4 Brown Girls Who Write are a collective who’ve recently published a set of pamphlets of solo works with Rough Trade Books.
Shadow Work by Roshini Goyate is a collection of poems examining things in the shadows both personally and globally. Goyate examines capitalism, motherhood, racism, domestic abuse and identity. ‘A Brief Return’ which considers a woman present in her ‘normal’ life after becoming a mother and riffs off Derek Walcott’s ‘Love After Love’ is a highlight. So too is the short and powerful ‘My Flame’.
In Hatch, Sharan Hunjan takes an experimental approach to work on reconciling her identity through her mother tongue and her Cockney English; the body pre- and post-motherhood, and the women who’ve inspired her. ‘Breasts’ experiments with typography, considering the different ways this body part is represented in life. It is a highlight, but this whole collection is really impressive.
Sheena Patel’s This Is What Love Is is the only prose work in the selection. A searing piece of memoir, it charts Patel’s relationship with two men – the unreliable H and C with whom Patel has ‘the best sex of my life’. Running alongside this is the increasingly hostile environment in the UK and the trauma this inflicts on Patel. It’s an open, piercing piece that covers emotional abuse, racism, abortion, sex, friendship and family. It’s a stunning piece of work.
The brilliantly titled I Don’t Know How to Forgive You When You Make No Apology for This Haunting by Sunnah Khan completes the collection. The echoes of an absent father lead to poems on childhood, the weight carried by wife/mother and daughter, an emotional and physical legacy, and also the impact of being the child of an immigrant in the UK. The title poem is a particularly heart-wrenching depiction of the legacy of absence.
While there is some overlap in the themes of each of the pamphlets, Goyate, Hunjan, Patel and Khan have distinctive voices and styles. An impressive introduction to four young writers; I’m already looking forward to more of their work.
‘I’ve always considered how some stories will never get told. It’s the way it is, Ireti. Silence is where we go to listen to those stories. Sit in silence and listen. Silence tells stories too, you know.’
In a corner of Lagos, Prof, newly released from 10 years in prison, returns to a house that he shrouds in darkness and silence. He refuses to turn the lights on; he refuses to admit his best friend, Kano, and his mother too. Both return repeatedly to knock on the door and beg to be allowed in.
Desire, a university student, lives nearby with her friend, Remilekun. A chance encounter with Prof when she was a young girl was a catalyst for Desire’s love of reading. Now, she is fascinated by Prof’s return. Dared to knock on his door by Remilekun, Desire returns each night and eventually is allowed into Prof’s house.
Desire’s life is further complicated by her relationship with student union presidential candidate Ireti, who looks similar to Prof, and Remilekun’s relationship with a man only referred to as Mr. America.
A Small Silence considers what happens in the gaps, in the dark, in the stories that aren’t spoken aloud. Whether that’s in families, in relationships or in prison. It considers the consequences of toxic masculinity, particularly domestic violence and cycles that persist. Absent fathers abound.
Desire reflected on how society placed so much emphasis on family, yet there was more dysfunction than normality.
There is hope, however, as characters’ support for each other leads to quiet revelations and new perspectives. Verissimo’s occasional use of relating a scene from both Desire and Prof’s perspectives allows her to create an unexpected, satisfying and fresh conclusion. A thoughtful accomplished novel.
A Small Silence recently won the 2020 Aidoo-Snyder Prize for Best Creative Work by the Women’s Caucus at the African Studies Association. It is published by Cassava Republic, a small press founded in Abuja, Nigeria in 2006 and with an office in London since 2016. They also published one of my all-time favourite books, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. You can buy all their titles directly from them on their website. They are currently running a pre-order campaign to support the publication of their forthcoming Spring 2021 titles. More information here.
The copy of A Small Silence I read was my own purchase.
For the first time, I’ve read (almost) all the books by womxn on the Booker Prize longlist. Almost because I haven’t read Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light. The reason for this is purely because I have the other two parts of the trilogy in paperback, so I’ll be buying and reading part three next year (I assume, there’s no listing for it at the moment) when I might also treat you to my rant about publishers who change cover designs during the publication of a series.
As for Mantel’s potential third successive Booker win, which dominated initial coverage of the longlist, I’m all for it. I think amongst Mantel’s recent success, it’s been forgotten that Mantel is (1) a womxn, (2) from a working-class background, who (3) wrote nine novels, a short story collection and a memoir, all of which are excellent and were largely ignored by the big prizes until she (4) wrote a big, historical fiction novel about a man in Tudor England. If it was a male writer up for a historic third win, I wouldn’t have to spell out why he was worthy. Anyway, having read all the other novels by womxn on the longlist, I don’t think Mantel’s got in the bag at all; there are some superb books here.
