In the Media, April 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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Photograph by Murdo MacLeod

 

Women have been dominating the prize wins for the past fortnight. Hollie McNish won the Ted Hughes Prize and Kiran Millwood Hargrave won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize with The Girl of Ink and Stars.

While The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist was announced. Rebecca May Johnson writes ‘Notes on . . . the Baileys Women’s Prize‘ (and reading women more generally) in the Financial Times. There are interviews with several of the longlisted writers on the prize’s site: Madeleine Thien, Naomi Alderman, Linda Grant, Yewande Omotoso, Heather O’Neill, Fiona Melrose, Eimear McBride, Emma Flint.

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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 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.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017


It’s after midnight and I’m on a train, typing this on my phone. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017 has just been announced and my initial thought is: wow.

Wow that books I loved and hoped would be on the list are there: Midwinter by Fiona Melrose; The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry; The Power by Naomi Alderman; Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyo; First Love by Gwendoline Riley; The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride; Little Deaths by Emma Flint.

Wow that I predicted seven of the list – my highest score ever.

Wow that there are 16 books, rather than the promised 12. It shows that the past 12 months have been exceptional for writing by women. However, with just over three weeks until the shortlist announcement, it does make things challenging for the Shadow Panel.

And wow that Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi isn’t on the list. Every year this prize misses an exceptional book and this is a stunning omission, made all the more noticeable when there are only three books by women of colour on a list of sixteen.

The list in full. I’ve linked to my reviews for those I’ve already covered and will add to this as I read the rest:

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyo

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

The Mare – Mary Gaitskill

Barkskins – Annie Proulx

The Power – Naomi Alderman

Little Deaths – Emma Flint

The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso

Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan

In the Media, February 2017

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.

I’ve been a bit lax at compiling these while I’ve focused on my own work. It means this month’s is huge and I haven’t honed in on any topic in particular as the news moves so fast at that moment it feels like an impossible task. Back to fortnightly after this which hopefully will make it slightly easier to digest.

 

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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:

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

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night – Heather O’Neill

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night tells the story of twenty-year-old Nouschka Tremblay and her twin brother, Nicholas. As the novel begins, Nouschka has signed up for night school to try and complete her high school diploma – both her and Nicholas dropped out of school before completing their qualifications.

“You were better in school than he was. He was always antagonizing the teachers. It’s good to do something by yourself. I used to beat you to stop you from sleeping together in the same bed, but you still did. You ate out of the same plates. You wore the same clothes. You said the same things at the same time. You took baths together. It was disgusting.”

When we were very little, I don’t even think that Nicholas and I were aware that we were different people. It was only when we started dating that we were able to spend any time away from each other. In these heightened experiences we were distracted from missing each other.

Brought up by their grandparents after their mother left them on her doorstep, Nouschka and Nicholas are the children of famous seventies Québécois folk singer Étienne Tremblay.

Outside of Québec, nobody had even heard of him, naturally. Québec needed stars badly. The more they had, the better argument they had for having their own culture and separating from Canada.

Tremblay’s a ‘bad boy’: in and out of prison, claims to have slept with hundreds of women. He took his kids on stage and on television talk shows with him so Nouschka and Nicholas became famous at a very young age too. He continues to wander in and out of their lives when he feels like it, bringing a film crew with him who wants to make a documentary about the family.

Nicholas makes his living as a thief holding up small business with no more than thirty dollars in the till. It’s a life he decided upon after fathering a child, Pierrot, when he was fifteen. Nouschka describes his life of crime as ‘an attempt to be responsible’, Nicholas being unable to make enough money to pay child support. Although he attempts to have a better relationship with his child than his own father had with him, it’s clearly not going well.

Two things drive the plot, the build-up to the Québec referendum on separating from Canada and the twins’, but particularly Nouschka’s, attempts to come to terms with being abandoned by their mother.

The story’s interesting, although possibly overlong. Nouschka and Nicholas’ lives are so far removed from the average person’s – more bohemian than anything – that it feels quite voyeuristic, as though the reader has become one of the people whom Étienne Tremblay wanted to parade his kids in front of.

It’s some of the lines that made this book for me though. There are moments where O’Neill expresses an idea perfectly, like this one just after Nouschka and Nicholas have argued about their mother:

We didn’t say anything to each other after that. We just lay there with our hearts beating. There is nothing as frustrating as being consumed with rage over someone and knowing that you aren’t even on their mind. You want your enemy to be engaged in a struggle until the death with you. Otherwise you are fighting yourself. I mean we are all essentially only in wars against ourselves, but we don’t like it to be so painfully obvious.

An interesting novel about familial relationships and the impact they can have on your lives. O’Neill finishes with different conclusions for different characters showing that while some of the behaviour and interactions may be recognisable, each experience is unique.

 

Thanks to Quercus for the review copy.

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2015

It’s here! The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2015 is as follows:

Rachel Cusk: Outline

Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart

Patricia Ferguson: Aren’t We Sisters?

Xiaolu Guo: I Am China

Samantha Harvey: Dear Thief

Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing

Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

Grace McCleen: The Offering

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star

Heather O’Neil: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

Laline Paull: The Bees

Marie Phillips: The Table of Less Valued Knights

Rachel Seiffert: The Walk Home

Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone

Ali Smith: How to be both

Sara Taylor: The Shore

Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread

Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests

Jemma Wayne: After Before

PP Wong: The Life of a Banana

I’ve read and reviewed six of those already, if you hover over the titles, I’ve linked to my reviews.

Initial thoughts are I’m absolutely thrilled for Lissa Evans whose book I love and made my end of year list last year. Also very pleased for Sara Taylor whose debut I’ve read but not posted my review of yet (it’s published later this month), which is very good. I’ve got lots of reading to do but many of the books there are books I’ve had in my to be read pile for a while! (I also need to apologise to the person who commented on my wish list and mentioned Heather O’Neill’s book; I didn’t think it was eligible and clearly I was wrong. I’m pleased it comes highly recommended though.)

I’m looking forward to reading the rest and discussing with the rest of the shadow panel. Please do join in and let us know what you think of the list and any of the books you read.