In the Dream House is a ground-breaking memoir of an emotionally abusive relationship. Ground-breaking in that it is one of only a handful of examples of an abusive relationship between partners who share the same gender identity and also in terms of the form Machado chooses for it.
Machado takes us into the dream house via three epigraphs, each on a separate page. It is clear from the start that she is building something new, shifting our perspective on ideas and structures that already exist, asking us to look at the gaps and see what’s missing from our understanding of the world.
Sometimes the proof is never committed to the archive – it is not considered important enough to record, or if it is, not important enough to preserve. Sometimes there is a deliberate act of destruction […]. What gets left behind? Gaps where people never see themselves of find information about themselves. Holes that make it impossible to give oneself a context. Crevices people fall into. Impenetrable silence.
As Machado relates the story of meeting the woman who becomes her abuser and the ways in which this abuse manifests, she plays with literary devices, genres, tropes and references to popular culture, naming each chapter after one of these. For example, the first time Machado is late to meet her girlfriend due to supporting someone in distress, her girlfriend is furious and her reaction disproportionate to the situation. The chapter is titled ‘Dream House as Omen’.
Possibly the most effective use of this structure comes in the ‘Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure®’. Those of us who read these books in childhood will recall that you read a passage and then have to choose what the next move will be. Once you’ve chosen you turn to the relevant page and keep going until you either run out of options or are successful in overcoming all the obstacles and completing the quest. Machado turns this into a circular exercise from which there is no escape. Her approach mirrors exactly how it feels to be trapped in a situation where there is no correct answer and you’re left questioning your own judgement and your self-worth.
In the Dream House succeeds on every level. It is a heart-breaking account of emotional abuse in a shared gender identity relationship and a piece of experimental non-fiction which breaks and remakes canonical ideas and structures. It is an incredible piece of work.
In the Dream House is published by Serpent’s Tail. The copy I read was my own purchase.
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.
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 Rocksuggesting 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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
I’m not going to mince my words: I suffer from depression and have done for twenty-five years. So begins Emma Mitchell’s nature diary, The Wild Remedy. One of the things Mitchell has discovered about her depression is that it ‘lifts a little’ if she can manage to leave the idyllic sounding cottage where she lives with her family and go for a walk in the woods. She acknowledges that she isn’t the first person to have made this connection – that there are references in literature as well as the Victorian cures for a range of illnesses – but there are also now a number of academic studies which support Mitchell’s personal experience.
The diary runs through the course of a year, beginning in October as autumn descends. Mitchell walks with her lurcher puppy, Annie, who is a constant, lovely presence throughout the book (even when she chews pencils because her walk’s delayed). As they walk, Mitchell looks for signs of the season – plants, insects and birds. She takes photographs, some of which she turns into sketches when she’s back home, and collects samples of plants and bird feathers which have fallen on the woodland floor. The latter Mitchell turns into collages. The collages, sketches and the photographs illustrate the book, beautifully demonstrating the natural cycle as the year progresses. It’s interesting – and quite stark – to see the way the colour drains from nature then begins to pop up in little splashes until we reach summer and things are in full bloom again.
While the countryside becomes gloomier, Mitchell’s depression has the same effect on her. As she promises at the opening of the book, she doesn’t mince her words, taking the reader through the effects on her brain of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and showing how her depression sometimes […] has a massive party and invites over its pals Crippling Anxiety and Suicidal Ideation for a knees-up. It doesn’t make for easy reading but Mitchell’s honesty and the fact that this is part of a cycle helps to show the ebbs and flows of depression. It’s a reminder to anyone who suffers that, even at the lowest points, it will loosen its grip eventually.
Some books are difficult to review without exploring my own experience as a reader and The Wild Remedy is one of them. I’ve suffered from depression, anxiety and insomnia, sporadically, for almost twenty years. Often they come in pairs, sometimes all three descend at once. When Mitchell talked about her experience of SAD, I recognised it. My mood often plummets in November and December, lifting again once the cherry blossom blooms and the clocks go forward. I live in the city and the awful cliché that it’s grim up north often feels true during winter; there are days when it’s continually grey and it feels as though we might never see sunlight again. Most days I crave being by the sea because I know I feel better – and sleep better – when I’m there. Reading about Mitchell’s trips to the seaside, at various points in the year, helped me feel that I’ve not simply internalised an unscientific Victorian cure-all and that there is something in spending time in nature that helps to lift my mood.
