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