In the Media: May 2017

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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In prize news, the Granta Best of Young American Novelists list was announced:

Fiona McFarlane took The Dylan Thomas Prize for her short story collection The High Places, Maylis de Kerangal won The Wellcome Book Prize, and Sarah Perry and Kiran Millwood-Hargrave were winners at The British Book Awards. While Kit de Waal and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan were shortlisted for The Desmond Elliott Prize.

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Chris Kraus and I Love Dick are having a moment:

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And The Handmaid’s Tale has generated even more pieces:

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

Flying Under the Radar…but well worth your time

2016 is shaping up to be such a corking year in books (thank goodness, eh, considering the state of everything else…) that I was going to do a books of the mid-year point list. However, when I drew up my longlist I noticed that it split neatly into two categories: those books you already know about because everyone is talking about them and those that I wish everyone was talking about because they’re brilliant and haven’t had the recognition they deserve. So here’s twelve books I’ve read so far this year that I think are worthy of your time and attention. Clicking on the covers will take you to my full review.

Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – Susan Fletcher

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A new patient arrives at Saint-Paul-De-Mausole, an artist called Vincent van Gogh. The story of the novel, however, belongs to Jeanne Trabuc, the warder’s wife. van Gogh serves as a catalyst for a change in her steady, claustrophobic life. A fantastic portrait of a marriage and the power of art to change how you see the world.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun – Sarah Ladipo Manyika

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Doctor Morayo Da Silva is approaching her 75th birthday. Former academic, ex-wife of an ambassador, she’s seen the world and lived it all. Now settled in San Francisco living a steady, reliable life…or so she tells us. The multiple narrators of this fascinating tale might not agree. (This also gives me an opportunity to point you in the direction of this excellent piece recommending more women novelists you might enjoy by Sarah Ladipo Manyika on Vela: Seven Bold and New International Voices.)

Martin John – Anakana Schofield

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You know that reviewers’ cliche about books staying with you long after you’ve turned the final page? Well I read this in December and I still shudder every time I think about it. Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Exiled to London from Ireland, by his mother, following an incident in a dentist’s waiting room, Martin John follows his rituals and circuits to ensure he stays on the right side of the law. But he’s already made a mistake and now Baldy Conscience has stayed too long in Martin’s house they’ll be consequences. John’s mother’s story is also very interesting, equal parts heartbreaking and disturbing.

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta

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A coming-of-age novel in 1970’s Nigeria. Ijeoma discovers her sexuality when she meets Amina. Her mother attempts to ‘correct’ her homosexuality through schooling her in The Bible and manoeuvring her into marriage. Gripping, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful.

Sitting Ducks – Lisa Blower

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The perfect post-Brexit novel if you’re one of those people wondering who was ‘stupid’ enough to vote Leave in those run-down post-industrial towns destroyed by Thatcher and neglected by subsequent administrations. ‘Totty’ Minton’s fed up of being skint, unemployed and living in a house marked for demolition by his former school mate and private property entrepreneur, Malcolm Gandy. Corruption and despair are rife in the lead-up to the 2010 general election and there seems to be no end in sight.

The Living – Anjali Joseph

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Joseph also looks at working class lives. 35-year-old, single mother, Claire, works in one of the UK’s remaining shoe factories and struggles with her teenage son, Jason, while her feud with her mother rumbles on. Arun, a shoe maker and grandfather in Kolhapur, struggles with his health and looks back on his life and marriage. An excellent character study.

Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

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The story of two women, Mahsa Weaver and Katherine Goodnow, who have two things in common: 1) jazz 2) their mixed heritage and the issues which have come with it. Two women who want independence but are prevented from having it in different ways although all under the banner of the patriarchy. Piercingly astute on women’s lives.

If You Look for Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa

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Mallika, Siva’s Amma, becomes pregnant with twins: a boy and a girl. The girl, Tara, arrives with the umbilical cord still around her neck and dies moments later. The boy, Siva, survives. But Mallika wanted a girl and her grief for Tara leads her to reject Siva and accuse her husband of killing Tara. Brought up as a boy by his father and grandmother and a girl by his mother, Siva spends his childhood and adolescence questioning whether he is a boy or a girl. His story is interwoven with that of George Gibbs, an Englishman who used to live in their house. You can read my interview with Sarayu Srivatsa here.

Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore)

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Simon Limbeau is fatally wounded in a road traffic accident. Pulled from the wreckage and transported to an Intensive Care Unit, the novel charts the progress to the point when Simon’s heart becomes that of Claire Méjan. As the heart’s journey progresses, we meet all of the people involved in transporting it from one body to another. Gripping and fascinating.

