Reading Round-Up: Ghosts of the Past

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is told from the perspective of teenage girl Silvie during the days she spends living in a recreation of an Iron Age settlement in Northumberland with her parents and a group of students, led by Professor Slade. Silvie’s dad is determined that things should be done authentically although he’s relented as far as pyjamas, underwear, toothpaste and tampons are concerned thanks to some intervention from Silvie’s mum. Silvie attempts to keep her dad happy but is drawn to the students and eventually joins them in sneaking to the Spar in the nearest village. As the book progresses, Silvie’s dad’s obsession with how they should be living becomes more and more rigid and the tension builds until a horrific act is committed. Moss uses the juxtaposition of contemporary society with Iron Age life to highlight themes of toxic masculinity and gender roles, questioning whether those men who conform to outdated stereotypes have a place in modern society. Ghost Wall is a superb book made all the more powerful by its brevity.

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.

Melmoth, Sarah Perry’s third novel, contains many stories connected by Melmoth, the loneliest being in the world. Perry’s Melmoth (as opposed to Charles Maturin’s in Melmoth the Wanderer) is a woman condemned to wander the world haunting those who’ve been complicit in acts of harm. We meet her at the point when Helen Franklin, whose story threads through the novel, is also about to see her. Helen, forty-two, a translator living alone in Prague, is given part of a written confession by the recently deceased J.A. Hoffman. Once Helen has read the portion of the story, she returns to her friend Karel’s house where other stories in the form of letters, a journal and a testimony are given to her. But the story which really haunts Helen Franklin is her own. Through these tales, Perry explores our complicity in the sins and atrocities committed in the world. As Melmoth bears witness to these acts so do we, and while the characters are haunted by Melmoth she too appears at the edge of our vision, forcing us to examine our own behaviour. Melmoth is a compelling, terrifying, overtly political examination of humanity. Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for some time/follow me on Twitter will be aware that I’m a huge fan of Perry’s previous novels After Me Comes the Flood and The Essex Serpent. When I reviewed Perry’s debut I said that I wished I’d written it, I feel similarly about Melmoth.

Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is told from multiple perspectives: two members of the same family – Jojo, a 13-year-old boy and his mother, Leonie – and the ghost of another boy, Richie. Jojo, baby Kayla, and their mother, Leonie, live with Leonie’s parents. Michael, Leonie’s white partner and father of the children, has been in prison for three years. He’s about to be released and the majority of the book covers the journey to and from the jail. Leonie is a drug user, as much addicted to the presence of her dead brother, Given, who appears to her when she’s high, as she is the substances themselves. She struggles to take care of her kids so Jojo watches over Kayla while Pop, Leonie’s father, watches over Jojo. Pop tells Jojo stories about his time in Parchman prison and a boy named Richie, the ghost of whom joins them when they arrive to collect Michael. Everyone is haunted in some way, not only by the dead who linger nearby but by the history of the treatment of black people in America. Ward shows how the effects of slavery permeate life today, focusing particularly on the intersection of race and class. Although this is the story of one family, it echoes the realities for many. It’s a heart-breaking and very necessary read.

Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel Unsheltered contains a dual narrative, set in Vineland, New Jersey. In the contemporary strand, Willa Knox and her family have moved into a house they’ve inherited following the closure of the college where her husband, Iano, taught and the loss of the house that came with the job. Iano’s dying father Nick is living with them and their seemingly wayward daughter, Tig, has recently returned from Cuba. In the first chapter of the novel, Willa discovers the house is structurally unsound and her son, Zeke, is left to raise a baby alone following his girlfriend’s death by suicide. Needing money for the repairs to the house in order to shelter her ailing family, Willa begins some research. In 1871, Thatcher Greenwood is attempting to introduce Charles Darwin’s latest ideas into his teaching, much to the chagrin of the school’s leader. His next-door neighbour, Mary Treat, is much more enthusiastic about his plans. A self-trained biologist, Treat conducts experiments in her living room and corresponds with Darwin himself. Delightfully, Treat is based on a real woman (and reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature of All Things). Kingsolver draws parallels between the two eras through fear of change and people’s reactions to it. Willa repeatedly states that her and Iano have done everything right: they had good jobs, they worked hard, they raised a family. They expect to have property, money and stability in their 50s but those things are gone. Halfway through the novel I became frustrated at what I perceived to be white people problems – if things are terrible for the white middle class then we’re all fucked, woe is them – but then I realised that Kingsolver knows her audience. She’s writing for the white middle class pointing out how they’ve contributed to the destruction of the environment, the rise of the far right, the tyranny of capitalism. She doesn’t leave them – or us – without hope though but it comes from what might appear to be an unexpected source: Millennials. Alongside Mary Treat, the most compelling character in the novel is Tig. Unconventional, attuned to the needs of society and the planet, she – and her friends – might just have the answers we need.

Thanks to Faber for the review copy.

In the Media: 17th August 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week 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. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

I’m all about the list this week as I’ve read three excellent ones:

Elsewhere, the Guardian’s been busy with some great pieces/podcasts:

While the best piece I’ve read about books this week comes from the Observer – Rachel Cooke on the rise of bibliomemoirs, focusing particularly on Phyllis Rose who wrote The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading after choosing a shelf in The New York Society Library and reading everything on it.

Have you read/listened to anything interesting that’s not on my list? Let me know in the comments.

The Awakening – Kate Chopin

28-year-old Edna Pontellier is married with two young children. We meet her in Grand Isle where she is staying for the summer. She returns from bathing with a young friend, Robert Lebrun, son of another resident of one of the cottages in which they are staying. He has a habit of attaching himself to one of the women each summer and is considered friendly and harmless.

