Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing has one of the most arresting openings I’ve read in a while. The narrator who speaks these words has several names – her Chinese name, Jiang Li-ling; her English name, Marie Jiang, and Girl, her father’s nickname for her because the Chinese word for daughter and girl is the same. She lives in Vancouver, working as a university professor in mathematics, but the story that concerns her now is that of her father and, in particular, events during the creation of The People’s Republic of China and the uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

After Marie’s father dies, her mother introduces her to the Book of Records. Passed down through their family, it tells the story of Da-Wei and May Fourth. They only have book 17 of numerous volumes and Marie’s mother tells her it’s a story copied out by a ‘refined calligrapher’.

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At the end of the same year, Marie’s mother takes a young woman into their home. Nineteen-year-old, Ai-ming has left Beijing after being part of the events in Tiananmen Square. Marie’s mother has agreed she can live with them for the time being as Ai-ming’s father was Marie’s father’s composition teacher when he was a student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

Although Marie is initially hostile to Ai-ming, she relents as Ai-ming begins to share the contents of the Book of Records and how the book came to be part of their family. The latter is one of many stories her grandmother, Big Mother Knife, told her:

“I assumed.” Ai-ming told me, “that when Big Mother’s stories finished, life would continue and I would go back to being myself. But it wasn’t true. The stories got longer and longer, and I got smaller and smaller. When I told my grandmother this, she laughed her head off. She said, ‘But that’s how the world is, isn’t it? Or did you think you were bigger than the world?’

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a number of things: it is the story of a family’s history, it is a story of life in China during a turbulent period in its history; it is a story of love, and it is a meditation on art and its role in our lives. All of these parts are interesting and make for a hugely satisfying novel but it is Thien’s examination of art which I found most interesting.

Many of Thien’s characters are storytellers: Big Mother Knife, her brother-in-law – Wen the Dreamer, Ai-ming, and Marie. While Marie’s father, Kai, Ai-ming’s father, Sparrow, and Ai-ming’s aunt, Zhuki, are musicians and composers. Her exploration of their craft asks questions around the value of art in a closed society and what benefit stories serve to future generations. The former is neatly summed up in a paragraph from Sparrow’s perspective:

He wanted to tell his mother about an entirely different recording, Bach’s six sonatas for the same two instruments. Throughout his life, Bach had returned to these six pieces, polishing and revising them, rewriting them as he grew older. They were almost unbearably beautiful, as if the composer wanted to find out how much this most basic of sonata forms – exposition, development, recapitulation – could hold, and in what ways containment could hold a freedom, a life.

The role of storytelling in the way in which the Book of Record is copied but altered slightly or details inserted in the retelling, making it relevant to the new narrators and readers. Thien interweaves this discussion into the narrative without it ever threatening to overwhelm the story itself. It’s a skilful consideration of the work Thien herself is doing too.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a complex, satisfying work on family, society, history and art and the impact all four have on the future.

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

I’m beginning this review with a trigger warning for sexual violence. There are occurrences throughout the novel but it opens with an incident that’s shocking and, I feel, it’s impossible to write a review of the book without discussing it.

A young girl’s body is the most dangerous place in the world, as it is the spot where violence is most likely to be enacted.

The book begins with the births of our two protagonists – Pierrot and Rose. Pierrot is born to a girl who is ‘only twelve years old’. Her cousin, a soldier, comes to see her in his uniform and tells her he’ll give her a medical examination to see if she’s fit to be a soldier too.

He’d said that he had to stick his penis inside her in order to test her internal temperature. When he was done, satisfied with her perfect health, he had handed her a little red ribbon that had come off a cake box. Then he pinned it to her jacket as a badge of honour for her grand consummated service to her country.

The girl is sent to the Hôpital de Misericorde to give birth in shame like other young girls.

These girls had thrown their whole lives away just to have five lovely minutes on a back staircase. Now, with strangers living in their bellies, they had been sent into hiding by their parents, while the young fathers went about their business, riding bicycles and whistling in the bathtub.

Pierrot’s father is named – Thomas – but his mother is only ever know by the name the nuns at the hospital give her – Ignorance.

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Rose’s mother is eighteen.

[She] hadn’t particularly liked Rose’s father. The boy waited for her on the corner of the street every day. He would always beg her to come into the alley with him and let him have a peek at her breasts. She decided to give in one afternoon. Somehow she thought that if she made love to him, he would go away and leave her alone. Which, actually, proved to be the case.

