Reading Diary #1

Hello! It’s been a while. I wasn’t planning on posting here ever again really, and, no doubt, some of you have forgotten you ever subscribed to this blog, so this will be a surprise. A pleasant one I hope, but if not there should be an unsubscribe button around here somewhere.

20200416_191435

So what’s going on and why am I here? The short answer is that I read Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock over the Easter weekend and want somewhere to shout about how brilliant it is. The longer answer involves an existential crisis prompted by the UK lockdown. If you’ve met me in real life, you’ll know that I can talk for England. Being locked down on my own means that, other than creating a rota of my long-suffering friends and forcing them to talk to me on a daily basis, I’ve mostly got no one to babble on to other than myself and I’ve had enough of the monologue in my own brain. Consider it a treat that I’m foisting it upon you instead; it has lots of thoughts about books and politics and misogyny.

One of the reasons I stopped reviewing books here was because I was no longer enjoying it. I never wanted reviewing to be a chore and when you’ve fallen out of love with it, it shows in your writing. I want to create something different instead. The basic plan is a diary with thoughts around some of the books I’ve been reading, along with links to other things – essays, stories, poems. Apparently, I think I’m Alan Bennett (well, we are both from Yorkshire) or Deborah Levy (I wish), whose Lockdown Diary is one of the best things to come out of the pandemic so far.

My reading habits have changed this year; at the start of 2020, I set myself a challenge to read 100 books from my own shelves (about 70% of my total reading in a good year). The reasons behind this were that I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the number of unread books on my shelves, some of which have been sitting there for 20+ years, and I thought I’d limited my own reading through running this blog. The feeling that I should review everything I read and that I should stay up to date with new releases was a box of my own making. I hit 50 books/50% of my target on Maundy Thursday. This was unexpected. I’d assumed that come October, I’d be creating piles of novellas round my flat and powering through them. What I’m expecting to post here in future then is a mix of old and new.

When I make it to 50, I give myself a break and an opportunity to read the books that have recently been or are soon going to be published by writers I love. Evie Wyld’s previous novel, All the Birds, Singing, is one of my favourite books, so I’m both keen to read The Bass Rock and a little trepidatious. By the start of the second chapter I know I’m going to love it. Vivianne, one of three female protagonists, answers the door to a delivery guy in the middle of the day in her dressing gown. Her waste bin and recycling are overflowing. She’s 40. I don’t need protagonists to be relatable but it’s unusual to read about a character who’s over 35, lives alone, is neither a complete mess nor super competent. I like her. I feel seen. Vivianne lives in London but, throughout the novel, travels back and forth to North Berwick to sort out the personal items in her grandmother’s house, which is up for sale following her grandmother’s death.

The second protagonist is Ruth, recently married to Peter who has two boys from his first marriage. It’s post-World War II and Ruth’s negotiating how to be a wife to a man she doesn’t know very well, in a place far from her London roots, while also attempting to be a mum to two boys whose mother has died. The third woman is Sarah. It’s the 1700s and she’s on the run, having been accused of witchcraft. She’s sheltered by a family whose son narrates the story. All three women are linked by their proximity to Bass Rock, an island off the coastline, but also by the violence – physical and psychological – that is inflicted upon them by men. Wyld draws the links between these women through the structure of the chapters which move from Vivienne to Ruth to Sarah to Ruth and back to Vivienne. She also provides echoes between the years, both through actions and incidents that reoccur and through items passed between the generations.

Wyld’s purpose is to bear witness to the incidents of violence against women that have taken place for centuries. She makes this clear through the character of Maggie, a woman Vivienne meets in a supermarket in the opening chapter. It’s late at night and Maggie warns Vivienne there is a man creeping around by her car. They meet again in a later chapter where we discover that Maggie is homeless, considers herself a witch and sometimes undertakes sex work. Vivienne is wary of Maggie and, initially, so am I, until I realise that Wyld’s making me consider how we think about women who warn us about the behaviour of men. Of course they’re wild and weird and unpredictable, according to patriarchal societal conventions. Maggie’s the friend who, when you’re dismissing male behaviour that’s made you feel uncomfortable, reminds you yes, all men.

It’s an image that Maggie conjures that stays with me after I finish reading the book. She asks:

What if all the women that have been killed by men through history were visible to us, all at once? If we could see them lying there. What if you could project a hologram of the bodies in the places they were killed? […] We’re just breezing in and out of the death zone. Wading through the dead.

I think about all the places I’ve lived and wonder whether there’s a dead woman in each one. I think about the route I take from my flat into Sheffield city centre and wonder how many dead women lie along it. It’s been days and I’m still haunted by it.