What’s interesting about the longlist are the number of novels which tell stories that have been hidden or remained unpublished. Not only the historical fiction of The Shadow King and How Much of These Hills Is Gold but also Burnt Sugar and its mother/daughter relationship, and Such a Fun Age with its young, Black female protagonist who just wants to live her life. There’s also significant consideration of how societies are organised and how we choose (or are forced) to live. Plenty of calls for urgent change here.
It’s the first time I’ve felt compelled to read of all the books by womxn on the Booker Prize longlist and it was a joy. This year has highlighted a list of gems, all of which are very much worth reading.
The New Wilderness – Diane Cook (Oneworld)
Somewhere in the not too distant future, Bea’s daughter Agnes is ill. When a doctor suggests that moving out of the smog-ridden, overcrowded, filthy city might be the answer, Bea allows her husband Glen’s dream to come true. Glen wants to be part of a study that involves living in the Wilderness, a refuge for wildlife. Twenty people are placed in the last wilderness area left, given a Manual on how to behave, and allowed semi-regular contact with the Rangers, including distribution of mail from friends and family.
The novel begins at a point where the Community have already spent several years living in this terrain. Although they claim to do everything by consensus, leaders have emerged, relationships have strengthened and strained, and some of their number are dead. The Rangers tell them they’ve camped too long at one particular spot and send them on a route they’ve never crossed before.
The world Cook creates in The New Wilderness is a microcosm of society. There’s a clear hierarchy from the Administration to the Private Lands (which may or may not exist) to the Rangers to the Community to those living in the city. The rules might be bullshit and are a contradiction to living life in what’s supposed to be a wilderness, highlighting that all rules are created by societies to keep people in their places. There’s also some fetishisation of consumer goods that the Community are supposed to have relinquished.
Alongside this, Cook uses the relationship between Bea and Agnes to look at mothers and daughters. As Agnes grows in age and confidence, their relationship becomes more complex and more challenging. Bea doesn’t agree that she’d do anything for her daughter – moving to the Wilderness has pretty much cost Bea her relationship with her own mother – and isn’t sure she’s doing the right thing anymore.
There’s a good narrative pace to the book and enough intrigue to propel the reader through it, as well as some interesting characters and set pieces. A good debut.
This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber)
The question of who can, and who cannot, who does and who does not succeed, returns to echo ominously, bringing bitterness back into your soul.
Tambudzai’s life is not going well. In her 30s, she’s unemployed and living in a hostel. The woman who runs the hostel wants to throw Tambudzai out for being too old, concerned she’ll lose her license. Tambu finds a room in a big house run by a widow, which is deteriorating, and plans to marry one of the widow’s sons. Eventually she’s offered a job as a project manager that comes with accommodation, working for Green Jacaranda Getaway Safaris, a start-up dealing in environmentally friendly entrepreneurship solutions.
What connects each of these moments in Tambu’s life are the structural issues which consistently prevent her from progressing, despite having been educated at a white school, gaining a university degree and doing what she sees as playing by the rules, even when it means ignoring others in danger. There’s a horrific scene near the start of the novel where Tambu watches her hostelmate Gertrude as she’s attacked and has her skirt ripped off.
‘Tambu,’ she whispers, singling you out. Her mouth is a pit. She is pulling you in. You do not want her to entomb you.
This isn’t the only moment of violence against women; there are several, both physical and emotional.
The novel’s set during the time that Mugabe was redistributing farming lands controlled by whites to landless Black Zimbabweans. The white people in the novel are mostly represented by Tracey Stephenson, who was Tambu’s rival at school and later her boss at an advertising agency – where the white workers claimed Tambu’s work as their own – and then at Green Jacaranda, which Tracey runs. It doesn’t matter what Tambu does or where she goes, she can’t escape Tracey and will never rise above her. Tracey complains about her own disempowerment while constantly working to ensure that Tambu is kept in her place.
Dangarembga writes the novel in second person. This serves to distance Tambudzai from herself and her decisions; she can’t face what she’s doing in order to try and create a better life for herself – she’s educated, it shouldn’t be this hard and, of course, it wouldn’t be if she wasn’t a Black woman. It also makes the reader complicit, which is interesting, and I suspect will work differently on each reader depending on their race, gender and class. It makes for a sometimes uncomfortable reading experience, which is entirely the point.
On a sentence level too, the writing is superb. The book begins There is a fish in the mirror. It’s metaphorical, a representation of Tambu’s face at that point, but it serves to disorientate us and to introduce a number of animal metaphors, including frequent use of snakes, to show Tambu’s emotional and physical state.
