Swing Time – Zadie Smith

If all the Saturdays of 1982 can be thought of as one day, I met Tracey at ten a.m. on that Saturday, walking through the sandy gravel of a churchyard, each holding our mother’s hand. There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and the differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same – as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both – and our freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height.

We, the reader, meet the unnamed narrator of Zadie Smith’s fifth novel, Swing Time, at the end of her story. She’s been sacked from her job and is holed up in a flat in St John’s Wood. When she’s given the all clear by the doorman, she goes for a walk, finding herself at an event at the Royal Festival Hall where a clip from the Fred Astaire film Swing Time is played.

I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I always had tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.

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The narrator returns to her early days, to meeting Tracey at the dance class in the church hall. The narrator and Tracey’s mothers couldn’t be more different: the narrator’s mother is a femininst, a student, wears ‘her hair in a half-inch Afro’ and dresses ‘for a future not yet with us but which she expected to arrive’; Tracey’s mother is ‘white, obese, afflicted with acne’, wears her hair in a ‘Kilburn facelift’ and is covered in diamantes. Perhaps the difference between the two is most perfectly summarised:

We were both from the estates, neither of us received benefits. (A matter of pride for my mother, an outrage to Tracey’s: she had tried many times – and failed – to ‘get on the disability’.)

In terms of class, they might be part of the same economic group but their styles mark them as different types of people.

Two stories are told simultaneous in the novel: the first is that of the narrator’s friendship with Tracey, through dance, through school, through hanging out at each other’s houses watching musicals and Michael Jackson videos. The second is the that of the narrator’s early-adult life, of her role as a PA to a world-famous pop star.

The narrator meets Aimee when she comes to the YTV studios where the narrator works. Although she thinks she’s made a bad impression, the narrator is invited to an interview with Aimee soon after. The bulk of the Aimee section of the novel covers the school project which she undertakes in a village in West Africa.

Governments are useless, they can’t be trusted, Aimee explained to me, and charities have their own agendas, churches care more for souls than for bodies. And so if we want to see real change in the world…then we ourselves have to be the ones to do it, yes, we have to be the change we want to see. By ‘we’ she meant people like herself, of financial means and global reach, who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own good fortune. It was a moral category but also an economic one. And if you followed its logic all the way to the end of the revolving belt, then after a few miles you arrived at a new idea, that wealth and morality are in essence the same thing, for the more money a person had, then the more goodness – or potential for goodness – a person possessed.

However, Aimee wants to impose her version of change, what she thinks is necessary, onto a culture which doesn’t necessarily agree. Her work in West Africa causes problems not only for the community but also for some individuals who become heavily involved in the project. It’s not difficult to substitute a number of big-name stars for Aimee nor the white Western world collectively.

Through the story of two mixed-race girls from the same North London estate, Smith considers talent and the barriers to success; the role of culture in society; race, particularly the West’s role in/on the African continent; politics; friendship, and the mother/daughter relationship. It feels like a lot for a novel to hold but it’s skilfully done; there isn’t a single moment when the book feels like a polemic rather than a novel.

The structure of the book moves between the two stories. Smith runs them practically side-by-side, moving towards the point when the narrator loses her job. By doing so, she asks questions about the impact of the past on our present/future and whether we truly leave our experiences and upbringing behind.

Swing Time is an entertaining, thoughtful novel which engages both on a storytelling level and on one of broader questions about society and its role in individual’s lives.

 

Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for the review copy

Interview with Sarah Ladipo Manyika

When the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist was announced, there were two books I was thrilled to see on the list. One was Martin John by Anakana Schofield and the other was Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. Both books made a huge impression on me when I read them earlier in the year. I’ve re-read them both since and I stand by my initial thoughts, they’re both brilliant. I’m absolutely delighted then to have had the opportunity to interview Sarah Ladipo Manyika, who, I hope you’ll agree, gives good interview.

Your protagonist, Dr. Morayo de Silva, is glorious: turning 75, well-travelled, well-educated, lives alone, aware of her sexuality, drives a sports car, dresses in colourful clothes and planning her first tattoo. Where did she come from?

Toni Morrison is quoted as saying that if there’s a book you want to read that hasn’t yet been written, than you must write it yourself. This was what drove me to write Morayo’s story. I was finding plenty of books about older men but few about older women and even fewer about the lives of black women. Yet, all around me I kept meeting older women who’d led colourful lives. There was my neighbour, an opera singer in her eighties, who upon seeing my handsome, septuagenarian father inquired as to whether he was single. He wasn’t, but that didn’t stop her fancying him. And then there is my 95-year-old Zimbabwean relative who recently acquired her first cell phone and keeps it hidden in a bright blue purse tucked into her bra. When the phone rings, she announces to the world, “phone ringing,” but doesn’t bother to answer. She simply enjoys the sound of it ringing. Another woman that inspired my writing was a single, elderly Jewish woman, whom I met when I first moved to San Francisco. She was not as flamboyant as many others that I’d met, but she was just as fiercely independent. The last few years of her life were difficult ones and so I wrote this story – a more upbeat story, one that I would perhaps have wished for her.

