The Booker Prize Longlist 2020

For the first time, I’ve read (almost) all the books by womxn on the Booker Prize longlist. Almost because I haven’t read Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light. The reason for this is purely because I have the other two parts of the trilogy in paperback, so I’ll be buying and reading part three next year (I assume, there’s no listing for it at the moment) when I might also treat you to my rant about publishers who change cover designs during the publication of a series.

As for Mantel’s potential third successive Booker win, which dominated initial coverage of the longlist, I’m all for it. I think amongst Mantel’s recent success, it’s been forgotten that Mantel is (1) a womxn, (2) from a working-class background, who (3) wrote nine novels, a short story collection and a memoir, all of which are excellent and were largely ignored by the big prizes until she (4) wrote a big, historical fiction novel about a man in Tudor England. If it was a male writer up for a historic third win, I wouldn’t have to spell out why he was worthy. Anyway, having read all the other novels by womxn on the longlist, I don’t think Mantel’s got in the bag at all; there are some superb books here.

What’s interesting about the longlist are the number of novels which tell stories that have been hidden or remained unpublished. Not only the historical fiction of The Shadow King and How Much of These Hills Is Gold but also Burnt Sugar and its mother/daughter relationship, and Such a Fun Age with its young, Black female protagonist who just wants to live her life. There’s also significant consideration of how societies are organised and how we choose (or are forced) to live. Plenty of calls for urgent change here.

It’s the first time I’ve felt compelled to read of all the books by womxn on the Booker Prize longlist and it was a joy. This year has highlighted a list of gems, all of which are very much worth reading.

The New Wilderness – Diane Cook (Oneworld)

Somewhere in the not too distant future, Bea’s daughter Agnes is ill. When a doctor suggests that moving out of the smog-ridden, overcrowded, filthy city might be the answer, Bea allows her husband Glen’s dream to come true. Glen wants to be part of a study that involves living in the Wilderness, a refuge for wildlife. Twenty people are placed in the last wilderness area left, given a Manual on how to behave, and allowed semi-regular contact with the Rangers, including distribution of mail from friends and family.

The novel begins at a point where the Community have already spent several years living in this terrain. Although they claim to do everything by consensus, leaders have emerged, relationships have strengthened and strained, and some of their number are dead. The Rangers tell them they’ve camped too long at one particular spot and send them on a route they’ve never crossed before. 

The world Cook creates in The New Wilderness is a microcosm of society. There’s a clear hierarchy from the Administration to the Private Lands (which may or may not exist) to the Rangers to the Community to those living in the city. The rules might be bullshit and are a contradiction to living life in what’s supposed to be a wilderness, highlighting that all rules are created by societies to keep people in their places. There’s also some fetishisation of consumer goods that the Community are supposed to have relinquished.

Alongside this, Cook uses the relationship between Bea and Agnes to look at mothers and daughters. As Agnes grows in age and confidence, their relationship becomes more complex and more challenging. Bea doesn’t agree that she’d do anything for her daughter – moving to the Wilderness has pretty much cost Bea her relationship with her own mother – and isn’t sure she’s doing the right thing anymore. 

There’s a good narrative pace to the book and enough intrigue to propel the reader through it, as well as some interesting characters and set pieces. A good debut. 

This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber)

The question of who can, and who cannot, who does and who does not succeed, returns to echo ominously, bringing bitterness back into your soul.

Tambudzai’s life is not going well. In her 30s, she’s unemployed and living in a hostel. The woman who runs the hostel wants to throw Tambudzai out for being too old, concerned she’ll lose her license. Tambu finds a room in a big house run by a widow, which is deteriorating, and plans to marry one of the widow’s sons. Eventually she’s offered a job as a project manager that comes with accommodation, working for Green Jacaranda Getaway Safaris, a start-up dealing in environmentally friendly entrepreneurship solutions

What connects each of these moments in Tambu’s life are the structural issues which consistently prevent her from progressing, despite having been educated at a white school, gaining a university degree and doing what she sees as playing by the rules, even when it means ignoring others in danger. There’s a horrific scene near the start of the novel where Tambu watches her hostelmate Gertrude as she’s attacked and has her skirt ripped off. 

‘Tambu,’ she whispers, singling you out.
Her mouth is a pit. She is pulling you in. You do not want her to entomb you.

This isn’t the only moment of violence against women; there are several, both physical and emotional. 

The novel’s set during the time that Mugabe was redistributing farming lands controlled by whites to landless Black Zimbabweans. The white people in the novel are mostly represented by Tracey Stephenson, who was Tambu’s rival at school and later her boss at an advertising agency – where the white workers claimed Tambu’s work as their own – and then at Green Jacaranda, which Tracey runs. It doesn’t matter what Tambu does or where she goes, she can’t escape Tracey and will never rise above her. Tracey complains about her own disempowerment while constantly working to ensure that Tambu is kept in her place.

Dangarembga writes the novel in second person. This serves to distance Tambudzai from herself and her decisions; she can’t face what she’s doing in order to try and create a better life for herself – she’s educated, it shouldn’t be this hard and, of course, it wouldn’t be if she wasn’t a Black woman. It also makes the reader complicit, which is interesting, and I suspect will work differently on each reader depending on their race, gender and class. It makes for a sometimes uncomfortable reading experience, which is entirely the point. 

On a sentence level too, the writing is superb. The book begins There is a fish in the mirror. It’s metaphorical, a representation of Tambu’s face at that point, but it serves to disorientate us and to introduce a number of animal metaphors, including frequent use of snakes, to show Tambu’s emotional and physical state. 

This Mournable Body is the final book in a trilogy that began with Nervous Conditions. I haven’t read the earlier books and, while I’m sure I’ve missed things I’m unaware of, that didn’t affect my reading of this novel. I could easily write an essay on the issues Dangarembga considers in this book alone. If I was awarding this year’s prize, this would be my winner. This Mournable Body is a masterpiece.

Burnt Sugar – Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton)

There was a breakdown somewhere about what we were to one another, as though one of us were not holding up her part of the bargain, her side of the bridge. Maybe the problem is that we are standing on the same side, looking out into the emptiness. Maybe we were hungry for the same things, the sum of us only doubled that feeling. 

Antara’s mother, Tara, has dementia; she wanders around at night, asks Antara to phone people who are dead, and eventually doesn’t recognise Antara at all. They have a complex, antagonist relationship. When Antara was small, her mother left her husband, Antara’s father, because she felt stifled in his parents’ home, and joined an ashram. Run by a guru who promoted free love and took some of the women as his lovers before casting them off, Antara was neglected by her mother, instead becoming close to a woman called Kali Mata. Now, Antara seems to want a conventional life; she’s married and has discussed the possibility of children with her husband. However, she works as an artist; her most recent project being one in which she copied the face of a man over and over again.

The damage Antara’s mother rendered has left Antara in a position where she both loves and hates her mother. She wants to take care of her as she deteriorates, while also wanting to hurt her. It’s deliberately unclear whether some of Antara’s actions are because she wants the thing she is pursuing or because she knows it will hurt her mother; perhaps that she’s her mother’s daughter makes any distinction impossible. 

