Womxn in Translation (Part Four)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All review copies provided by the publishers as stated. 

Womxn in Translation (Part Three)

Three more superb #WITMonth books.

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.

Womxn in Translation (Part Two)

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All review copies provided by the publishers as listed.

Women in Translation Month: 100 Best WIT

It’s the first of August and that means it’s Women in Translation month. To find out more about it, head to founder Meytal’s blog and follow the #WITMonth and #womenintranslation hashtags on social media. Throughout the month I’ll be sharing reviews of the books I’ve been reading by women that have been translated into English. To start the month though, I’m posting my contribution to #100BestWIT. The rules are on the photo above so if you haven’t already, add yours to the list. Mine are in alphabetical order because creating a top ten in order of favourites was too difficult. If you click on the title, it will take you to my review of the book.

Vernon Subutex 1 – Virginie Despentes (tr. Frank Wynne)

Vernon Subutex once ran a legendary record shop in Paris. When his benefactor and musician friend, Alex Bleach, dies, Vernon is left homeless. Subutex moves between the houses and apartments of friends and acquaintances before ending up on the streets. Despentes gives a searing commentary on Western society’s views of a range of hot topics: social media, hijabs, the rich, sex workers and a whole lot more. Despentes is a fierce and unflinching writer.
[No link for this one as I’ve reposted the short review I wrote when this was a book of the year in 2017.]

Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (tr. Sondra Silverston)

Doctor Etian Green, driving his SUV along a difficult track at the end of a nineteen-hour shift, hits and kills a man. Etian thinks no one’s seen him and leaves, but the following morning the dead man’s wife, Sirkit, arrives at Etian’s front door holding Eitan’s wallet. Sirkit makes a deal with him. Then Eitan’s wife, senior detective in the Israeli police force, is assigned to the murder case. A moral dilemma. Flawed humans who are neither wholly good nor bad. A gripping read.

Human Acts – Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith)

The story of the aftermath of the student uprising and massacre in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. Told by seven narrators, including the soul of Jeong-dae, each reveals the events of the uprising, its brutal suppression and the violence of the state. A disturbing and powerful novel.

The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo (tr. Janet Hong)

A story in two halves. In the first half, is the tale of two twelve-year-old children: Mia, the child with two fathers, and The Child. Mia is privileged and spoiled. The Child lives in poverty and is abused and neglected. In the second half of the book the narrator is revealed to be the Child who is now both the writer writing the novel and a character in the novel. Han explores what fiction is and, in doing so, questions how we fictionalise our own lives.

Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz (tr. Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)

The unnamed narrator of Die, My Love is an immigrant, a wife, a mother of a sixth-month-old son. She is also a woman full of rage and lust and love and hate. The book chronicles her increasingly desperate and often violent attempts to reconcile herself with the version of womanhood patriarchal society expects of her. An angry, passionate and powerful exploration of a woman on the edge.

Strange Weather in Tokyo – Hiromi Kawakami (tr. Allison Markin Powell)

Tsukiko Omachi and the man she calls Sensei meet regularly – without arrangement – at a bar near the train station. She’s 37 and jaded; he’s in his late 60s, a retired widower. He considers her to be unladylike; she thinks he’s old-fashioned. But they drink together; they go on walks together; he recites to her fragments of the poetry he swears he taught her at school. A beautiful, mostly gentle book about a slow-burning relationship.

The Notebook – Agota Kristof (tr. Alan Sheridan)

Twin brothers are taken by their mother to live with their grandmother while the war rages. Grandmother makes them do chores to earn their food and shelter; there’s nothing to wash with, and she hits, pulls and grabs them. The boys begin to do exercises to toughen their bodies and their minds. They also set each other composition exercises which they write in the notebook and which have to be true. Brutal, highly stylised and gripping.

The House in Smyrna – Tatiana Salem Levy (tr. Alison Entrekin)

A novel told in four strands. The first, the narrator’s journey to Turkey to her grandfather’s house. The second, the grandfather’s journey to Portugal. The third, the narrator’s relationship with her, now deceased, mother. The fourth, a passionate love affair between the narrator and an unnamed man. A story about exile in various forms and the impact that can have.