O’Neill clearly begins the novel this way to shock the reader. I’ve quoted at length from the first few pages because I think it’s important to get a sense of the tone of the book. O’Neill is firmly on the side of women and girls and scornful of the way in which society treats them – not just men but also other women who’ve bought into patriarchal ideas of how women should behave. 

She also explores the idea of sexual shame and the impact it can have on people’s behaviour; Pierrot is repeatedly abused at the orphanage by one of the nuns. Also…

At the orphanage, those caught masturbating had their hands whipped with a ruler fifty times. And then they would stand on a chair in the common room wearing red gloves so that everyone would know what they had done. There was a different little boy standing up on the chair every few weeks. And then one day there was the lovely Rose. Nobody could believe it. But perhaps most shocking was the look on her face. She stood with her chin up in the air, a look close to pride on her face.

Pierrot sometimes told people that that was the moment he fell in love with Rose.

At the heart of The Lonely Hearts Hotel is the love story of Pierrot and Rose. Pierrot’s an excellent pianist and acrobat; Rose dances and acts, her most successful performance taking place with an imaginary bear. After they’re seen by the cousin of the prime minister in a play put on by the orphanage, they begin to get regular work performing in the houses of the rich. Just at the point where it looks as though things might begin to work out for them, life intervenes. There are gangsters, prostitution and heroin waiting to derail the pair of them. For some time, they will lose themselves and each other.

O’Neill skewers society, its obsession with sex and money and how both can be derailed by love. There are lots of fantastic lines, I highlighted so many:

While the only females in society who had any real bargaining power were the dopey little virgins with rags, safety-pinned to their underwear, filling up with blood the colour of fallen dead rose petals. The minute they gave themselves up, they really had no agency whatsoever.

“I’ve had it up to here with crazy women. All you have to do is be fucking pleasant and spread your legs, and you are taken care of. You don’t know how easy you have it.”

Everything written by any woman was written by all women, because they all benefitted from it.

If this sounds too depressing (and O’Neill does emphasise the miserable by setting the majority of the action during The Great Depression), there is light in Pierrot’s playing, Rose’s performances and a surprisingly optimistic, although not saccharine, ending.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel probably isn’t for everyone – if the reactions of the Baileys Prize shadow panel are anything to go by it’s definitely marmite – but I absolutely loved it.

 

Thanks to riverrun for the review copy.

Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood

Although I’m a fan of Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and Anne Tyler, I have, until now, avoided the Hogarth Shakespeare retellings. The reason? *Whispers* I can’t really see the point. Maybe it’s fatigue from my secondary school teacher days when I watched and read numerous versions of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Regardless, Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest made its way onto the Baileys Prize longlist and as I commit to reading them all, here we are.

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While Hag-Seed is a re-telling, it also incorporates a production of the play itself. So far, so meta. Atwood riffs on the theme of prisons, placing most of the action within a prison and ensuring that several of the characters are contained within prisons of their own making. One of these comes about through a play that happens within the performance of The Tempest, so a play within a play within a retelling of a play. I can’t help thinking that William himself would be impressed with that bit of theatrical intricacy.

The action of the novel, however, begins outside of prison but inside the world of theatre. Felix is the Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival. He surrounds himself with the best and allows one of his workers, Tony, to take the mundane tasks, while he concerns himself with ‘higher aims’.

To create the lushest, most beautiful, the most awe-inspiring, the most inventive, the most numinous theatrical experiences ever. To raise the bar as high as the moon. To forge from every production an experience no one attending it would ever forget. To evoke the collective indrawn breath, the collective sigh; to have the audience leave, after the performance, staggering a little as if drunk. To make the Makeshiweg Festival the standard against which all lesser festivals would be measured.

But Tony usurps him, has Felix’s contract terminated by vote of the Board of Directors. His replacement? Tony, backed by the Heritage Minister, Sal, a mate of his.

It’s the last thing Felix has to lose: his wife died of a staph infection after childbirth and his daughter, Miranda, of meningitis, aged three. While she was falling ill, Felix was in rehearsals with orders not to be disturbed. His guilt manifests itself as a version of Miranda who lives with him, growing up as she might have done had she not died. Felix talks to her, largely when he’s alone but, occasionally, in front of others.