The epigraph to the book is a quotation from Lidia Yuknavitch’s superb memoir The Chronology of Water. Yuknavitch is one my favourite writers so I figured I was in for a treat as soon as I opened Burnt Sugar and I was right. Doshi’s depiction of Tara and Antara’s relationship shows how complex, interdependent and toxic the mother/daughter dynamic can be. There are few good portrayals of this type of motherhood in literature; it’s refreshing to see another excellent one. 

The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste (Canongate)

These aren’t the days to pretend you’re only a wife or a sister or a mother, she says. We’re more than this.

Set during the Second Italo-Ethiopian war, The Shadow King, tells the story of Hirut, a servant working for the landowner and soldier, Kidane, and his wife Aster. Kidane took Hirut in when her parents died and his interest in her provokes jealousy from Aster, who is grieving the death of their child. Beginning in a claustrophobic domestic setting, the scope of the novel widens when the Italians invade Ethiopia. It’s clear early on that neither Hirut nor Aster will be content with supporting the men as they wage war; Hirut is furious when Kidane takes the gun her father gave her and donates it to the cause, and – in a superb set piece – as Empress Menen gives a speech calling on women to ‘express their solidarity’ against acts of war, Aster dresses in her father-in-law’s uniform; A woman dressed as a warrier, looking as fierce as any man

The narrative roves between a number of other characters including Ettore Navarra, a Jewish-Italian photographer; Ferres, a highly educated, expensive sex-worker and spy; Carlo Fucelli, leader of the Italian invasion, and Haile Selassie, initially in Addis Ababa and then in exile in Bath, England. There is also a chorus which comments and advises. Their appearance works alongside increasing references to Greek mythology, as the behaviour of some of the characters echoes those from the epic journeys. This movement is skilfully done, creating an engaging picture of the various battles – physical and psychological – that take place.

The novel’s title refers to an incident at the centre of the book where Hirut recognises the similarity between a peasant musician called Minim (‘nothing’) and Haile Selassie. In order to motivate and encourage the soldiers, Aster and Hirut dress Minim and train him to act like the emperor. Hirut becomes his guard. This isn’t the only shadow over the story though; many of the characters act in particular ways due to stories, advice and traits that have been passed down to them. Mengiste shows how ideas of masculinity and femininity are moulded in this way and the damage these gender constructs wield. She also considers how Ettore’s family have been forced to create a narrative and a different life due to anti-semitism and the impact this has on him when he’s seen as other in all the contexts he’s placed in.

Huge in scope and ambition, The Shadow King is an absorbing narrative through which Mengiste writes back into history the presence of female soldiers (including her own great-grandmother) in the Second Italo-Ethiopian war. A triumph. 

Such a Fun Age – Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury)

Emira, a young Black woman, is months away from her 26th birthday and the loss of parental health insurance cover. She works two part-time jobs as a typist for The Green Party and as a babysitter for a wealthy white couple. She’s at a friend’s birthday party when the couple call her for emergency cover while the police deal with an incident at their house. Emira takes two-year-old Briar to Market Depot to distract her. A middle-aged white woman tells the security guard there’s something suspicious about Emira, out late at night dressed for a party holding a white child, and the security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar. The incident is filmed by a white man who later agrees to delete the video after emailing a copy to Emira.

What unfolds is a story of white people attempting to out-woke each other while ignoring the wishes of the young Black woman they think they’re trying to protect. Emira’s boss Alix wants to befriend Emira and make her part of the family, while the man Emira dates – Kelley Copeland, who is also the man who filmed the video – seems to fetishise Black people. However, this is as much a tale of class as it is race; Emira is the first in her family to gain a degree, but at 25 she doesn’t earn enough to have benefits included in her work package. In various ways, Emira’s friends, Alix, Alix’s friends and Kelley all attempt to push Emira into doing something more with her life, while Emira can’t imagine leaving a job in which she cares for the little girl she loves. 

This is a smart, compelling and smoothly written novel. The sections where Reid interweaves conversations characters are having with the interruptions of a small child are deftly handled. Alix and Kelley are recognisable and, by the end of the novel, decisively skewered by their own behaviour, while Emira, the character everyone else seems to think is lost, shows that it’s possible to be content without grand ambition. 

Redhead by the Side of the Road – Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus)

44-year-old Micah Mortimer has a steady life. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone. He works as a superintendent at the building he lives in and runs his own tech company, mainly sorting out the computer woes of elderly women. He has a girlfriend – Cass, a teacher – who he sees several nights a week. 

Two things happen to disrupt Micah’s quiet existence: Cass thinks she’s going to be thrown out of her apartment and when Micah doesn’t suggest she move in with him, Cass is annoyed, and Brink, the son of Micah’s first girlfriend shows up unexpectedly, thinking that Micah might be his dad.

Like many of Tyler’s novels, this could be described as a quiet book. While nothing much appears to happen, Micah is forced to recalibrate his entire view of himself and his life so far – the redhead of the title doesn’t exist, it’s a fire hydrant that Micah repeatedly mistakes for a small person while running without his glasses on. There’s a superb set piece of a dinner with Micah’s family that is vintage Tyler and much to admire in the novel as a whole.

Love and Other Thought Experiments – Sophie Ward (Corsair)

Rachel and Eliza are a couple. When the novel begins their flat has an ant infestation and they are thinking about having a baby. Lying in bed one night, Rachel dreams she’s been bitten and wakes up. She becomes convinced that an ant has crawled into her eye. Eliza thinks Rachel is mistaken and Rachel connects this to her belief that Eliza doesn’t want a baby because she thinks Rachel will be a bad mother. They have the baby and the ant takes up permanent residence inside Rachel. From there the book develops in unexpected ways.

Each chapter begins with a summary of a philosophical theory, then the story that follows illustrates that theory. As you’re reading the chapters seem to be loosely interlinked stories, but the connection between them becomes clear towards the very end. The book moves between perspectives, time periods and genres. To say too much would spoil what a clever, intriguing journey this takes you on, but I will say that the ideas reminded me of Speak by Louisa Hall and the structure of The Shore by Sara Taylor and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  Definitely worth a read if genre-bending time travel is your thing. 

How Much of These Hills Is Gold – C Pam Zhang (Virago)

Set in the North American goldrush, How Much of These Hills is Gold is largely told through the perspectives of Lucy and Sam, 12 and 11-years old respectively. Their Ba is dead and, as the novel begins, they set out to bury him somewhere he might regard as home. The problem is that Ba never settled, always in pursuit of the gold that would make the family rich. This journey bookends the novel. In the middle, we get the story of the family, particularly that of Lucy’s education, followed by Ba’s ghost telling the true tale of how him and Ma met, rather than the version that’s become the family story.

The book’s concerned with who’s allowed to tell a story and how they choose to, or are allowed to, tell it. Ba’s section particularly serves as a corrective to the rich, white men’s tales of who found gold and who it belonged to. Zhang also considers race and gender. We would describe Sam as trans, and his story illustrates that trans people have been present (and erased from many narratives) for a long time. His trajectory, when contrasted to Lucy’s, highlights similarities and differences between the way they are treated. 