The Wild Remedy isn’t just an interesting and beautifully rendered book, it’s an important one. By sharing her experiences and her knowledge, Mitchell shows how nature can help us and why we should take more time to be in tune with our surroundings.
This post is part of a blog tour. You can see what other reviews thought of A Wild Remedy at the sites listed below. Emma Mitchell posts beautiful collages and things she’s seen on her walks on her Instagram and Twitter accounts; I highly recommend both.
Review copy of A Wild Remedy provided free by Michael O’Mara Books.
Some of the best books I read this year weren’t published in 2018 so I thought I’d put them in a separate round-up. I always try and keep this to ten books, I haven’t managed it this year, here’s twelve instead.
Union Street – Pat Barker
One day I’ll learn to read a writer’s work before judging it. I’ve always assumed that Pat Barker wrote books about men in war, then I had to read The Silence of the Girls to write the copy for her Manchester Literature Festival event. I posted a picture of me reading it on my personal Instagram and the brilliant Adelle Stripe mentioned Barker’s earlier, feminist works which she thought I’d like. She was right. Union Street begins with Kelly, stalked by an older man, then moves along the street, chapter-by-chapter, to tell the tales of the other women and girls. It’s a grim read filled with neglect, abuse, pregnancy and death but it captures life for white working class women and still feels as relevant in 2018 as it would’ve done in 1982.
Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
Home Fire moves Sophocles’ Antigone to the present, telling the story of twins Isma and Aneeka and their brother Parvaiz. When the young women meet Eamonn Lone, son of the UK’s first Muslim Home Secretary, all of their lives are irrevocably changed. A compelling retelling which places a spotlight on the West’s treatment of Muslims and ideas of integration. My full review is here.
Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward
Narrated by 13-year-old Jojo, his mother Leonie, and the ghost of a boy named Richie, Sing, Unburied, Sing tells the story of a Black family in Southern America who can’t escape the ghosts of the past. Ward intertwines family history with that of Black people in North America and uses the present day to show the damage that history has wrought. It’s a devastating and timely tale. My mini-review is here.
A Thousand Paper Birds – Tor Udall
Another example of my work leading me to a book I’d previously overlooked. I was asked to interview Udall as part of a panel at Jersey Festival of Words and A Thousand Paper Birds was a real surprise. Jonas’ wife is dead. He retreats to Kew Gardens as a place to try and heal. There he meets Chloe, Harry and Millie, all of whom are keeping their own secrets. Beautifully written and affecting, an absolute gem.
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions – Valeria Luiselli (some sections translated by Lizzie Davies)
Another timely work. In 2015, Luiselli began working as a volunteer translator interviewing unaccompanied migrant children crossing the border from Mexico to the United States. Through the questions the children are asked, Luiselli tells some of their stories and the wider tale of how these children are being failed. My full review is here.
Things I Don’t Want to Know – Deborah Levy
Conceived as a response to George Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’ and the first in a trilogy about Levy’s life and work, Things I Don’t Want to Know is a feminist discussion on women’s writing. Levy talks about the need to speak up, to write calmly through rage, to find a space in which to write. I underlined a lot.
Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)
An unnamed woman struggles with new motherhood in a new country. She’s angry and frustrated but also full of love and lust, all of which spill out at inappropriate moments. Harwicz questions society’s expectations of women in this inventive, sharp novella. My full review is here.
The White Book – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)
A fractured, often brutal book about Han’s sister who died two hours after she was born. Han uses the colour white repetitively as a meditation on grief and loss, writing her sister back into existence. Beautifully translated by Smith, The White Book is short and highly affecting but not without hope.