When Felix loses his job, he retreats to a shack he finds on lane belonging to a farm. Calling himself Mr Duke, he hides away there for twelve years working on two projects: the first, resurrecting the version of The Tempest he was about to direct as part of the Markeshiweg Festival. Felix sees this as a way to release his Miranda from her coffin. The second, getting revenge on Tony and Sal.

In the ninth year of his exile, Felix Duke takes a job as a teacher at Fletcher County Correctional Institute. He begins by using plays he thinks the inmates will connect with – Julius Caesar, Richard III, Macbeth – to much success. But now, he’s decided it’s time to stage The Tempest and to take revenge.

Despite my reservations, I enjoyed this a lot. Atwood’s clearly having fun with it and seeing how Felix was going to enact revenge on Tony and Sal in a prison, during a play, was enough to keep me reading. There is a danger with this sort of project that it becomes an exercise and there are points where it feels as though Atwood is following a blueprint where certain things must happen in a certain way. However, the novel as a whole is lifted by Felix’s imagining of the ghostly Miranda. His grief and his attempt to deal with it bring an emotional connection that’s lacking elsewhere. It’s telling that although this is the subplot, it’s also the thread that brings the novel to a close, Atwood clearly acknowledging its power.

Overall, Hag-Seed is a decent read. You can’t go far wrong with the combined words of Atwood and Shakespeare.

Barkskins – Annie Proulx

“But there is no better subject than trees,” put in Harkiss. “For this timber family it is the bread and butter subject.”

Forgive me if I disagree with the first half of the above statement; I can think of a dozen better subjects without much effort. However, if you’d told me three weeks ago, when the Baileys Prize longlist was announced, that I’d thoroughly enjoy a 750 page novel about trees, I’d have laughed. But here we are.

Barkskins begins in 1693 with the arrival of René Sel and Charles Duquet in New France. Illiterate Sel has been employed by Monseiur Claude Trépagny to clear an area of forest. He’ll work for Trépagny for three years, allowing his master products from the land he clears, after which René will be entitled to his own patch of land in this newly conquered country. Duquet, ‘a scrawny engagé from the ship, weakling from the Paris slums who during the voyage often folded up in a corner like a broken stick’ is along for the same reason but has his eye on the fur trade as he believes that’s where the money is.

René begins to learn the land through Mari, a member of the Mi’kmaq First Nations people, who Trépagny lives with. When Trépagny’s treachery is revealed, René and Mari are forced to marry. They then raise a family whose story form one thread of the book.

Duquet’s descendants form the other. Early in the book, Duquet goes missing, “eaten by the loup-garou – forest spirits that had followed them from France – according to Trépagny. At the start of the second section of the novel, he’s discovered alive, although not at all well, by Odawa traders:

The mud had dried and to get at the man underneath they had to crack and break it away. They carried him to the river and soaked him in the waters until he emerged from his clay armour. They doubted he would live, but the Indian woman with them took his case in hand. In treating him she smelled the foul infection in his mouth. In her medicine bag she had a small wooden stick with a leather loop at the end. With this she removed his rotting teeth, gave him an infection fighting mouthwash and an opiate.

“Not die,” she said.

The voyageurs put him in their worn canoe and set out for a distant Ojibwa village to the northwest.

Duquet learns to read the water, learns the intricacies of the fur trade and learns to use a French tomahawk, giving himself an advantage over his musket using competitors.

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While the book is about colonisation – the behaviour of white Europeans and the effects on the First Nations peoples – not only in what we now know as Canada but also in North America, Australia and New Zealand, it is also about white European’s attitudes to the forest.

At the start of the novel, the forest René and Duquet find themselves in is vast:

“How big is this forest?” asked Duquet in his whinging treble voice. He was scarcely larger than a child.

“It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning. No one has ever seen its farthest dimension.”

While Duquet tries to settle on a sure-fire way to make his fortune, he contemplates the forest:

The forest was unimaginably vast and it replaced itself. It could supply timber and wood for ships, houses, warmth. The profits will come forever.

Duquet kidnaps a priest who teaches him to read and write, then following a trip to China, in which he believes the following, he sets up his own timber business:

Duquet thought it likely that the forests of China and France and Italy had been puny in their beginnings, he believed that the uniquely deep forests of the New World would endure. That was why men came to the unspoiled continent – for the mind-numbing abundance of virgin resources.

Despite clear signs to the contrary, this belief persists for many years.