The novel reinserts non-white people, specifically Chinese people and, to a lesser extent, indigenous North Americans, back into a part of history from which they’ve largely been erased, reasserting their agency and complexity.  Zhang does all this while pulling off a page-turning, immersive story of the American West complete with cowboys, shooting, stealing, a rotting corpse and the question of what it means to be family. How Much of These Hills Is Gold is superb.

Review copies provided by the publishers as listed except This Mournable Body, Such a Fun Age, and Love and Other Thought Experiments which are my own copies.

Womxn in Translation (Part Four)

WITMonth is at an end, but I wanted to finish with a piece about two of the most important books I’ve read in the last month, both of which are about teenage girls/young women. 

This is not a picture of Elena Ferrante as that’s an anonymous pseudonym. This is a picture of Ferrante’s English language translator Ann Goldstein.

The Lying Life of Adults – Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)

What happened […] in the world of adults, in the heads of very reasonable people, in their bodies loaded with knowledge? What reduced them to the most untrustworthy animals, worse than reptiles?

Teenage Giovanna overhears her father calling her ugly, or at least comparing her to his sister Vittoria, which Giovanna translates as being called ugly. In my house the name Vittoria was like the name of a monstrous being who taints and infects anyone who touches her. Giovanna’s at an age where this comment pierces, and it shifts her view of her father who she believed adored her. 

Giovanna’s never met her Aunt Vittoria due to a family fallout after Vittoria had an affair with Enzo, a married police sergeant and the father of three children. Now her curiosity’s been heightened, Giovanna asks her parents if she can meet Vittoria and eventually, they agree. The introduction of Vittoria into her life opens up the world for Giovanna. In a literal sense due to the need to travel to a different part of Naples, where she also meets new people and makes new friends, including Enzo’s children, and in a metaphorical sense as Giovanna becomes more aware of the complexities of life.

Vittoria is a bitter woman. Enzo has been dead for seventeen years and, despite befriending his widow and her children, she has never got over it. She veers between pulling people into her confidence and then violently rejecting them, her insecurity resulting in cruelty. 

Encouraged by Vittoria, Giovanna thinks she sees a moment of something between her mother and another man, but the truth turns out to be much more explosive. Ferrante’s depiction of that moment during adolescence when you realise your parents are fallible and not the deities you’ve believed them to be is perfect. Not only does Giovanna discover that the adults around her tell lies but, as she moves towards adulthood, she also begins to tell more lies herself, attempting to cover up who she’s with and what she’s doing. 

Ferrante’s world is immersive; the characters utterly believable. Her exploration of power dynamics in families, between friends, and between men and women/teenage boys and girls is nuanced and engrossing. The Lying Life of Adults also has one of the best final lines ever written, gloriously capturing how it feels to step into adulthood. One of the most anticipated books of the year, Ferrante fans will not be disappointed.

Dead Girls – Selva Almada, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott (Charco Press)

In 1986, Selva Almada was thirteen. In the back garden of her parents’ house, she heard the news on the radio that a teenage girl, nineteen-year-old Andrea Danne, had been stabbed through the heart while she slept in her bed. For Almada, it was the moment she realised that nowhere was safe.

For more than twenty years, Andrea was always close by. She returned with the news of every other dead woman. With the names that, in dribs and drabs, reached the front pages of the national press, and steadily mounted up: María Soledad Morales, Gladys McDonald, Elena Arreche, Adriana and Cecilia Barreda, Liliana Tallarico, Ana Fuschini, Sandra Reiter, Caroline Aló, Natalia Melman, Fabiana Gandiaga, María Marta García Belsunce, Marela Martínez, Paulina Lebbos, Nora Dalmasso, Rosana Galliano. 

More than twenty years later, Almada comes across fifteen-year-old María Luisa Quevedo’s story; missing for several days in 1983, raped, strangled and her body dumped on wasteland. This is followed by the story of twenty-year-old Sarita Mundín who disappeared in 1988 and whose remains were found on the banks of the Tcalamochita river. Several things link the three cases: all of the victims were teenage girls/young women; all three of them were killed in the 1980s in Argentina, and all three crimes remain unsolved. 

Almada sets out to write about these girls: to gather the bones of these girls, piece them together, give them voice and then let them run, free and unfettered, wherever they have to go. She researches their lives and deaths; talks to people who were close to them; visits the towns they grew up in. 

The other commonality in these stories is, of course, the men in these girls’ lives. There is an unsurprising amount of violence, as well as behaviour that is unacceptable but tolerated. However, although Almada reports details of these men, the focus remains clearly on the girls.

Dead Girls is a sucker-punch of a book. While it hinges on the three girls Almada chooses to spotlight, the book’s other primary function is to bear witness to some of the other girls and women who’ve been murdered. The book is littered with their names in a way that reminded me of Maggie in Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock suggesting that we should be able to see the bodies of the women who’ve been killed by men as we go about our daily lives; that there’s a serial killer who murders women, and society ought to be putting a stop to him. 

While the content of Dead Girls is often difficult to read, it is an important and – unfortunately – a necessary book. 

All review copies provided by the publishers as stated. 

Reading Diary #3: Womxn in Translation (Part One)

It’s August which means it’s Women in Translation month. As ever, you can find out more on founder Meytal Radzinski’s blog.

In a bid to be more organised than recent years, I started compiling my #WITMonth reads a few weeks ago, so there will be recommendations every week this month. The first batch are below, all of which are superb.

If you’re a regular visitor to the blog, you might also notice that I’ve added photographs of the writers alongside their book jackets. It’s a deliberate move to remind me to read more books by Black women, indigenous women and women of colour and to help those of you trying to further diversify your reading.

Minor Detail – Adania Shibli, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

In August 1949, a soldier is bitten by an insect. Untreated, the wound it gives him begins to fester. Into the camp in which he is stationed is brought a Palestinian girl, captured by the Israeli troop he commands. Aware the other soldiers intend to rape her, he brings her into his own lodging, but turns from protector to perpetrator. Years later, a Palestinian woman comes across a small piece of information about this act and obsesses about discovering more detail. She transgresses borders – big and small, physical and psychological – in order to do so, discovering how much of the past and the present have been erased. The book is slight in terms of pages, but the fear, anxiety and foreboding atmosphere linger long after the final page. 

Little Eyes – Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld)

The world has adopted a new gadget; kentukis come in different animal guises – panda, rabbit, mole, crow, dragon, owl – and customers can choose to either purchase an animal and be watched or purchase a serial number and become a voyeur. The watcher and the watched can’t communicate directly. Those being viewed don’t know who’s watching them and the voyeurs can only see what’s shown to them. Through the kentukis, Schweblin explores the effects of surveillance culture, focusing on the way we choose to watch and be watched by documenting our lives on social media platforms. While all of the stories show the invasive nature of current technology, Schweblin avoids blanket condemnation, choosing to consider how it can open up the world, save and change lives. The question is in how much power we allow others to have and what the trade-off for that power might involve. Thought-provoking and compelling.

