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.

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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.]

The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014

 

I love Fiction Uncovered, I think they do a brilliant job of highlighting British writers who, for whatever reason, don’t seem to have garnered the attention they deserve.

This year’s list, in my opinion, is their best yet. Eight titles, an equal gender split, and two of the best books I’ve read in the last nine months. The winners are:

Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo
Little Egypt – Leslie Glaister
Mrs Hemingway – Naomi Woods
All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld
Lolito – Ben Brooks
The Dig – Cynan Jones
Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? – Gareth R. Roberts
Vanishing – Gerard Woodward

I’ve listed the women first (of course) and if you click on Mr Loverman and All the Birds, Singing you can read my reviews. I already have copies of Little Egypt and Mrs Hemingway and I’ll be reading and reviewing those over the summer.

Have you read any of these titles? What do you think of the list?

My Bailey’s Women’s Prize Shortlist

On Monday 7th April, the judges of the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction will announce their shortlist. Trying to second guest the books those five women will decide to put through to the second round of the prize is not my aim here – I would no doubt be wrong on several counts. However, having read sixteen of the longlisted books and partially read three (at the time of writing), were I to be one of the judges fighting for the books I love to be included, these are the six I’d be fighting for (click on the covers to read my reviews):

I was stunned to discover that the longlist included two of the best books I’ve ever read. Stunned because the older you become and the more you read, the less often a book is the ‘best’ book you’ve ever read. However, Americanah is an incredible book. It has a fresh, direct tone; its subject matter is intelligent and thoughtful but doesn’t detract from the love story at its core; it’s quite an achievement. The Lowland is a masterpiece. Skilfully written with carefully layered sentences and ideas of loss at its centre, it’s deeply affecting.

The Luminaries makes the list because it combines a cracking detective story with a interesting structure. When I reached the second half of the book, the plot and the decreasing length of the chapters meant I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.

Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing is another novel with an interesting structure – the present day story is told forward, while the past is presented to us in reverse. This leaves the reading feeling like a detective looking for the protagonist’s motive and being wrong-footed at several points.

Then I have two debuts: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is an incredible piece of literature. Again, the sentences are layered, although in this case they are staccato and dense – an odd juxtaposition that you have to completely immerse yourself in. This could have been a fairly straight-forward (although very grim) coming-of-age story but the style and structure transcend it. The Undertaking also transcends a genre, in this case, war fiction. Two things make this a good book as opposed to a good debut – the use of dialogue and the point of view. The novel’s mostly dialogue, not an easy thing to write, and it works; it’s snappy and clear, while leaving room for ambiguity of meaning. Point of view wise, this is a story of a family of Nazi sympathisers and a soldier in the battle of Stalingrad. Again, this was a book that felt fresh.

It’s worth pointing out here that of the nineteen longlisted books I’ve read (or partially read at the time of writing) there isn’t a bad one amongst them. I was going to post some ‘near misses’ too but I found myself wanting to post all of them. The full list of my reviews is here (hopefully this will be complete shortly); I’m sure there’s something there you’ll enjoy.

Now for the excitement of waiting for the actual shortlist…

 

(The only book I haven’t read any of is Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam as I want to read the whole trilogy.)

All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that.

All the Birds, Singing opens with our unnamed (as yet) female narrator discovering her second dead sheep in a month. She is a sheep farmer on a remote (also unnamed) British island where she keeps herself to herself having only a dog, named Dog, for company. She thinks the killings are being carried out by the local teenagers. Don, another farmer and the person she bought the cottage from, thinks another animal is taking the pickings from an already dead sheep, ‘But I’ve never seen anything round here flense an animal like that’.

As a reader, we are not entirely trusting of Jake’s theory (our narrator reluctantly reveals her name on page 36 when she goes to the local police station to report the killings). Partly because she doesn’t really seem to believe it either and also because she’s obviously fearful of something herself:

Stupid to have become so comfortable. The fridge hummed back in agreement. Stupid to think it wouldn’t all fall to shit. That feeling I’d had when I first saw the cottage, squat and white like a chalk pebble at the black foot of the downs, the safety of having no one nearby to peer in at me – that felt like an idiot’s lifetime ago. I felt at the side of the fridge for the axe handle.

Jake’s story prior to her arrival on the island is told to us in alternating chapters and is set in her native Australia. However, it is told backwards, a device that can leave you confused for a page or so while you position the tale being told within the existing narrative. What’s clever about this though is the way that it forces you into believing one particular person is behind her flight and possibly the death of the sheep, only for the narrative to move on and for you to realise you’ve been misled.

The structure of the narrative allows Wyld to keep the tension high throughout. This is a brutal and sometimes scary story. However, it is not without moments of tenderness and also humour to break the tension. Early in the novel, Jake’s returning to the house when Dog pricks his ears. As they enter the cottage, Dog shoots upstairs while Jake arms herself. The intruder turns out to be a racing pigeon with a broken wing. Jake telephones the owner:

The man sighed. ‘Pop her in a shoebox, keep her warm and watered. If she makes it through the night she’ll tell you when she’s well enough to fly home.’

He hung up.

‘Dickhead,’ I said to the pigeon. Any shoes I bought came in a plastic bag. I took another look at the bird, saw that its bottom eyelid had closed and its head was slack on its neck, and that talking to the man on the phone, I’d squeezed it too hard and now it was dead.

Jake takes the pigeon down to the shore to give it a burial at sea:

…she went further and further out and then sank, like the sea had swallowed her. I hummed the song from Titanic.

Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that a very good book is one you want to read again; one that you know hasn’t yielded everything it’s got on first reading. As soon as I’d finished All the Birds, Singing, I wanted to start reading again. I wanted to start reading again to put the story together in chronological order, to spot all the clues that Wyld gives us as to what is killing Jake’s sheep, and to revel in such a well written story.

All the Birds, Singing is a great book. I can see why its supporters were very vocal about its lack of inclusion on last year’s Booker Prize longlist.

 

 

Thanks to Evie Wyld for the review copy in return for a fair review.