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Sarah with her 95-year-old relative

I love the way you use books in the story, particularly when Morayo’s torn ones are thrown away and how Morayo writes her own version of Auster’s Winter Journal at the back of her copy of the book. How do you see books and the idea of writing our own narratives as part of Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun?

I believe that all books are in conversation with books that came before. And because Morayo’s books are in a very real sense her friends, her conversation with them is an embodiment of such conversations. Morayo, like me, is particularly attuned to some of the gaps in literature – to those voices and characters, that don’t often appear. Morayo, as an elderly black woman in San Francisco, is one such person. I find myself drawn to characters that are invisible due to socioeconomic status, age, gender and ethnicity. I’m particularly interested in how the so-called “outsiders” think of themselves in contrast to how others see them.

The story’s told from multiple viewpoints, which is some feat for a novella. How did you manage this so the reader wasn’t jolted from the story by a shifting perspective?

When I first started writing this story, I wrote it in the third person, but after some time, my characters grew tired of being represented by the omniscient third person and walked off the page in protest.

“Enough with the ‘he said’ and ‘she said’,” they announced in a cacophony of multiple firsts.

“Absolutely not!” I said. “This isn’t The Sound and the Fury! You’re just a short novel, so how can I possibly have you all talking in the first person. Readers will just get confused.”

“Says who?” asked my main character.

“Convention!”

“Convention?” she scoffed, “But aren’t you the one that keeps saying that people like us hardly appear in literature? Why keep restraining us then?”

“We’re just trying to be helpful,” replied Morayo’s best friend.

“Yeah,” added another of Morayo’s friends, “and personally, I’m tired of people looking at me like I need pity ‘n shit. So if you don’t wanna hear our voices, count me out.”

The novella’s dense with themes – age, the lack of understanding people have of other people’s cultures, homelessness, women’s roles – how did you ensure the story didn’t collapse under them? 

I wrote the book, leading with character rather than theme. In this way, I let the themes emerge organically. There were times, however, when some of my personal concerns threatened to sink parts of the narrative. I was writing this book at a time when videotapes of police brutality against black men and women filled the news. I was, and still am, angry and horrified by the persistence of racism and police brutality in America and elsewhere. I quickly realized, however, that Morayo’s story was not the place to vent my personal frustrations. While racism inevitably features in the novel, I chose the vehicle of nonfiction to address racism more fully.

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You published your first novel In Dependence with UK publisher, Legend Press, but Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is published by Cassava Republic, an African Press. Was it a conscious decision to go with an African publisher?

Yes, it was a conscious decision to choose Cassava Republic Press, a publishing company based out of Nigeria and now the U.K. I realized that by granting world rights to an African publisher I could, in a small way, attempt to address the imbalance of power in a world where the gatekeepers of literature, even for so-called African stories, remain firmly rooted in the west. Also, when I presented Cassava Republic Press with my manuscript, a novella, they didn’t shy away from a genre that is currently perceived by its European and American competitors as an “awkward sales and marketing proposition”.  Being shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize is an honour that I share with my publishers.

How do you feel about the novella being shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize?

I’m delighted, thrilled, happy as lark, and also still stunned … a bit like a mule that’s over the moon and on cloud nine, surprised to find her load of ice cream, still intact. And what an honour to be shortlisted with such an incredible group of writers! The beauty of prizes is that it expands a writer’s readership. All of a sudden I have readers that I wouldn’t otherwise have heard of my work. It’s particularly exciting to be shortlisted for a prize that rewards the unconventional. Many people told me that a short novel wasn’t a good idea, that it wasn’t advisable to frequently switch viewpoints, not to mention writing a story about an older black woman. Who would read it?

What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I’m currently working on some nonfiction. San Francisco has a large homeless population and this is one of the things I’m writing about.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Several years ago, when I realized how few women writers I’d read, I decided to rectify that. I started with Marilynne Robinson’s Home, and what a treat that book was – so deceptively quiet, so deeply profound. I then eagerly raced through books by Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf and revelled in these authors’ ability to write so confidently while experimenting with form and style. I also enjoyed the way these authors depicted the so-called “ordinary” and domestic spheres of life in a way that I found fresh and exciting. Since then I’ve been racing to catch up on what I’d been missing. I’m grateful for blogs such as The Writes of Woman that feature and highlight women’s voices. I don’t have favourite writers but I do have favourite books. Here are some current favourites:

Longthroat Memoirs: Soup, Sex, and Nigerian Taste Buds – Yemisi Aribisala

We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo

Mr. Loverman – Bernardine Evaristo

Things I Don’t Want to Know – Deborah Levy

Home – Toni Morrison

Happiness Like Water – Chinelo Okparanta

The Face – Ruth Ozeki

Citizen – Claudia Rankine

Lila – Marilynne Robinson

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty – Vendela Vida

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

 

Huge thanks to Sarah Ladipo Manyika for the interview.

