The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso

Their rivalry was infamous enough for the other committee women to hang back and watch the show. It was known that the two women shared a hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages.

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino live in Katterijn, in the suburb of Constantia, Cape Town. Hortensia is the only black person living there. Her (white) husband, Peter, is dying. Their marriage long since descended into tolerance, Hortensia goes out walking, allowing her space to catch her breath and him the opportunity to take his last.

Marion lives next door. Both women are in their eighties and intolerant of each other.

‘So you see, Hortensia, this is not about your favourite topic, the race card. For once we’re on the same side.’ Marion’s smile looked set to burst and set the world alight.

‘Not so.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Not so, Marion. We are not on the same side. You should know this by now. Whatever you say, I disagree with. However you feel, I feel the opposite. At no point in anything are you and I on the same side. I don’t side with hypocrites.’

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Both women have problems they’re going to have to deal with: Marion’s husband spent all their money before he died. The debt collectors are close to taking their share but Marion has a painting she hasn’t declared and she needs somewhere to hide it. Would next door be the perfect place?

When Hortensia’s husband dies, a secret he’s been hiding for decades is revealed and Hortensia has to decide how she’s going to deal with it, what sort of person she wants to be.

Alongside both of these personal issues, the Katterijn committee discovers a land claim from a family called the Samsodiens, disenfranchised when the land Katterijn was eventually built on was given to a Dutch man, Von Struiker, who put a vineyard upon it. The claim puts their properties in jeopardy. The committee also receives a letter from a woman whose mother was a slave woman on the farm which stood where Hortensia’s house is now. She says the Silver Tree in Hortensia’s garden is where this woman’s children were buried and she wishes to be buried with them.

Omotoso takes the women’s stories both forwards and backwards; as events play out on the street, she fills in their backstories, showing the reader how they became the difficult, stubborn old women to whom we’ve been introduced. They have more in common than they’d like to believe, both successful in their own right before marriage and children or, in Hortensia’s case, the lack of them. Hortensia runs a highly successful haberdashery firm; Marion was an architect, ‘top of her class, a position she wrestled from a male student who not only found her presence in the school annoying, but her ambition and fierce competitiveness vulgar’.

This is where Marion’s real issues with Hortensia are revealed. Firstly, Marion’s racist; happy enough to hire a black maid but not to allow their children to play together or for any of them to use the same toilet. Secondly, the house Hortensia lives in was Marion’s first commission, the house she designed to her own spec, the house she put her heart into:

A house is a person, she’d argued, to the sound of guffaws from the rest of the class. But she’d pressed on and turned in her essay. What was house design if it wasn’t the study of armour, of disguises, of appearances? The most intimate form of space-making, the closest architects might ever come to portraiture.

By living in No. 10, Hortensia has pierced Marion’s armour, taken residency under her skin.

Omotoso looks at the trials life delivers these two women and how they shape the people they’ve become. Marriage, children, work, money, apartheid all play a part. For a book with a number of heavy themes, it’s very funny in parts; the two women play off each other, Omotoso making it clear at times that these women enjoy winding each other up, it’s something to do in their old age.

My only criticism of The Woman Next Door is that we’re given a little too much backstory. I would’ve preferred a little room to make my own connections between events, draw my own conclusions as to the effect events in the past had on the main characters. However, that doesn’t prevent the book from being an engaging read.

What particularly impressed me about The Woman Next Door was that it was about two elderly women – how often are they allowed to take centre stage? – who had forged big successful careers – one in a male dominated environment, who were allowed to be snarky and unpleasant. It’s everything we’re told the book industry won’t publish. Hurrah to Yewande Omotoso for writing it and to Chatto & Windus for publishing it. More, please.

 

Thanks to Chatto & Windus for the review copy.

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

‘Have you ever seen God in a labour room giving birth to a child? Tell me, Yejide, have you ever seen God in the labour ward? Women manufacture children and if you can’t? You are just a man. Nobody should call you a woman.’