Tentacle – Rita Indiana, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas (And Other Stories)

Tentacle begins with two strands in Santo Domingo: a not too distant but technologically advanced 2027 where Acilde, a maid and former sex worker, needs to escape a crime scene, and a more recent time (early 2010s) where Argenis, an artist, works nights as Psychic Goya on a mystic chatline. When Argenis is invited by Giorgio Menicuccis to take part in a sixth-month artistic project based at Playa Bo, a piece of beach that Giorgio and his wife Linda own and protect, he begins to access the past, becoming entwined with a group of seventeenth-century pirates. In 2027, Alcide, with help from her friend Eric, is injected with a dose of Rainbow Brite which transforms her body into that of a man. Of course, Argenis and Acilde’s stories meet, but I’ll leave you to discover that moment as it’s truly brilliant. Tentacle considers how the past affects the future, with a particular focus on ecology and the natural environment. Often I think books don’t go far enough in their weirder aspects, but Tentacle’s genre-bending, time-bending, fast-paced style is a brilliant ride. 

The Disaster Tourist – Yun Ko-eun, translated from the Korean by Lizzie Buhler (Serpent’s Tail)

Yona Ka works for Jungle, a travel agency specialising in trips to disaster zones. After her manager sexually harasses her and she turns up for scheduled meetings to find nobody there, Yona begins to think she’s being targeted for dismissal. Offered the chance to take a trip and review whether or not it should be discontinued, Yona travels to Mui, a desert island with sinkholes and a volcano. When she misses the flight home and is stranded in Mui, Yona begins to see the island from a different perspective and discovers that the place is a much darker one than she realised. A searing critique of capitalism, the impact of tourism on poor countries and our complicity in it. Gripping.

All review copies provided by the publishers as listed.

Writers, Lovers and Adulthood

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I’m planning to share what I’ve been reading lately with you soon, but in the meantime I have a piece on the Pan Macmillan blog. It’s about Lily King’s superb new novel Writers & Lovers and why it’s time we retired marriage, mortgage and children as the markers of adulthood. You can read it here.

Reading Diary #1

Hello! It’s been a while. I wasn’t planning on posting here ever again really, and, no doubt, some of you have forgotten you ever subscribed to this blog, so this will be a surprise. A pleasant one I hope, but if not there should be an unsubscribe button around here somewhere.

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So what’s going on and why am I here? The short answer is that I read Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock over the Easter weekend and want somewhere to shout about how brilliant it is. The longer answer involves an existential crisis prompted by the UK lockdown. If you’ve met me in real life, you’ll know that I can talk for England. Being locked down on my own means that, other than creating a rota of my long-suffering friends and forcing them to talk to me on a daily basis, I’ve mostly got no one to babble on to other than myself and I’ve had enough of the monologue in my own brain. Consider it a treat that I’m foisting it upon you instead; it has lots of thoughts about books and politics and misogyny.

One of the reasons I stopped reviewing books here was because I was no longer enjoying it. I never wanted reviewing to be a chore and when you’ve fallen out of love with it, it shows in your writing. I want to create something different instead. The basic plan is a diary with thoughts around some of the books I’ve been reading, along with links to other things – essays, stories, poems. Apparently, I think I’m Alan Bennett (well, we are both from Yorkshire) or Deborah Levy (I wish), whose Lockdown Diary is one of the best things to come out of the pandemic so far.

My reading habits have changed this year; at the start of 2020, I set myself a challenge to read 100 books from my own shelves (about 70% of my total reading in a good year). The reasons behind this were that I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the number of unread books on my shelves, some of which have been sitting there for 20+ years, and I thought I’d limited my own reading through running this blog. The feeling that I should review everything I read and that I should stay up to date with new releases was a box of my own making. I hit 50 books/50% of my target on Maundy Thursday. This was unexpected. I’d assumed that come October, I’d be creating piles of novellas round my flat and powering through them. What I’m expecting to post here in future then is a mix of old and new.

When I make it to 50, I give myself a break and an opportunity to read the books that have recently been or are soon going to be published by writers I love. Evie Wyld’s previous novel, All the Birds, Singing, is one of my favourite books, so I’m both keen to read The Bass Rock and a little trepidatious. By the start of the second chapter I know I’m going to love it. Vivianne, one of three female protagonists, answers the door to a delivery guy in the middle of the day in her dressing gown. Her waste bin and recycling are overflowing. She’s 40. I don’t need protagonists to be relatable but it’s unusual to read about a character who’s over 35, lives alone, is neither a complete mess nor super competent. I like her. I feel seen. Vivianne lives in London but, throughout the novel, travels back and forth to North Berwick to sort out the personal items in her grandmother’s house, which is up for sale following her grandmother’s death.

The second protagonist is Ruth, recently married to Peter who has two boys from his first marriage. It’s post-World War II and Ruth’s negotiating how to be a wife to a man she doesn’t know very well, in a place far from her London roots, while also attempting to be a mum to two boys whose mother has died. The third woman is Sarah. It’s the 1700s and she’s on the run, having been accused of witchcraft. She’s sheltered by a family whose son narrates the story. All three women are linked by their proximity to Bass Rock, an island off the coastline, but also by the violence – physical and psychological – that is inflicted upon them by men. Wyld draws the links between these women through the structure of the chapters which move from Vivienne to Ruth to Sarah to Ruth and back to Vivienne. She also provides echoes between the years, both through actions and incidents that reoccur and through items passed between the generations.

Wyld’s purpose is to bear witness to the incidents of violence against women that have taken place for centuries. She makes this clear through the character of Maggie, a woman Vivienne meets in a supermarket in the opening chapter. It’s late at night and Maggie warns Vivienne there is a man creeping around by her car. They meet again in a later chapter where we discover that Maggie is homeless, considers herself a witch and sometimes undertakes sex work. Vivienne is wary of Maggie and, initially, so am I, until I realise that Wyld’s making me consider how we think about women who warn us about the behaviour of men. Of course they’re wild and weird and unpredictable, according to patriarchal societal conventions. Maggie’s the friend who, when you’re dismissing male behaviour that’s made you feel uncomfortable, reminds you yes, all men.

It’s an image that Maggie conjures that stays with me after I finish reading the book. She asks:

What if all the women that have been killed by men through history were visible to us, all at once? If we could see them lying there. What if you could project a hologram of the bodies in the places they were killed? […] We’re just breezing in and out of the death zone. Wading through the dead.

I think about all the places I’ve lived and wonder whether there’s a dead woman in each one. I think about the route I take from my flat into Sheffield city centre and wonder how many dead women lie along it. It’s been days and I’m still haunted by it.

Irina, the protagonist of Eliza Clark’s debut Boy Parts has a response to male violence. She photographs men through the lens of the female gaze, creating portraits of them as sexual objects which she sells via her website and to a private collector known as B. Initially, Irina appears in control. She’s confident and brash, with a fuck you attitude to life. It soon becomes apparent though that she’s an Ottessa Moshfegh character in a Bret Easton Ellis novel, albeit set in Newcastle, and therefore not entirely reliable or stable. She torments her friends and the men she photographs, but the cracks are there and, as the story descends into violence, it’s Irina that is tortured. I love an unlikeable female protagonist and Irina’s a delicious one; you wouldn’t want to be friends with her irl but she’s fun to spend time with from the safe distance of the page.

