How Should a Person Be? – Sheila Heti Giveaway

Giveaway now closed.

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

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

How should a person be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edit

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

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

And the random number generator says:

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

 

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

The Forrests – Emily Perkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid – Shani Boianjiu

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

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

History is almost over.

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

The adults in the town work:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marlowe Papers – Ros Barber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Trick I Learned from Dead Men – Kitty Aldridge

‘Lee Hart is a knob,’ says the local graffiti. Lee Hart is also an undertaker at Shakespeare & Son as well as older brother to the deaf Ned and carer for both Ned and their stepfather Lester. Lester has lost all hope since his wife/Lee and Ned’s mother died of cancer and he spends his days sitting on the settee watching reality television programmes. The living dead, we might say.

Lee’s job has taught him about death, or so he thinks. It’s taught him that:

Everyone is someone. They have status, the dead…It’s true that you’re somebody when you’re dead, you get respect.

And that people have odd penchants for items that they want to take with them when they’re dead:

Mr Muldarney is causing a stir. The Basic Coffin. Blue frill. Gown. Embalm no. Viewing: TBA. Awaiting crem details. Personal Effects: A photograph of a little boy. Set of teeth. An onion.

Yours truly despatched to Somerfield for said onion. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.

Other light relief comes in the form of the local florist Lorelle, who Lee has his eye on:

From her perspective life looks like one mad raving bender of birth, baptism, marriage, death. All the big dates in human life. P’raps her view is as skewed as mine after all. Nice to have things in common.

He sets out to win her heart by following a magazine article he’s read titled ‘Five Things Girls Can’t Resist’.

But the real core of the story comes from Lee’s relationship with Ned. Ned’s deafness was caused by him catching mumps at four months. He hadn’t been inoculated against them. He caught the disease from Lee.

He was a gifted child. She told me that. I believed her. She was terrified he might wander on to the dual carriageway: Ned was drawn to electric fences, lightning, canals, traffic. I thought about that. I told him deaf people couldn’t die. I thought it would cheer him up. I led him to the dual carriageway. Not to hurt him, on the contrary, I wanted to watch him survive, use his gift, see how he did it. A gap in the traffic, off he ran, arms out like a bird. No fear. Halfway across he stood at the crash barrier, waving, watching the cars rocketing. The horror on the drivers’ faces made us laugh, the brake lights flashing as the cars slowed. Result! I was proud, the effect he had, definitely a gift.

But as the novel progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that the dark undertone that seems to define the relationship between the two boys is being pushed to the forefront. Lee resents Ned’s special status and Ned seems to blame Lee for their mother’s death.

Lee’s voice, however, helps to prevent the novel becoming too dark. He talks in clichés a lot (which can be irritating, depending on your viewpoint); he cares about whether his language makes him ‘come over as a ponce’ when he’s introduced to new words, and he ends sentences with the word ‘but’. It’s as though Lee has to recognise the dark elements in life but tries to distance himself from them.

A Trick I Learned from Dead Men is an interesting look at death from different angles. It permeates Lee Hart’s life, which suggests that the book will be incredibly depressing but it’s not. There are bleak moments but there are also points that signal hope too. Worth a read.

Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s one of those writers who I always feel I ought to have read. I’ve had a copy of The Poisonwood Bible in the house for goodness knows how long but it’s one of those books that, every now and then, I pick up, consider and, for whatever reason, decide it doesn’t quite take my fancy right now.

When my copy of Flight Behaviour arrived, I had two thoughts. The first was that it’s huge (433 pages) – I have issues with overlong novels – and the second was a worry that it’d be boring. Then I opened the first page:

A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and its one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-coloured hair who marched uphill to meet her demise. Innocence was no part of this. She knew her own recklessness and marveled, really, at how hard one little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of long disgrace. The shame and loss would infect her children too, that was the worst of it, in a town where everyone knew them. Even the teenage cashiers at the grocery would take an edge with her after this, clicking painted fingernails on the counter while she wrote her check, eyeing the oatmeal and frozen peas of an unhinged family and exchanging looks with the bag boy: She’s that one.

I was engaged and remained so for the next 432 pages.

Flight Behaviour is the story of Dellarobia Turnbow and how climate change changes her. She’s walking up that hill in the opening paragraph of the novel to meet her lover but, as she gets higher up the forest, she looks across and sees that the trees are on fire:

The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upwards in swirls like funnel clouds…

A forest fire, if that’s what it was, would roar. This consternation swept the mountain in perfect silence.

Dellarobia takes it as a sign, turns around and goes back to her children and husband.