Kindred – Octavia Butler
One of the bookish things I’ve most enjoyed this year is taking part in the #ReadWomenSF discussions on Twitter, led by the writer G X Todd. It’s meant I’ve read a number of books that have been sitting on my shelves for some time and Kindred was one of them. In 1976, Dana, a young Black woman, is pulled into 1815 where she saves a young white boy’s life. He is the son of a plantation owner and one of Dana’s relatives. Through Dana, Rufus and Dana’s white husband, Kevin, Butler explores structural inequality, complicity and the normalising of horrific behaviour, all of which doesn’t seem so distant in 2018.
The Poison Tree – Erin Kelly
Last year I loved Erin Kelly’s He Said/She Said so this year I went back to the beginning and read her debut, The Poison Tree. In 1997, Karen meets Biba and is swept into her bohemian lifestyle. In 2007, Karen and her daughter Alice, collect their husband and father from prison. We know that at the end of the summer in 1997 two people died. But we don’t know how and we don’t know who. Tightly plotted and compelling with a perfect ending.
Die a Little – Megan Abbott
Megan Abbott is one of those writers that everyone seems to rave about so I decided to start at the beginning with her debut. Set on the edges of Hollywood during the Golden Age, Die a Little, tells the story of school teacher Lora King’s investigation into her new sister-in-law, Alice Steele, a Hollywood wardrobe assistant. As her findings build, Lora uncovers a world of drugs and sex work as well as some secrets about her own life. Possibly the only book I’ve ever read that I thought was too short.
Resurrection Bay – Emma Viskic
Caleb Zelic’s best friend dies in his arms in the opening pages of Resurrection Bay and the pace doesn’t let up until the end of the book. His best friend has been murdered and Caleb’s turns investigator to find out who did it. His mission is made all the more interesting – and sometimes scary – because Caleb’s deaf meaning sometimes he picks up on cues others might miss and other times he doesn’t hear people sneaking up on him. There are subplots involving his estranged relations – a brother and a wife – and some fun with Australian sign language too. My review of the follow-up And Fire Came Down is here, along with an interview with Emma Viskic.
August is my favourite bookish month of the year: women in translation month. Lots of bloggers and publishers get involved; you can follow what’s happening via the hashtag #WITMonth and the @Read_WIT account run by Meytal Radzinski who founded the whole thing. I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone else is reading and discussing.
First up for me is a very timely book in terms of the recent incarceration of immigrant children in America (although there are messages here for many other countries including the UK). It’s a little bit of a cheat too as Luiselli wrote some of the text in English – the book began life as an article for Freeman’s and then was expanded on in Spanish and those sections were translated by Lizzie Davis – but this is an important piece of work and #WITMonth seemed a good time to review it.
In 2015, Luiselli begins work as a volunteer translator interviewing unaccompanied migrant children who’ve crossed the border from Mexico into the United States of America.
The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.
Luiselli divides her account of her experience into four stages: border, court, home, community. This comes from a list her niece sees on a board in one of the interview rooms; it’s there to help the migrant children recall their journey into the country. She parallels their journey with parts from her own life. Luiselli and her husband are also migrants. Having applied for their green cards, they can’t leave the country so drive across to Arizona as a holiday. They are stopped by border patrol who want to know what business they have being there.
The forty questions in the book’s title refer to those the children are asked in order for the group of charities who offer support to assess how they might build a legal case for them. Question seven is “Did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared you or hurt you?” This allows Luiselli to give us the statistics:
Eighty percent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way.
The number of abduction victims between April and September 2010 was 11,333.
Some sources estimate that, since 2006, around 120,000 migrants have disappeared in their transit through Mexico.
She makes it clear that listening to the children’s stories horrifies her but it is these details that can be used to strengthen their case to stay in the U.S.
As she undertakes this work, Luiselli teaches an Advanced Conversation class at a local university. There she begins to discuss the immigration crisis. This leads to the students deciding to do something positive and hopeful and allows Luiselli to follow one of the boys she has interpreted for to something close to an ending. What this also highlights though is how the U.S. is complicit in the creation of these migrants: the boy, who she calls Manu, encounters the same problem in New York state which led him to leave Mexico in the first place.
Of course, America isn’t the only country to create a situation which leads to migration and then close its borders – the UK and other European countries have done the same, most recently with Syrian refugees.