Irina, the protagonist of Eliza Clark’s debut Boy Parts has a response to male violence. She photographs men through the lens of the female gaze, creating portraits of them as sexual objects which she sells via her website and to a private collector known as B. Initially, Irina appears in control. She’s confident and brash, with a fuck you attitude to life. It soon becomes apparent though that she’s an Ottessa Moshfegh character in a Bret Easton Ellis novel, albeit set in Newcastle, and therefore not entirely reliable or stable. She torments her friends and the men she photographs, but the cracks are there and, as the story descends into violence, it’s Irina that is tortured. I love an unlikeable female protagonist and Irina’s a delicious one; you wouldn’t want to be friends with her irl but she’s fun to spend time with from the safe distance of the page.

Talking of safe distances…when the lockdown begins in the UK, I find the only genres I can concentrate on are crime and historical fiction. The latter of which I would usually tell you is one of my least favourite genres (along with men’s fiction, obviously), but there’s something comforting about escaping into a past where things have already happened and the outcomes are certain. It’s perfect timing then for me to read Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel Hamnet, named for Shakespeare’s son who died when he was 11 and was possibly the inspiration for the play Hamlet, the two names being interchangeable. It’s Agnes (better known as Anne) Hathaway who takes centre stage here though. I take great delight in noticing that William Shakespeare is never referred to by name but as the tutor or the father or her husband, in the same way that women are often reduced to being someone’s wife or mother.

The first two thirds of the novel move between Judith, Hamnet’s twin, falling ill and Agnes and Will’s courtship and marriage. Agnes is viewed with suspicion by a town who don’t understand her ways. She keeps a kestrel, makes herbal remedies, and can read someone’s soul and future by touching the spot between their thumb and first finger. Shakespeare’s enchanted by her; in him, she encounters a boundless soul she can’t fathom. O’Farrell’s always been skilled at handling different timelines, but here her movement across time and perspective is fluid and flawless. It reminds me of Deborah Levy’s comments about how we don’t experience time chronologically and O’Farrell shows this specifically through Agnes’ ability, mirroring it for the reader as we move between the stages of her life.

Around the mid-point of the book, O’Farrell includes a chapter showing how the bubonic plague might have reached Stratford-upon-Avon and Judith Shakespeare by way of a cabin boy who encounters a monkey in Alexandria and then goes on to collect some glass beads from Murano, which are eventually delivered to the Shakespeare’s next-door-neighbour. At this point, I realise I had no idea how Hamnet died and my comfort read has been invaded by thoughts of passengers on cruise ships and airplanes and ideas about contact tracing and testing. Too late by now though as I’m well invested in the world O’Farrell has created.

The final 100 pages are a single chapter that runs from the death of Hamnet to the staging of the play named for him. It’s a superb study of grief and the different ways in which we deal with it. When I finish the final pages, it’s difficult to believe that I’m not standing in The Globe after the audience has mostly emptied out.

O’Farrell has long been pigeonholed as a writer of ‘women’s fiction’ (oh how I hate that term) and largely ignored by the big prizes. Hamnet is longlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction and I sincerely hope it makes an appearance on the Booker Prize list too. It is O’Farrell’s masterpiece.

Between the novels, I’m reading lots of short things. While I’ve had too much time to think, I’ve realised that all my favourite writing is political. By which I mean overtly political. (In one sense, all writing by women is political by nature of its existence.) It’s why I love Sinéad Gleeson’s story ‘The Lexicon of Babies’, an allegorical tale of motherhood and society, and Salena Godden’s poem ‘I saw Goody Procter jogging without a face mask‘ which combines The Crucible and people’s policing of each other under social distancing. The final lines, which highlight the hypocrisy of racists and the Tories as they clap and cheer for health care professionals they’ve undervalued and underfunded for years, are pointed and pertinent.

When the news that we were going into lockdown broke, I was a third of the way into Cash Carraway’s memoir Skint Estate. I finished it as schools closed and the majority of the population shifted to working from home or not working because their jobs had suddenly disappeared.

Carraway writes about trying to secure housing for herself and her daughter, showing how difficult it is even when she manages to save enough for a deposit and several month’s rent. Her income is unstable, whether she’s making it through sex work or writing; landlords don’t want to take tenants whose income is supplemented by universal credit, and Carraway has no guarantor. If she applies for council housing, she knows she will be moved out of London, away from any support networks she has, and indeed, towards the end of the book, she is. Carraway’s book becomes a channel for my anger during a time when there’s a sense it should go unspoken. I walk around my flat saying universal basic income to myself like they’re the words of a lullaby.

