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.

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.

Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

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

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

There have been other names, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.

Orangeboy – Patrice Lawrence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch Her Disappear – Eva Dolan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks to Harvill Secker for the review copy.

 

 

The Girl of Ink and Stars – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Thanks to Corsair for the review copy.