Yejide and Akin have been married for two years when Akin’s mother begins bringing potential second wives to his office every Monday morning. When she threatens to start visiting Yejide with the women each week, Akin agrees to marry Funmi. The deciding factor? That she doesn’t insist on moving in with him. Instead, he installs her in a flat, leaving Yejide blissfully unaware of her existence.

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At the beginning of the novel, and four years into Akin and Yejide’s marriage, Iya Martha, Yejide’s father’s oldest wife, and Baba Lola, Akin’s uncle, present Yejide with Funmi. They’re convinced that when Funmi gets pregnant Yejide will too.

I had expected them to talk about my childlessness. I was armed with millions of smiles. Apologetic smiles, pity-me-smiles, I-look-unto-God smiles, name all the fake smiles needed to get through an afternoon with a group of people who claim to want the best for you while poking at your open sore with a stick, and I had them ready.

Yejide is an educated woman with her own hairdressing salon business. She is smart, confident and independent, but the society she lives in isn’t constructed to recognise women as such. The lack of a pregnancy is seen as her shortcoming, and when Yejide calls Akin a bastard, Iya Martha criticises her for not allowing Funmi to stay in their house. She says Yejide should be grateful to her husband, while Yejide points out to the reader that she pays half of the rent.

The novel alternates between Yejide and Akin’s points of view. This structural decision adds depth, allowing Adébáyò to consider the effects of a patriarchal society which values gender constructs, particularly motherhood, from both a female and a male perspective. Adébáyò uses it particularly well for moments of dramatic irony, priming the reader for the point when the other half of the couple will discover a betrayal.

It’s obvious that Akin loves his first wife and not his second, but also that he feels torn between Yejide and his mother, who makes her expectations clear. As Funmi inserts herself further into their lives and Yejide tries everything – doctors, prophets, priests – in order to help her conceive, their marriage begins to feel the strain and both of them make choices that will have devastating consequences.

Stay With Me considers a patriarchal, patrilineal, heterosexual society’s expectations of a married couple. It examines the pressure for couples to produce children; the value that’s placed on the continuation of the bloodline.

Adébáyò incorporates something of the thriller genre with a few unexpected and shocking twists, while writing sentences as beautiful as these:

I did not feel better. I would not feel better for a very long time. Already, I was coming undone, like a hastily tied scarf, coming loose, on the ground before the owner knows it.

But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.

These days I tell myself that is why I stretched to accommodate every new level of indignity, so I could have someone who would look for me if I went missing.

Stay With Me is intelligent, provocative and gripping. Ayòbámi Adébáyò is an exciting new talent.

If you will be in or around London a week today (Tuesday 7th March), I will be chairing a New Nigerian Fiction night at Waterstones, Gower Street featuring Ayòbámi Adébáyò and Chibundo Onuzo, author of The Spider King’s Daughter and Welcome to Lagos. More information and tickets are available here.

Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.

My Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017 Wishlist

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It’s almost that time of year again; The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is announced on International Women’s Day, Wednesday 8th March. Once again, I’ll be charing a shadow panel, the other members of which I’ll introduce on Friday. Before both of those things though, I’m going to have a stab in the dark at what might be on the longlist. My success rate is why I refer to this post as my wishlist as opposed to a prediction.

This year the longlist has been reduced from 20 to 12 titles, making it easier to read along and debate what might make the shortlist. Eligible titles are those published between the 1st April 2016 and the 31st March 2017 and written in English.

I’ve reviewed all of the titles I’ve chosen except Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò, which I’ll review this week, and Autumn by Ali Smith (which I’ve read but not yet reviewed); click on the covers of the other books to read my reviews.

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Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orangeboy – Patrice Lawrence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl of Ink and Stars – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

And anyway, there is no comfort here on Earth. There is pretending, there are words, but there is no peace. Nothing is good here. Nothing. Every place you go on Earth, there is more nonsense.

The characters in Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story collection Homesick for Another World will come as no surprise if you’ve read her Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel Eileen. The people who populate these tales are inappropriate, slack, liars, cheaters, sleezeballs, hypocrites – they are us.