Faces in the Crowd – Valeria Luiselli (tr. Christina MacSweeney)

An unnamed female narrator writes a book about the lesser known Mexican poet Gilberto Owen. She frames this with comments about her current family life and the life she had before she married. Her family think there is a ghost in their house and the narrator spends time ‘with Gilberto Owen’s ghost’ who eventually tries to take over the narration. Clever and engaging.

The Mussel Feast – Birgit Vanderbeke (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

A mother and her teenage children wait for their husband and father to return from a business trip. The mother has prepared a feast of mussels, but it soon becomes clear that something isn’t right. A tale of an abusive father, narrated by his daughter, this has a tense atmosphere throughout.
[Review by Jacqui who guest-posted some IFFP reviews on my blog before she began her own excellent blog.]

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

The Electric Michelangelo– Sarah Hall

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

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

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

My Sister the Serial Killer– Oyinkan Braithwaite

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

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

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

Thanks to Atlantic for the review copy.

Louis & Louise– Julie Cohen

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

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

Thanks to Orion for the review copy.

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

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

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

The Mental Load – Emma (translated by Una Dimitrijevic)

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

You Know You Want This – Kristen Roupenian

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

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

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

Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.

Blood Orange – Harriet Tyce

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Wildfire for the review copy.

Backlist Books of the Year 2018

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.

Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)

I’ve been lax in keeping up with reviewing my #WITMonth reading, mostly because I’ve been busy helping to launch the programme for Manchester Literature Festival. I mention that because Ariana Harwicz, the author of Die, My Love will be at the Festival on Saturday 20thOctober. I can’t wait to hear her talk about this powerful, angry book.

The unnamed narrator of Die, My Love is an immigrant, a wife, a mother of a sixth-month-old son. She is also a woman full of rage and lust and love and hate.

I lay back in the grass among the fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular.

Full of contradictions, she loves her family but feels stifled by them. Life has become alien to her in every way. The book chronicles her increasingly desperate and often violent attempts to reconcile herself with the version of womanhood patriarchal society expects of her.

Something I always used to hate about living in the countryside, and that I now relish, is that you spend all your time killing things […] I trap [flies] in the jar with a swift twist of the lid, then sit with the baby on my knee and watch them slide around in the jelly. Sitting comfortably on the swing, I electrocute bees and teach the wasp that wants a piece of me a lesson. My son and I stuff clusters of ants into matchboxes and set them on fire.

The anger that women are expected to supress explodes everywhere – in the supermarket, in the bedroom, at family gatherings. The narrator is given help and support but it only emphasises the question of whether women or society are at fault.

The book’s written in short chapters – some as fleeting as pieces of flash fiction – that move forward in time while circling the same issues, much like in life. The tone is abrupt and sharp, echoing the feelings of the narrator. Die, My Love isn’t an easy read, either in terms of its subject matter or its delivery, but it is an angry, passionate and powerful exploration of a woman on the edge.

Thanks to Charco Books for the review copy.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions – Valeria Luiselli (translated by Lizzie Davis)

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.

Books of the Year 2017

Due to life interfering, I read half as many books this year as I have in previous years. What I have read though has, on the whole, been incredibly good. I’ve selected the ten I loved the most and included five others I highly recommend at the end of the piece. If I’ve reviewed the book in full, there’s a link at the bottom of the description.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy

The story of a marriage between a young, educated woman and a university lecturer. When I Hit You is both a tale of domestic violence and of a woman becoming a writer by writing her way out of her situation. Kandasamy’s experimental style frames the experience as though the narrator is witnessing the horror brought upon her. It’s brutal, it’s thoughtful, it’s shocking. It’s incredibly relevant in 2017.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Meena Kandasamy here.

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky – Leslie Nnedi Arimah

Hands down the best short story collection I’ve ever read. Arimah does things with the form that shouldn’t be possible. In the first story, for example, the protagonist is held in a moment while the back story of everything that led to that point is revealed and yet the tension holds sharp. Many of the stories are concerned with the way women are shaped by/shape themselves around men, all of them carry an emotional punch.