Dellarobia’s married to Cub, a sheep farmer from Feathertown who works on his parents’ land – his and Dellarobia’s house is built upon it – and still does whatever his mother tells him to. Dellarobia’s frustration comes from his family’s attitude towards her:

“My family, is just, I guess, typical. They feel like a wife working outside the home is a reflection on the husband.”

Dellarobia was one of the few students in her year that was told to try out for college. She did but soon discovered she was pregnant and that was the end of that. We sympathise with her then when her frustrations with her life are channeled through crushes on other men – she swears that when we meet her marching up that hill is the only time she’s actually considered being unfaithful though.

However, when Cub reveals that his father is going to sell the forest for logging to cover debts racked up by the poor harvest the previous year, Dellarobia knows she must show them what’s on that hill and when the things that they discover lead to national press coverage, a team of scientists stationing themselves on their land and tourists visiting, she discovers she can change her life by herself.

Flight Behaviour is simply good storytelling. I say ‘simply’ because, of course, Kingsolver is experienced and skilled enough to make creating believable characters and a cracking story look simple. She covers themes of climate change, religion, small town sensibilities, family secrets, marriage and thwarted ambition without it ever feeling that her characters are merely cyphers or that we’re having her opinions spelt out to us. This is a book to get lost in.

N-W – Zadie Smith

N-W is the story of two school friends Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake. It is also the story of N-W London.

By opening the novel with the following description, Smith makes it clear that N-W London is her main character:

The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lamp posts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line – write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.

I think it’s also clear however, that although, in one sense, we could declare N-W Zadie Smith’s love letter to her patch of London, it is a love letter written after a long marriage, decades after the rose tinting has cracked and peeled off.

Following a short scene-setting chapter, Leah (the redhead) is disturbed by the doorbell ringing. Thumping on her door, screaming and crying, is Shar who – after discovering that she and Leah attended the same school and reminiscing about other ex-students – proceeds to scam Leah out of £30. This is one side of life in N-W London. A thread that is further explored through the stories of Felix, who seems to be changing his life following years of drug use and unsuitable women and Nathan, one of the people Shar and Leah remember from school; a young man struggling to carve an identity for himself in a society that doesn’t much care for him.

The thread running parallel to this is that of Keisha Blake. Now Natalie Blake, lawyer. One of Natalie’s functions in the story is to look at what happens if you ‘get out’ of the area/family/class you’re born into. Or indeed, if you really do get out. Perhaps Keisha/Natalie has simply switched one set of fences for another. This idea is further highlighted by the section in which her story (and that of her friendship with Leah) is told through the use of 185 numbered sections, some as short as a sentence, none longer than three pages. Yes, we could conclude that they are ‘chapters’ of Natalie’s life. We might also wonder, however, if this is Natalie playing by numbers, living life by the rules. Where have these rules got her by the present day of the novel?

‘Nowhere,’ said Natalie Blake. (N-W? An unloved hinterland? A place you can’t escape?)

The other prominent theme explored is that of motherhood. Leah openly (although she doesn’t seem to have discussed this with her husband) doesn’t want children. Natalie has three and this is something else – along with Natalie’s new status – that divides the two women. I can’t think of any other novel that has openly discussed the idea of a woman choosing to remain childless. What’s most impressive about this, I think, bar Smith’s decision to tackle what remains a volatile subject, is that she does so without judgement. Something that is also true of the lifestyle choices her characters make. She draws the scene and the people and leaves it for her readers to discuss.

One final thing to mention is the skill with which Smith creates and uses dialogue within the book. There is absolutely no doubt as to where you are:

I told im stop takin liberties. Where’s my cheque? And she’s in my face chattin breeze. Fuckin liberty.

‘Oh my days. Who’s punishing you, Keisha? Nobody. That’s in your head. You’re paranoid, man!’

Which creates the perfect foil to Natalie’s style of speech:

‘I work hard. I came in with no reputation, nothing. I’ve built up a series practice – do you have any idea how few – ‘

There’s no doubt that this is a serious work of fiction that explores key contemporary ideas not only about N-W London but about the U.K. as a whole. It’s by no means flawless – there are some typographical choices that didn’t work for me and I found the section devoted to Natalie slow in places (although Alan at Words of Mercury disagrees with me on that) – but it’s ambitious and left me with more questions than answers, which is something I like in a novel.

I’m glad N-W has been longlisted and I think it has shortlist potential. The mind boggles as to why the Booker Prize judges chose to omit it from last year’s shortlist though, this is perfect Booker material to my mind.

 

 

 

Alif the Unseen – G. Willow Wilson

Alif is a 23-year-old ‘computer geek with girl issues’ living in an unnamed city called the City. All we know of it is that it’s situated somewhere in the Middle East, it’s divided into four districts and it seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to those states involved in the Arab Spring.

