Whispers Through a Megaphone – Rachel Elliott

Miriam Delaney hasn’t left the house for three years, Not after what she did. At the beginning of the novel, she tosses a coin. Heads, she re-enters the world. Three heads thrown later, she comes up with a plan.

  1. Do something I am afraid of. Apparently this builds confidence (have yet to see evidence of this – will be an interesting experiment)
  2. Spend next few days clearing out house – get rid of mother’s things
  3. Leave house next week

She begins by writing a list of things she is afraid of and gets to tackling number thirteen: Naked cleaning.

How scary can it be?

Answer: that depends on your childhood.

It depends on whether, at the age of eight, you found your mother sweeping the floor of the school corridor wearing nothing but a pair of trainer socks. (Had she planned to go for a run and slipped into insanity seconds after putting on her socks? Can madness descend that quickly, like thunder, like a storm?)[…]What made the situation worse, even harder for Miriam to comprehend, was the fact that her mother didn’t even work as a cleaner.

As Miriam builds up to leaving the house the events of the past which haunt her – many of which are to do with her mother – and how she’s managed for the three years in which she hasn’t left the house are slowly revealed.

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Whispers Through a Megaphone isn’t just Miriam’s story though, it’s also that of Ralph Swoon and his wife, Sadie. We meet Ralph ensconced in a cabin in the woods with a cat named Treacle.

Feline logic told her that he had dragged himself here to die. Why else would he have turned up in the woods at 11.30p.m. on 4th August with no bag, no possessions, just a wallet, a phone and a guitar.

But the cat was wrong.

He hadn’t come here to die.

Ralph’s a psychotherapist who knows ‘less about his own desires these days than his clients knew about theirs’. He’s been particularly confused since he glimpsed his first love, Julie Parsley, in the local B&Q and promptly walked into a giant garden gnome. Having had their now sixteen-year-old twin boys when he and Sadie were twenty, their relationship’s changed somewhat:

They were fine, they were happy, he could lose her any moment. This was the wordless core of their relationship, known and unknown. Sixteen years later they argued all the time and the sight of her Mini pulling into the driveway, its back seat covered with newspapers and unopened poetry anthologies, had begun to make him queasy.

As Ralph tries to figure out what he wants, Sadie begins to question a decision she made as a student and starts to explore alternatives to her current lifestyle.

Inevitably, Ralph and Miriam meet midway through the story at which point, they tentatively try to help each other through their respective periods of hurt and confusion.

Whispers Through a Megaphone explores the power the past holds over the present, particularly with regards to relationships – romantic and familial. It considers decisions made by other people, particularly Miriam’s mother, which have long resounding impacts on those around them and decisions the protagonists made themselves which, years later, they’re starting to consider the impact of and whether the alternative is now a better option.

The style and tone of the novel reminded me of two books from early 2015: Lost & Found by Brooke Davis and Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper. However, I preferred Whispers Through a Megaphone due to the very dark undertone which comes to the surface in pockets throughout the book.

I found the novel, as a whole, hugely enjoyable. There are moments I would’ve liked to have seen questioned or explored further, such as the early revelation that the headmaster who took Miriam’s naked mother home had sex with her on the kitchen table and then began an affair with her. Although there were consequences for this later on, his taking advantage of a woman with mental health problems wasn’t raised. However, I was largely engrossed by the book. I thought the structure – as it moved between Miriam and Ralph’s stories – and the pace at which secrets and choices were revealed were well timed. The characters were interesting: I was particularly fascinated by Sadie who (bar Miriam’s mother) is the least likeable but the most rounded of the cast. Whispers Through a Megaphone is an offbeat, entertaining read.

 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

 

In the Media: 1st March 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week 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. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

I’ve spent a fair proportion of this week agog at some of the comment pieces, particularly in regard to the three girls from Bethnal Green who appear to be en route to Syria. Emma Barnett in the Telegraph wrote, ‘Stop pitying British schoolgirls joining Islamic State – they’re not victims‘; Grace Dent in the Independent said, ‘If teenage girls want to join Isis in the face of all its atrocities, then they should leave and never return‘; Mary Dejevsky wrote, ‘If Britons want to join Isis, let them go‘ in The Guardian and Allison Pearson said, ‘Let’s stop making excuses for these ‘jihadi brides‘ in the Telegraph. Judith Wanga responded on Media Diversified with, ‘The Denial of Childhood to Children of Colour‘, as did Chimene Suleyman with, ‘It’s Time To Talk About Why Our Young People Turn Against Their Country‘ and Nosheen Iqbal in The Guardian with, ‘The Syria-bound schoolgirls aren’t jihadi devil-women, they’re vulnerable children‘. Emma Barnett responded with ‘Racists are alive and well in Britain – but I’m not one of them‘ in the Telegraph. Chimene Suleyman also wrote, ‘‘Defining’ Terror, and Why ISIS Suits the West‘ on Media Diversified, prior to these most recent articles.