Interview with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

If you’ve read my reviews of One Night, Markovitch and Waking Lions, you’ll know how impressed I’ve been with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s work. I was thrilled, therefore, when Pushkin Press asked me if I’d like to interview her to celebrate the paperback publication of Waking Lions. Here’s what we talked about…

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Waking Lions combines a moral dilemma, people’s attitudes to immigrants and a portrait of a marriage in crisis; was it one particular idea that made you decide to write this book or a combination of things?

I always start with a particular idea, a specific question I have in mind. In “Waking Lions” it was the hit and run. It wasn’t a literary question, but a real event which struck me: I was twenty years old when I met the protagonist of this novel. I was travelling in India and met a young Israeli who just sat in the guesthouse and stared for nights. He had a dreamy face and long, light coloured hair. He was just out of military service and was supposed to be having the adventure of his life. But there was something wrong with him. The guy looked frozen. He didn’t speak, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t do anything. He just lay on the hammock in the guesthouse and stared at the sky. Something was eating him up inside, that was clear.

Eventually I went to him and asked if he was alright. He admitted to me that several days ago he had hit an Indian man with his motorcycle, and fled.

I was haunted by this story for ten years before I sat down to write it, and one of the reasons was that I couldn’t find the right path for the protagonist. I didn’t want to write a 300 page-novel about a white guy feeling guilty and contemplating it in his decorated living room. Only after I realized that this person is blackmailed by the widow of the refugee he killed did I sit down to write.

Your characters are complex human beings; does your background in Clinical Psychology help you in creating realistic characters?

I think both jobs demand that you’d be willing to leave your own skin for a while, and try to enter someone else’s mind. When you meet a patient who has done things that you morally disagree with – hit his children, for instance – you have to be able to try and understand his motivations. Otherwise you won’t be able to help him, or stop him from doing it again. In everyday life, when we hear of someone doing something bad we just say “asshole” and move on. As a writer and as a psychologist, you don’t have this privilege. If someone has killed his landlord, you want to know why. And to do that, you have to find the place within yourself that’s capable of murder.

However, I do try my best to keep writing and therapy separate. When you write a novel you are the master of the world you create. When you meet a patient you must never forget that this is another man’s story here, he’s the narrator, and you’re just there to help him create a better narrative than the one he’s trapped in.

I’m interested in your female characters. Both of your novels have male protagonists but it’s women – Sirkit in Waking Lions, Bella and Sonya in One Night, Markovitch – that are catalysts for change; can you explain why you chose women to take such roles?

That’s a great question.

It was clear to me that the hit and run driver was a white man, the most powerful animal in the food chain. At first, I didn’t know if it would be a man or a woman who would witness the accident. But the more I thought about it, I realized it had to be a woman. The traditional female role – watch, and be quiet – is suddenly changed. Because what she sees when she observes the accident gives her power over this man. The roles are switched.

It was very important for me that Sirkit wasn’t this “black angel”, a saint, an African Maria. I wanted her to be a real human being, with dreams and desires and powerful ambitions. I think to portray her as a saint is just as dehumanising as portraying her as the ultimate evil. A “refugee” is no more a saint than a “middle-class man”. Both are labels, and behind those labels there are real people – who love, cheat, hate and trust.

Again in both novels, you mention people’s passions – in One Night, Markovitch there are many examples, including Yaacov’s passion for Bella, Bella’s passion for Rachel’s poetry and the passion of the soldiers who storm the fortress; in Waking Lions Sirkit’s passion for learning is something that Eitan recognises in her. What’s your interest in people’s passions?

I think passion and fear are the biggest motivators. It’s either what you long for, or what you’re running away from. When I think about my characters I always try to identify both. That’s the moment they start dancing on the paper

 

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Waking Lions is a gripping, tightly structured book with a number of twists. How did you go about plotting the novel? Were the twists decided in the planning or did some surprise you during the writing process?

When I write the plot I see myself as the first reader of the novel: I don’t want to get bored. So I try to ask myself: what would surprise you on the next page? It’s a bit like playing hide and seek with yourself.  In both  my novels, I had no idea how the story was going to end until the very end of the writing process. It’s like going on a hike – you don’t want to know how the view from the highest point looks until you actually get there.

Waking Lions is very different in terms to tone, style and central idea to One Night, Markovitch; did you deliberately set out to write a very different book?