Masked Dolls – Shih Chiung-Yu (translated by Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland)

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Twenty-three chapters, each one titled ‘Conflict’ and the number of the chapter. Initially these conflicts seem to be individual tales: Judy and her Chinese lover; Jiaying and Lawrence, her Western boyfriend; Jiaying’s father’s stories of World War Two; the person who steals underwear from the flat Jiaying and her friends live in when they’re students; Jiaying’s friend Fat Luo’s increasing hatred of her. But as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that these ideas are thematically linked. Greater than the sum of its parts.

Ghostbird – Carol Lovekin

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In a Welsh village where it rains every day in August, fourteen-year-old Cadi Hopkins begins to ask questions about her dead father and sister and why she’s not allowed to go to the lake. Cadi lives with her mother, Violet, with whom she’s locked in an intensified teenage daughter/mother battle. Cadi’s aunt/Violet’s sister-in-law, Lili, lives next door and acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi. Lili also has a contentious relationship with Violet. Nature, magic realism, secrets and family relationships. Atmospheric.

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

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Eileen tells the story of ‘back then’ when she lived with her alcoholic, ex-cop, father, was a secretary in a boys’ juvenile correction facility and met Rebecca Saint John, the beautiful, intelligent, fashionable director of education who befriends Eileen and leads her down a very dark, twisty path.

Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore)

Mend the Living begins with a 302-word sentence on what Simon Limbeau’s heart is. Through it, de Kerangal contemplates the metaphorical – the heart which is affected by emotion – as well as ‘the life – life of ebbs and flows, life of valves and flapgates, life of pulsations’. The sentence ends as his mobile phone alarm goes off at 5.50am and 20-year-old Limbeau leaves his girlfriend in bed and meets his friends to go surfing.

On their return to Le Havre from the beach, their van crashes.

They could easily determine that the little van was going fast, they estimated its speed at ninety-two kilometres an hour, which was twenty-two kilometres an hour over the speed limit for this section of the road, and they also determined that, for unknown reasons, it had drifted over to the left without ever coming back into its lane, hadn’t braked – no tyre marks on the asphalt – and that it had crashed into this pole at full force; they noted the absence of airbags, the van model was too old, and they could see that of the three passengers seated in the front, only two were wearing seat belts – one on each side, the driver’s and the passenger’s; finally, they determined that the third individual, sitting in the middle, had been propelled forward by the violence of the impact, head hitting the windshield; it had taken twenty minutes to pull him from the metal, unconscious when the ambulances arrived, heart still beating, and, having found his cafeteria card in the pocket of his jacket, they determined that his name was Simon Limbeau.

The novel then charts the progress from Simon being taken to the I.C.U. to the point his heart becomes that of Claire Méjan. As the heart’s journey progresses, we meet all of the people involved in transporting it from one body to another.

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Two things are really impressive about this novel: the first is that de Kerangal is able to take the reader into the lives of so many people along the course of the book, catching a snapshot of them as they proceed with their part in the process of a heart transplant. However, in doing so, she manages to capture the essence of each of them and you come away from each encounter feeling as though you know the character. For example, there’s a wonderful moment when the reader meets Virgilio Breva, the heart surgeon who’s just received a ’phone call to tell him he’ll be travelling to Le Havre to harvest Simon’s heart:

The margherita splats against the apartment wall and falls to the carpet, leaving the trace of a Neopolitan sunset above the television. The young woman appraises her throw with a satisfied eye and turns back to the pile of white boxes on the counter of the open kitchen, lifts the lid of a second perfectly quadrangular box, slides the burning disc of the Supreme on to her palm, turns to face the wall, elbow bent, hand held as a tray, and with a quick extension of her arm, projects it between the room’s two windows, a new action painting, slices of curious constellation on the wall. As she’s preparing to break open the third box…a man steps out of the bathroom, glistening, and then – sensing a threat – stops short in the doorway; seeing the young woman wind up for a gesture of propulsion in his direction, he drops to the floor, pure reflex, then rolls from his belly on to his back to observe her from a low angle.

The second, as I hope you can see from the quotations, is de Kerangal’s sentences and the control she exerts over such lengthy constructions. Credit here must also go to translator Jessica Moore who’s done a superb job ensuring that these extended complex sentences retain their clarity whilst containing an impressive amount of detail.

Mend the Living is gripping. Not because it’s fast-paced and plot-driven but because the writing is perfectly measured and the construction – of sentences and plot – is balanced. Through her characters, de Kerangal considers the impact of surgery on individuals and society; death; life-changing decisions, again both societal and individual; privilege; love, and the heart. It’s not difficult to see why this novel has won ten literary awards in France.

As far as I can tell, de Kerangal only has one other novel which has been translated into English – Birth of a Bridge – which Susan at A Life in Books reviewed last year (click the title to read Susan’s review). I’ll be getting myself a copy and looking out for anything that’s available in English in the future too. Mend the Living is a triumph.

 

Thanks to MacLehose Press for the review copy.