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.

Book Lists for All Humans #2

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I didn’t expect it to be so soon but here we are, courtesy of this list of Top 10 Books to Make You a Better Person in The Guardian. Four white men (sounding good so far, right?), three men of colour, three white women. Verdict = could do better (the pun wasn’t intended but I’ll take it).

There’s a problem with this list because I don’t know what making someone a ‘better’ person means. Who decides the criteria?

I’ve gone for books that made me think about the world differently (and avoided any I included in list #1 although they’re all relevant too); feel free to interpret it in your own way and leave your suggestions in the comments.

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay
Haiti, kidnapping, rape, privilege, poverty

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman
Dystopia, AAVE, disease, love, war, religion

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta
Love, religion, ‘cures’ for homosexuality, Nigeria, women

Just Call Me Superhero – Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)
Disability, friendship, love, sexuality

Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo
Counterfactual slave narrative, race reversal

The Repercussions – Catherine Hall
War photography, Afghanistan, love, women, history

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik
Hijab, dating, religion, family, writing

Tell No Tales – Eva Dolan
Far right, immigration, politics, crime, corruption

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah
Race, class, albino, women in prison, perspective

The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney
Working class, feminism, religion, crime, coming of age

(Links to my reviews.)

 

In the Media, March 2016, 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 traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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It’s Mothers’ Day in the UK today, so inevitably there’s been lots of writing about mothers – being one, having one, not having one – this week. Contributors including Jackie Kay, Jeanette Winterson and Helen Simpson wrote about ‘… my mother before I knew her‘ inspired by Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Before You Were Mine’ in The Guardian; Liz Dashwood asks, ‘What do I *really* want for Mother’s Day?‘ on The Pool; Rivka Galchen talked about ‘The Only Thing I Envy Men‘ in The New Yorker; Robyn Wilder wrote, ‘Maternity leave: the reality versus the expectations‘, Emily Eades wrote, ‘Becoming a mother without your own mother to rely on‘ and Sinéad Gleeson wrote, ‘Mothers, and the pram-in-the-hall problem‘ all on The Pool (Do follow the link to the Anne Enright clip on that last piece. Spot on and very funny); Susan Briante wrote, ‘Mother Is Marxist‘ on Guernica; Kate Townshend asked, ‘Is it possible for a mother and daughter to be *too* close?‘, Samira Shackle said, ‘Returning to my mother’s homeland helped me to make sense of my place in the world‘, Cathy Rentzenbrink said, ‘There is no such thing as a smug mother, we’re all terrified and struggling‘ and Rosalind Powell wrote, ‘I didn’t give birth, but I became a mother‘ all on The Pool; Sarah Turner wrote, ‘Mother’s Day Without Mum‘ on The Unmumsy Mum

Louise Rennison

Sadly, Louise Rennison died this week. Philip Ardagh wrote, ‘My Hero: Louise Rennison‘ in The Guardian. Shannon Maughan wrote her obituary for Publishers Weekly.

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The woman with the most coverage this fortnight is Sanjida Kay with ‘Where’s the Diversity in Grip-Lit?‘ on The Asian Writer; ‘on Switching Genres‘ on The Literary Sofa, and ‘Fairytales‘ on Women Writers, Women’s Books

Exciting news as forthcoming novels from Jilly Cooper, Zadie Smith and Ali Smith were announced this fortnight.

And I’ve added Kaushana Cauley’s new Intersections column for Catapult to the regulars list at the bottom of the links. It’s well worth a read.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Rosalind Jana

 

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:

Author Petina Gappah 'brilliantly exposes the gap between rich and poor.'

The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

My Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 Wishlist

It’s almost time! The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist will be announced next Tuesday, 8th March. Once again, I’ll be shadowing the prize and for the second year running, I’ll be doing so with a panel. I’ll introduce you to the members of that panel on Friday.