Two stories – ‘Bettering Myself’ and ‘Slumming’ – are narrated by teachers, those bastions of standards and rules and betterment. In ‘Bettering Myself’ which opens the collection, a teacher at a Catholic school keeps a sleeping bag in the back of her room to facilitate naps when she’s still drunk from the previous night; considers one of her students to be a friend, and avoids teaching calculus by talking about her sex life. While ‘Slumming’ is set in the holidays when the narrator goes to live in Alna, a poor town where she owns a summerhouse. There, she eats a footlong sandwich divided in two – one half for lunch, the other for dinner; takes ten dollars’ worth of meth or heroin, depending what’s on offer in the bus-depot restroom three times a week, and occasionally hangs out with Clark who looks after the summerhouse the rest of the year. They slept together the first year she was there, ‘me crouching under the sloped ceiling, his genitals swung in my face like a fist’.

It’s not that I lacked respect for the people of Alna. I simply didn’t want to deal with them. I was tired. During the school year, all I did was contend with stupidity and ignorance. That’s what teachers are paid to do.

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Many of the stories are concerned with the behaviour of men. Mr Wu is in love with the woman who dispenses the tokens at the arcade he frequents but doesn’t know how to speak to her. While he makes a plan, he visits sex workers in the city, averting his eyes when he has sex with them because ‘He had learned somewhere that closing your eyes meant that you were in love’. In ‘A Dark and Winding Road’, the narrator escapes to his parents’ cabin in the mountains following a fight with his pregnant wife, ‘to have one last weekend to myself before the baby was born and my life as I’d known it was ruined forever’. There he discovers a dildo underneath the blankets on the bed and an unexpected visitor.

Probably the best piece, if you were to judge each story alone, comes in the middle of the collection: ‘An Honest Woman’. A young woman meets her 60-year-old neighbour, Jeb, over the chain-link fence that separates their gardens. Her partner’s recently left her, while Jeb is widowed and has a nephew about the young woman’s age.

‘I’ll meet her,’ said the nephew. ‘But I’m not saying I’ll take her out. I don’t need any drama.’

‘What drama? You should be so lucky,’ Jeb said. ‘A sweet gal. Comes with baggage, of course, as they all do.’

‘Kids?’ the nephew asked. ‘Forget it.’

‘No, no kids. Emotional issues, more like,’ Jeb said. ‘You know women. Stray cats, all of them, either purring in your lap or pissing in your shoes.’

The story takes a creepy turn when the woman visits Jeb, waiting for his nephew but a storm prevents his arrival. Moshfegh highlights the irony of Jeb’s statement about women quoted above when she has him behave as an entitled, misogynistic white man.

It’s at this point in the collection that Moshfegh’s aim starts to become clear: this is 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. To pull this off and maintain the interest of the reader is quite a feat and Moshfegh does it with style. Her prose is sharp, nailing thoughts, feelings and the messiness of life, love and sex – of which there is plenty.

This an accomplished collection. Every story is worthy of inclusion but there’s something about them taken together which really is spectacular. Ottessa Moshfegh is a remarkable writer.

 

Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.

Difficult Women – Roxane Gay

There’s an easy way to find out whether or not you’re a difficult woman according to the title story in Roxane Gay’s debut collection: check your pulse.

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Death makes them more interesting. Death makes them more beautiful. It’s something about their bodies on display in final repose – eyes wide open, lips blue, limbs stiff, skin cold. Finally, it might be said, they are at peace.

Although still not safe from the patriarchal gaze.

Societal structure and its oppression of women forms the backbone of the collection. Beginning with ‘I Will Follow You’ in which two sisters – Carolina and Savvie – whose relationship is so close that when Carolina’s husband moves to Nevada and Savvie doesn’t want to go, they remain in California together. And ending with ‘Strange Gods’ in which an unnamed narrator tells the man who’s asked him to marry her ‘There are things you do not know about me. These things are not inconsequential’ before relating the various ways in which she self-harms and the reason for her behaviour.

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When Gay’s good, she’s very very good. In ‘Open Marriage’, the narrator eats a tub of sour yoghurt to prove a point as her husband declares he wants an open marriage. The payoff is delicious and had me punching the air.