No. I had no conscious thought of “what’s the next move”. I finished the first novel, and I missed the characters. After spending so much time together, it was like losing a close friend. And then suddenly I met this new story within me, and I followed it. When the second novel was finished I gave it to some friends, and they warned me that readers who expected a light tone – as in the first novel – would be shocked by the second one. But the reason I love writing is because it’s the only playground open to adults. The only place where you don’t have to remain coherent, clear, predictable. You can do what you want, be who you want, whether it’s a tale set sixty years ago, like Markovitch or something much more rigid and realistic like Waking Lions. I’m working on my third novel now, and once again I’m using my right to do exactly what I want to do, regardless of what’s gone before.

Both of your novels have been translated into English by Sondra Silverston; did you work closely with her on the translations? How do you feel about having your words translated into another language?

It’s really weird: my English is not good enough to read literature. I only read “Harry Potter” in English in high-school. So imagine what it is for me to open my own novel, and not recognise half the words! I simply trust Sondra that these are indeed the right words, with the right music.

Are you working on anything at the moment? Can you tell us anything about it?

Just that I’m working. Hard.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite women writers?

I owe Virginia Woolf every word that I wrote after the birth of my first child. “A Room of One’s Own” is for me one of the most important texts ever written.  It made me feel that I’m entitled to close the door and write, even if I’m a mother.

I also admire Elena Ferrante, “My Brilliant Friend” is my book of the year.

The Hebrew poet Yona Wallach is a big inspiration, both as a writer and as a therapist.

 

Huge thanks to Ayelet and to Pushkin Press.

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is the author of Waking Lions and One Night, Markovitch, both published by Pushkin Press. Waking Lions is published in paperback on 1st September, £8.99 pushkinpress.com 

Panty – Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (translated by Arunava Sinha)

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So, ultimately, she – who had no name, no identity, no family, no city or village, no property or assets – had still retained a religion.

A woman arrives at an apartment at eleven o’clock at night. She lets herself in only to discover that none of the lights work. She showers and lies on the bed. The next day, the man who owns the flat calls twice.

The phone rang again. It was him. ‘Should I call your friend and tell her you’ve settled down?’

‘Please, no. There’s no need to tell her anything. I…I want to be lost to everyone forever. Just tell her I’ve arrived.’

He tells her she can stay as long as she likes.

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The following day, the woman unpacks her few belongings. When she looks in the wardrobe she finds a pair of crumpled leopard print knickers. She examines them, discovers a white, mouldy stain inside them and then, feeling that they offer a presence in the flat, throws them back inside the wardrobe.

After meeting a man later that evening, she’s lying in bed when she realises her period has started. Not having a second pair of knickers with her, she decides to wear the leopard print ones, thinking that the sanitary towel will provide a layer between her skin and the mouldy stain on the knickers.

I slipped into the panty.

What I did not know was that I had actually stepped into a woman.

I stepped into her womanhood.

Her sexuality, her love.

I slipped into her desire, her sinful adultery, her humiliation and sorrow, her shame and loathing.[…]Although I do not admit that I fell asleep, it is undeniable that I was woken by a series of sounds in the room.

They were making out. Kissing. Fucking wildly. They were panting, but could not stop. Hours seemed to pass this way. They remained engaged in their sex – till I passed out.

I had not understood them that first night. I had opened my eyes at the sounds of passion and felt afraid – who were these people in the bedroom! But they weren’t in the room – they were on the wall.

The couple appear on the days she wears the leopard print knickers.

Panty is a fragmented tale of a woman unsure of her own identity. The chapters – which run in a seemingly random order (29, 15, 11…) – build a picture of a mother, a lover, a writer, an escapee but it’s impossible to pin down a true sense of this woman. She’s also waiting for surgery, for what we’re never told, but this adds to the sense of a shifting identity.

This is a bold book both in terms of the content, which caused a furore in the world of Bengali literature, and the enigmatic style and structure. I’m sure there are readers that would find this book infuriating but if you prefer your literature to be elusive, challenging and require some work to decipher what the writer’s intensions might be then Panty is a great and fascinating book.

 

Thanks to Tilted Axis Press for the review copy.

Book Lists for All Humans #5

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It’s been a while…not because there haven’t been lists published that weren’t gender balanced, I’m sure there have been, more because while I’m not compiling In the Media, I’m not in my media Twitter feed and so I’m not seeing them. However, I was on the Guardian website this afternoon and they’d published a new ‘Top 10 books’ list. DBC Pierre deserves some sort of award for producing the whitest, most male list I’ve seen so far. Apparently, women/people of colour don’t write books that writers should read. Be told people, only white men know how to write.

Here’s my alternative list, please feel free to suggest your own additions/alternatives in the comments:

To create a setting that feels as though it really exists: The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

To see complex characters, whose behaviour raises questions about morality, in action: Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

To write successfully from a child’s point-of-view: My Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

To manage a complex structure based on a lunar cycle and as good as any box set: The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

To change point-of-view in every chapter, including that of a dead body, and detail some of the atrocities of which humans are capable: Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

To incorporate your own life and letters into fiction/essay/critique: I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

To bring a historical character to life: Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

To write a coming-of-age story in fragmented sentences: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

To write a metafictional account of a massacre: The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandasamy

To create an unreliable, first person narrator: The Private Life of Mrs Sharma – Ratika Kapur

 

Links are to my reviews.