The Oscar ceremony was another place for some jaw-dropping comments. Megan Kearns wrote, ‘Patricia Arquette Undermined Her Own “Most Feminist Moment” of the Oscars‘ in Bitch Magazine; Betsy Woodruff commented, ‘The Gender Wage Gap Is Especially Terrible in Hollywood‘ on Slate; Maitri Mehta wrote, ‘Patricia Arquette Defends Her Oscars Backstage Comments On Twitter, But Still Misses The Point‘ on Bustle; Jenny Kutner also wrote about Arquette’s tweets on Salon, ‘Patricia Arquette doubles down on equal pay: “Why aren’t you an advocate for equality for all women?”‘; Amanda Marcotte wrote, ‘Patricia Arquette’s Feminism: Only for White Women‘ on Slate; Katie McDonough wrote, ‘“Fight for us now”: What Patricia Arquette got right (and wrong) about equal pay‘ on Salon. Brittney Cooper wrote, ‘Black America’s hidden tax: Why this feminist of color is going on strike‘ in Salon.

Remarks made by one television reporter about Zendaya Coleman’s locs prompted pieces by Loretta de Feo, ‘Why do we feel the need to taunt and judge black hair, rather than embrace it?‘ in Stylist; Jodie Layne, ‘Why Zendaya’s Response To Giuliana Rancic’s Awful ‘Fashion Police’ Comments Is Important‘ on Bustle, and Grisel E.Acosta wrote, ‘“Racism begins in our imagination:” How the overwhelming whiteness of “Boyhood” feeds dangerous Hollywood myths‘ on Salon.

The Brits were written about by Tracey Thorn in the New Statesman, ‘The Brits are so polite these days. One reason? There’s no bands left‘; Bidisha wrote, ‘Madonna is superhuman. She has to be to survive the ugly abuse‘ in The Guardian; while Salena Godden covered both the Oscars and the Brits in ‘Julianne Moore is 54. Madonna is 56.‘ on Waiting for Godden

Writing awards wise, the Sunday Times Short Story Award shortlist was announced and is dominated by women. As is the Walter Scott Prize longlist, released to the public for the first time.

There’s an entire series of articles currently being published in the Irish Times on Irish Women Writers. The link will take you to the round-up so far. While academic Diane Watt has just completed 28 days of LGBT book recommendations. You can read this week’s in a Storify here; links at the bottom of the page will take you to previous weeks.

And the woman with the most publicity this week is Kim Gordon. She’s this week’s New York Times ‘By the Book‘; there’s an excerpt from Girl in a Band in The Cut; you can listen to Gordon herself read an extract on Louder than War; there are five standout moments from her memoir on Slate, and in The New Yorker, Michelle Orange writes about ‘Kim Gordon, Kurt Cobain, and the Mythology of Punk‘.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

Or some non-fiction:

The lists:

In the Media: 25th January & 1st February 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week 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. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

Thanks to everyone who said such lovely things last week after I lost the In the Media post and to everyone who offered suggestions to stop it happening again. I think I have a solution and it seems to have worked well this week.

The morning after last week’s last minute loss, I realised that all was not entirely lost; all the articles I’d linked to that hadn’t saved were in my laptop history, so I recovered the remainder of last week’s post (apologies if you received an email with a half-done post in it, it posted when I retrieved it) and relinked all the articles, then added this weeks. The result of that is this bumper issue. Enjoy!

This week saw the death of Colleen McCullough, author of The Thorn Birds, as well as 23 other books, and a neuroscientist. Steve Dow remembers her in The Guardian; Alison Flood gave her tribute with ‘Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds helped me get over heartbreak‘ also in The Guardian, and in response to that obituary (I’m not linking to it) Rebecca Shaw wrote ‘We’ll celebrate a woman for anything, as long as it’s not her talent‘ in The Guardian while Liz Kearney responded with ‘You may be a best-selling writer, but never forget that you’re still fat and ugly‘ in The Irish Independent.