It’s not only the forest which appears vast; covering 320 years, so does the scope of the book. Inevitably this comes with its own issues: there are too many characters, some die before the reader’s barely got to know them, at certain points there are just too many descendants for the reader to keep track of who’s who; sometimes events are skimmed over too quickly, at other points the detail of trees and business means the plot sags. However, not only is the work an admirable achievement, if you’re prepared to invest some time on it, it pays off.

As a whole, Barkskins is a fascinating story about two families which tells a significant portion of the history of the Western world and the damage that white Europeans inflicted across it. It’s a worthy addition to the Baileys Prize longlist and I wouldn’t bet against seeing it on the shortlist either.

 

Thanks to 4th Estate for the review copy.

 

 

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

Gustav Pearle lives with his mother, Emilie, in Matzlingen, Switzerland. His father, Erich, is dead. Emilie tells Gustav that his father was a hero and he died helping the Jews. As a result, Emilie dislikes Jews.

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Aged five in 1947, Gustav meets Anton Zwiebel at kindergarten. Gustav’s the only person able to stop Anton from crying; he does so by repeating his mother’s phrase that ‘you have to master yourself’. Gustav and Anton become firm friends and are soon spending time with each other outside of school. This disconcerts Emilie, not only because Anton and his family are Jewish but also because they are rich while she has fallen on hard times. She worries that Gustav will expect a certain type of lifestyle because he’s been exposed to it. At six, Anton is already a talented pianist:

There was so much that had been confusing about ‘The Linden Tree’ that Gustav almost wished Anton hadn’t played it. It wasn’t just the business about the notes sounding like rustling leaves (and yet they didn’t, not quite), or the sad man who was and was not there; it was the fact of Anton being able to play this complicated song. How could he have learned it? When?

And then Gustav had another thought which he found very disturbing. He imagined that at the very time when he and Emilie were on their hands and knees cleaning the Church of Sankt Johann, on Saturday mornings, Anton was with his piano teacher. He and Emilie were scrubbing and dusting and polishing while Anton was playing music by Schubert.

The novel’s divided into three sections: the first covers Gustav’s childhood, his friendship with Anton, Anton’s attempts to become a concert pianist, and Emilie’s illnesses both mental and physical. The second goes back in time and tells the story of Emilie and Erich’s relationship, and the third travels forward to Gustav and Anton’s middle age. What connects all three sections is love.

Tremain explores love in different forms: parent and child, friends, lovers, spouses, companions. What’s particularly interesting is the disparity between the picture Emilie paints of Erich and the revelation about his past behaviour. It raises questions about coping mechanisms for those who remain after someone close to them has died and very skilfully questions whether Erich’s heroism at helping Jews remain in Switzerland is compromised through his behaviour in his private life.

Some of the books on the longlist for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize have caused serious debate and disagreement between the shadow panel; The Gustav Sonata is one of those books – we’re absolutely split in terms of our opinions on it. For me, it never really came off the page. The issue here, I suspect, is mine: I’ve recently been reading and writing about women writing women and the number of books by women about women which go on to win major literary prizes. (See Nicola Griffith’s analysis of this.) I was frustrated then that this is largely a book about men; it would scrape through The Bechdel Test. It’s also a very measured book and I prefer something more high wire. For balance, therefore, I’ll direct you to my fellow shadow panel member, Eric, who had a very different reaction to me.

 

Thanks to Chatto and Windus for the review copy.

The Mare – Mary Gaitskill

Eleven-year-old Velvet takes part in the Fresh Air Fund summer scheme, two weeks staying ‘with rich white people’. She’s paired with forty-seven-year-old Ginger, an artist, married to a man she met in AA. The couple are considering adopting, although Ginger’s keener than Paul. Taking Velvet into their home is a trial to see what it’s like to have an older child around.

We called the organization and they sent us information, including a brochure of white kids and black kids holding flowers and smiling, of white adults hugging black kids and a slender black girl touching a white woolly sheep. It was sentimental and flattering to white vanity and manipulative as hell. It was also irresistible. It made you think the beautiful sentiments you pretend to believe in reality really might be true.

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Velvet soon becomes acquainted with the stables next door to Ginger’s house. There she takes a shine to Fugly Girl, the most dangerous horse in the yard. While there’s a clear parallel to be drawn between Fugly Girl’s behaviour and Velvet’s, the stable and Velvet’s subsequent ability as a rider is also used to highlight the difference in the attitudes of Ginger and Silvia, Velvet’s mother, to Velvet’s new hobby. Ginger is delighted and encourages Velvet, seeing it as a way to develop their relationship further, allowing Velvet to spend weekends with her and Paul. Silvia is adamant that Velvet can’t ride horses, she’s worried it’s too dangerous, a worry that both Ginger and Velvet ignore.