This Mournable Body is the final book in a trilogy that began with Nervous Conditions. I haven’t read the earlier books and, while I’m sure I’ve missed things I’m unaware of, that didn’t affect my reading of this novel. I could easily write an essay on the issues Dangarembga considers in this book alone. If I was awarding this year’s prize, this would be my winner. This Mournable Body is a masterpiece.
Burnt Sugar – Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton)
There was a breakdown somewhere about what we were to one another, as though one of us were not holding up her part of the bargain, her side of the bridge. Maybe the problem is that we are standing on the same side, looking out into the emptiness. Maybe we were hungry for the same things, the sum of us only doubled that feeling.
Antara’s mother, Tara, has dementia; she wanders around at night, asks Antara to phone people who are dead, and eventually doesn’t recognise Antara at all. They have a complex, antagonist relationship. When Antara was small, her mother left her husband, Antara’s father, because she felt stifled in his parents’ home, and joined an ashram. Run by a guru who promoted free love and took some of the women as his lovers before casting them off, Antara was neglected by her mother, instead becoming close to a woman called Kali Mata. Now, Antara seems to want a conventional life; she’s married and has discussed the possibility of children with her husband. However, she works as an artist; her most recent project being one in which she copied the face of a man over and over again.
The damage Antara’s mother rendered has left Antara in a position where she both loves and hates her mother. She wants to take care of her as she deteriorates, while also wanting to hurt her. It’s deliberately unclear whether some of Antara’s actions are because she wants the thing she is pursuing or because she knows it will hurt her mother; perhaps that she’s her mother’s daughter makes any distinction impossible.
The epigraph to the book is a quotation from Lidia Yuknavitch’s superb memoir The Chronology of Water. Yuknavitch is one my favourite writers so I figured I was in for a treat as soon as I opened Burnt Sugar and I was right. Doshi’s depiction of Tara and Antara’s relationship shows how complex, interdependent and toxic the mother/daughter dynamic can be. There are few good portrayals of this type of motherhood in literature; it’s refreshing to see another excellent one.
The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste (Canongate)
These aren’t the days to pretend you’re only a wife or a sister or a mother, she says. We’re more than this.
Set during the Second Italo-Ethiopian war, The Shadow King, tells the story of Hirut, a servant working for the landowner and soldier, Kidane, and his wife Aster. Kidane took Hirut in when her parents died and his interest in her provokes jealousy from Aster, who is grieving the death of their child. Beginning in a claustrophobic domestic setting, the scope of the novel widens when the Italians invade Ethiopia. It’s clear early on that neither Hirut nor Aster will be content with supporting the men as they wage war; Hirut is furious when Kidane takes the gun her father gave her and donates it to the cause, and – in a superb set piece – as Empress Menen gives a speech calling on women to ‘express their solidarity’ against acts of war, Aster dresses in her father-in-law’s uniform; A woman dressed as a warrier, looking as fierce as any man.
The narrative roves between a number of other characters including Ettore Navarra, a Jewish-Italian photographer; Ferres, a highly educated, expensive sex-worker and spy; Carlo Fucelli, leader of the Italian invasion, and Haile Selassie, initially in Addis Ababa and then in exile in Bath, England. There is also a chorus which comments and advises. Their appearance works alongside increasing references to Greek mythology, as the behaviour of some of the characters echoes those from the epic journeys. This movement is skilfully done, creating an engaging picture of the various battles – physical and psychological – that take place.
The novel’s title refers to an incident at the centre of the book where Hirut recognises the similarity between a peasant musician called Minim (‘nothing’) and Haile Selassie. In order to motivate and encourage the soldiers, Aster and Hirut dress Minim and train him to act like the emperor. Hirut becomes his guard. This isn’t the only shadow over the story though; many of the characters act in particular ways due to stories, advice and traits that have been passed down to them. Mengiste shows how ideas of masculinity and femininity are moulded in this way and the damage these gender constructs wield. She also considers how Ettore’s family have been forced to create a narrative and a different life due to anti-semitism and the impact this has on him when he’s seen as other in all the contexts he’s placed in.
Huge in scope and ambition, The Shadow King is an absorbing narrative through which Mengiste writes back into history the presence of female soldiers (including her own great-grandmother) in the Second Italo-Ethiopian war. A triumph.