One morning earlier this week, I wonder how Ali Smith is doing and whether she’s rewriting sections of Summer, the final volume of her seasons quartet. I check the publication date and find it’s been pushed back a month to August. This might be because many books are being delayed at the moment, but I hope it’s because she has something to say about the UK government’s reaction to coronavirus. There’s no one whose views I want to hear more right now than Ali Smith’s.

[Review copy of The Bass Rock provided by Vintage; review copy of Boy Parts provided by Influx Books; review copy of Hamnet provided by Tinder Press; Skint Estate bought and paid for by me.]

Small Island – Andrea Levy

Small Island tells the story of four people whose lives intersect in London following the end of the Second World War. Those people are Queenie and her husband Bernard, white Londoners, she working class and he middle class, and Hortense and Gilbert, Jamaicans who’ve come to London after Gilbert’s time in the RAF. The novel is narrated from the points of view of each of the four characters and both from the ‘now’ of 1948 and the past that each character has lived through.

The book begins with a prologue in which Levy makes clear the key theme of the novel. Queenie says, ‘I thought I’d been to Africa’. She tells her school class this until her teacher points out she’s been to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. From the first line of the novel, Levy highlights the British ignorance of Africa and its people. At the exhibition, Africa’s represented by a jungle village and a woman and a man.

A monkey man sweating a smell of mothballs. Blacker than when you smudge your face with a sooty cork. The droplets of sweat on his forehead glistened and shone like jewels. His lips were brown, not pink like they should be, and they bulged with air like bicycle tyres. His hair was woolly as a black shorn sheep. His nose squasher flat, had two nostrils big as train tunnels. And he was looking down at me.

‘Would you like to kiss him?’ Graham said. He nudged me, teasing, and pushed me forward – closer to this black man.

…The inside of his mouth was pink and his face was coming closer and closer to mine. He could have swallowed me up this big nigger man. But instead he said, in clear English, ‘Perhaps we could shake hands instead?’

The first chapter has Hortense arriving at a house in London, straight from the docks where Gilbert’s forgotten to meet her. The house belongs to Queenie who’s taken in lodgers – most of them black, much to the vexation of her neighbours – since the war ended and her husband failed to return. The first chapter sets up Hortense’s expectations and shows how quickly they are disabused. The dialogue between Hortense and Queenie on the doorstep is particularly well done, showing a number of misunderstandings between the women based on accent and cultural knowledge.

The sections set in the present day – which are spaced throughout the novel, between the ‘before’ stories of each of the main characters – deal with relationships, both those between husband and wife and those between white and black people during this period. Both are often fractious with the parties lacking understanding of each other. Queenie and Bernard have dark secrets they know how to share with each other. Hortense doesn’t know how Gilbert can live as he does, Gilbert doesn’t know why he married her and why the UK’s so hostile after he played his part in the war effort.

For the teeth and glasses.

That was the reason so many coloured people were coming to this country, according to my next-door neighbour Mr Todd.

‘That National Health Service – it’s pulling them in, Mrs Bligh. Giving things away at our expense will keep them coming,’ he said. He might have a point except, according to him, they were all cross-eyed and goofy before they got here.

‘I don’t think so,’ I said.

‘Oh, yes,’ he assured me. ‘But now, of course, they’ve got spectacles and perfect grins.’

What’s particularly impressive about Small Island is that Levy allows each character to tell their story – and their side of the present day story – in their own voice. Each is distinct and convincing. Each story is equally interesting too. I sometimes wondered whether the structure of the novel, where each character tells their back-story in full (sometimes stretching to ninety pages), could have been divided into smaller sections. However, I can see how Levy uses each story to contribute to further understanding of the characters and how their stories come together in a surprising way.

Small Island is a good novel, exploring a country in the midst of great change, attempting to come to terms with the legacy of the war. Levy does this largely through the private – the individual stories – but very much shows how the private is political. It’s a perfect book for a long, indulgent read that will satisfy you in terms of character and plot but also lead you to consider current attitudes to race. I found it particularly poignant as the general election draws closer in the UK and anti-immigrant rhetoric is spouted from several parties. Like Levy, I’ll give Hortense and Gilbert the last words:

Gilbert sucked on his teeth to return this man’s scorn. ‘You know what your trouble is, man?’ he said. ‘Your white skin. You think it makes you better than me. You think it gives you the right to lord it over a black man. But you know what it make you? You wan’ know what your white skin make you, man? It make you white. That is all, man. White. No better, no worse than me – just white.’