Silvia’s not the only person concerned, Paul also worries, but his fears are directed towards Ginger’s relationship with Velvet, to the need he sees in both of them, to the addiction that’s forming on Ginger’s side.

What Gaitskill does well with all of these elements is complicate them. Silvia appears to be a bad mother, she’s angry and abusive, belittling her daughter. But how much of what the reader understands about Silvia is lost in translation? She speaks Spanish and her words are almost always conveyed in English by her daughter, son or an independent translator. When Gaitskill does give us Silvia’s words directly, we see a woman worn down by her situation and a mother concerned about the effect Ginger’s influence is having on Velvet, about how it will prevent her fitting in to the community which she belongs.

Ginger also struggles to translate Velvet. She views her through a prism of idealism, even when there’s sufficient evidence to show Violet’s lying or being lazy or rude.

I was the adult. But I never knew from one moment to the next if I was or not. Being this kind of adult was like driving a car without breaks at night around hairpin turns. My body tensed and relaxed constantly. I was always nearly ruining dinner or forgetting to pick something up. I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to drink – really wanted to, for the first time in years. Was this what parenting was like, 24/7? My God, how did anyone do it? How did her mother do it, in a foreign country, in a bad neighbourhood where she didn’t speak the language?

The novel is largely told from Velvet and Ginger’s first person perspectives, in short chapters which run immediately on from each other. Gaitskill uses the structure to support her theme of people being unknowable, making it all the more interesting when the occasional chapter from the perspective of Paul or Silvia or Dante, Velvet’s younger brother, comes along.

The Mare explores themes of motherhood, race, class, addiction, marriage and love. It asks whether it’s possible to offer someone a different kind of life and whether it’s the right thing to do. It’s gripping, challenging and provocative. A gem.

 

Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.

In the Media, March 2017, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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This fortnight’s seen a number of prize lists announced. The big ones for women writers are the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist and the Stella Prize shortlist.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments on trans women have prompted a number of responses.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

The Rules Do Not Apply – Ariel Levy

People have been telling me since I was a little girl that I was too fervent, too forceful, too much. I thought I had harnessed the power of my own strength and greed and love in a life that could contain it. But it has exploded.

You may be aware of Ariel Levy and, therefore, why this memoir is a big deal. Levy is a staff writer at The New Yorker and in 2013 wrote a piece called ‘Thanksgiving in Mongolia’. It’s one of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever read and went on to win the National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism in 2014. The Rules Do Not Apply grew out of that piece.

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Levy had it all: a great job, a wife, a baby on the way. And then she was left with just the job, her personal life in ruins. This is the story of how that happened.

Unpopular as a child because she preferred to pretend to be an explorer than play house. She was also ‘domineering, impatient, relentlessly verbal, and, as an only child, baffled by the mores of other kids’.

She loved books and became a journalist after deciding to write a story about a nightclub for obese women in Queens and presenting it to the editor at New York magazine where she was an assistant. The story gave her the focus for the journalism she wanted to produce:

I was writing about an unconventional kind of female life. What does it mean to be a woman? What are the rules? What are your options and encumbrances? I wanted to tell stories that answered, or at least asked, those questions.

If you’re looking for confidence, Levy has it by the bucket load.

But there was one area of life she was unsure about:

To becomes a mother, I feared, was to relinquish your status as the protagonist of your own life. Your question was answered, your freedom was gone, your path would calcify in front of you. And yet it still pulled at me. Being a professional explorer would become largely impossible if I had a child, but having a kid seemed in many ways like the wildest possible trip.

The Rules Do Not Apply combines three strands of Levy’s life: how her journalism evolved to the point where she was offered a position at The New Yorker; her marriage, including her wife’s alcoholism and Levy’s affair; the lengthy debate over whether or not to have a child and her subsequent pregnancy.

What’s most striking about the memoir is Levy’s apparent honesty; no one comes out looking great, least of all Levy herself. But this is not a misery memoir, rather it is the story of those women who ‘were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism – a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we would live, what would become of us’.

Levy’s aware of her own privilege but is stunned to discover that it won’t protect her from all of life’s sorrows and hardships. She is ill-equipped to deal with them and the memoir appears to be her attempt to come to terms with this. By writing her story, she wrests back control.