However, Edna and Robert are not the first people we meet. In order to establish the dominance of Edna’s husband, the reader meets Mr Pontellier in the opening pages of the novel as he reads the financial news from the previous day. When Edna and Robert return to the cottage, he looks ‘…at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property…’. We are told shortly afterwards:

He thought it very discouraging that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation.

It becomes exceedingly clear as the novel progresses that the idea of Edna being the only thing he lives for is nonsense; the only thing Mr Pontellier really cares for is money and every decision Edna makes must not reflect badly on him and his investments.

But Edna’s view of life and her existence is changing.

A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her – the light which, showing the way, forbids it…Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.

She is already aware that she is not like other women when it comes to children – as is her husband who thinks that she ‘failed in her duty toward their children’, although he cannot provide examples to support his thoughts. Edna’s view of motherhood is highlighted through her friendship with Adèle Ratignolle who is beautiful, has had three babies in seven years and is discussing the possibility of a fourth.

…Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.

Chopin uses a swimming metaphor to demonstrate that Edna is ready to break from society’s (that is the patriarchy’s) expectations of her. She has spent the summer learning how to swim, eventually having daily lessons with Robert. Despite this, she is still fearful of the water until one evening when Robert suggests a late night bathe following a party:

But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water.

A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given to her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.

Although some parts of The Awakening might not be as controversial as they were in 1899 – a western woman leaving her husband does not provoke the same scandal today as it would previously – there are certainly strands which feel as relevant as ever.

The idea of motherhood and how women should feel about it is particularly pertinent. Following an interview with Christina Hendricks in last Sunday’s Observer, many news outlets reported the piece by choosing to focus on her comment that she and her husband have chosen not to have children; Cameron Diaz recently felt she had to declare she has no intention of procreating, and barely a week goes by without the latest on Jennifer Aniston’s apparent despair at her childless status.

It’s also still very evident that women are fighting to find their space in the world, to be recognised as individuals with achievements that don’t have to be qualified with or by an acknowledgement of their gender.

Barbara Kingsolver writes the introduction to the new Canongate edition of The Awakening. In it she talks about being a late arrival to the book, discovering it in her first year of college alongside ‘…a choir of renegade women writers…’. That comment alongside this one:

I am also reminded that fiction by and about men is called “literature”, but this novel and others by women are regularly sent to a shelf called “women’s lit,” and more than a few male readers remain as uniterested in that shelf as Mr. Pontillier was in his wife’s conversation.

made me think back to my undergraduate years where I took a module in American Literature. Over the course of the year we studied a number of American classic works – Bartleby the Scrivener, Leaves of Grass, The Scarlet Letter – but only one by a woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Where was The Awakening? Why, aged twenty, trying desperately to find my way, wondering why I was so angry about having young men tell me I was ‘scary’ because I had opinions, did someone not put this book in front of me? Why wasn’t it required reading for the course? I can only hope that the current wave of feminism and this excellent new edition places Kate Chopin and The Awakening where they belong: on the literary canon.

 

Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.

Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s one of those writers who I always feel I ought to have read. I’ve had a copy of The Poisonwood Bible in the house for goodness knows how long but it’s one of those books that, every now and then, I pick up, consider and, for whatever reason, decide it doesn’t quite take my fancy right now.

When my copy of Flight Behaviour arrived, I had two thoughts. The first was that it’s huge (433 pages) – I have issues with overlong novels – and the second was a worry that it’d be boring. Then I opened the first page:

A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and its one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-coloured hair who marched uphill to meet her demise. Innocence was no part of this. She knew her own recklessness and marveled, really, at how hard one little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of long disgrace. The shame and loss would infect her children too, that was the worst of it, in a town where everyone knew them. Even the teenage cashiers at the grocery would take an edge with her after this, clicking painted fingernails on the counter while she wrote her check, eyeing the oatmeal and frozen peas of an unhinged family and exchanging looks with the bag boy: She’s that one.

I was engaged and remained so for the next 432 pages.

Flight Behaviour is the story of Dellarobia Turnbow and how climate change changes her. She’s walking up that hill in the opening paragraph of the novel to meet her lover but, as she gets higher up the forest, she looks across and sees that the trees are on fire:

The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upwards in swirls like funnel clouds…

A forest fire, if that’s what it was, would roar. This consternation swept the mountain in perfect silence.

Dellarobia takes it as a sign, turns around and goes back to her children and husband.

Dellarobia’s married to Cub, a sheep farmer from Feathertown who works on his parents’ land – his and Dellarobia’s house is built upon it – and still does whatever his mother tells him to. Dellarobia’s frustration comes from his family’s attitude towards her:

“My family, is just, I guess, typical. They feel like a wife working outside the home is a reflection on the husband.”

Dellarobia was one of the few students in her year that was told to try out for college. She did but soon discovered she was pregnant and that was the end of that. We sympathise with her then when her frustrations with her life are channeled through crushes on other men – she swears that when we meet her marching up that hill is the only time she’s actually considered being unfaithful though.

However, when Cub reveals that his father is going to sell the forest for logging to cover debts racked up by the poor harvest the previous year, Dellarobia knows she must show them what’s on that hill and when the things that they discover lead to national press coverage, a team of scientists stationing themselves on their land and tourists visiting, she discovers she can change her life by herself.

Flight Behaviour is simply good storytelling. I say ‘simply’ because, of course, Kingsolver is experienced and skilled enough to make creating believable characters and a cracking story look simple. She covers themes of climate change, religion, small town sensibilities, family secrets, marriage and thwarted ambition without it ever feeling that her characters are merely cyphers or that we’re having her opinions spelt out to us. This is a book to get lost in.