Such a Fun Age – Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury)
Emira, a young Black woman, is months away from her 26th birthday and the loss of parental health insurance cover. She works two part-time jobs as a typist for The Green Party and as a babysitter for a wealthy white couple. She’s at a friend’s birthday party when the couple call her for emergency cover while the police deal with an incident at their house. Emira takes two-year-old Briar to Market Depot to distract her. A middle-aged white woman tells the security guard there’s something suspicious about Emira, out late at night dressed for a party holding a white child, and the security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar. The incident is filmed by a white man who later agrees to delete the video after emailing a copy to Emira.
What unfolds is a story of white people attempting to out-woke each other while ignoring the wishes of the young Black woman they think they’re trying to protect. Emira’s boss Alix wants to befriend Emira and make her part of the family, while the man Emira dates – Kelley Copeland, who is also the man who filmed the video – seems to fetishise Black people. However, this is as much a tale of class as it is race; Emira is the first in her family to gain a degree, but at 25 she doesn’t earn enough to have benefits included in her work package. In various ways, Emira’s friends, Alix, Alix’s friends and Kelley all attempt to push Emira into doing something more with her life, while Emira can’t imagine leaving a job in which she cares for the little girl she loves.
This is a smart, compelling and smoothly written novel. The sections where Reid interweaves conversations characters are having with the interruptions of a small child are deftly handled. Alix and Kelley are recognisable and, by the end of the novel, decisively skewered by their own behaviour, while Emira, the character everyone else seems to think is lost, shows that it’s possible to be content without grand ambition.
Redhead by the Side of the Road – Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus)
44-year-old Micah Mortimer has a steady life. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone. He works as a superintendent at the building he lives in and runs his own tech company, mainly sorting out the computer woes of elderly women. He has a girlfriend – Cass, a teacher – who he sees several nights a week.
Two things happen to disrupt Micah’s quiet existence: Cass thinks she’s going to be thrown out of her apartment and when Micah doesn’t suggest she move in with him, Cass is annoyed, and Brink, the son of Micah’s first girlfriend shows up unexpectedly, thinking that Micah might be his dad.
Like many of Tyler’s novels, this could be described as a quiet book. While nothing much appears to happen, Micah is forced to recalibrate his entire view of himself and his life so far – the redhead of the title doesn’t exist, it’s a fire hydrant that Micah repeatedly mistakes for a small person while running without his glasses on. There’s a superb set piece of a dinner with Micah’s family that is vintage Tyler and much to admire in the novel as a whole.
Love and Other Thought Experiments – Sophie Ward (Corsair)
Rachel and Eliza are a couple. When the novel begins their flat has an ant infestation and they are thinking about having a baby. Lying in bed one night, Rachel dreams she’s been bitten and wakes up. She becomes convinced that an ant has crawled into her eye. Eliza thinks Rachel is mistaken and Rachel connects this to her belief that Eliza doesn’t want a baby because she thinks Rachel will be a bad mother. They have the baby and the ant takes up permanent residence inside Rachel. From there the book develops in unexpected ways.
Each chapter begins with a summary of a philosophical theory, then the story that follows illustrates that theory. As you’re reading the chapters seem to be loosely interlinked stories, but the connection between them becomes clear towards the very end. The book moves between perspectives, time periods and genres. To say too much would spoil what a clever, intriguing journey this takes you on, but I will say that the ideas reminded me of Speak by Louisa Hall and the structure of The Shore by Sara Taylor and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Definitely worth a read if genre-bending time travel is your thing.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold – C Pam Zhang (Virago)
Set in the North American goldrush, How Much of These Hills is Gold is largely told through the perspectives of Lucy and Sam, 12 and 11-years old respectively. Their Ba is dead and, as the novel begins, they set out to bury him somewhere he might regard as home. The problem is that Ba never settled, always in pursuit of the gold that would make the family rich. This journey bookends the novel. In the middle, we get the story of the family, particularly that of Lucy’s education, followed by Ba’s ghost telling the true tale of how him and Ma met, rather than the version that’s become the family story.
The book’s concerned with who’s allowed to tell a story and how they choose to, or are allowed to, tell it. Ba’s section particularly serves as a corrective to the rich, white men’s tales of who found gold and who it belonged to. Zhang also considers race and gender. We would describe Sam as trans, and his story illustrates that trans people have been present (and erased from many narratives) for a long time. His trajectory, when contrasted to Lucy’s, highlights similarities and differences between the way they are treated.
The novel reinserts non-white people, specifically Chinese people and, to a lesser extent, indigenous North Americans, back into a part of history from which they’ve largely been erased, reasserting their agency and complexity. Zhang does all this while pulling off a page-turning, immersive story of the American West complete with cowboys, shooting, stealing, a rotting corpse and the question of what it means to be family. How Much of These Hills Is Gold is superb.