How Should a Person Be? – Sheila Heti Giveaway

Giveaway now closed.

Last year, Sheila Heti’s excellent part-fiction, part-memoir How Should a Person Be? was longlisted for the Women’s Prize (now the Bailey’s Women’s Prize). It’s a book about being a young(ish) woman in the modern era. If you like the TV show Girls, you’ll love this.

photo-16

This is what I had to say about it last year:

How should a person be?

For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too. I noticed the way people dressed, the way they treated their lovers – in everyone, there was something to envy. You can admire anyone for being themselves. It’s hard not to, when everyone’s so good at it. But when you think of them all together like that, how can you choose?

Sheila Heti has written a book about a woman called Sheila who has recently divorced her husband and is working out how she should live. During it she’s cultivating a friendship with a female artist named Margaux:

…I realized I’d never had a woman either [for a friend]. I supposed I didn’t trust them. What was a woman for? Two women was an alchemy I didn’t understand. I hadn’t been close to a girl since Angela broke my heart and told all of my secrets to everyone.

The book uses emails and transcripts between Sheila and several characters that, we are led to believe in the introductory notes, are real. Sheila Heti is divorced and is friends with the artist Margaux Williamson. So far, so meta.

I should probably point out here that I am a huge fan of metafiction. Lily Dunn reminded me of a Michael Cunningham quote from A Home at the End of the World yesterday: We become the stories we tell ourselves. And essentially, Heti is creating a story from events that have happened recently in her own life. She turns them into a narrative using two devices: one, a competition between Margaux and their friend their friend Sholem as to who can create the ugliest painting and two, Sheila’s attempt to write a play for a feminist theatre company:

“Does it have to be a feminist play?”
“No,” they said, “but it has to be about women.”
I didn’t know anything about women! And yet I hoped to be able to write it, being a woman myself.

So, through female friendship, art, working in a hair salon, sex with an unsuitable man, Sheila sets about trying to work out how a person should be. If it sounds like something that should be followed with a hashtag of middleclassproblems or firstworldproblems, you’re probably right but Heti balances her angst with humour.

In a scene set in Miami where Sheila and Margaux have gone to attend an art fair at which some of Margaux’s paintings will be displayed, they return to their hotel room after dinner and watch a video in which ‘an heiress gave her boyfriend a hand job’. Sheila thinks to herself:

Consider all the warriors down through time, without great brains – like you! – who nevertheless struck the enemy right through the breast. They just kept their wrists steady and struck.

Then I glanced at the painting of the Statue of Liberty on the wall behind us and wondered, Where would all of America be – and wouldn’t the flame long be extinguished in the sea – if not for the tall girl’s steady wrist?

I won’t spoil the end of the book, where Margaux and Sholem try to decide who’s won the Ugliest Painting Competition and Sheila finally realises how a person should be, but I will say that it’s probably perfect.

I loved this book and the more time I’ve spent thinking about it, the greater I think it is. I’m planning to re-read it soon.

And now you can win one of three copies of the book, thanks to Vintage Books. Simply leave a comment underneath this post. I am accepting worldwide entries. The competition closes as 12pm GMT on Sunday 16th March. Winners will be selected at random and notified as soon as possible after entries have closed. Good luck!

Edit

I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of entry as follows:

1 – Dan (Utterbiblio)
2 – Samstillreading
3 – Rebecca Foster
4 – Cleo (Cleopatralovesbooks)
5 – Annegret
6 – Elizabeth Moya
7 – Alice
8 – Kevinfreeburn
9 – Lisa Redmond
10 – Helen MacKinven
11 – theabhishekkr
12 – Hearts bigger then the sun
13 – Pooja Shah
14 – Cath Martin
15 – Bookishdubai
16 – Emanuel
17 – Eve Lacey
18 – Isobel
19 – Outonthefringes

And the random number generator says:

Screen Shot 2014-03-16 at 12.13.32 Screen Shot 2014-03-16 at 12.13.46 Screen Shot 2014-03-16 at 12.13.57

 

Congratulations to theabishekkr, Cleo and Annegret; check your email. Thanks to everyone for entering.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013: Who Should Win?

Tomorrow’s the big day when the winner of the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction will be decided. According to the prize’s website, ‘The Women’s Prize for Fiction is awarded annually to the woman who, in the opinion of the judges, has written the best, eligible full-length novel in English’. ‘The best’? How do you decide what’s best and what are the six shortlisted titles chances?