Ladivine – Marie NDiaye (translated by Jordan Stump)

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Clarisse Rivière felt herself floating back and forth on a warm, thick swell, whose density stilled any move she might try to make. […] She had to place her faith in the mindless but confident perseverance of the heavy, dense tide now carrying her off, and when she spotted the edge of the dark, overgrown forest, its treetops towering and black against the black sky, her only thought was “I’ve never been in a deep forest”, but she put up no resistance, certain that there she would be just where she was meant to be.

Ladivine is the story of three generations of women from the same family. It centres on Clarisse Rivière, a woman who has reinvented herself, denying her past.

On the first Tuesday of each month, Clarisse Rivière reverts to being Malinka and visits her mother. Throughout the period of time in which these visits take place, Clarisse marries and has a child – a daughter – who grows to adulthood. She never mentions any aspect of her life to her mother and her mother never asks. Clarisse is embarrassed of her upbringing: a mother who worked as a servant and cleaner in offices and apartments in Paris; two tiny rooms to live in, and an absent father.

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During a summer in Arcachon looking after the children she babysits in Paris, Malinka decides she doesn’t have to stay at home with her mother. On their return, she resigns and leaves for Bordeaux. She changes her name to Clarisse and becomes a waitress. Her mother finds her, taking a room and a cleaning job but then Clarisse meets Richard Rivière, a car salesman, and follows him to Langon.

Was it then, Clarisse Rivière would later wonder, that she’d first vowed forever to be good to Richard Rivière, a vow that would determine the whole of her life with him?

Because she must have realised, then or just a little later, that there was no other escape from what she had deliberately done to the servant, Malinka’s mother, who was never to know of Clarisse Rivière, never to delight in anything good that happened to her daughter, never to broaden her narrow circle to include those her daughter loved most, on whom she herself might lavish her vast, unused love – no, no other escape from that violence, that shame, than the deepest, most indisputable goodness in every other way.

That goodness, however, the veneer Clarisse constructs, is what eventually leads to Richard Rivière leaving her. At that point, when their daughter is an adult with her own husband and children, Clarisse meets a man who she finally opens up to. She takes Freddy Molinger to meet her mother, who thinks he’s wonderful. But Molinger is a dangerous man and his appearance in their lives will have shattering consequences.

In Ladivine, NDiaye explores the role of women in society and the relationship between mothers and daughters. Clarisse, while partially rejecting her mother, is unfailingly ‘good’ in the other areas of her life, meeting society’s expectations of how a woman should behave. This isn’t enough for either of the men in her life, however. Her daughter, Ladivine, whose story comes to the fore in the second half of the novel, seems destined to repeat her mother’s actions. She has physically distanced herself from her parents by moving to Berlin. Her father has never met his grandchildren and Clarisse only sees them occasionally.

Ladivine’s story becomes one of coincidences, déjà vu, violence and hauntings. A layer of terror hangs over her, partially driven by the loss of their luggage in the unnamed place in which they are on holiday and partially by the appearance of a dog which follows Ladivine. This may or may not be the same dog Richard Rivière’s parents acquired to guard their shop around the same time that Ladivine was born:

The dog was lying on Ladivine’s bed, a little crib whose bars were lowered on one side so the baby could be picked up more easily, and its outstretched head, lightly grazing the child’s, had a deathly stillness about it.

Equally immobile, Clarisse saw in a single sweeping glance, were the baby’s body, her colourless face, her wide eyes looking deep into the dog’s staring gaze, as if she’d plunged into an abyss of sibylline knowledge and perhaps become lost.

Yet Clarisse had the strong sense of a bond not to be rashly broken, a secret union with no immediate danger for the child. Not for a moment did she doubt the dog’s good intentions.

Ladivine is not an easy read; it asks questions about identity, erasure and women’s place in society. It moves into dark, occasionally fantastical, territory and has an ending that some readers will hate. However, it marks NDiaye out as a talented writer, unafraid to transgress boundaries and left this reader keen for more.

 

Thanks to MacLehose for the review copy.

Nina Is Not OK – Shappi Khorsandi

To drink to this level, to stay this fucked up, you need focus and determination and stacks of willpower. If it wasn’t so awful, I’d insist on a medal.

Seventeen-year-old Nina has a drink problem, although she’s not going to acknowledge it any time soon. We meet her being thrown out of a nightclub after giving a guy a blow job by the bar. She’s lost her friends but the guy and his mate come to look for her and walk her down the road to an alley. Sometime later, Nina’s in the back of a taxi.