Review copies provided by the publishers as listed except This Mournable Body, Such a Fun Age, and Love and Other Thought Experiments which are my own copies.
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.
Breasts and Eggs – Mieko Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador)
A novel in two parts, Breasts and Eggs is narrated by Natsuko, a 31-year-old bookshop worker. The first section is set in 2008 when Natsuko’s sister Makiko and her teenage daughter, Midoriko, come to visit Natsuko in Tokyo. Makiko’s on the verge of 40 and contemplating breast implants. 13-year-old Midoriko hasn’t spoken to her mother for more than six months, writing notes on a pad instead. She keeps a journal which we’re privy to from the early stages of the book which reveals that Midoriko is concerned about puberty and the expectations placed on women. She’s also angry at her mother for wanting the implants. Natsuko is concerned about her sister, who ‘literally looked old’. The two women grew up in poverty and now Makiko works as a hostess in a bar. The strain of work and her daughter not speaking to her is clearly taking its toll on Makiko. Inevitably the tension builds and there’s a superb set piece towards the end of the section involving actual eggs.
In the second half of the novel, Natsuko is thirty-eight. Since the end of part one, she’s become a successful writer with a best-selling short story collection. Now she’s working on a novel and struggling to believe that she’s gone from poverty to full-time writer. She’s also wondering whether she wants to spend the rest of her life alone. This is partly a question of relationships but largely of whether or not she wants a child. Natsuko’s almost certain she’s asexual (although she never uses the term) and this further complicates the issue. In an attempt to find an answer, she begins to research fertility treatment and makes some unexpected discoveries.
Breasts and Eggs was a best-seller in Japan and has been described as ‘a literary grenade’, partly, I’m sure, because Kawakami so brilliantly sends up the middle-class male-dominated literary scene. There’s a brilliant set piece at a literary event which introduces another female writer, Rika Yusa, who has no time for the big male writers and no qualms about telling them. But what sets the book apart is its focus on three working-class women and their lives. Kawakami writes about money and the impact having so little has on someone’s life; she considers the long-lasting effects of growing up poor; she examines what it is to be a woman from a range of perspectives creating space for single mothers, for those who chose to remain child-free, and for a woman who’s asexual, therefore making room for so many different varieties of womanhood. Breasts and Eggs is a breath of fresh air. I loved it.
King Kong Theory – Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Feminism […] is not about pitting the miserable gains by women against the miserable gains by men, it’s about blowing the whole fucking thing sky high.
Despentes’ feminist manifesto/essay collection King Kong Theory comes for the patriarchy from the margins:
I write from the realms of the ugly, for the ugly, the old, the bull dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckable, the hysterics, the freaks, all those excluded from the great meat market of female flesh.
From this perspective, Despentes shows how women have been made to feel scared of their own independence and how traditional masculinity is keeping men caged. She writes about her own rape to challenge the idea that that women have to be victims; she details her experiences as a prostitute (Despentes’ vocabulary choice) to lay down parallels with heterosexual marriage; she debates the reasons the establishment give for their attitudes towards porn, tying it to capitalism and the maintenance of the status quo, and she discusses the attitudes of male critics towards the film based on her debut novel Baise Moi (Rape Me), and how the policing of women’s identities is degrading. The latter piece ends with a paragraph of which the opening sentence is Thank fuck for Courtney Love, to which I (and my 17-year-old self) can only respond, hell, yes.
Originally published in 2006, King Kong Theory has been reissued by Fitzcarraldo Editions in a new translation by Frank Wynne, translator of Despentes’ brilliant Vernon Subutex trilogy. It’s spikier and swearier than the original English language translation and better for it. There’s a ferocity to this version that fits Despentes’ anger at society’s gender expectations.
Rather than writing a review of this book, my initial plan was to type out all the bits I’d underlined, but by the time I’d finished reading it, I’d underlined most of the book. I think that tells you all you need to know.
Many People Die Like You – Lina Wolff, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel (And Other Stories)
Wolff’s short stories, like her novels, are populated with off-beat characters who either find themselves in strange situations or are the victim of Wolff sending them up. The opening tale, ‘No Man’s Land’ starts with the narrator complaining about a badly written report. Office manager? No. A private detective hired to follow the narrator’s husband. The detective’s dangling modifiers drop him in a predicament neither he nor the reader would have imagined.
In the title story, Vicente Jiménez, a middle-aged university lecturer (oh, yes), laments the end of an affair with one of his female students (oh, yes). His boss, Jerónimo Inclán, tells him
“Many people die like you,” […]. “Death by stifling is in fact the most common death of all. Statistics will tell you asphyxiation is the most common cause of death.”