As the novel begins, Alif’s lover Intisar – a pure Arab from a wealthy family – has agreed to marry another wealthy Arab, chosen by her father. Both she and Alif know that her father would never consent to her marrying Alif who’s both poor and mixed-ethnicity. Before they part, she says to him:

“Make it so I never see your name again. Please, God, please – I can’t stand it.”

Alif does two things: one, he devises a programme named Tin Sari that he hopes will be able to identify Intisar regardless of whether she’s working from her regular IP address or not. His intention is that it will recognise keystrokes and idiolect and then ensure that, as she wished, she never sees his name online again.  Two, he sends Dina, the girl next door (yes, literally, you can see where that one’s going), to Intisar’s house with a box containing their soiled sheets. Both of these things form the basis of the novel’s plot.

Dina returns from Intisar’s with a book called Alf Yeom wa Yeom. The Thousand and One Days. Moments later, Alif returns to their flats to discover a man standing outside their block. From this point on, he and Dina are on the run. But what does the man want? Revenge for Intisar? Tin Sari? The book? And who can they turn to for help in a city where there are spies everywhere – IRL (in real life) and online.

Alif the Unseen is not my usual sort of read. It has fantastical elements that (pardon the pun) bring a different dimension to the story and are used to further explore the theme of the unseen and whether it is possible to remain anonymous in a world where we have online identities and real life identities. It’s also an exploration of the Arab Spring and the power of the internet to bring down a regime, a regime that might not have the support of the people you might expect. And it’s a love story, as well as being a piece of metafiction about the power of stories.

Yes, it’s another book that tries to pack too much in. Which is unfortunate because, once I got to the second half, I quite enjoyed it. The first half I found difficult partly because there was so much going on and partly because the computer plot line centered around concepts that I struggled to get my head around – particularly the idea of a quantum computer, which I had to resort to Wikipedia to try and understand. (Turned out to be quite a fascinating concept.)

Overall, this is a good book but unfortunately not brilliant. I say unfortunately because learning about other cultures is one of the reasons I read and G. Willow Wilson can write/tell a good tale. I look forward to what she does next.

For someone much more au fait with this (I hate to say it) genre of writing, check out Matt at Reader Dad’s review.

Mateship with Birds – Carrie Tiffany

I’m including this review as part of Kim at Reading Matters’ Australian Literature Month. You can find out more about that here.

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1940s Australia. Betty Reynolds and her two children – Michael and Hazel – have moved to a small town and are living in a rented house next to a dairy farm.

She came here pregnant with Little Hazel, Michael still in short pants by her side. The people of Cohuna assume that she must have had, at some stage, a husband – perhaps killed in the war? Apart from her work and her children Betty keeps to herself. She wears no rings. When doesn’t correct people when they call her Mrs Reynolds, but she refers to herself as just Betty or, where possible, Michael and Hazel’s mum.

The dairy farmer Harry lives next door. He fancies Betty, although nothing has come of this so far:

Harry hangs far enough back so he can watch the way she moves. He likes her plump forearms, the cardigan pushed up around them; the gilt band of her watch digging into her wrist. He likes the sound of her clothes moving her around her middle. When she turns to speak to him he notices her softening jaw and her mouth – lipstick on her front teeth. He’s been watching all of this, over the years, watching her body age and temper.

He’s also positioned himself as a substitute father to Michael and Little Hazel, often coming over to the house for tea and chatting to Michael about his bird books. Michael also helps Harry out on the farm so when Harry catches Michael masturbating over a copy of Woman and Home, he decides to pass on everything he knows about sex. As he finds it difficult to do this face-to-face, he writes Michael detailed letters which veer between his own personal experiences and biological details:

The sexual organ (I’m talking inside front of underpants here, Michael), breasts (esp. nipples) and lips feature a skin uniquely inflamed with blood. Unlike the ordinary body skin (and male skin), where the blood runs in controlled networks of veins and arteries and sub-veins and sub-arteries (think horticultural drip and pipe irrigation), the blood in the sexual areas is right at the very surface.

Harry’s letters form part of two interwoven themes run throughout the book: nature and writing. Nature is shown through both the birds and animals that inhabit the farm and the town and also the people – Betty, Harry, Michael, Mues – another farmer – and the residents of Acacia Court.