Talking of safe distances…when the lockdown begins in the UK, I find the only genres I can concentrate on are crime and historical fiction. The latter of which I would usually tell you is one of my least favourite genres (along with men’s fiction, obviously), but there’s something comforting about escaping into a past where things have already happened and the outcomes are certain. It’s perfect timing then for me to read Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel Hamnet, named for Shakespeare’s son who died when he was 11 and was possibly the inspiration for the play Hamlet, the two names being interchangeable. It’s Agnes (better known as Anne) Hathaway who takes centre stage here though. I take great delight in noticing that William Shakespeare is never referred to by name but as the tutor or the father or her husband, in the same way that women are often reduced to being someone’s wife or mother.

The first two thirds of the novel move between Judith, Hamnet’s twin, falling ill and Agnes and Will’s courtship and marriage. Agnes is viewed with suspicion by a town who don’t understand her ways. She keeps a kestrel, makes herbal remedies, and can read someone’s soul and future by touching the spot between their thumb and first finger. Shakespeare’s enchanted by her; in him, she encounters a boundless soul she can’t fathom. O’Farrell’s always been skilled at handling different timelines, but here her movement across time and perspective is fluid and flawless. It reminds me of Deborah Levy’s comments about how we don’t experience time chronologically and O’Farrell shows this specifically through Agnes’ ability, mirroring it for the reader as we move between the stages of her life.

Around the mid-point of the book, O’Farrell includes a chapter showing how the bubonic plague might have reached Stratford-upon-Avon and Judith Shakespeare by way of a cabin boy who encounters a monkey in Alexandria and then goes on to collect some glass beads from Murano, which are eventually delivered to the Shakespeare’s next-door-neighbour. At this point, I realise I had no idea how Hamnet died and my comfort read has been invaded by thoughts of passengers on cruise ships and airplanes and ideas about contact tracing and testing. Too late by now though as I’m well invested in the world O’Farrell has created.

The final 100 pages are a single chapter that runs from the death of Hamnet to the staging of the play named for him. It’s a superb study of grief and the different ways in which we deal with it. When I finish the final pages, it’s difficult to believe that I’m not standing in The Globe after the audience has mostly emptied out.

O’Farrell has long been pigeonholed as a writer of ‘women’s fiction’ (oh how I hate that term) and largely ignored by the big prizes. Hamnet is longlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction and I sincerely hope it makes an appearance on the Booker Prize list too. It is O’Farrell’s masterpiece.

Between the novels, I’m reading lots of short things. While I’ve had too much time to think, I’ve realised that all my favourite writing is political. By which I mean overtly political. (In one sense, all writing by women is political by nature of its existence.) It’s why I love Sinéad Gleeson’s story ‘The Lexicon of Babies’, an allegorical tale of motherhood and society, and Salena Godden’s poem ‘I saw Goody Procter jogging without a face mask‘ which combines The Crucible and people’s policing of each other under social distancing. The final lines, which highlight the hypocrisy of racists and the Tories as they clap and cheer for health care professionals they’ve undervalued and underfunded for years, are pointed and pertinent.

When the news that we were going into lockdown broke, I was a third of the way into Cash Carraway’s memoir Skint Estate. I finished it as schools closed and the majority of the population shifted to working from home or not working because their jobs had suddenly disappeared.

Carraway writes about trying to secure housing for herself and her daughter, showing how difficult it is even when she manages to save enough for a deposit and several month’s rent. Her income is unstable, whether she’s making it through sex work or writing; landlords don’t want to take tenants whose income is supplemented by universal credit, and Carraway has no guarantor. If she applies for council housing, she knows she will be moved out of London, away from any support networks she has, and indeed, towards the end of the book, she is. Carraway’s book becomes a channel for my anger during a time when there’s a sense it should go unspoken. I walk around my flat saying universal basic income to myself like they’re the words of a lullaby.

One morning earlier this week, I wonder how Ali Smith is doing and whether she’s rewriting sections of Summer, the final volume of her seasons quartet. I check the publication date and find it’s been pushed back a month to August. This might be because many books are being delayed at the moment, but I hope it’s because she has something to say about the UK government’s reaction to coronavirus. There’s no one whose views I want to hear more right now than Ali Smith’s.

[Review copy of The Bass Rock provided by Vintage; review copy of Boy Parts provided by Influx Books; review copy of Hamnet provided by Tinder Press; Skint Estate bought and paid for by me.]

Jersey Festival of Words 2019: Year 5

2019 marks the fifth year of Jersey Festival of Words; it feels like no time at all and also as though the Festival has been part of the landscape for much longer. This year, the events featuring female writers are predominantly non-fiction events, but there’s still an interesting range of subjects and some very special moments.

Those special moments come at the beginning and end of my Festival experience. On Friday evening the headliners, Kate Dimbleby and Cathy Rentzenbrink, create a show called ‘Out of Our Comfort Zones’. Dimbleby (yes, of that family) is a singer who wants to write longer pieces than three-minute songs and Rentzenbrink is an author (The Last Act of Love and A Manual for Heartache) who wants to sing. After sharing with us how they met and telling us their own stories – including Kate introducing us to Roland, the loop station which allows her to layer her vocals on stage – the fun begins. Kate asks Cathy to hum and we all join in to provide an accompaniment as Cathy opens her mouth and sings whatever notes she feels like. This is followed by a rendition of Stand By Me. Rentzenbrink appears exhilarated. The audience is collectively delighted that we’ve been allowed to witness this and to sing along in the darkness of the Opera House.

Then it’s Kate’s turn to be plunged into the new as Cathy sits her down with pen and paper, a timer set to five minutes, and some prompts related to memoir writing. We’re all invited to join in again. When the timer goes off, I’m lost in prose and surprised at what I’ve written. Kate, it turns out, has made one earlier. Following her initial meeting with Cathy, she began working on a memoir about her grandma, Mimi aka Dilys Thomas, who was the wife of Richard Dimbleby. It quickly becomes apparent that Kate can write and I’m already looking forward to being able to read the completed work.

The evening’s rounded off with an unexpectedly vulnerable moment where Cathy admits that she links singing to being drunk in the pub her parents ran. Now she no longer drinks, she isn’t sure she can disconnect the two things. Kate encourages Cathy to sing a sea shanty, one which Cathy learned from her dad, and Cathy does, growing in confidence as the piece progresses. As we leave the venue, there’s a sense that we’ve been part of something bigger than a literary event tonight. Something changed while Kate and Cathy were on stage and they’ve inspired us to try an activity that scares us too.

Saturday begins with a writer whose debut, award-winning book, The Salt Path came out of a terrifying life experience. Raynor Wynn begins her event with Andy Davey by explaining how a financial dispute with a friend led to the loss of the property her and her husband, Moth, had bought and restored twenty years earlier. This was compounded by Moth being diagnosed with a terminal neurodivergent disease. Determined to wrest some control over the situation, and inspired by Mark Wallington’s book 500 Mile Walkies, Raynor and Moth set off to walk the South West Coast Path. Raynor says they were drawn by the idea of following a line on a map. Physically moving forwards became a reason to go on, even though the path is 630 miles of relentless climes.

What stands out about Raynor’s story is the poverty her and Moth faced and how people reacted to their situation. She talks about how they underestimated the effect of hunger while walking the path and wild camping. A direct debit they forgot to cancel – house insurance for a house they no longer owned – led to them having pennies left with which to feed themselves. She talks about the narrowness of the path and how this forces interaction with the people you pass. Initially they told people the truth about losing their house, but the reaction from strangers – Raynor says she could see them physically draw back – led to Raynor and Moth changing their narrative. Instead, they told people they’d sold their house in a midlife moment. Now their story was inspirational. This has clearly affected Raynor and she states, ‘I’ve got something to say about homelessness’. It’s something I’m interested to hear more about – and in the current climate in the UK, it’s a topic many others should be paying attention to as well.

The day continues with another hot political topic via Leah Hazard, the author of Hard Pushed: A Midwife’s Story. Leah tells Cathy Rentzenbrink that she wanted to show the reality of her job and the experiences of giving birth. She comments that there’s a tendency to trivialise women’s experiences and their work, noting that the book’s been treated differently to recent medical memoirs written by men. Cathy says it’s unusual that they’re talking about normalising an experience that lots of people have been through.

Leah shares a range of stories. She talks about supporting teenagers giving birth and the care someone young and vulnerable needs; the ‘amazing’ experience of delivering a baby created via assisted conception to a lesbian couple, and, harrowingly, about the women she sees ‘on an almost daily basis’ who are being trafficked, and the holistic care they try to provide for these women. The job is ‘fascinating, endlessly, and challenging’. Hazard ends by saying she hopes the book ‘will make a difference. Individually. And maybe on a broader scale’.

Someone whose life did change enormously after having three children is Janet Hoggarth. She talks to Sara Palmer about how the events that followed the end of her marriage led to her first novel The Single Mums’ Mansion.

I’m on board as soon as Janet says she was told by a university tutor, ‘Your writing is fairly vulgar. No one wants to hear swearing. No one wants to read stories about girls having sex on a building site.’ Janet’s story is slightly more complicated than that, however. Not long after the end of her marriage, two of her friends found themselves in similar circumstances: one’s marriage broke up a month after Janet’s; the other gave birth only for her fiancé to leave four days later. The latter moved into Janet’s house so they could support each other as single mums – Janet’s children were 5, 3 and 1 when her marriage ended – and all three women synched the weekends when the children were with their dads so they could relax together. ‘It was really really magical. It was freedom.’

At the same time, Janet became interested in what she terms the ‘beardy weirdy’ aka holistic rituals and healing. She tells Sara she has a crystal in her bra and that she’s a trained reki healer. She cites two books which were important in her thinking The Journey by Brandon Bays and The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. Janet detailed all of these experiences on a blog which her agent eventually convinced her to turn into a novel. It sounds like a riot and I leave the event keen to read it.

Saturday ends with more laughter as I interview Jenny Eclair, who is a joy. I’ll leave Festival reviewer Andy Davey to fill you in on that one.

Interviewing Jenny Eclair is pretty special but the magical moment that ends the Festival for me is Ana Sampson’s event about her poetry anthology She Is Fierce. Ana tells Richard Pedley that she compiled the book after realising that there were ‘more men called William’ than women in her previous anthologies and that when she looked for an anthology of poems written by women, she couldn’t find one. Ana’s passion for the poems she chose is evident in the way she talks about her reasons for including them and the decision to curate the anthology by theme, so readers could find poems that suited their mood. What makes this event so special though is the readings of poems that punctuate the conversation. Poems by writers including Lizzie Siddal, Yrsa Daley Ward, Hollie McNish and Imtiaz Dharker are read aloud by selected audience members. There’s something lovely and relaxing about being read to and especially so when the texts are poems. It allows us a real flavour of a carefully curated anthology.

My trips to Jersey Festival of Words are always lovely, but this year is especially so. Here’s to the next five years of wonderful events.

Festival photos by Peter Mourant.

Blind Fury – a guest post by Katie Lowe, author of The Furies

Following the deaths of her dad and sister and her mum’s grief-fuelled descent into alcoholism, teenage Violet takes a place at Elm Hollow Academy. Here she becomes part of a group of friends – Robin, Alex and Grace – who have additional, secret lessons with art teacher Annabel. These lessons cover the history of the school – the site of some famous witch trials, mythology and magic. A sinister undertone runs throughout driven by the disappearance of Robin’s previous best friend, Emily, alongside the broader theme of violence against women. It’s a gripping, angry, terrifying ride; The Craft meets The Secret History in a run-down British seaside town.

I’m delighted Katie’s written more on the anger in the book and where it stemmed from. You can read her blistering piece below.

Photograph by Dearest Love Photography

“Do you think this?”

She – a friend, a good friend – pointed to the page. It was my book, The Furies, in manuscript.

I felt an uneasiness settle over me. When our friends read us, they can’t help but place us in the pages; they’re the ones who find the traces of life between the words. It’s inevitable. I wondered what she’d seen; the piece of me she’d found.

She slid the page across the table. I glanced at it: a lecture, given by a female teacher in the book. Knew, immediately, what she was asking.

Are you this angry? Do you feel like this, too?

I hadn’t realised, when I was writing The Furies, that it was an angry book.

I know how that sounds. But for most of the time I was working on it, it had no title at all; my agent, Juliet, gave it the name, the day it went on submission. Before that, it was just a book about girls.

The book went out to publishers on 27th September 2017; it sold on the 28th.

Seven days later, the first of the Weinstein allegations would surface.

Seven days after that, #MeToo was all over the world.

Still, I didn’t realise I was angry. Didn’t realise I had been, all this time.

And yet, it’s a book made up of the stories of other, angry women. Women whose stories I hadn’t known, as a younger woman – but which I understood, nonetheless.

I hadn’t read Medea when I was nineteen, and my boyfriend cheated, while calling me “crazy” for thinking he would. I didn’t know about the woman who slit her children’s throats at her husband’s door, while he stood with his new wife.

Still, I knew that white hot, vivid rage well enough. I deleted everything on his laptop. Erased every trace of him from my life.

I didn’t know about Artemisia Gentileschi when I was twenty-two. When I sat with a friend who told me she couldn’t tell the police what had happened to her, because she couldn’t face the doubt. I didn’t know about the painter, tortured with thumbscrews as she faced down her rapist in court.

Still, I understood. I knew why my friend wouldn’t want to face that. We whispered the truth, instead.

I didn’t know Medusa’s curse was a punishment for her rape, when I was twenty-five. When a US politician – male, of course – said: “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Still, I knew the urge to turn a man to stone with a look. Still do.

Tales of female rage course through the culture like an undercurrent. We know them – we feel them, viscerally, somehow – and so, what’s been most fascinating about the #metoo movement is the idea that our anger is something new.

There’s a sense of surprise – shock, even! – at the very notion that we might simply have been smiling through gritted teeth; that we might have been polite for our own safety.

It still echoes. Still tries to neutralise the stories; tries to make us doubt our own experience.

And sometimes, it works.

So when my friend asked: “do you think this?” I stumbled over my words. Shrugged it off. Felt ashamed at being seen, at being angry: at being that girl.

I admit this, because it takes some getting used to. It’s uncomfortable. Scary. It involves a kind of exposure.