It’s been a fortnight filled with awards. Last week, Claudia Rankine became the first person ever to be nominated for two National Critics Circle Awards in the poetry and criticism categories; her editor tells The Washington post why she’s a ‘genius’ and Jonathon Sturgeon tells us why the double nomination is ‘the correct decision’ on Flavorwire;  While Jhumpa Lahiri won the DSC Prize. Here’s ‘Six things you should know about Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland’ on Scroll.in

This week, it’s been the turn of the Costa Awards. Helen Macdonald won the overall award for the fantastic H is for Hawk. Here’s an interview she gave to The Times last week; you can watch her talking about the book here; you can listen to an audio excerpt and read her piece ‘On Ringing Wild Goshawks’ on Vintage Books, and discover the six books that made her in The Guardian. You can also watch the short films made of the other finalists: Emma Healey; Kate Saunders; Ali Smith. Zoe Gilbert won the Short Story Award with Fishskin, Hareskin. With Joanne Meek, Lucy Ribchester, Jane Healey and Paula Cunningham also shortlisted. You can read all the shortlisted stories here (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Other exciting news for female writers is the launch of #ReviewWomen2015, following the success of the #ReadWomen2014 campaign. Hannah Beckerman explains why she wants more books by female writers, especially commercial fiction, to be reviewed in the broadsheets in the Huffington Post. Anne Enright became the first Laureate for Irish Fiction in a unanimous decision and in China came the discovery of a new poet, ‘dubbed China’s Emily Dickinson‘, Want China Times reports on Yu Xihua.

There’s been a wave of feminist articles this fortnight, partly thanks to The Sun newspaper appearing to stop publishing pictures of topless women on p3 and then declaring it a joke by the middle of the week. Sarah Ditum wrote, ‘The “return” of Page 3: the Sun revels in the chance to make women with opinions look stupid‘ in the New Statesman; Marina Hyde responded with, ‘No more t*ts in the Sun – a campaign we can all get behind‘ in The Guardian. Elsewhere, Sophie Heawood wrote, ‘If Björk can’t stop a man stealing the limelight, what hope is there for the rest of us?‘ in The Guardian; Eleanor Catton wrote a statement on her website following a media furore in New Zealand about comments she made about the government; Louise O’Neill related, ‘My journey to feminism‘ in The Guardian; Elisabeth Camp asked ‘Should I let my daughter wear pink?‘ in Aeon; Jami Attenberg recounted her time passing as a man, ‘Track Changes‘ in The New York Times; Bayan Perazzo wrote ‘The Burden of Being Female in Saudi Arabia‘ on Muftah; Rose George declared, ‘My period may hurt: but not talking about menstruation hurts more‘ in The Guardian; Arabelle Sicadi wrote, ‘A Bridge Between Love And Lipstick: Queering the beauty industry‘ on Buzzfeed; Jeanne de Montbaston responded to an Alison Wolf article (link in the piece) with ‘What the Hell kinds of Feminists are you Reading, Alison Wolf‘ on Reading Medieval Books; Lucy Magan says, ‘Let’s Silence the Voice That Tells Us We Can’t‘ in Stylist; Marina Sofia looked at the new Barbie Princess Power on her blog; Rebecca Carroll wrote, ‘I was six when a man first touched me. I didn’t speak up until I was an adult‘ in The Guardian; Jia Tolentino wrote, ‘Rush After ‘A Rape On Campus’: A UVA Alum Goes Back to Rugby Road‘ on Jezebel; Homa Mojtabai listed ‘Reasons You Were Not Promoted That Are Totally Unrelated to Gender‘ on McSweeney’s; C M Meadows-Haworth, ‘Reading Audre Lorde Is Changing My Life‘ on A Room of Our Own; Chika Unigwe wrote, ‘Why Nigeria is failing its citizens over Boko Haram attacks‘ in Litro; Maddie Crum told us ‘Why Virginia Woolf Should Be Your Feminist Role Model‘ on Huffington Post; Brandi Bailey selected ‘The Best Feminist Picture Books‘ on Book Riot, Monique Wilson said, ‘Critics of the Vagina Monologues must acknowledge its transformative powers‘ in The Guardian, Alison Flood told us ‘Why I hate the Little Miss books‘ in The Guardian, Sarah Ditum also told us, ‘I ain’t afraid of no girls: why the all-female Ghostbusters will be good for Hollywood‘ in the New Statesman; Max Cairnduff wrote, ‘Looking back on #readwomen2014 and my favourite reads of the year‘ on his blog; Hannah Renowden shares, ‘2015 – When I got angered by a reading list so read it. Also, crochet.‘ on her blog, and Isabel Rogers read and took down Mike Buchanan’s Justice for Men and Boys (and the women who love them) Party Election Manifesto on her blog.