I clutched my knickers in my hand. They were nice ones. Part of a set from Topshop. Thank God I’d retrieved them. I wanted to put them on but I couldn’t move. Why were my knickers in my hand? Did I fuck one of them? Both of them? Oh dear God no! Shit. No condoms. Not good. The gluey tang of spunk was in my hair.

It doesn’t occur to Nina that she’s been raped. When she returns home, her mum pulls her out of the taxi – alerted by the driver after Nina fell asleep and he couldn’t wake her. The following morning, Nina’s mortified at the thought of her six-year-old sister seeing her and her mum lectures her about her ‘party animal’ behaviour, comparing her to her dad who was also an alcoholic.

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Nina’s finding life particularly difficult of late after her boyfriend, Jamie, left to spend a year in Hong Kong with his dad. He went promising to message every day and then nothing. Eventually he let her know he’d met someone else. Nina’s not taking it well, sending emails to him that veer from total hatred to declarations of undying love. And then he posted pictures of himself and his new girlfriend on Facebook.

Beth had said, ‘Well, that’s a kick in the cunt.’ But it hadn’t been like that. It had been like a thousand kicks in the cunt and a giant fist around my heart squeezing until it burst, again and again and again.

Nina’s friend, Beth, is a feminist. She disagrees with Nina’s attempts to put Jamie’s new girlfriend down, refuses to let Nina be slut-shamed for giving a guy a blow job in a club, and thinks glossy magazines are ‘trash’. She’s a good foil for Nina’s thoughts about pretty much everything. Their other friend, Zoe, is completely gorgeous and really nice. That is until she begins dating Alex, the guy Zoe gave a blow job to.

Throughout the novel, Nina continues on a path of self-destruction, drinking more and more and sleeping with a range of guys in a variety of scenarios. Khorsandi writes without judging Nina although, of course, society has conditioned us to. It’s very difficult to read some of the situations Nina finds herself in and not blame her for failing to keep herself safe. Again, this societal construction wouldn’t apply if the sex of the protagonist were reversed and, as the novel progressed, I found myself increasingly angry at the men who didn’t acquire enthusiastic consent from Nina or, when they did, failed to give any consideration as to how intoxicated she was.

Khorsandi doesn’t shy from putting Nina in a whole range of plausible scenarios in terms of her abuse of alcohol, her sexual encounters, and the role that social media plays in teenagers’ lives. This is a complex, gripping look at a young woman struggling to come to terms with who she is and how society treats females who go against the virginal, nice girl stereotype they’re expected to conform to.

Khorsandi’s a comic so expect some laughs along the way too, although I found that some of the parts that were supposed to be funny – and a teenager would probably laugh at – I couldn’t find amusing: they were just too close to a reality that I find horrifying in my late 30s.

The book’s so compelling that I found myself having to finish reading it in a taxi queue at 1.15am following a trip on the last train home from London on which I usually fall asleep. I highly recommend it whatever age you are but I really think Nina Is Not OK should be handed out on Freshers’ Week and taught in schools as part of sexual consent classes. Not only is Nina Is Not OK a great read, it’s an important one too.

 

Thanks to Ebury for the review copy.

Uptown Thief – Aya de León

“If I was God, women would get paid to sit on our asses and think profound thoughts. We’d only fuck people who turned us on. But as long as the female ass out earns the female brain, there are gonna be sex workers who need our clinic.”

Marisol Rivera runs The María de la Vega Health Clinic for sex workers on Avenue C, downtown New York. She combines it with an escort service to help pay the mortgage. Money’s always tight so she’s found another interesting, lucrative and very much illegal way of covering the mortgage and paying her staff: robbing the safes of a group of CEOs (Chief Executive Officers). All of the CEOs are members of an organisation called Ivy Alpha, ‘the national men’s organization whose members are all Ivy League alumni and Fortune 500 CEOs’. Riveria’s grudge against them is due to a sex trafficking charge against the group which was ‘dropped despite several first-hand accounts by the women allegedly involved’. What better revenge than to have them bankroll a clinic for sex workers?

Marisol’s past includes a sexually and physically abusive uncle from whom she protected her younger sister, Cristina, and a period as a sex worker in order to pay the rent. In her twenties, ‘she spent two years as a mistress to a Fortune 500 VP named Campbell’. Bored, living in his apartment, she began to read the books in his library which mostly consisted of texts included on reading lists for MBA students. Marisol read them all and then taught herself how to crack his safe, for the thrill of it. Clearly both sets of skills have come in handy in her current life.

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In the first few chapters of the novel, three key things happen: firstly, Marisol returns from a heist to find a young girl, Dulce, outside her apartment. Prevented by her codirector, Eva, from admitting her on fire safety grounds, Marisol takes her to her apartment. It’s not long before Dulce’s pimp, Jerry, shows up, true to his word:

“He dumped me at the ER and said to come home when I could walk. There ain’t many places in the city a beat-down whore can go. He said he knew all of them and he’d be watching.”