It felt – still feels, sometimes – like presenting oneself up to be devoured. Like the very act of reading, and of engaging with, those things that make us angry, is a kind of self-sacrifice. A harm. And yet, now, doesn’t it feel necessary?

A caveat: I’m not advocating for murder, or curses, or any of the things that go on in The Furies. It’s not an instruction book. These girls aren’t role models.

It’s fiction. It’s meant to thrill. To scare. To entertain.

But I am owning the rage that inspired it.

Maybe it takes time to come to anger. Maybe it’s a gradual conversion.

And maybe it’s easier, now, among a movement: when the New York Times warns Trump to beware the Furies. When the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford is, at last, viewed as a kind of heroism. When Beyoncé makes albums filled with both rage and vulnerability, and the world bows down.

Whatever it is, I’ve made it. I’m here, at last. I am angry.

I own my rage, alongside the women – both real and imagined – who do the same.

The Male Gaze, the Pre-Raphaelites and Elizabeth Macneal’s The Doll Factory

I have a piece on Picador’s website looking at the male gaze, the Pre-Raphaelites and Elizabeth Macneal’s superb debut novel The Doll Factory.

https://www.panmacmillan.com/blogs/literary/the-doll-factory-the-effects-of-the-male-gaze

Gender: what is it good for? – Reading Round-Up

The Electric Michelangelo– Sarah Hall

I started the year re-reading my favourite book. For those of you at the back, that’s The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall. It tells the story of Cy Parks: his childhood in Morecambe, raised in his mother’s B&B; his apprenticeship to Eliot Riley, the local tattoo artist, and his journey to New York, where he sets up a booth in Coney Island and meets Grace, a woman from war-torn Eastern Europe, who asks him to decorate her body. Throughout the book there’s discussion about women’s bodies and what they’re allowed to do with them but it’s Grace who seems to have the answer:

It will always be about body! Always for us! I don’t see a time when it won’t. I can’t say you can’t have my body, that’s already decided, it’s already obtained. If I had fired the first shot it would have been on a different field – in the mind. All I can do is interfere with what they think is theirs, how it is supposed to look, the rules. I can interrupt like a rude person in a conversation.

I’m not going to give anything away about whether or not she succeeds, I’ll just mention again that it’s my favourite novel of all time and leave you to do the right thing.

My Sister the Serial Killer– Oyinkan Braithwaite

Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him.
I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

Ayoola, as you can see, has a thing for murdering men, men she’s dated who’ve become angry with her. Korede’s good with the bleach so helps with the clean-up. Two things are about to become a problem though: Femi, the man Ayoola kills at the beginning of the book, has family who want to know what’s happened to him, and Ayoola starts dating Tade, a doctor at the hospital where Korede’s a nurse. A doctor Korede also has a crush on.

Braithwaite examines the role of the patriarchy in the way women behave, both towards men and towards each other. She asks whether we can ever escape our childhoods and if blood really is thicker than water. A smart page turner.

Thanks to Atlantic for the review copy.

Louis & Louise– Julie Cohen

Louis and Louise, Cohen’s protagonists, are the same child, born to the same parents, in the same place, at the same time. But they are born as two different sexes. Cohen then jumps forward 32 years to show us how their lives have turned out. Lou(ise) is a teacher and single mother to her daughter, Dana, living and working in Brooklyn. Lou(is) is a writer who’s in the process of splitting up with his wife. In both timelines, Lou is summoned home to Casablanca, Maine, because their mother is dying of cancer. This means a confrontation with Allie, Lou’s former best friend, and the uncovering of secrets kept for over a decade.

What I was expecting from Louis & Louise was a critique of gender from the protagonist’s perspective, a ‘look what you could’ve won’ style narrative. But Cohen’s version is more sophisticated than that; she uses the twins, Allie and Benny, Lou’s childhood best friends to explore the restrictions binary gender places on both women and men. There are points where this isn’t a comfortable read [cn for domestic violence, rape and suicide] but Cohen shows that there might be another way. There are a number of points in the book where Louis and Louise’s stories meet. These sections are written as though the character is non-binary, using singular they for their pronoun, and show that some of this person’s experience was identical, regardless of gender. Both versions also end with hope. Louis & Louise is a sophisticated look at gender and love and is well worth your time.

Thanks to Orion for the review copy.

Baise-Moi – Virginie Despentes (translated by Bruce Benderson)

On Sundays, I’ve started giving myself free rein to read whatever I want from my poor, neglected shelves. You know, those books I bought because I wanted to read them that sit there while I go through proofs and reading for work. Woe is me and the books that never get read. I was so enamoured with Despentes’ Vernon Subutex 1 that I’ve bought everything that’s been translated and decided to start from the beginning.

Baise-Moi translates as Rape Me so let me insert all of the trigger warnings here. Nadine is a sex worker who watches pornography incessantly. Manu has a huge appetite for sex and alcohol. After Manu is raped and Nadine kills her flatmate, the two women’s paths cross and they embark on a killing spree. It seems superfluous to mention it really, but this isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s violent, full of sex and swearing, but also – dare it say it – gripping. There’s an element of excitement in watching two women do something men have dominated for years. Morality aside, of course. Thelma & Louise meets Natural Born Killers.

The Mental Load – Emma (translated by Una Dimitrijevic)

Emma went viral with the comic ‘You Should’ve Asked’ a couple of years ago. The Mental Loadis a collection of her pieces dealing with gender and political issues, ranging from working in a hostile environment to forced caesarean sections to the male gaze to raids on immigrants made under the guise of terrorism laws. The strips are informative, clear and interesting. However, it felt a little feminism/capitalism 101 to me, in which case, I’m not the intended audience. I do heartily recommend that every heterosexual man reads a copy asap though, but not at the expense of doing his share of the housework or childcare.

You Know You Want This – Kristen Roupenian

Roupenian went viral last year with her story ‘Cat Person’ which was published in The New Yorker. Much has been made of the subsequent high figure deals she then netted for this, her debut collection. I mention it more because it’s become a talking point that as an indicator for how to read the stories – the collection seems to have taken a battering in some quarters because it isn’t what the reader expected it to be on the basis of one story and some publishing money.

If you’re looking for more stories in the same vein as ‘Cat Person’ you get one; ‘The Good Guy’ is the longest story in the collection and tells the story of Ted, who thinks he’s good but is clearly bad. Ted’s one of those men who thinks that because he had female friends, because he was the nice guy who hung around listening to their problems while working out how he might shag them, he’s good. Roupenian (and the rest of us) have news for Ted.

The rest of the stories take a somewhat darker turn. If you were expecting Sally Rooney, prepare for Ottessa Moshfegh without the redeeming qualities. In ‘Bad Boy’ a couple who have a friend staying in their flat know he can hear them having sex, so persuade him to join them; in ‘Sardines’ Tilly makes a birthday wish that will please her mum but cause problems for her dad and his new, younger girlfriend; in ‘Scarred’ the narrator conjures up her heart’s desire to discover that maybe it’s not what she wanted after all. When Roupenian’s at her best, she makes your skin crawl: ‘The Matchbox Sign’, in which Laura discovers bite marks on her skin which her doctor thinks are psychosomatic, made me itch, while ‘Biter’, in which Ellie does what it says, made me wince (and maybe punch the air, a little bit). You Know You Want This isn’t a perfect collection but it’s an interesting one.

Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.

Blood Orange – Harriet Tyce

Madeleine Smith is found next to her husband’s body; he’s been stabbed to death in their bed. Madeleine says she’s guilty but there’s something about her story that doesn’t quite seem right.

Alison is going to take Madeleine’s case – her first murder case, but Alison’s got problems of her own: she’s drinking too much, having an affair with a colleague and someone knows. Her husband, Carl, is a therapist who’s had enough of Alison’s drinking and late nights at work and isn’t afraid to use their daughter, Matilda, to make Alison feel guilty.

Tyce tells the story from Alison’s perspective and – as we follow her thoughts and actions – it starts to become clear that something isn’t quite right.

Because this is a psychological thriller and therefore some of the enjoyment hinges on the twists, I don’t want to say too much more about the plot. However, Tyce takes a very topical look at the behaviour of men and finds them wanting. Blood Orange is fierce, smart, gripping and sticks a very big middle finger up at the patriarchy. Obviously, I loved it.

Thanks to Wildfire for the review copy.

Number One Chinese Restaurant – Lillian Li + Q&A

Jimmy Han runs the Bejing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland. The restaurant’s been in his family for thirty years, but Jimmy’s had enough of his brother Johnny’s interference and has bought his own place, the Bejing Glory. Things aren’t going to be that simple though; Jimmy’s short of the investment he needs and he’s hoping his dad’s old friend, Uncle Pang, knows people who can help him out. Uncle Pang’s happy to be involved, although in a slightly different way to the one Jimmy anticipated.

While a tangled web of family secrets and lies is revealed, the novel also focuses on two of the restaurant’s longest serving employees: Nan and Ah-Jack. Nan is the restaurant manager. Ah-Jack has recently returned from retirement to continue working as a waiter, a decision taken by Johnny who values Ah-Jack’s loyalty. Nan spends a significant amount of her day covering for Ah-Jack who spends his time gambling, drinking and, inevitably, making mistakes at work. The rest of Nan’s time is mostly spent on her wayward son, Pat, who’s working in the restaurant’s kitchen and has his eye on Jimmy’s daughter, Annie.

Li crafts an engaging tale of family (dis)loyalties and the stories we tell ourselves about the lives we lead. Number One Chinese Restaurant is an absorbing novel.

I’m delighted to welcome Lillian Li to the blog to talk more about the novel.

The novel’s intergenerational, why did you decide to focus on a range of characters interconnected through family or working relations?

I’ve always been drawn toward stories about communities more than stories with only one main character because I think the way characters bounce off each other is incredibly illuminating, both about who they are as a person, and all the different roles they play within the community. So for example, while Nan, the manager of the Beijing Duck House, is certainly fascinating to me alone, I learn more about her when I see her take such gentle care of her longtime co-worker and friend Ah-Jack and then, that same night, fail to demonstrate the same easy warmth to her troubled son Pat. And I learn even more about why Nan seems to have a deeper relationship with her co-worker than her son within the context of her job at this Chinese restaurant. Hopefully the reader feels the same depth even if each character technically gets fewer pages dedicated to his or her journey.

Initially I was frustrated with the focus on the male characters but the novel slowly reveals these smart, fascinating, sometimes manipulative women. Were you considering gender stereotypes as you were writing?

That’s an interesting question. I think I tend to write my characters by first finding a person I know who can provide a foundation for my imagination. My characters aren’t based on real people because what I layer on top of that foundation is all invented. For example, the matriarch of the Han family, Feng Fei, gets her foundation from my grandmother. Specifically, the curlers they both wear to sleep, the way they complain about how their children treat them, and how they’re both surprisingly ferocious despite their age. But my grandmother never worked in a restaurant, let alone owned one, and so Feng Fei very quickly became her own person, shaped by those specific circumstances. At the same time, I think that character’s foundation in a real, complicated person is what guides me against stereotype and keeps me from straying into the one-dimensional.

The thing I really loved about the book was the way you show how we use stories to build myths about ourselves and our lives. What interests you about this?

I love that that resonated with you! I really believe that people experience the world, and themselves, almost entirely through stories, that it’s our way of understanding, but also controlling our lives. At the same time, I’m frightened by how easily stories take the place of facts, and how we’re almost naturally pulled toward believing “better stories” even if they’re patently untrue, about ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies. As long as we dismiss the power of the stories we’re telling ourselves and each other, we dismiss the potential for delusion and manipulation, but also the potential for connection and change.

The novel’s set in a Chinese restaurant and there are a number of criminal elements to the plot; what sort of research did you do and do you enjoy this element of writing?

There’s a fire that happens in the book and I talked to a fire investigator, Kathleen Summersgill, as part of my research. How I found her in the first place was that strangely enough, my first year in Michigan (where I attended grad school and wrote this novel), a pizza restaurant a few blocks away caught on fire in the middle of a sub-zero January night. A year or so later, at the point in my research when I needed to know how exactly someone starts a fire, and also how that fire might reveal itself to be suspicious to law enforcement, I remembered that potential pizza arson and looked up articles to see if I could find someone to talk to. Kathleen was the investigator on that case. I really enjoyed talking to Kathleen, not only because she helped me write a scene that wasn’t riddled with mistakes, but also because in talking to her, and asking her just generally about her job, I got so much extra knowledge about, essentially, the nature of fire and fire-starters. I was able to totally transform the scene into something that felt real to me. She gave me the necessary confidence to own that scene.

I definitely enjoy talking to people who’ve actually experienced the worlds I write about, criminal or otherwise. I like getting that foundation in reality, though I’m also a bit shy and a bit lazy. I try to remind myself of Kathleen every time I want to wimp out and just Google around for an answer.

My blog focus on female writers; who are you favourite female writers? 

I was introduced to so many amazing female writers who happened to have debut books the same year as me and felt buoyed and energized by their work. Lucy Tan (WHAT WE WERE PROMISED), Crystal Hana Kim (IF YOU LEAVE ME), R.O. Kwon (THE INCENDIARIES), Vanessa Hua (A RIVER OF STARS), Lydia Kiesling (THE GOLDEN STATE), Ingrid Rojas Contreras (FRUIT OF THE DRUNKEN TREE), Akil Kumarasamy (HALF GODS), Elaine Castillo (AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART), Nafissa Thompson-Spires (HEADS OF THE COLORED PEOPLE), Rachel Heng (SUICIDE CLUB), Aja Gabel (THE ENSEMBLE), Fatima Farheen Mirza (A PLACE FOR US), Inez Tan (THIS IS WHRE I WON’T BE ALONE), and Nicole Chung (ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW) are just a few of my favorites.

Other favorite writers who’ve already had a number of books under their talented belts include Susan Choi (whose new book TRUST EXERCISE blew my mind), Ruth Ozeki, Karen Joy Fowler, Yiyun Li, Elizabeth McCracken, Zadie Smith, Elizabeth Strout, Lily King.

And of course, there are the powerhouses and legends. Anne Tyler, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, and Maxine Hong Kingston.

There are so many more, but those are the handful that jump to mind.

Thanks to Lillian Li for the interview and to Pushkin Press for the review copy of the novel.