And a number about class following James Blunt’s open letter to Chris Bryant. Sarah Perry responded with, ‘James Blunt has misunderstood the relationship between privilege and success‘ in The Independent and Suzanne Moore with, ‘What James Blunt doesn’t understand about the politics of envy‘ in The Guardian. Other issues surrounding class were covered by Lisa McKenzie, ‘The estate we’re in: how working class people became the ‘problem’‘ in The Guardian; Lucy Mangan, ‘If you don’t understand how people fall into poverty, you’re probably a sociopath‘ also in The Guardian; Nicola Morgan asked, ‘Why fund libraries when it’s all online?‘ on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure; Harriet Williamson said, ‘Every time I visit the job centre, the staff treat me like a subhuman‘ in the New Statesman; Grace Dent said, ‘When rents are so high that you have to share a bed with a stranger, surely the revolution can’t be far off‘ in The Independent, and Kathryn Hughes wrote, ‘Yes, Kirstie Allsopp, littering’s bad. But then so is self-righteousness‘ in The Guardian

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

Or some non-fiction:

The lists:

and Diane Watt is spending February recommending LGBT reads on her Twitter account using the hashtag #mylgbtbooks

Etta and Otto and Russell and James – Emma Hooper

Otto,
The letter began, in blue ink.
I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.
Yours (always),
Etta.

Etta leaves Otto, her husband of several decades with a stack of recipe cards as she sets off to walk to the sea. She is 83 and beginning to forget things so she carries a piece of paper with her which reminds her who she is and who she’s related to.

As she sets out from the house she and Otto live in, she crosses Russell Palmer’s land. Russell is outside, ‘halfway between his house and the end of his land’:

Russell was looking for deer. He was too old, now, to work his own land, the hired crew did that, so in he looked for deer from right before sunrise until an hour or so after and then again from an hour of so before sunset until right after. Sometimes he saw one. Mostly he didn’t.

The story of Etta’s walk is intertwined with both hers and Otto and Russell’s childhood. Etta has a sister Alma but when Etta’s fifteen, Alma becomes pregnant and leaves the family home to live in a convent. Only Etta knows the truth.

Otto is one of fifteen. In order to keep track of all the children, Maria, the eldest, allocates them all a number to which they must respond. Otto is number seven. One day at dinner, he finds another boy in his chair, a boy who is not his brother.

Otto looked at him, then reached across, in front, and took the spoon from him.
That’s mine, he said.
OK, said the boy.
The boy said nothing else and Otto didn’t know what else to say, or do. He stood behind his chair, trying not to drop all his things, trying not to cry. He knew the rules. You didn’t bother parents with child problems unless there was blood or it involved an animal…
Otto’s mother was spooning exactly one ladle of soup into each child’s bowl. One for each, exactly, until, a pause, and
I don’t think you’re Otto.
No, neither do I.
I’m Otto, right here.
Then who is this?
I’m from next door. I’m starving. I’m Russell.
But the Palmers don’t have any children.
They have a nephew. One nephew. Me.
Otto’s mother paused. Clara-2, she said, get another bowl from the cupboard, please.

And so Russell becomes part of the family and Otto and he are like brothers. The pair of them meet Etta when she takes a job as the village school teacher. Russell’s adoration of her is evident from the day of her arrival but it’s not until Otto goes to war and they begin to write to each other that their attraction begins to grow.

The things that impressed me about the novel were: it’s about three old people – hurrah, how often does that happen? (the book I reviewed yesterday and the book I’m reviewing tomorrow also have old people as their focus but you don’t come across it that often); the writing’s fluid and conjures vivid pictures of people, places, incidents; the structure moves easily between present and past; there are some lovely moments of magical realism (I’ve seen it described as ‘gentle magic realism’ which should help if you find that sort of thing off-putting), and if the revelation I had when I finished the novel is correct, it’s a very good allegory. (I’ll not share it with you for fear of spoilers.)

However, I did have a problem with the Etta and Otto falling in love when he’s been her pupil. It says they’re the same age and she’s not his teacher anymore when it happens – he’s at war – but still it felt off to me and if Otto had been the teacher it would have been viewed differently, I think.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James reminded me of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and also, in one specific instance of The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. It will certainly appeal to fans of the former.

 

Thanks to Fig Tree for the review copy.