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Two sisters, Effia and Esa, born in West Africa in the 1770s are separated. One becomes the wife of a slave trader, the other is shipped to America as a slave. Gyasi follows the two lines to the present day. Each chapter focuses on the next branch of the family tree and works as a short story in its own right. Alongside this runs the story of the creation of the black race, its reasons and consequences. It’s an incredible achievement.

My full review is here.

Attrib. and Other Stories – Eley Williams

Williams’ debut short story collection is full of animals, clever word play, humour and love. While all of these elements contribute to intelligent, engaging stories, it’s the emotions at the core of the tales which elevate them to something special. The reader’s transported to the position of the narrator, feeling their anticipation at the potential lover standing next to them or their loss at the one who’s just left.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Eley Williams here.

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Neve is a writer in her mid-thirties, exploring her marriage to an older man, Edwyn, and the impact previous relationships, both romantic and familial, have had on who they are now. Almost everyone in Neve’s life is abusive in some form; Riley conveys this through a range of incidents told from Neve’s perspective, leading the reader to question whether or not she’s telling the truth. Searing and utterly pertinent in 2017.

My full review is here.

Vernon Subutex 1 – Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne)

Vernon Subutex once ran a legendary record shop in Paris. When his benefactor and musician friend, Alex Bleach, dies, Vernon is left homeless. Subutex moves between the houses and apartments of friends and acquaintances before ending up on the streets. Despentes gives a searing commentary on Western society’s views of a range of hot topics: social media, hijabs, the rich, sex workers and a whole lot more.

The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

An unnamed narrator gives birth to a boy as floodwaters rise in the U.K. Soon London is covered and the narrator and her new family can’t return to their flat. They move to their in-laws and then on to a refugee camp. Also works as a metaphor for the first year of motherhood. Taut and compelling.

My full review is here.

Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

A collection of stories about ordinary people at their worst, it’s a mirror held up to today’s society: to the misogyny, to the privilege, to the hypocrisy. Some of the characters know better but can’t be arsed to do better; some of them make an attempt but fall flat at the first hurdle. The collection’s full of characters for whom, essentially, nothing changes. Only Moshfegh could pull that off.

My full review is here.

Elmet – Fiona Mosley

“Daddy“ builds a house in a copse in the woods for himself and his teenage children, Daniel and Cathy. The land on which he builds is owned by Price, the most influential man in the area. Daddy is fully aware of the antagonism this will cause, but, as the best bare-knuckle fighter in the U.K. and Ireland, he wields his own form of power. From this moment, the two men are pitted against each other; it’s a matter of when, not if, the violent tension will explode. An exploration of gender roles and what happens if you transgress them, as well as a commentary on class and privilege.

I wrote about why Elmet is an important working class novel for OZY.

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

At a party, Lucina feels a pain and blood begins to fill her eyes. She begins to go blind. The doctor tells her he can do nothing other than monitor the situation, leaving her to adjust to a life in which she has to rely on others to help her. She is furious and her anger increases as the story progresses. Told in flash length chapters with short, spiky, repetitive sentences. Horrifying and brilliant.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Lina Meruane here.

And the highly recommended:

Tinman – Sarah Winman

Ellis and Michael are inseparable until Annie arrives in their lives and Ellis marries her. A story of hidden love, friendship, AIDS and art. Beautiful and heart-wrenching.

A Book of Untruths – Miranda Doyle

A memoir about Doyle’s family. Every chapter reveals a lie that’s been told while questioning the reliability of memory and the purpose of memoir writing.

A Manual for Heartache – Cathy Rentzenbrink

An indispensable guide for when the worst happens to you or someone close to you. My piece about it is here.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

The love story of performers Rose and Perrot and also a scathing commentary on patriarchal society’s treatment of women, particularly with regards to sex and shame.

My full review is here.

The Other Half of Happiness – Ayisha Malik

The sequel to Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. Sofia’s married to Conall but there’s a whopping great secret he hasn’t told her. Has a punch the air, feminist ending.

My full review and interview with Ayisha Malik is here.