Daring to think that the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary. It’s also a symptom of narcissism.

Levy’s prose is crystal clear and never mawkish, although there are many points in her story where a lesser writer would’ve descended into the sentimental. What I found most interesting – and surprisingly endearing – is the degree to which Levy, the protagonist, could be described as ‘unlikeable’ (by people who are wont to do so). The quotation I headed the review with – that she was too much, even as a child – says more about society’s views of girls and, ultimately, women than it does about Levy herself. That she owns this, writes unabashedly about it, is a triumph of its own.

The Rules Do Not Apply is a gripping, multi-layered, non-fiction narrative about a woman coming to terms with the limits of her own agency. It’s a book that ought to contribute to a change in the way we view women.

 

Thanks to Fleet for the review copy.

The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso

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

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

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

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

‘Not so.’

‘Pardon?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks to Chatto & Windus for the review copy.

Part of the Territory – Caroline Lea

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Last year, I reviewed Caroline Lea’s debut novel When the Sky Fell Apart, which looks at the occupation of Jersey in the Second World War. When Caroline appeared at Jersey Festival of Words, along with local historian, Ian Ronayne, it was the story of the women, of those accused of being collaborators, that really interested me. To celebrate the paperback publication of When the Sky Fell Apart, I’m delighted that Caroline’s written a guest post on women in the war.

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War is very often a male domain, or so history would have us believe.  The narratives about war—taught in schools and retold around tables—routinely focus on stories of male heroism and sacrifice.  But this is often not the case in occupied territories, where it is usually women who remain to resist the invading forces, however they can. The fight on domestic turf can be quieter; the strategies are more varied, but the struggle is just as heroic.

Jersey was occupied by German forces from June 1940 to May 1945. 12,000 soldiers invaded—for every four islanders, there was a gun-wielding German.  Many of the local men had joined up to fight on the mainland, so the population primarily comprised of those who were too old, too sick or too weak to fight. Women were plunged into caring for their children in a world that was horrifyingly unrecognisable. Food became scarce, and the familiar routines of domestic life were increasingly constrained by the occupying forces.

When I was writing WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, I was struck by the way in which the idea of collaboration (particularly when it involved women) was referred to with a sneering contempt and embarrassment. Sometimes, this was directed at instances of actual betrayal (anonymous letters, informing the Germans about illegal radios owned by neighbours, or extra rations in someone’s cellar), but often what has been condemned as ‘collaboration’ was far more nuanced. Many women accepted washing for the soldiers, or undertook other domestic tasks, in exchange for rations to feed themselves and their children. Other women formed relationships with Germans: sometimes from necessity, but often from a genuine emotional bond.  These women were labelled as ‘Jerry Bags’ and, even today, there is a certain degree of local shame about the women who betrayed their island by sleeping with the enemy. It is easy to apply our twenty-first century moral compass to these alliances and to roundly condemn them as unpatriotic, as acts of betrayal.  But to do so is to assume that we can empathise with the sense of powerlessness, fear and horror that these women must have endured on a daily basis. This is something I’ve thought about a lot since becoming a mother: I would do anything to feed my children. Anything.  And in war, the moral absolutes that dominate peacetime must become subject to our instinct for survival.

The idea of ‘collaboration’ as a dirty little word, focussed on dirty little relationships, also ignores the fact that many of the women fell in love.  They were isolated and afraid, and had no idea when—if ever—the Occupation would end, and, contrary to expectations, many of the German soldiers were not evil or monstrous.  In WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, Edith describes them as just boys. Boys with guns. In many cases, the soldiers were almost as lonely and hungry and frightened as the islanders themselves. There is a harrowing true account of a woman who sheltered her German lover when he decided that he would no longer be part of the army.  When they were discovered, he was put in front of a firing squad and she was shipped to a concentration camp. As the soldier was led out to face the bullets, his lover could be heard sobbing as she waved her handkerchief from her cell window.  Her behaviour was roundly condemned, with much of the criticism focussed on her lack of sexual morals.  Indeed, it seems to be women’s sexual behaviour in times of war that summons the most contradictory of responses: war often sees women being used as sexual objects—part of the victory ‘booty’, and yet, women who willingly engage in sexual relationships are vilified.