Secondly, Marisol meets Raul, the brother of her best friend from high school. Raul’s an ex-cop but there’s something about him that gets under Marisol’s skin. Thirdly, she meets Jeremy VanDyke, a billionaire with a proposition for her.

Uptown Heist isn’t the sort of book I’d usually choose to read: it combines what should be an unbelievable heist plot alongside the stories of a range of sex workers and Marisol’s personal life. I agreed to read it because I’ve included Aya de León’s blog posts in my In the Media round-up and I think her pieces on feminism are interesting and thought-provoking. I’m glad I did; I was gripped throughout the whole book. This is a fast-paced tale, cinematic in style, with a clear vein of smart thinking with regards to women and sex – whether for work or pleasure.

Marisol doesn’t work alone, she surrounds herself with other intelligent women – Kim and Jody, who are a couple, and Tyesha, who’s studying for a Masters in Public Health. All three work as escorts in the service attached to the clinic but also as part of Marisol’s heist team. They acknowledge that they’re part of a patriarchal society that sees women as commodities and use this to their advantage. The book’s sex positive both with regards to the women’s choice to work as escorts and their personal sex lives. However, this doesn’t mean that de León avoids showing the other side of sex work, that which is controlled by men and can be unsafe in a range of ways.

Uptown Thief considers victims and villains, often contained within the same person. It raises questions about power and exploitation and the forms they come in. It asks whether women can carve a path through a patriarchal society for themselves and if there are men who can respect that. It’s pacy, dark, funny and empowering. If you’re looking for a summer read that’s smarter than your average crime cum romantic fiction cum sisterhood novel, Uptown Thief is your book.

 

Thanks to Kensington Books for the review copy.

Sleeping on Jupiter – Anuradha Roy

[…]he had looked at her in the way people did: with a certain wariness, the kind that comes from encountering up close an animal that might prove unpredictable. His eyes had rested on her when he thought she wouldn’t notice, taking the measure of her. She was used to it and often played up to it, acting more erratic than she was. It was both method and disguise, one she had perfected as the eternal outsider, a way to disappear when physical escape was impossible.

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Four women travel to Jarmuli, a fictional town on the coast of India. Three are elderly friends – Gouri, Latika and Vidya – on their first outing together, the fourth is a young woman from Oslo, there to research a documentary. All four women are in the same compartment. When the train reaches one of its stops, the young woman jumps out and buys bread rolls and tea for a woman begging on the platform. As she goes to give the woman the food, one of two men ‘idling on the platform’ tries to get her attention and then brushes his arm against her breast.

The girl stepped backward and in a single move that appeared to take no more than a second, she thrust the bread at the woman and flung the hot tea in the man’s face. She kicked his shin and his crotch as his hands flew to his face. The man stumbled, fell to the platform.

All of a sudden, as if watching a silent film, the women in the train saw the food-stall outside starting to slide backwards. The lamp-post by the stall moved two feet back, then three. They saw the girl turning around to see her train moving out of the platform, the girl running towards the train, very fast despite her backpack, running as if her life depended on it, the second of the two men running after her.

The older women don’t see what happens next and worry for the young woman whose fate is unknown to them. The incident sets a tone of fear and unpredictability that hovers over the whole of the narrative.

The young woman – Nomi – tells her story to the reader in a first-person narrative. In it we discover that she has come to Jarmuli because she knows that, as a child, she had grown up nearby, in an ashram where going outside was forbidden.

Roy also tells the story through the viewpoints of the three women, there to see the temple; Badal, the temple guide, and Suraj, a local photographer helping Nomi with her documentary. She covers themes of love, friendship and aging, with a particular focus on dementia. The key theme of the novel, however, is child abuse. It’s a difficult topic to cover, in a number of ways. Roy’s narrative is a historical one, told in past tense, but that doesn’t prevent her from shying away from some graphic and disturbing scenes.

Sleeping on Jupiter is a taut, tense novel that considers power – who holds it and who abuses it – in a range of situations. It’s clear why it was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize; hopefully that nomination will help to bring the book the wide readership it deserves.

 

Thanks to Maclehose Press for the review copy.

 

 

Flying Under the Radar…but well worth your time

2016 is shaping up to be such a corking year in books (thank goodness, eh, considering the state of everything else…) that I was going to do a books of the mid-year point list. However, when I drew up my longlist I noticed that it split neatly into two categories: those books you already know about because everyone is talking about them and those that I wish everyone was talking about because they’re brilliant and haven’t had the recognition they deserve. So here’s twelve books I’ve read so far this year that I think are worthy of your time and attention. Clicking on the covers will take you to my full review.

Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – Susan Fletcher

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A new patient arrives at Saint-Paul-De-Mausole, an artist called Vincent van Gogh. The story of the novel, however, belongs to Jeanne Trabuc, the warder’s wife. van Gogh serves as a catalyst for a change in her steady, claustrophobic life. A fantastic portrait of a marriage and the power of art to change how you see the world.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun – Sarah Ladipo Manyika

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Doctor Morayo Da Silva is approaching her 75th birthday. Former academic, ex-wife of an ambassador, she’s seen the world and lived it all. Now settled in San Francisco living a steady, reliable life…or so she tells us. The multiple narrators of this fascinating tale might not agree. (This also gives me an opportunity to point you in the direction of this excellent piece recommending more women novelists you might enjoy by Sarah Ladipo Manyika on Vela: Seven Bold and New International Voices.)

Martin John – Anakana Schofield

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You know that reviewers’ cliche about books staying with you long after you’ve turned the final page? Well I read this in December and I still shudder every time I think about it. Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Exiled to London from Ireland, by his mother, following an incident in a dentist’s waiting room, Martin John follows his rituals and circuits to ensure he stays on the right side of the law. But he’s already made a mistake and now Baldy Conscience has stayed too long in Martin’s house they’ll be consequences. John’s mother’s story is also very interesting, equal parts heartbreaking and disturbing.

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta

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A coming-of-age novel in 1970’s Nigeria. Ijeoma discovers her sexuality when she meets Amina. Her mother attempts to ‘correct’ her homosexuality through schooling her in The Bible and manoeuvring her into marriage. Gripping, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful.

Sitting Ducks – Lisa Blower

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The perfect post-Brexit novel if you’re one of those people wondering who was ‘stupid’ enough to vote Leave in those run-down post-industrial towns destroyed by Thatcher and neglected by subsequent administrations. ‘Totty’ Minton’s fed up of being skint, unemployed and living in a house marked for demolition by his former school mate and private property entrepreneur, Malcolm Gandy. Corruption and despair are rife in the lead-up to the 2010 general election and there seems to be no end in sight.

The Living – Anjali Joseph

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Joseph also looks at working class lives. 35-year-old, single mother, Claire, works in one of the UK’s remaining shoe factories and struggles with her teenage son, Jason, while her feud with her mother rumbles on. Arun, a shoe maker and grandfather in Kolhapur, struggles with his health and looks back on his life and marriage. An excellent character study.

Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

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The story of two women, Mahsa Weaver and Katherine Goodnow, who have two things in common: 1) jazz 2) their mixed heritage and the issues which have come with it. Two women who want independence but are prevented from having it in different ways although all under the banner of the patriarchy. Piercingly astute on women’s lives.

If You Look for Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa

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Mallika, Siva’s Amma, becomes pregnant with twins: a boy and a girl. The girl, Tara, arrives with the umbilical cord still around her neck and dies moments later. The boy, Siva, survives. But Mallika wanted a girl and her grief for Tara leads her to reject Siva and accuse her husband of killing Tara. Brought up as a boy by his father and grandmother and a girl by his mother, Siva spends his childhood and adolescence questioning whether he is a boy or a girl. His story is interwoven with that of George Gibbs, an Englishman who used to live in their house. You can read my interview with Sarayu Srivatsa here.

Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore)

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Simon Limbeau is fatally wounded in a road traffic accident. Pulled from the wreckage and transported to an Intensive Care Unit, the novel charts the progress to the point when Simon’s heart becomes that of Claire Méjan. As the heart’s journey progresses, we meet all of the people involved in transporting it from one body to another. Gripping and fascinating.

Masked Dolls – Shih Chiung-Yu (translated by Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland)

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Twenty-three chapters, each one titled ‘Conflict’ and the number of the chapter. Initially these conflicts seem to be individual tales: Judy and her Chinese lover; Jiaying and Lawrence, her Western boyfriend; Jiaying’s father’s stories of World War Two; the person who steals underwear from the flat Jiaying and her friends live in when they’re students; Jiaying’s friend Fat Luo’s increasing hatred of her. But as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that these ideas are thematically linked. Greater than the sum of its parts.

Ghostbird – Carol Lovekin

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In a Welsh village where it rains every day in August, fourteen-year-old Cadi Hopkins begins to ask questions about her dead father and sister and why she’s not allowed to go to the lake. Cadi lives with her mother, Violet, with whom she’s locked in an intensified teenage daughter/mother battle. Cadi’s aunt/Violet’s sister-in-law, Lili, lives next door and acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi. Lili also has a contentious relationship with Violet. Nature, magic realism, secrets and family relationships. Atmospheric.

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

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Eileen tells the story of ‘back then’ when she lived with her alcoholic, ex-cop, father, was a secretary in a boys’ juvenile correction facility and met Rebecca Saint John, the beautiful, intelligent, fashionable director of education who befriends Eileen and leads her down a very dark, twisty path.