He expands this into a metaphor about feeling that you’re not living life to the full before eventually succumbing to melancholy and dying. Vincete’s life changes though when Inclán introduces him to Beatriz de la Fuente; perhaps he’ll escape death after all. I should’ve hated everything about this story, but Wolff has her tongue firmly in her cheek and it’s hilarious.
Elsewhere, a girl tells her high school guidance counsellor that she could imagine being a sex worker, leading to unexpected but inevitable consequences; an older woman asks a younger man for piano lessons which become regular appointments for sex instead; a man has a terrible time on holiday with his wife because of the patriarchy and the establishment and absolutely nothing to do with his affair (oh, no); a woman’s ex-lover turns up at her marital home with a strange request, and, on a coach trip, a woman sees a terrible omen.
In the longest and most complex piece, ‘Misery Porn’, a young man buys a second-hand television which starts to pick up a channel where a woman sits in a chair crying. The woman turns out to be his neighbour and he gets drawn into both a relationship with her and the content she produces. Wolff uses it to comment on society’s expectations of women who’ve suffered and the double-bind it places them in. As in many of the stories, Wolff’s interested in the conventions of society and what happens if you break them. These tales are odd, inventive and often laugh out loud funny.
Review copies provided by the publishers as stated.
Four more #WITMonth offerings. All very different; all very good. (Part One is here.)
Tender Is the Flesh – Agustina Bazterrica, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses (Pushkin Press)
In a future world that feels slightly too close to our own reality, people have stopped eating animal meat following the announcement of a virus, carried by animals, that’s fatal to humans. The lack of protein means some people take matters into their own hands: ‘In some countries immigrants began to disappear en masse. Immigrants, the marginalized, the poor. They were persecuted and eventually slaughtered’. In an attempt to prevent this, humans are legally bred for meat.
Marcos Tejo runs a processing plant. He’s grieving the death of his baby son and his wife is living at her mother’s, unwilling to speak to him. Then an old friend gifts him a pure gene, almond-fed female and Marcos has to decide what to do with her.
Tender Is the Flesh isn’t for the faint-hearted. In one section, we’re given a tour of the processing plant as ‘heads’ (it’s illegal to refer to them as humans) are slaughtered. There’s a fairly graphic rape scene and multiple images of humans in captivity. But how far from today’s world is this really? Bazterrica draws clear lines to our treatment of immigrants, the poor and women and although Marcos is conflicted, he is also utterly complicit. Ultimately, Bazterrica suggests we’re too selfish to save humanity; when it comes to it, we’ll make sure our own needs are met first.
A Girl’s Story – Annie Ernaux, translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
I am not constructing a fictional character but deconstructing the girl I was.
At a summer camp in 1958, 17-year-old Annie Duchesne was sexually assaulted by one of the camp’s head instructor. Sixty years later, Annie Ernaux (née Duchesne) tries to analyse what happened to her and the impact that summer had on her life. Ernaux sees the girl she was as ‘the missing piece’; she’s tried to write about her and that summer many times but has never managed it. Now, she separates herself from this girl, referring to her as ‘she’ and her present self as ‘I’ in order to unearth who she really is.
What’s most interesting about the project is Ernaux’s thoughts on how to approach it and what can really be learned from an event so long ago that new memories of it are unlikely to be found. At one point, she thinks about the man and the imbalance of the impact he’s had on her compared to the one she had on him. ‘I do not envy him: I am the one who is writing.’ And I’m grateful she is. Ernaux’s work is always intelligent and thoughtful and A Girl’s Story is no exception.
Where the Wild Ladies Are – Matsuda Aoko, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton (Tilted Axis)
A collection of ghost stories drawn from traditional Japanese tales to which Matsuda applies a feminist twist. There are saleswomen who subtly sort out a lazy husband; a newly-single woman who, with the help of her aunt, question why she spends so much time on grooming procedures; a sex worker whose child is quietly watched over when she has to leave her alone in order to work; a tree which might have special properties, and a woman who works with her pet to protect women who are being harassed and abused. There is also a series of stories set in and around a company run by Mr Tei, a recruiter of both human and supernatural beings.
Matsuda plays with form and voice across the collection. There’s an interesting piece – ‘Having a Blast’ – which moves from the perspective of a dead wife to her widow and then to his new wife, which shifts the reader’s understanding of the characters as it progresses. ‘The Jealous Type’ is told in second person which begins quite confrontationally but takes an interesting turn when the speaker is revealed.