For now though, here are the books I’d like to see appear on Tuesday’s list. They’re a combination of books I’ve loved and those I’m keen to read based on what I’ve heard about them so far. I’ve had to cull this list significantly to keep it to 20 books so, as usual, anything’s possible with the real one!

To be eligible, books have to be written in English and first published in the UK between 1st April 2015 and 31st March 2016. Publishers can enter three full length novels per imprint plus anything eligible by writers who have previously won the prize.

I’ve reviewed the first eleven titles – click on the covers to go to my reviews – and read the next three as well (reviews coming soon).

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Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta

If you set off on a witch-hunt, you will find a witch.

When you find her, she will be dressed like any other person. But to you, her skin will glow in stripes of white and black. You will see her broom, and you will hear her witch-cry, and you will feel the effect of her spells on you.

No matter how unlike a witch she is, there she will be, a witch, before your eyes.

Nigeria, 1968, a year into the Biafran War. One Sunday afternoon, Ijeoma’s father refuses to go to the bunker behind the house. When it ends, Ijeoma and her mother find him ‘face-down on the black-and-white-tiled floor of the dining room…His hands and legs were tangled strangely around his body, dying branches twisted around a dying trunk’.

His death leaves Ijeoma’s mother grief-stricken. Depressed and unable to manage the day-to-day running of a household, eleven-year-old Ijeoma takes over. Soon after, her mother decides to move. As she goes to discover the condition of her parents’ house in Aba, she sends Ijeoma to live with a former friend of Ijeoma’s father: the grammar school teacher and his wife.

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In 1970, while Ijeoma’s working as a housegirl for the grammar school teacher and his wife, living in a one-room structure behind their home, she meets Amina.

In the near darkness, our hands moved across our bodies. We took in with our fingers the curves of our flesh, the grooves. Our hands, rather than our voices, seemed to do the speaking. Our breaths mingled with the night sounds. Eventually our lips met. This was the beginning, our bodies being touched by the fire that was each other’s flesh.

When the grammar school teacher walks in on them he summons Ijeoma’s mother who takes her to Aba and doesn’t speak to her for a week. After the week’s passed, she begins what she refers to as ‘cleansing your soul’; schooling Ijeoma in the Bible, forcing meanings from stories to support her view that relationships should be heterosexual and produce children.

By the end of all those lessons, all that praying, if anyone had asked how I felt, I would have told them that I was exhausted. Not angry, not confused, not even penitent. Just exhausted.

The novel follows Ijeoma from the age of eleven until her early twenties as society, her upbringing and her religion leave her struggling to come to terms with her sexuality.

The characters and the plot are utterly convincing. This is partly to do with the society of the novel, which forces Ijeoma and others to hide part of their personality through means deemed acceptable but are actually barbaric. Where society’s rules are transgressed, there’s a high price to pay: there’s a scene where a group of women Ijeoma meets as a young woman pay a price for their apparent deception which will haunt me for a long time.

Okparanta’s language choices are also impressive, moving between poetic and prosaic, depending on the requirements of the story. Her mother’s grief leaves her so ‘even the best-tasting food had the same appeal as a leaf of paper or a palmful of sand’; a man pushing a bicycle with a coffin on the back ‘too small to fit the body inside, so that the feet of the deceased – perhaps his child or other family member – stuck out from the bottom end of the wooden box’; her mother wanting to shed things in her grief:

To shed, and shed, and shed. Like an animal casting off old hair or skin. A lizard. A snake. A cat or a dog. Even chickens molt.

To shed us all like a bad habit. Or maybe, simply, the way one casts off a set of dirty, thorn-infested clothes.

It’s almost impossible to believe that Under the Udala Trees is a debut novel. It’s beautifully crafted, gripping and heart-breaking with moments of brightness piercing the dark, hostile environment of Christian, patriarchal, heterosexual Nigeria. I’ll be astonished if this doesn’t make the shortlist of every prize it’s eligible for. Chinelo Okparanta is a major new voice in fiction.

 

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.