 

Bring Up the Bodies is a beautifully written novel. Mantel’s use of imagery is striking and taking the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell gave a fresh perspective to well-trodden ground.

Best for: imagery

Any flaws? Picky but Mantel herself has said that plotting isn’t her strong point which is why she’s borrowed from history.

 

 

Flight Behaviour is a cracking good story. Not something you might expect to say about a novel whose central theme is climate change. But Kingsolver is deft enough to ensure that her characters are characters and not ciphers, ensuring that we engage with Dellarobia and her hopes and dreams for a better life.

Best for: plot

Any flaws? No literary acrobatics (although some would see that as a good thing!)

Life After Life is Kate Atkinson’s most ambitious novel. Atkinson tells the story of Ursula, destined to die and be reborn on exactly the same day until she (or those responsible for her) work out how she is to survive for longer. Both they and her are unaware of her unusual ‘gift’. The structure allows Atkinson to explore the unpredictable nature of child birth at the start of the 20th Century; both world wars; family, marriage and friendship. The writing is incredibly vivid and has you rooting for Ursula as she unpicks another reoccurring scenario.

Best for: the unusual structure.

Any flaws? Some people dislike the unusual structure as it eliminates the possibility of death being a definite end.

May We Be Forgiven falls into the Great American Novel category. It is the story of Harry Silver and his family, or to be more precise, his brother’s family. When George causes an accident and Harry starts an affair with George’s wife, Jane, events spiral and Harry finds himself with two teenagers to raise while continuing his work as a Nixon scholar and meeting women on the internet.

Best for: pace and its comments on modern society.

Any flaws? In the final fifth of the novel the key theme is laid on thick.

 

N-W is Zadie Smith’s clear-eyed tribute to her home turf. It looks at that age-old English obsession with class and whether hard work really does mean you can escape your roots. Smith plays with structure and viewpoint to varying effect.

Best for: dialogue and themes.

Any flaws? The four sections aren’t equally as successful – opinions on the most and least successful vary.

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the tale of a woman who’s lost sight of who she is. Her teenage daughter tells her story, put together through reports, emails and letters. This is a witty and heartfelt look at what happens when your life falls apart and you attempt to carry on regardless.

Best for: humour.

Any flaws? Depends how snobby you are – this is the most commercial book on the list.

 

 

The Winner?

Who do I think is ‘best’? It’s got to be Kate Atkinson for the combination of vivid writing and an unusual structure which, under less skilful hands, could’ve been far from successful. Fingers crossed.

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

It’s quite interesting reading and reviewing a book long after it’s been both critically acclaimed and a commercial success. I like to come to books knowing as little as possible about them – impossible in this case, which leads you to begin reading expecting it to be amazing.

Bring Up the Bodies, as we all know, is the sequel to the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Wolf Hall. As with any book that garners that amount of attention, people’s reactions to it covered the spectrum of possible reactions. My own was mixed: it was okay. I liked the idea of taking Thomas Cromwell as the central character and the time period’s an interesting one, but using ‘he’ to refer to Cromwell was confusing and I found myself having to reread chunks of text to work out who was doing what.

That seems to have largely been resolved in Bring Up the Bodies – more so because we’re aware of it before beginning reading, rather than due to any change in Mantel’s narrative style.

The novel begins at Wolf Hall:

His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and the riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are the sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.

Immediately we are back in Tudor England. We’ve been reminded that Cromwell’s wife and girls are dead and that this is a brutal regime where Henry VIII gets what he wants because Cromwell provides it for him.

In this novel, that’s going to be the removal of Anne Boleyn – unable to provide Henry with the male heir he’s desperate for – and the installation of Jane Seymour. Watching the way the women are treated – regardless of any power they think they may have – is fascinating, the details of such Mantel provides through some incredibly powerful descriptions:

Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body; he had a second batch of recalcitrant friars to be dispatched to Tyburn, to be slit up and gralloched by the hangman. They were traitors and deserved the death, but it is a death exceeding most in cruelty. The pearls around her neck looked to him like little beads of fat, and as she argued she would reach up and tug them; he kept his eyes on her fingertips, nails flashing like tiny knives.

I found Bring Up the Bodies enormously enjoyable. The focus, the incredible prose, the humour (oh yes, it’s funny too) all meant that I was utterly engrossed.

Is it amazing? Yes it is.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette – Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the story of Bernadette Fox – mother of Bee; wife of Elgin Branch: Microsoft creative genuis; antagoniser of the Parent Association at Galer Street School.

The novel begins with Bee’s exemplary school report:

Bee is a pure delight. Her love of learning is infectious, as are her kindness and humour. Her goal is always deep understanding of a given topic, not merely getting a good grade.