Some of the stories come with a primer for the original tale. These were interesting in terms of seeing how Matsuda had changed or developed them, but I didn’t feel that not knowing the original stories diminished my enjoyment of the new versions. This collection is a joy.
Territory of Light –Yūko Tsushima, translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt (Penguin Modern Classics)
Originally written and published in 12 parts in 1978-79, Territory of Light follows a year in the life of a young woman who has left her husband and is living alone with their two-year-old daughter. As the year proceeds, the woman has to learn how to adjust to this new life – how to cope when she needs to go to work but her daughter’s sick; how to manage the presence of her ex who wants to see his child but can’t pay maintenance; how to build something that is hers while taking into account the needs of her child.
On the surface, this book appears to be quite gentle; the sort of narrative which is sometimes described as one in which ‘nothing happens’. But there is an underlying darkness to the stories: a fire that breaks out at an apartment; the sound of water that can’t be located; objects thrown from a window; the daughter acting out, and the ex-husband being verbally abusive. These are stories with a depth that belies the smoothness of the writing; tales that linger and expand after you’ve finished reading them.
Review copies of A Girl’s Story and Territory of Light provided by the publisher as listed. All others are my own copies.
It’s August which means it’s Women in Translation month. As ever, you can find out more on founder Meytal Radzinski’s blog.
In a bid to be more organised than recent years, I started compiling my #WITMonth reads a few weeks ago, so there will be recommendations every week this month. The first batch are below, all of which are superb.
If you’re a regular visitor to the blog, you might also notice that I’ve added photographs of the writers alongside their book jackets. It’s a deliberate move to remind me to read more books by Black women, indigenous women and women of colour and to help those of you trying to further diversify your reading.
Minor Detail – Adania Shibli, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
In August 1949, a soldier is bitten by an insect. Untreated, the wound it gives him begins to fester. Into the camp in which he is stationed is brought a Palestinian girl, captured by the Israeli troop he commands. Aware the other soldiers intend to rape her, he brings her into his own lodging, but turns from protector to perpetrator. Years later, a Palestinian woman comes across a small piece of information about this act and obsesses about discovering more detail. She transgresses borders – big and small, physical and psychological – in order to do so, discovering how much of the past and the present have been erased. The book is slight in terms of pages, but the fear, anxiety and foreboding atmosphere linger long after the final page.
Little Eyes – Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld)
The world has adopted a new gadget; kentukis come in different animal guises – panda, rabbit, mole, crow, dragon, owl – and customers can choose to either purchase an animal and be watched or purchase a serial number and become a voyeur. The watcher and the watched can’t communicate directly. Those being viewed don’t know who’s watching them and the voyeurs can only see what’s shown to them. Through the kentukis, Schweblin explores the effects of surveillance culture, focusing on the way we choose to watch and be watched by documenting our lives on social media platforms. While all of the stories show the invasive nature of current technology, Schweblin avoids blanket condemnation, choosing to consider how it can open up the world, save and change lives. The question is in how much power we allow others to have and what the trade-off for that power might involve. Thought-provoking and compelling.
Tentacle – Rita Indiana, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas (And Other Stories)
Tentacle begins with two strands in Santo Domingo: a not too distant but technologically advanced 2027 where Acilde, a maid and former sex worker, needs to escape a crime scene, and a more recent time (early 2010s) where Argenis, an artist, works nights as Psychic Goya on a mystic chatline. When Argenis is invited by Giorgio Menicuccis to take part in a sixth-month artistic project based at Playa Bo, a piece of beach that Giorgio and his wife Linda own and protect, he begins to access the past, becoming entwined with a group of seventeenth-century pirates. In 2027, Alcide, with help from her friend Eric, is injected with a dose of Rainbow Brite which transforms her body into that of a man. Of course, Argenis and Acilde’s stories meet, but I’ll leave you to discover that moment as it’s truly brilliant. Tentacle considers how the past affects the future, with a particular focus on ecology and the natural environment. Often I think books don’t go far enough in their weirder aspects, but Tentacle’s genre-bending, time-bending, fast-paced style is a brilliant ride.
The Disaster Tourist – Yun Ko-eun, translated from the Korean by Lizzie Buhler (Serpent’s Tail)
Yona Ka works for Jungle, a travel agency specialising in trips to disaster zones. After her manager sexually harasses her and she turns up for scheduled meetings to find nobody there, Yona begins to think she’s being targeted for dismissal. Offered the chance to take a trip and review whether or not it should be discontinued, Yona travels to Mui, a desert island with sinkholes and a volcano. When she misses the flight home and is stranded in Mui, Yona begins to see the island from a different perspective and discovers that the place is a much darker one than she realised. A searing critique of capitalism, the impact of tourism on poor countries and our complicity in it. Gripping.