‘Requiem for a Glass Heart’ details a relationship between a glass woman and her stone thrower husband. She wants space from his protection, from her husband ‘who sees too much and loves too carefully’ but discovers he seeks his own space too.

‘I Am a Knife’ and ‘The Sacrifice of Darkness’ both involve women dealing with tragedies. The first has a wife hunting with her husband, attempting to fill a void:

When the buck was finally dead, I used one fingernail, cutting the creature open from his neck to his rear. His flesh fell open slowly, warm innards steaming out into the cold air. The air became sharp and humid with the stench of death surrounded by prayer. I am a knife.

While the latter is a rewriting of the Icarus myth focusing on what happened after Hiram Hightower, a miner who couldn’t face another day underground, flew into the sun, as told by his future daughter-in-law:

In the early days of darkness, we thought it might end. We thought we might once again see the sun, feel its golden shine holding our skin. The bright red crease in the sky pulsed, and like the sun, that crease grew smaller and smaller until it disappeared. Scientists tried to make sense of what happened to the sun. It was nearly impossible for them to believe a man could be so full of darkness he needed to swallow all the light of the sun.

Thematically, the stories are about relationships – with spouses, siblings, parents, lovers, ourselves; male treatment of women; whites’ treatment of blacks.

In ‘North Country’, an engineering lecturer moves from Nebraska to Michigan and has to deal with constant microaggressions.

“Are you from Detroit?”

I have been asked this question twenty-three times since moving to the area. In a month, I will stop counting, having reached a four-digit number. Shortly after that, I will begin telling people I have recently arrived from Africa.

However, ‘La Negra Blanca’ is the sole mishit. William Livingstone III is obsessed with black women and black culture. He visits a strip club where he watches Sierra, a mixed-race woman who passes for white, dance three times a week. The story lacks any subtlety and is less effective for it. It’s a shame in a collection which also highlights how sharp Gay can be elsewhere in her writing.

Overall, Difficult Women is a satisfying and, at times, a superb read. It’s impossible not to read these stories and feel that Gay gets it. She conveys what it’s like to be a living, breathing woman. The title story is divided into different types of difficult women and then into vignettes. ‘What a Crazy Woman Thinks About While Walking Down the Street’ ends like this:

She once told a boyfriend about these considerations and he said, “You are completely out of your mind.” She told a new friend at work and she said, “Honey, you’re not crazy. You’re a woman.”

 

Thanks to Corsair for the review copy.

 

 

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing tells the tale of two branches of the same family, beginning in West Africa in the 1770s and ending somewhere close to the present day.

“Your mother was once a slave for a Fante family. She was raped by her master because he too was a Big Man and big men can do what they please, lest they appear weak, eh?” Esi looked away, and Abronoma continued in a whisper. “You are not your mother’s first daughter. There was one before you. And in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”

It starts with two sisters. Effia is born on a night when ‘a fire raged through the woods’. When Baaba, her father’s first wife fails to produce any milk, the villages say it’s because Effia ‘was born of the fire’. After we’re told of Baaba beating Effia and conspiring to marry her to a white slave trader against her father’s wishes, we discover that her mother was a house girl who fled the night Effia was born.

Unbeknownst to Effia, she has a sister whose cries she’s heard in the dungeon of her husband’s castle. Esi spent her fifteenth birthday in there, having been captured by men from a rival tribe and sold to the slave traders. At the conclusion of her chapter, she is shipped out to America.

Before Esi left, the one called Governor looked at her and smiled. It was a kind smile, pitying, yet true. But for the rest of her life Esi would see a smile on a white face and remember the one the soldier gave her before taking her to his quarters, how white men smiling just meant more evil was coming with the next wave.