As for the writing, Harry writes to Michael, as mentioned but he also keeps a notebook of poetic observations about the kookaburras that live on his farm – ‘Observations of a Kookaburra Family at Cohuna’. Hazel also begins a nature diary at school, commenting on the birds that visit her class’s bird table and Betty keeps a notebook of her children’s illnesses and accidents:

1945/6

Michael: Burns at stove, pecked by gander, warts, skewered with fork, constipation, infected splinters, ball-bearing lodged in ear, sticky eye, fevers, boils.

Little Hazel: Colic, croup, nappy rash, fever, runny stools, earache.

I enjoyed the book but I’m not sure I got what Tiffany’s point was. Perhaps Little Hazel’s encounter with Mues near the beginning of the book is the closest I’ll get for now. She’s walking to school alone and Mues asks her if she wants to see his pony. His ‘pony’ turns out to be his erect penis.

At that moment Little Hazel understands that she will never, ever, get a Shetland pony. Her life will be no different to everybody else’s – made up of cobbling things together that are misshapen, ill-suited, imperfect. That wanting something badly enough is not enough to get it. And adults are part of this pretence – they hold one thing in their hand and call it another.

So writing, as we know, is an attempt to make sense of the world, whether through observing humans or animals.

Have you read Mateship with Birds? What did you make of it?

Ignorance – Michèle Roberts

Prize lists always seem to throw up a couple of writers I’ve never heard of before and this year’s Women’s Fiction Prize longlist is no exception. The first of these is Michèle Roberts. When I did a bit of research about her, I was amazed I hadn’t come across her before – she’s written 13 novels, as well as plays, poems, short stories and two non-fiction books. She was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1992 with Daughters of the House.

The detail that I seem to have picked up on about Ignorance is that it’s set in WWII and it involves hiding Jews. I hit a point some years ago now when I wondered how many more stories there were to tell about the war. I’m sure that sounds callous to people who lived through it and there will be many individual stories that have never been heard but as a fictional setting it’s been done and done and done again. So, I came to Ignorance wondering how dull it could be and how quickly I could get through it.

I read it in a day. Not because it’s dull because it’s brilliant.

Jeanne Nerin and Marie-Angèle Baudry grow up in the town of Ste-Madeleine. At the age of nine they become borders in the local convent school. Jeanne because her mother has been taken into hospital; Marie-Angèle because now Jeanne’s mother is unable to do the Baudry family’s washing, Marie-Angèle’s pregnant mother has found herself unable to cope.

Half rates for the Baudrys, because they were such good Catholics. I [Jeanne] went free. Marie-Angèle had spelled it out: you’re a charity child, other people have to pay your fees. I retorted: but my father was an educated man. Unlike yours!

Anti-Semitism runs through the novel, as you might expect. When Madame Baudry sees Jeanne looking at Monsieur Jacquotet, the Jewish painter who lives next to the convent, she says:

They know how to manage those Jews. We let them in, we let them have jobs. And now, the money that they’ve got squirreled away!

My nose was running. I fished in my pocket for my handkerchief. Maman had no money. Had she ever been a proper Jew?

Jeanne’s mother converted to Catholicism after the death of her husband (Jeanne’s father), sponsored by Madame Bawdry. It seems that she, along with Jeanne, wishes to hide in plain sight, as it were, rather than becoming one of the many Jews we see hidden in sheds and attics later in the book.

The book moves swiftly through Jeanne and Marie-Angèle’s childhood to their early teens. At this point, Marie-Angèle takes over the narration and we are introduced to her father’s friend Maurice. Maurice obtains black market goods and the Baudry’s sell them under the counter in their shop. Marie-Angèle becomes enamoured with him:

He began to take me with him on his business trips to collect food. Throughout that spring of 1942 we worked together. Time began to exist for me again: no longer uncountable weeks of endless war but precise moments of intense life. I marked our outings in my exercise book; precious afternoons whose dates I wanted to encircle in gold. We were heroes, hoodwinking the Germans.

During the war, both girls make naïve choices that will change the course of the rest of their lives.

Rather than being about hiding Jews during WWII, Ignorance is really about women – their relationship with each other and how their circumstances and any choices they might make from their position in life affect their relationships. It’s about class and status and how one person might ignore events while another will be forced into drastic action because of them.

Ignorance is not only a fascinating book, it’s a beautifully written one. Roberts often uses a layering effect where she builds up phrases to create images and emotions:

A chisel drove into my belly, twisted its point round. Tearing flesh. Spill of blood and guts. I wanted to howl, hold in the chisel. Gouged inside, chisel twisting to and fro like polka music.

A technique she uses repeatedly and effectively while still maintaining distinct voices for several different narrators. I’m in awe.

Goodness knows how I’ve missed Michèle Roberts until now. I’m predicting her for the Women’s Prize Shortlist and I’ll be getting my hands on everything she’s written.