All review copies provided by the publishers as listed.
It’s been longer than I thought it would be, but life, eh? Here are some of the things I’ve read since last time. I recommend all of these…
Love After Love – Ingrid Persaud (Faber)
Ingrid Persaud’s stunning debut novel Love After Love asks what makes a family? When her abusive husband dies, 40-year-old Betty takes a lodger in the form of Mr Chetan. Along with Betty’s young son, Solo, they become a family – of sorts. But the revelation of a terrible secret sends Solo to New York, after which Mr Chetan decides to move into his own place.
Held together by a thread, Betty begins dating again, Mr Chetan rediscovers an old flame, and Solo gets to know his uncle and cousins. Told in patois, this is a lyrical and beautiful portrayal of single motherhood, a young man finding his place, and a gay man who has to hide his sexuality in a country that doesn’t accept him. Love After Love is a big, beating heart of a book.
Fleishman Is In Trouble – Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Wildfire)
I avoided this novel for months because I thought I was going to hate it. Reader, I loved it. 41-year-old Toby Fleishman is enjoying his new-found freedom. His favourite dating app is full of up-for-it women who he doesn’t even need to take to dinner first, he has a great job as a doctor, and shared custody of his two kids. Then his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Rachel, disappears and he’s left juggling work, dates and playdates.
I’m a sucker for a woman walks out of her life narrative, but this one is especially delicious. Toby’s story is narrated by his ‘crazy’ friend Lizzie, who’s known him for twenty years. This allows the cracks in Toby’s narrative to be exposed, revealing not only the lies he’s told about his marriage but also how readers of the Great American Novel have been lied to by white male writers for decades. A pitch-perfect rendition of heterosexual (middle class) marriage.
Glass Town – Isabel Greenberg (Jonathan Cape)
Isabel Greenberg’s latest graphic novel interweaves Brontë history and their juvenilia. Charlotte is alone, following the deaths of her siblings. Her creation Charles Wellesley returns to Charlotte from Glass Town and convinces her to write one more story. From here Greenberg goes back in time, imagining the initial creation of the Brontës’ worlds as Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell grow up. In Greenberg’s version, the ‘real’ and imaginary worlds melt into each other creating a metafictional delight, regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of the Brontës.
Missing, Presumed – Susie Steiner (Borough Press)
As you might have noticed from this list, there’s a special place in my heart for stories focused on women over 40. Okay, so Manon Bradshaw, protagonist of Susie Steiner’s excellent debut crime novel, is 39, but it’s close enough and she’s a hero. She’s single, internet dating a string of ‘fucktards’ and scraping by when it comes to dealing with domestic matters.
Bradshaw’s investigating the disappearance of a young woman from the home she shared with her boyfriend. We get chapters from the perspective of the young woman’s mother, her best friend, and also Bradshaw’s partner at work, DC Davy Walker.
There are a couple of things about this book that make it different from your average police procedural: it shows how information can trickle through in investigations, or indeed stop entirely for a while, and it made me snort laugh more than once. Quite something, as I read it at one of my lowest ebbs during the lockdown. There are now three books in the series, the latest having been published last month. I’ve already got my hands on both follow-ups.
My Shitty Twenties – Emily Morris (Salt)
Age 22, studying full-time, working part-time and partying hard, Morris discovers she’s pregnant. The father’s response to Morris’ decision to keep the baby is to tell her to Enjoy your impending shitty, snotty, vommity twenties. Goodbye and with that, Morris becomes a single parent.
Her memoir takes us through the pregnancy considering her fears, the amount of stuff you need (and how much it costs), and how her family and friends reacted to the news. Morris is open and honest about the good and the bad and, most impressively, has created a page-turner. The TV show is being created as I type; I can’t wait to see Morris’ story on screen.
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk – Kathleen Rooney (Daunt Books)
It’s New Year’s Eve, 1984, and 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish takes a walk across Manhattan and through her whole adult life. Boxfish, inspired by 1930s advertising copywriter Margaret Fishback, has quite a story. A working woman who rises to prominence as a poet and ad writer in a time when it was rare; a divorcee; a mother of a grown son. But this is also the story of NYC and its inhabitants. As the night progresses, Lillian meets a driver, a family out for a celebration meal, some newly made friends with an unconventional lifestyle, and a street gang. Lillian holds her own throughout. A tale of a smart woman and a smart city.
All review copies from publishers as listed, except Love After Love and Glass Town which are my own copies.
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.
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.