And so on. This establishes three things: Bee’s intelligence and therefore, ability to narrate the novel; Bee’s reward for her outstanding report – a trip to Antarctica, which becomes a focal point, and (from her reaction to both the report and the planned excursion) Bernadette’s character.

Bernadette has an internet assistant, Manjuela, whom she employs to do a variety of tasks from making reservations for Thanksgiving dinner to organising prescriptions for seasickness medication.

Of the million reasons I don’t want to go to Antarctica, the main one is that it will require me to leave the house. You might have figured by now that’s something I don’t much like to do. But I can’t argue with Bee. She’s a good kid.

The only way to get to Antarctica is by cruise ship. Even the smallest one has 150 passengers, which translates into me being trapped with 149 other people who will uniquely annoy the hell out of me with their rudeness, waste, idiotic questions, incessant yammering, creepy food requests, boring small talk, etc.

By this point (page eight), I already loved Bernadette.

The majority of the novel is told through a collection of reports, emails and letters with occasional narration from Bee. This gives the book a range of voices and a good variety of pace and tone, as well as allowing for some excellent set pieces.

Semple does a great job of creating characters whose behaviour, while often outrageous, remains within the bounds of credible and allows for numerous comic moments.

Take Audrey Griffin, for example. Audrey Griffin is your annoying next-door neighbour. The one who comments on the ‘state’ of your house and garden:

Audrey started short-circuiting about our blackberry bushes and her organic garden and the guy who had a friend with a special machine and something that needed to get done this week.

The one who runs the Parents’ Association at your child’s school:

I created the Diversity Council. I invented Donuts for Dads. I wrote Galer Street’s mission statement, which that fancy company in Portland was going to charge us ten thousand dollars for.

The one who thinks their child is a little angel:

‘We found something in Kyle’s locker yesterday.’ She held up an orange pill bottle. It had my name on it – it was the Vicodin prescription I got after Our Lady of Straight Gate tried to plow me over in her car.

‘What’s that doing here?’ I said.

‘Kyle?’ Gwen said.

‘I don’t know,’ said Kyle.

‘Galer Street has a zero-tolerance drug policy.’ Gwen said.

‘But it’s prescription medicine,’ I said, still not understanding her point.

While the book focuses on Bernadette and – through her relationships with the other characters – what’s become of her personally since her family’s move to Seattle, it also considers what we really know of other people – how we judge and misrepresent for our own ends.

This is the second time I’ve read Where’d You Go, Bernadette and it was every bit as good as the first. I’ll be adding it to my collection of ‘comfort’ reads to return to as and when I need a guaranteed cracking good read.

The Forrests – Emily Perkins

The Forrest family has recently emigrated from New York City to Auckland, New Zealand. There’s parents, Frank and Lee, brother, Michael, older sisters, Dorothy and Evelyn and younger sister, Ruthie. And now there’s Michael’s new friend, Daniel.

The novel follows the family’s fortunes – from Frank’s return to New York and Lee and the children’s time in a women’s commune to Frank’s return following the literal loss of their fortune and then on, focusing in on Dorothy and Evelyn through to Dorothy’s old age.

Their story seems to be relentlessly grim – there is always loss of some form to contend with – but I don’t mind grim. However, I do have two issues with the book.

The more minor of the two is with some of the writing. Occasionally it is overwritten. Take this passage for example:

The onions in the wicker basket were firm, golden orbs, crunchy green beneath the skin where the knife sliced in and left pungent milky droplets on the chopping board. At the industrial-sized oven she turned on the dials, stiff with trapped food crumbs and kept chopping. The chopped onions were soft and translucent in the frying pan. The kitchen smelled of their cooking and of melted cheese. There was a tumbling sound as she tipped dried macaroni into the boiling water, which fizzed up and almost over the rim of the saucepan in a rush of white froth. The salt shaker clogged in the steam.

And so on. Now that I can live with, this is only Perkins’ second novel after all. However, my second issue is much larger.

Early on in the novel, it becomes clear that Michael’s new friend, Daniel has invaded the Forrests’ life. This passage occurs just after Frank has left for New York.

The first morning Frank was gone, their mother woke early to hear someone in the house, moving around downstairs…That boy, Daniel, sat at the table with his back to her. She took in his slim shoulders, the newspaper in front of him, steam rising from the kettle. He was writing on the paper and when she said, ‘Good morning’, and walked around the side of the table he smiled and said, ‘Hi, Lee. Hope you don’t mind me doing the crossword.’

