of dastardly men, it’s a joy from first page to last. Absolutely perfect for YA readers too; it takes its inspiration from Scheherazade and the storytelling of 1001 Nights to weave a patchwork that involves love in many forms but perhaps most strongly that of female friendship.

Modan

The Property
Rutu Modan (trans. Jessica Cohen)

Some people don’t like the term graphic novel, it sounds a bit pretentious, but sometimes a graphic work contains exactly the kind of complexity that you would expect to find in a traditional novel. This book does exactly that whilst also retaining a simplicity of style that makes it easy to enjoy. A woman travels to Warsaw with her grandmother to reclaim a property lost during WWII. There’s humour to be had with officious bureaucracy and meddlesome relatives but there is also a touching secret from the past, as well as a burgeoning relationship for our young narrator. To bring such a light touch to important themes and history marks Modan out as a uniquely skilful artist and writer.

Thesis

Notes on a Thesis
Tiphaine Rivière (trans, Francesca Barrie)

If you have ever struggled to hand in an assignment, dissertation or even just your tax return on time then you are going to cringe in recognition when reading this hilarious and painful tale of one woman aiming for a PhD. Beginning with enthusiasm but slowly bending under the weight, the labour and the obstacles of modern academia, we follow our heroine as she desperately tries to complete her work on Kafka. Almost everyone will recognise their own struggles here and it’s the kind of book that may make you laugh and cry in equal measure.

All five of these books feature in this article, which also highlights five more classic feminist texts.

A huge thanks to Will for introducing me – and maybe you too – to these five graphic novels. I’ve been reading my way through them and they’re absolutely wonderful. Although, Notes on A Thesis is so accurate, I had to have a lie down in a darkened room after reading it.

But that’s not all…Vintage have kindly given me a copy of each of these five graphic novels to give away. To win, all you have to do is leave a comment below saying which graphic novel you’d like to win and why. You can enter for more than one book if you wish. The giveaway is U.K. only (sorry) and will close at 5pm U.K. time on Sunday 12th March. Winners will be chosen at random and notified via email.

Giveaway winners

I allocated everyone a number, in order of posting, for each book they asked to be considered for and put them through a random number generator, which came up with the following winners:

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette – Anarmchairbythesea
Fun House – yatiekates
The One Hundred Nights of Hero – snoakes7001
The Property – Rebecca Foster
Notes on a Thesis – Joseph

Congratulations to all the winners; check your email for what to do next. Thank you to everyone who entered, I hope you discovered something new and wonderful to read regardless.

Thanks to Will and Vintage Books for the guest post and the giveaway.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017


It’s after midnight and I’m on a train, typing this on my phone. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017 has just been announced and my initial thought is: wow.

Wow that books I loved and hoped would be on the list are there: Midwinter by Fiona Melrose; The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry; The Power by Naomi Alderman; Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyo; First Love by Gwendoline Riley; The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride; Little Deaths by Emma Flint.

Wow that I predicted seven of the list – my highest score ever.

Wow that there are 16 books, rather than the promised 12. It shows that the past 12 months have been exceptional for writing by women. However, with just over three weeks until the shortlist announcement, it does make things challenging for the Shadow Panel.

And wow that Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi isn’t on the list. Every year this prize misses an exceptional book and this is a stunning omission, made all the more noticeable when there are only three books by women of colour on a list of sixteen.

The list in full. I’ve linked to my reviews for those I’ve already covered and will add to this as I read the rest:

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyo

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeline Thein

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

The Mare – Mary Gaitskill

Barkskins – Annie Proulx

The Power – Naomi Alderman

Little Deaths – Emma Flint

The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso

Hagseed – Margaret Atwood

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan