The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo (translated by Janet Hong)

The first half of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairytale tells the story of two twelve-year-old children: Mia, the child with two fathers, and The Child.

Mia is spoilt: she has a set of seventy-two German watercolour pencils from one of her fathers; her every need is met. The only potential problem in her life is that one of the fathers isn’t aware that the other exists.

Early in the novel, Mia declares that she’s going to buy a fountain pen when she grows up. She read in a book that you can use it to kill someone.

But, of course, Mia has no desire to kill anyone; in fact, she doesn’t understand the words death or kill. She is a lucky child, and she lacks the passion, let alone the opportunity, to kill someone; she doesn’t yet know that people kill even in the absence of emotions such as hatred. She doesn’t yet know that rather than trying to aim the tip of a fountain pen at someone’s skull from a tall building, it is far more effective to drive the pointed metal tip into someone’s throat, a fact she would have learned if she had read more books. But she is interested only in detective novels, and because there are more things that she doesn’t know than she does know, her world is simple; and for that reason, she is lucky. Anyhow, I’m going to buy a fountain pen when I grow up, she says. I like the way it sounds. Fountain pen.

Like Chekov’s gun, Han has planted the idea of violence in the opening pages of the novel and, at some point, it has to detonate.

The Child is in Mia’s class at school.

She wishes she could be erased. But every time she tries to erase herself, she only grows darker. Every day, she grows darker. Enough for her body to gobble up her shadow. At school, she exists like a shadow. Or she has become a shadow and is absent.

The Child is abused and neglected. She spends most of her time in pain from a range of sources: her fingernails, cut so short the flesh below is exposed; her stomach, from hunger or the anticipation of what’s to come at home. While Mia is in trouble for a story spread about another classmate killing chicks, the Child has stolen the key to the school classroom. She uses it to enter after school and add sentences to the journals which the pupils write. Her own journal masks the reality of her situation:

No trace must be left. She must disappear instantly, as though she has never existed, not even for an instant. She, too, writes in her journal. But she records nothing. Nothing about herself. Every time the journal is returned to her, she learns how to camouflage more and more words with other words. Cheek with leaf, bruise with wind, blister with light breeze, fingernail with butterfly, curse with song, calf muscle with stick, tongue with ice cream, palm with moon, hair with stars, sigh with whistling, grip with tree branch, shoe heel with footprint, glass shard with sky, spine with dog, thigh with cat, stick with streetlight, crying with bird, pain with bright colors. When I opened the window a light breeze blew in. I wanted ice cream, so I went to the store. There was dew on green leaves. I saw the yellow cat’s family. It was strange that their eyes were green.

The Child makes a decision about the journals which leads to trouble for the whole class. While the teacher tries to resolve the situation with threats, the violence the children perpetuate escalates, leading to a fatal incident.

The second half of the book plays with what we’ve encountered in the first. The narrator is revealed to be the Child who is now both the writer writing the novel and a character in the novel.

You look like you’re twelve, and you also look like you’re twenty. According to simple arithmetic, you’re probably twenty-seven years old now, but no one would be able to guess that. Twelve years old and twenty years old, somewhere in between those two ages, time was torn and crumpled, repeatedly, until it finally disappeared.

Han explores what fiction is and, in doing so, questions how we fictionalise our own lives. She considers the overlap of time and whether different versions of ourselves can co-exist – does the person we were at twelve still live? Are they running around in our world, narrowly missing bumping into our older self?

There are no answers to this conundrum, of course, but there’s a hypnotic beauty in the repetition of language and ideas Han uses to interrogate the idea. Credit to Janet Hong for what cannot have been an easy text to translate. Han’s wordplay where she links meaning and concepts in a stream of consciousness exploration can’t always directly translate. It seems that Hong manages to maintain the intention and meaning of the original text, even if specific words have had to be substituted.

Water isn’t beautiful at all. When water freezes, it becomes ice. Ice is more beautiful than water. But neither water nor ice is beautiful. Water flows. Ice is slippery. I’ve run on ice before. No one was on my back. Every time my hooves touched the ice, I heard a strange noise. It was the sound of me slipping, on and onward. So I guess I can’t say that I ran on ice. Can I say that the ice slipped? The ice slipped up. I was afraid that the slipped-up ice would crack, I was afraid that the water colder than ice would drench me, so on and onward I went.