Luiselli’s reason for writing the book is a very clear message to us all:
…perhaps the only way to grant any justice – were that even possible – is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalising horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.
The horror and the violence are made stark in Tell Me How It Ends. It’s a difficult book to read at times but, as Luiselli says, it’s also one we can’t afford to look away from.
Perceived as the visual representation of Islam, hijab-wearing Muslim women are often harangued at work, at home and in public life yet are rarely afforded a platform of their own.
In books and in the media we are spoken on behalf of often by men, non-hijabis, and non-Muslims. Whether it is radical commentators sensationalising our existence or stereotypical norms being perpetuated by the same old faces, hijabis are tired. Too often we are seen to exist only in statistics, whilst others gain a platform off the back of the hostilities we face.
Cut from the Same Cloth seeks to tip the balance back in our favour. The collection will feature essays from 15 middle and working class women of all ages and races who will look beyond the tired tropes exhausted by the media and offer honest insight into the issues that really affect our lives. From modern pop culture to anti-blackness, women’s rights, working life; this first of its kind anthology will examine a cross section of British hijabis and the breadth of our experiences. It’s time we, as a society, stopped the hijab-splaining and listened to the people who know.
It’s time for change.
This anthology will include essays from Sabeena Akhtar, Azeezat Johnson, Hodan Yusuf, Myriam Francois, Ra’ifah Rafiq, Raisa Hassan, Rumana Lasker, Shaista Aziz, Sofia Rehman, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Suma Din, Sumaya Kassim and Yvonne Ridley.
Back in December 2015, I was part of the #DiverseDecember campaign. It feels as though things have begun to move on since then – The Jhalak Prize was founded in 2016; The Good Immigrant was crowdfunded in three days, went on to be a best seller and was voted the British public’s favourite book of 2016 at the Books Are My Bag Readers Awards; four of the six books that make up this year’s shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction are written by women of colour. But there remains a hierarchy of acceptability with regards to whose voices appear on our shelves and in our media, whose voices we listen to. I’ve contributed to Cut from the Same Cloth because, to quote Flavia Dzodan, ‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’. As I type, the project is 69% funded; if you’re able and would like to contribute to the project, the crowdfunding page is here.
After finishing the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, I wanted something different to read. I picked up two essay collections by Americans, one written by a woman in her early thirties, the other in her mid-forties. What they both have in common is they’re working out how to live, how to be, by looking back at their younger selves.
They were timely for me. It’s a year today since my marriage ended. While I try not to attach too much significance to dates, it’s interesting to compare the ideas Fee and Dederer discuss to my own thoughts on what I’ve learned in the past year and what I want my life to look like now.
Places I Stopped on the Way Home is about the years Fee lived in NYC. In the first essay she mentions the man she’s dating at 18, the man she moves to NYC for. He’s six years older than her and surer of himself. One night he plays Ella Fitzgerald and asks Fee, Who is your Ella?
Which is to say, what do you love? What has meaning for you? What fills you with joy? […] I found Ella as I sat on too-long subway rides furiously scribbling notes in the margins of books. “Ella” became not a question of who, but what. And the answer, fundamentally, was language – words written and spoken and sung. Language, endlessly malleable, and frighteningly insufficient and still human.
Through language, Fee makes sense of her time in NYC. In a non-chronological order, she writes about her relationships, her friendships, the eating disorder she develops, how she feels about the city, and what she learns from it all. Although Fee’s almost a decade younger than me, I found myself frequently marking lines and wondering how Fee had sussed so many of these things long before I did.
I am human, flawed and imperfect, which is, of course, all I ever was and all I was ever going to be. It is unbearable.
The truth is, we are all damaged at best, and we are all still worthy.
But for so long I confuse his not good enough with my not good enough and that becomes the story I tell myself. That I am not good enough.
It’s an engaging account of a young woman shaping a life that shows her what she does and doesn’t want, ultimately allowing her to become the person she wants to be.
At 18, I wouldn’t have had Fee’s problem, I knew who or what my Ella was. A couple of weeks ago I tweeted: I feel more and more like the person I was at 20. As if everything I’ve experienced and learned has sent me back there because I already knew who I was, I just didn’t know how to be her.