Daniel then goes with the family to the commune and is the person who takes charge when Frank eventually returns. Before long he is dating Dorothy, although they try to keep it hidden from the rest of the family. When the family begins to disperse, the children turning into young adults and starting their own lives, we follow Evelyn to a ski resort where she is the housekeeper at one of the lodges, a job she shares with her boyfriend, Daniel.

We then follow Dorothy to the age of 25 and now pregnant. The father of her baby is her future husband, Andrew. They go out for a meal with both sets of parents to celebrate and who should they bump into…

‘What are you eating?’ Daniel asked. Without thinking Dorothy leaned across the table towards him and held her chopsticks forward, the piece of gingery chicken wedged between them. Her arm outstretched. It was just for a second but she knew the table froze. Family members poised motionless, watching. Daniel held Dorothy’s gaze, his eyes dark and steady as he ate the mouthful from her chopsticks.

Dorothy and Evelyn spend their entire lives obsessed with Daniel, even when they are married to other men whom they have children with. They always seem to be waiting to either hear from him or see him and it is the way that these women define themselves in relation to him – and the way that every other woman in the novel is defined in relation to a man – that made me want to throw the book across the room. Disappointing and frustrating.

Edit: It has been pointed out to me (via Twitter) that Daniel appears at a defining moment in Dorothy and Evelyn’s lives and that’s why they feel the need to keep in touch with him. I’m cold and heartless and can’t understand why you’d want to keep in touch with a first love when you’ve moved on, married and had children, particularly not to the extent that these women crave contact with Daniel, but maybe that’s a defect on my part.

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid – Shani Boianjiu

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is the story of three young women – Lea, Avishag and Yael. At the beginning of the novel, they are three school friends sitting in an Israeli classroom.

We finished the history of the world in tenth grade. In our textbook, the pages already speak to us of 1982, just a few years before we were born.

History is almost over.

The girls spend their time writing notes to each other that must have ‘the word “fuck” in each sentence’ and trying to find places in the town where they can get mobile phone reception.

The adults in the town work:

…in the company in the village that makes parts that go into machines that help make machines that make planes, or [go] to college so [they can] later be paid more to work in the company in the town that makes parts that go into machines that help make machines that make planes…

But before that, aged 18, they are conscripted into the army and this is the fate that awaits our three young women.

We see Avishag go through training, determined to be strong, possibly in an attempt to avenge the death of her brother following the end of his service. Lea become a blue beret – the military police unit – spending her days at a checkpoint and making up an entire life for a man who passes through each day. And Yael become an expert shooter, teaching young men how to shoot accurately and then sleeping with them between breaking-up and getting back together with her boyfriend at home.

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid explores both what it’s like to be a young woman, finding yourself and your place in the world and what it’s like to be a young woman in the army: the horrors involved; coping mechanisms; the treatment you receive from men.

This is an impressive debut. The characters are interesting, the subject matter’s engaging and watching the changes that take place in the young women throughout and following their time in the army is fascinating. There are moments that are very funny, there are also moments that are shocking and horrific, showing the extent that war has affected these people.

However, I do have an issue with the structure of the book. Although the story of each of these women is told from their school days to their recruitment to their reintegration into civilian life, their stories are fragmented and, although I can see an argument for saying that Boianjiu did this to show how the war has fragmented their lives and their minds, it made this seem more like a collection of interlinked short stories than a novel. Each chapter could easily stand alone. I’m not criticising the treatment of these stories as such, just that I think my approach to a collection of interlinked short stories is different to my approach to a novel and having some sense of what I might be reading before I begin aids, rather than hinders, my reading experience.

I am aware by suggesting that this is a short story collection, some people will be put off reading it (this is why UK publishers have a tendency to market this sort of book as a novel) but I’m hoping it won’t. Boianjiu is a talented writer and I look forward to reading whatever she produces next.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 – Shortlist Predictions

A month after the 20 strong longlist was announced for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction, shortlisting is upon us. I’ve read 17 of the 20 books listed, links to the reviews of which, you can find here.

I’m going to do two shortlists – my preferences i.e. the books that I would have chosen were I the sole judge and my predictions as to the books the judges will choose (so we can all have a good laugh tomorrow at how far off I am!).

What’s been good about the incredibly long list of 20 books is that I’ve only come across one so far that I really didn’t like and – more importantly – I’ve discovered a writer I’ve never come across before who is amazing – Michelè Roberts – and a writer who I knew existed but might never have read otherwise and is also brilliant – Barbara Kingsolver.