The Impossible Fairytale is an innovative exploration of the bounds of storytelling. The first of Han Yujoo’s work to be translated into English, I sincerely hope it won’t be the last.

I spoke to Han Yujoo about fiction, the collapsing of time and working with a translator.

Thanks to Tilted Axis Press, I have five copies of The Impossible Fairytale to give away. To win, leave a comment either here or underneath my interview with Han Yujoo on YouTube by 6pm UK time on Sunday 24th September. Giveaway is UK only. Winners will be chosen at random and notified soon after the closing time.

Books mentioned:

The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo

Madame Zero – Sarah Hall

The Hour of the Star – Clarice Lispector (translated by Benjamin Moser)

Thanks to Tilted Axis for the review copy and the giveaway and to Han Yujoo for the interview.

The Tryst – Monique Roffey (with Interview)

She had hoped for so much more in life, more than Bill. But mostly, she had wanted more from sex. But she had never foraged, been out there to find it. Most human females don’t, to be fair, for they get labelled sluts and sluts in the human realm aren’t respected, let alone celebrated as they should be.

Jane and Bill are happily married and madly in love, but their sex life is non-existent. We meet them on a night out with a friend of Jane’s and soon discover that Jane spends some of her time daydreaming about her sexual fantasies.

In the bar that evening is a woman named Lilah Hopkins. In the time it takes Jane to go to the bar and buy another round of drinks, Lilah has joined their table.

The change she provoked in my husband fascinated me. Bill was devoted to me, had been devoted since we met. It was love at first sight for him. He had never, ever, openly admired another woman in all our time together. But he was gazing, wide-eyed, at Lilah. My dear husband: my other kidney, my sound, reliable, decent, wholesome, utterly faithful husband was checking Lilah out.

Jane thinks Lilah is ‘incredible’ but also ‘cheap’ but, as the story’s told in retrospect, she also acknowledges that ‘I didn’t see her fully that night in that nondescript bar, barely guessed’.

Jane decides that Lilah is the solution to the lack of sex in her marriage and invites her back to her and Bill’s home. Eventually, Jane goes to bed alone, leaving Bill and Lilah talking, fully aware that they’re likely to have sex. What Jane doesn’t anticipate is both the size of the effect this will have on Bill and the effect Bill will have on Lilah.

Told from all three perspectives, The Tryst reveals a game being played between the women and Bill. Each member of the triangle is unaware of the extent to which they’re being manipulated by the others, each believing they have some control over the situation. What Jane’s failed to notice is that Lilah isn’t human: she’s a descent of Lilith, first wife of Adam, an imp from a race of enchanting Lovers (Roffey’s capitalisation). What Lilah doesn’t see is that she’s met her match in Bill.

Oh – what a pleasant surprise. This Bill was a Lover, after all. Not a Fucker, like the majority of human males. Not all please-my-cock-now neediness. He had skill and timing and he knew how to give, how to meet a woman and see to her needs before his own. This was a first.

Roffey explores desire and the effect it can have on a heterosexual couple and, also, on relationships between women. She questions whether sexless marriages can be fixed, even when they appear to be irrevocably broken. She’s unafraid – and unashamed – to write no-holds barred sex scenes and it pays off. The Tryst is an engrossing tale of love, sex and power.

I met Monique Roffey to discuss The Tryst.

At the very end of the book there’s an author note where one of the things you talk about is that the book developed over 14 years. Where did the idea for the book come from and how did it change over that time?

The idea came from meeting a particular woman, who was very short and had flaming red hair and who was sexually incredibly dynamic. The kind of person who you just think her clothes are about to blow off. A younger woman. I met her about 15 years ago. The Lilah in the book is really based on someone I met. She became a friend. She was a really intelligent, fellow author.