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Gyasi then takes a risk with the structure of the book: each chapter alternates between the two sisters’ timelines and moves forward along their family line so chapter three follows Quey, Effia’s son, who handles trade between the West Africans and the British, and chapter four, Ness, Esi daughter, who is a slave, cotton picking in Alabama. Each new chapter means a new viewpoint and a new point in time. It means figuring out whose story you’re following. In the hands of a lesser writer this could have been a disaster but Gyasi handles it with aplomb, employing a couple of neat tricks to aid the reader: the first, is that once you’re into the rhythm of the structure, you begin the next chapter looking for clues as to how this character is related to the previous one from that branch of the family (there is a family tree in the front of the book but I never referred to it, where’s the fun in that? Also, I never felt I needed to, the clarity of the character’s position was present in their story); the second is that Gyasi interweaves repetition both thematically and in small details. Once you become attuned to this, there’s a joy in spotting the links. For example, one character in Effia’s branch of the family, hires a house girl who insists on bringing her own handmade broom with her. In the parallel chapter in Esi’s branch, Sonny’s mother storms into the police station to bail him out

…holding her tattered coat in the one hand and a broom in the other. She had been cleaning houses on the Upper East Side for as long as Sonny could remember, and she didn’t trust the brooms white people kept around and so she always brought her own, carrying it from subway station to subway station to street to house’.

What’s most impressive about Homegoing though is that it’s essentially the story of the creation of blackness as a race. It follows the family through slavery, white missionaries in Africa, Jim Crow, NAACP, all the key moments in which whites framed what it means to be black, writing a narrative which continues to prevail. While this underpins the novel, it never overwhelms it. The heart of the story belongs to the family, considering what your ancestors mean for the life you might lead, which runs alongside the idea of the role of structural inequality and how that impacts on prospects and lifestyles. There’s a wonderful passage where the intersection of these two things is highlighted. Again, this is from Sonny’s chapter and he’s gone to his mum’s house for Sunday dinner:

She took a sip of her drink and stared off into space. “White men get a choice. They get to choose they job, choose they house. They get to make black babies, then disappear into thin air, like they wasn’t never there to begin with, like these black women they slept with or raped done laid on top of themselves and got pregnant. White men get to choose for black men too. Used to sell ’em; now they just send ’em to prison like they did my daddy, so that they can be with they kids. Just about breaks my heart to see you, my son, my daddy’s grandson, over here with these babies walking up and down Harlem who barely even know your name, let alone your face. Alls I can think is this ain’t the way it’s s’posed to be. There are things you ain’t learned from me, things you picked up from your father even though you ain’t know him, things he picked up from white men. It makes me sad to see my son a junkie after all the marchin’ I done, but makes me sadder to see you thinkin’ you can leave like your daddy did. You keep doin’ what you doin’ and the white man don’t got to do it no more. He ain’t got to sell you or put you in a coal mine to own you. He’ll own you just as is, and he’ll say you the one who did it. He’ll say it’s your fault.”

Homegoing is the full package: engrossing storytelling on a large canvas, brought to life through small, beautifully written details. If you only read one novel this year, make it this one; Homegoing is a masterpiece.

 

 

Thanks to Penguin Books/Viking for the review copy.

Ones to Read in 2017

One of the joys of running this blog is getting to read advance copies of books I’ve been looking forward to as well as titles from new writers being published in the first half of 2017. I’ve read a whole host of books, mostly fiction – novels, novellas, short stories, and I’ve selected ten I think are must reads.

All publication dates are correct as of 2nd January 2017 for UK publication.

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Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Effia Otcher and Esi are sisters, unaware of each other’s existence. In 1775, Effia’s mother, who beats her and is manipulative, conspires to marry her to one of the white slave traders. Effia goes to live with him in Cape Coast Castle, unaware that Esi is in the dungeon, packed tight with other women – alive and dead – waiting to be shipped to America. Gyasi then follows the two women’s timelines through to the present day. The story alternates between West Africa and America, each chapter told by one of the offspring of the previous character in that branch of the family tree and becoming a guide to the creation of black as a race. It’s an incredible piece of work. If you only read one book in 2017, make it this one.

Published 5th January 2017 by Viking

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Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

If you thought the title character in Eileen was despicable, wait until you meet those who populate Moshfegh’s first short story collection. From a teacher who spends her summer break slumming it with drug addicts to the old white dude who tries to hit on his young neighbour to the girl who’s convinced she needs to kill a particular person in order to go to a better place, all of Moshfegh’s characters are unlikeable in some way. But that’s also because they’re real, their lives like ours. And that’s the beauty of her work. This is a brilliant collection; Moshfegh’s rapidly establishing herself as one of the best writers of her generation.