So, my choices:

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

I know, I haven’t even read it yet, but it’s Hilary Mantel. I read Beyond Black when it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, I’ve read her memoir Giving Up the Ghost and I’ve read Wolf Hall. The only reason I haven’t read Bring Up the Bodies yet is because I have a paperback of Wolf Hall and I like sets to match. Yes, I’m one of those. Anyway, Mantel is one of our greatest writers and deserves to stand alongside the likes of Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and anyone else from the literary establishment you care to mention.

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Not just her best book yet, I suspect one of the best books of the year. The scope of the narrative; the characters – particularly Ursula – who you root for time after time; that incredible structure that could have become so tedious but instead illuminates the whole novel. It’s simply wonderful.

Ignorance – Michelè Roberts

A surprise one for me but this is a new take on the WWII novel, focusing on the relationship between two women and how life treats you depending on whether you have money and status or not. Beautifully written.

How Should a Person Be? – Sheila Heti

Divisive this one but I loved it. Heti’s novel uses emails and conversations – that we’re led to believe are real – between her and her friends, mainly the artist Margaux. Through them and her work, her lovers and her wanderings, Heti wonders what sort of person she should be and how she would become that person. Inventive and thought provoking.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? – Maria Semple

Another novel that makes use of emails as well as reports, transcripts and letters. This is the story of Bernadette and her daughter, Bee. It’s almost a year since I read it but the humour, the darkness and the novel’s big heart are still vivid.

The Marlowe Papers – Ros Barber

It takes guts to write a novel in verse and make that novel accessible to everyone. Barber not only pulls this off, she tells a story that is wildly inventive but relatable. Yes, the idea that Christopher Marlowe didn’t die in that tavern brawl and then went on to write under the name William Shakespeare may be implausible but that he loved, that he had his heart broken, that he lived under a brutal regime, those – through Barber’s words and images – we feel along with Marlowe himself.

My predictions (I’ve chosen these based on the theory that the judges will have to agree on all of the titles):

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
The Marlowe Papers – Ros Barber
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
Where’d You Go, Bernadette – Maria Semple
N-W – Zadie Smith

Of the books I’ve not mentioned on either list, these are the others that you really should make time to read:

The Children of Forever Are Not Afraid – Shani Boianjiu
May We Be Forgiven – A.M. Homes
Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver
Lamb – Bonnie Nazdam

The Marlowe Papers – Ros Barber

Elbows against a schoolboy’s desk, I learnt
the dead can be conjured from their words through ink,
that ancient writers rise and sing through time
as if immortal, the poet’s voice preserved
like the ambered insect some see as a scratch
but I’d imagine flying, brought to life.

And so to precious paper I commit
the only story I can never tell.

What if Christopher Marlowe hadn’t died in that bar brawl? What if Christopher Marlowe had been exposed as an atheist and forced into exile? What if Christopher Marlowe continued to write plays and send them back to England to be performed under someone else’s name? What if that name was William Shakespeare?

Those questions form the basis of Ros Barber’s superb ‘novel in verse’ The Marlowe Papers. Marlowe is in exile. He writes poems to his lover to which we are privy:

To fool intelligence
we hide our greatest treasures in plain sight.
This poetry you have before your eyes
the greatest code that man has yet devised.

We follow Marlowe as he attempts to find somewhere safe to stay, always aware of the danger that he is in:

                           …one destiny is crouched
still ready to spring: the cell, the lash, the rack
the gibbet and the noose. The vicious slice from the throat
to belly; my intestines gentled out
by a dutiful executioner, my prick
hacked off and crammed into my mouth.

For Elizabethan England is a dangerous place. As Marlowe tells us the story that led from him beginning to make his way in the world to the point when his murder is faked, we are shown just what it takes to survive. It seems as though everyone is spying for someone, all afraid that something they do will upset the Queen which will lead to their imprisonment and execution. Rumours abound as to who is in allegiance with whom and what the Queen’s thoughts are today.

Marlowe, apparently, has been accused of atheism following the production of his play Faustus. A charge that he denies but reveals to us is true.

Barber uses Marlowe’s story to explore ideas surrounding religion, language, power, disguise and love. It is a story with many twist and turns and one that has us gripped, hoping that Marlowe survives both the noose of Queen Elizabeth I and the enforced distance between him and his lover.

The use of verse to do so is one that some readers may find off-putting but I’m hoping that I’ve quoted sufficiently to show that the style doesn’t detract from the story, nor make it difficult to read.

This is an unusual book in terms of its style and ambition. It well deserves its place on the Women’s Fiction Prize longlist and I hope it gains a greater readership because of it.