In Love & Trouble: Memoirs of a Former Wild Girl, Claire Dederer turns 44, realises she’s done everything right – friends, job, marriage, house, kids – but:
As you sit there, you find that all of a sudden you can’t stop thinking about her, the girl you were.
The thing is, you don’t really remember her that well, because you’ve spent so long trying to block her out […] It’s as though you’ve hidden yourself from yourself.
Dederer goes looking for her diaries which she then uses to write about the girl she was and the woman she’s become.
Playing with the form, Dederer writes ‘How to Have Sex with Your Husband of Fifteen Years’ in second person, creates a list of all the things she doesn’t want to think about: ‘The, You Know, Encroaching Darkness’, and uses the structure of Dante’s Inferno to write about her trips to L.A. with her best friend, Vic: ‘Dante and Virgil in L.A.’ These are interspersed with pieces about her youth: attending and dropping out of college twice, moving to Sydney on a whim.
Where she excels is in writing about sex, both from the perspective of a married woman in her 40s and that of a teenage girl/young woman, as she tries to understand why her sex drive has undergone a sudden resurgence.
In the middle of the collection is a piece titled ‘Recidivist Slutty Tendencies in the pre-AIDS-Era Adolescent Female’. Written in the style of an academic case study, Dederer examines ‘the near-rabbit levels of sexual activity’ she engaged in between 1980 and 1985. She doesn’t draw any simple conclusions but does relate her experiences to a time of sexual freedoms and the male gaze focusing on young girls: Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski. Two of the other essays are addressed directly to Polanski at a time when Dederer’s daughter is the same age as Samantha Gailey. Dederer herself was also 13 when Jack Wolf, a friend of her father’s, climbed into her sleeping bag and pushed his erection against her thigh. What Dederer is really examining is society’s views on women’s sexuality and how her view of herself has been shaped by them. It’s a timely assessment in the #MeToo era.
Both collections made me consider the way society views women and the way we view ourselves. They’re interesting explorations of ways of being a woman. It is Fee’s words that have stayed with me, although ultimately they could be used to summarise the key idea of both books:
It turns out that so much of growing up is about walking away from That Which is Not Right in pursuit of something better.
Thanks to Icon Books and Tinder Press for the review copies.
I’m very pleased to have an extract from She Called Me a Woman – Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak, and a short clip of two of the book’s editors discussing their hopes for it. The book is published by Cassava Republic in the UK,
From the publisher:
She Called Me Woman is a collection of first-hand accounts by a community telling their stories on their own terms. This engaging and groundbreaking collection of queer women’s narratives includes stories of first time love and curiosity, navigating same-sex feelings and spirituality, growing up gender non-conforming and overcoming family and society’s expectations. What does it means to be a queer Nigerian? How does one embrace the label of ‘woman’? While some tell of self-acceptance, others talk of friendship and building a home in the midst of the anti-same sex marriage law. The narrators range from those who knew they were gay from a very early age to those who discovered their attraction to the same sex later in life. The stories challenge the stereotypes of what we assume is lesbian, bisexual, gay, and *trans in Nigeria and they offer us a raw, first-hand look into the lives and realities of our family, friends, neighbours and co-workers who are queer.
Azeenarh Mohammed is a trained lawyer and a queer, feminist, holistic security trainer who spends her time training non-for-profit organisations on tools and tactics for digital and physical security and psycho-social well-being. Azeenarh is active in the queer women’s issues in Nigeria and has written on queerness and technology for publications like This is Africa, Perspectives, and Premium TimesNG.
Chitra Nagarajan is an activist, researcher and writer. She has spent the last 15 years working on human rights and peace building and is involved in feminist, anti-racist, anti-fundamentalist and queer movements. She currently lives and works in Maiduguri, Nigeria, focusing on conflict mitigation, civilian protection and women’s rights.
Aisha Salau has a BA in Marketing and works in communication and research. She is particularly interested in sex and sexuality in both modern and historical Nigeria.
Why Do I Have To Ask You To Consider Me Human?