The narrative of occupation, as we have seen it enacted time and again—from the expansion of the Roman Empire, to the current war in Syria, from the systematic rape of women in Berlin in 1945, to Boko Haram’s deliberate use of girls as sex slaves—is that women are conquered as part of the territory. Their homes are seized; their bodies are possessed. The conquering army’s ‘right’ to rape local women is a tragic and horrifying consequence of invasion. And, hideously, reportage and history seem to provide us with two opposing archetypes for sexual interactions with women in occupied territories: the woman is either judged to be an unwilling victim or a wilful whore.

Perhaps one of the more disturbing aspects of this dichotomy is the way in which these denigrations of sexual behaviour often involve women passing judgement on each other—a common problem both in and out of war zones. The concept of ‘slut-shaming’ is a familiar beast in the modern media, but it is particularly tragic when the same attitude seeps through the consciousness of societies that have been systematically occupied and oppressed. Surely times of hardship should encourage female solidarity, not create a breeding ground for a particularly virulent form of misogyny? In France, after WWII, women who’d had relationships with German soldiers were stripped in the streets, their heads shaved before they were tarred and feathered. After the occupying forces left Jersey, the ‘Jerry Bags’ faced similarly harsh treatment, as well as social exclusion—small communities run on rumours, and the gossip machine turned these women into social pariahs.

Our judgment over women’s behaviour, clothing and sexual mores is deeply embedded into our psyche; it is entrenched within our language.  I spent many years as an English teacher and worked with some wonderful young people: they were intelligent, curious and, in many cases, keen to challenge their own prejudices. Yet still, the older boys would berate each other’s sexual behaviour with the term ‘man-whore’ or ‘man-slut’. The ‘insult’ was delivered with grudging, arm-punching respect, and with a total lack of recognition for the way in which, for a woman, the term ‘slut’ is impossible to separate from its shameful roots.  The difference, as I explained to the boys time and again (much to their delight, I am sure), is the question of women’s ownership of their bodies: if a woman enjoys and freely engages in sex, she is ‘giving’ her body away—she is cheap, dirty, damaged. Perhaps she is a ‘slut’ because she is emotionally scarred in some way—what else could possibly lead a woman to want to devalue herself so? But this is the problem: we still see women’s bodies as objects of value, to be taken or given or exchanged or possessed. Men are the purchasers, the possessors who set our price. And this is seen clearly in war, where women, devastatingly, are still part of the conquered land, and are taken and owned along with the territory. In WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, Edith, describes how the island is in her blood. I was conscious of creating a female character who felt inextricably tied to the landscape, because so many women are. In many war-torn countries, women are unable to leave their homes, and so they, too, are occupied.

And this is just as true now, in the twenty-first century, as it has been for hundreds of years We can attempt to convince ourselves that we are enlightened, that women have been empowered by a modern transformation of social values, but we don’t have to look very far to see the ways in which, even outside of war zones, women’s bodies still provide the landscape for political and moral battles.  The rise of Islamophobia has found a convenient focus in the form of condemnations of the burqa. The question of whether women should be allowed to wear something that conceals their bodies has been met with violent opposition.  In some cases, this antagonism has taken on the form of women’s head coverings being ripped from them.  Defenders of this violent (and violating) action argue that women who choose to wear the burqa are being oppressed, and that the concealment of the woman’s body is somehow offensive. The irony: that we live in a culture where the sexualisation and objectification of women’s bodies is the norm, yet a woman’s choice to conceal her body somehow makes her morally repugnant.

Unfortunately, this use of women’s bodies as the landscape for battles doesn’t seem to be losing momentum in the current political climate. Donald Trump’s recent attempts to place constraints on overseas funding for birth control also reveals a disturbing trend, whereby male power-struggles can be executed on the territory of women’s bodies. The message is clear: women’s bodies, their minds and their choices are canvases for political point-scoring.

While writing WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, I was surprised by how many relevant and pertinent issues it raised: I had assumed, I think, that seventy-five years would be a large enough gap for the concerns faced by the islanders to seem very much in the past.  But, as I wrote, I thought again about how times and beliefs might change, but human behaviour and emotions often remain the same.  We will always fall in love, sacrifice ourselves for others or betray them; we will always find that the world around us conflicts with our inner values.  And I think this is one of the things which makes writing (and reading) historical fiction feel so rewarding: the past helps us to hold up a mirror to the who we are today, and reflects the myriad possibilities of the people we might become.  For the sake of my nieces and my sons, I hope our treatment and judgement of women’s bodies is something that can change.

Thanks to Caroline Lea for the guest post.