Published 12th January 2017 by Jonathan Cape

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First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Neve, a writer in her mid-thirties, is married to Edwyn, an older man. She documents their turbulent relationship alongside an earlier reacquaintance with an ex-boyfriend and the relationships she had with her mother and father. All are manipulative and abusive in different ways and to varying degrees. Riley’s writing is razor sharp. She places the reader in Neve’s position and it never feels less than real. Packs a literal and metaphorical punch, leaving space for interpretation and discussion.

Published 2nd February 2017 by Granta

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The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

As the sea-level rises around the UK, a woman gives birth to a boy her and her husband name Z. They leave for the mountains where her husband, R, grew up. Before long, queues are forming for food and basics and the family starts to disintegrate as R mistrusts the authorities and the unnamed narrator wants to protect Z. Taut, beautifully written, this tense novella will keep you gripped. I read it in one sitting and returned to it the following day.

Published 18th May 2017 by Picador

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Little Deaths – Emma Flint

Queens, NYC, 1965. Ruth Malone’s in a bitter custody battle with her ex-husband when her two children Frankie, five, and Cindy, four, go missing from her apartment and are later found murdered. When the police discover Malone drinks, dates and takes care of herself they’re determined to pin the murders on her. A page-turner which explores patriarchal attitudes to women who don’t play the angel. Rage-inducing but gripping.

Published 12th January 2017 by Picador. 

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Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

When Yejide fails to conceive, her husband, Akin, is convinced by his mother-in-law to take a second wife who will deliver the grandson she so desperately desires. Yejide is horrified at becoming a first wife and Akin feels little better about the arrangement but it will change both of their lives and their marriage for better and for worse. Told from alternating points of view Adébáyò explores the effect of patriarchal society on women and men with thriller-like pace and twists. Gripping and thoughtful.

Published 2nd March 2017 by Canongate.

cover1Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life – Samantha Ellis

If you enjoyed the BBC’s To Walk Invisible over Christmas, or can only name two of the Brontë sisters and their work, or have long been a fan of Anne and are glad someone else gets it, then Samantha Ellis’ investigation into who Anne Brontë was, her work and why we know so little about her is one for you. Ellis examines Anne through those who were closest to her and her two novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The Anne Brontë reassessment/revival begins here.

Published 12th January 2017 by Chatto & Windus

 

Difficult30644520 Women – Roxane Gay

Third mention for the ‘p’ word but the women in Roxane Gay’s short story collection are only difficult because they break the rules the patriarchy imposes on them. Often they’re punished for it though – from the sisters who are kidnapped to the stripper followed home by a client – and question their worth to society. Written in clear, brutal prose, Gay shows how race, class, sexuality and gender affect average women every single day.

Published 3rd January by Corsair

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The Things We Thought We Knew – Mahsuda Snaith

Ravine Roy has chronic pain syndrome and hasn’t left her mother’s council flat since her best friend, Marianne, disappeared ten years ago. Now she’s eighteen, her mum’s determined to get her out, starting with voting in the General Election. But Ravine’s got other things to worry about such as writing to Marianne, wondering who her mother’s companion is, and the noises coming from the unoccupied flat next door. If you loved The Trouble with Goats and Sheep or My Name Is LeonThe Things We Thought We Knew is your summer 2017 read.

Published 15th June 2017 by Doubleday

4111fppgtel-_ac_ul320_sr198320_See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

Schmidt takes the infamous case of Lizzie Borden and explores what might have happened on the days surrounding the murder of Borden’s father and stepmother. The narrative moves between Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid Bridget and a young man called Benjamin, unknown to all but the Borden’s Uncle John, their late-mother’s brother. Schmidt creates a claustrophobic atmosphere placing the reader in the centre of a house stifling with heat and tensions. Gripping.

Published 2nd May by Tinder Press