In Yorubaland, girls have sex with girls all the time, especially while growing up – your next-door neighbour, your cousin. I have had all kinds of sex. I have had sex with men and sex with women. I like men but not in a sexual way. I love all the men in my life – but I’m not attracted to them. I refer to myself as queer because I’m more emotionally attached to women.
When I met the woman I’m living with now, she made me realise how much I love and enjoy talking with women. I really liked her. I said, ‘Let’s have sex and see if we enjoy each other’s bodies.’ When we moved to this area, we were formally dating but after we had lived together a few months, I realised she didn’t like children and that neither of us could have the kind of relationship we wanted. We are both still sexually attracted to each other and have sex but we are not seeing each other. We are just friends. I know she sees other people. For me, if I find somebody, that’s great but I can’t deal with a lot of the women I meet.
I have no idea if people around us know about the two of us. When we first moved to this area, we sat down in a bus and some random woman sat down beside us and said, ‘Awww, the way you treated your wife is so beautiful.’ I said, ‘She’s not my wife. She’s my sister.’ Some okada riders have said, ‘This your girlfriend is fine o.’
In my circles, we have long debates and my friends are pro-gay rights. They are feminists. I choose my friends well. All my male friends see me as an adventurous girl. I think they thought I was just experimenting about two years ago. I don’t know what they think now. When I meet them, I always go with her. Everyone thinks we are dating and it’s good. It’s like I’m making a statement. They tease us and they’re fine with it. On the other hand, I’ve lost jobs because of my sexuality. I got a job two weeks ago that I lost because somebody told them I was a lesbian. I was banking on that money.
Things have really changed on this issue since I was young. People weren’t so religious back then. They weren’t so corrupt. We use ‘lakiriboto’ to describe women who go against the grain, women who won’t sleep with men, including those who go with other women. The first time I saw two girls kissing was in my grandmother’s house – my aunt and one of the girls. They were all sleeping on this long mattress they would spread on the floor. The two of them would have sex and nobody would turn. My grandmother’s younger sister lived in Ghana for a long time. When she became old, she went to the house of this young girl who lived in the next compound and said she wanted to marry her. She promised to take care of the girl, send her to school, take care of all her expenses – and they gave her out in marriage. She married her so the girl could take care of her. They’re both dead now but the practice of women marrying women was common in the past – and I think it still is.
This is one of the reasons I love living in this neighbourhood. People are still living the way they were. Technology is not as fast here. They use old phones. We have a man who dresses obviously as a woman. Everyone knows him. They call him Baba Sango and think he gets possessed by the spirit of Sango. We have girls who dress like boys. Nobody looks at them in a weird way. We have all sorts of people and there’s still the polygamous way of life, which is a great way to cover a lot. Two women, best friends, would say they are marrying the same man, then they would marry other women for their husbands. They would say ‘I’m marrying a woman for myself and my husband can have part of it.’ A lot of these things are covered up under the Agbole system. You don’t know who has children or who does not because there are always children in the compound and everybody’s called by some child’s name. Nobody cares if you are married or not. The compound system really worked for them.
They still have it here but it’s changing. People are moving out of their compounds and becoming individuals. Now people have a really bad name for it. People are seen going to churches and mosques. Imams are saying that the women who sleep with women or the men who sleep with men are all going to hell. They pretend to be moralistic. They don’t remember that, when they were boys, they used to have sex with each other in all these corners. They still have these ‘all boys’ clubs’ where men meet. We all pretend to be religious and moralistic so that we can be accepted.
I want to see a community that is stronger, more educated, with people coming to knowledge of themselves. A community that is bolder. I want to tell people that they should be themselves. It’s when you are yourself that you can accept other people. I always say that it took me almost half my life to get to this point.
When I talk to young people, I tell them, ‘Don’t waste years struggling with yourself. Just accept yourself the way you are.’
TheCertifiablyTRUERavingsOfASectionedPhilosopher: Don't be afraid to think you might be a little 'crazy'. Who isn't? Check out some of my visualized poems here: https://www.instagram.com/maxismaddened/
Hmmm so I am the Hungry Reader. The one who reads. The one who is constantly reading or wanting to read constantly. This blog is all about the books I have read, the ones that I am reading and gems that I plan to read in the future or whenever it arrives.