I was in a relationship a little bit like the one Jane and Bill are in, which was a really loving and stable relationship but there was something wrong with it, which was the sexuality part. I certainly felt there was something I didn’t know how to go about. I didn’t know how to resource myself on fixing it or what was wrong. How was it wrong if you love someone so much? It was an enormous problem for me.

I was busy writing the second novel but The Tryst was leaking out. I remember the opening line, ‘She had pointy ears’, that just manifest itself. Fifteen years ago, I wrote it down in a Moleskin notebook and I’ve still got that notebook. Something was leaking out; I leaked the book out and the character Jane leaks Lilah so there’s life imitating art.

I was a younger writer and I was less experienced about how to handle [the work]. I knew there were three points of view, how would I handle that? Would it work? How to make it work? Then, of course, there’s the whole shame thing which is a big feminist issue around writing about sex. When I was a younger woman in my 30s, I hadn’t quite breached that crossroads yet. I hadn’t crossed over into where I am today. I’ve been on a huge journey around sexuality. I was a bit like Jane, I was underdeveloped in my sexuality.

I was ashamed of what I was writing, to a certain extent. It took years; I kept putting it down and picking it up. It followed me round on different laptops. I knew it was good, I knew I had something. It wasn’t until 2012 I began to tweak it and then I saw the whole Lilah resonance, the Lilith story .Then I knew I had a really workable project. In 2013, I sold it to Simon & Schuster.

Now it’s been published by Dodo Ink. What happened with it?

I’d been with Simon & Schuster for a very long time and they’d published four or five of my books. In that period of time, which was about a decade, I’d had three or four different editors. One of them we had a fantastic relationship with but the one I inherited when she left, we had a weak relationship. She bought The Tryst, I think she felt she ought to, then she got cold feet. Interestingly, she said, ‘What if it wins the Bad Sex Award?’ and now people are saying it should win a good sex award. She just didn’t have it in her to take this book to publication. A deal was undone and Dodo Ink bought it about a year later.

It’s interesting that you mention the Bad Sex Award; did the thought of that put you off at any point?

Not in the writing of it but it certainly put my editor off. I think it puts a lot of writers off but not me at the time. I was so committed and I was so in this book and then I grew with it. I had this great sexual journey in my 40s which was why I wrote my memoir. As I grew more intelligent and more articulate and more experienced and I met more and more women, I became a lot more confident about what I was writing.

One of the things I really loved about the book was the different women in it and the way you talk about different women and sex. What made you decide to write about sex and the way women are seen?

Here we are in the West and the West is Judeo-Christian so we rest on these really ancient myths and ideas about womanhood. There was Adam and then there was Lilith and Lilith is a big whore who refuses to lay underneath Adam and is banished because she’s way too unruly. Then they make Eve – they try again with a wife for Adam and this time they make it from his ribs so it’s likely she’s not going to be so feisty. Of course, she causes the fall of mankind and then we have Magdalen. So we have these very sexually powerful women in our most ancient mythology and our understanding of the whole romantic dynamic or the male/female dynamic. Then we have Mary, the Mother of Christ, who’s a virgin, never had sex. It’s all quite fucked up. But those ideas of a split between the mother, Mary, who’s a virgin – she’s not sexual, she’s asexual, she above sex, she’s too spiritual to have a sex drive – is really still with us. We do have this split in femininity around motherhood and mothers being more chaste. God knows how they give birth to children. There’s definitely a split: there’s the whore and the mother and they’re diametrically opposed types.

I was in psychoanalysis for years and I’ve come across another archetype, which I feel I strongly identify with, which is the Tara. A lot of women who are very creative and have written – Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Wolff – and stayed unmarried and have not had children is the kind of opposite of the mother.

Lilah and Jane are basically playing out these polar opposites in womanhood. The direction I wanted to send the book in was towards an integration for Jane. She manifests Lilah from her dreams and she calls her in, she invites her in. My plan for her was that she ingests her. Lilah devastates them and also heals them. I wanted to look at this really well known split in female sexuality and I wanted Jane, at the end, to have it all. To have eaten Lilah, in a way.

You considered publishing The Tryst under a pseudonym; how does it feel to have it out under your own name?

It’s a good thing. When I was thinking about the pseudonyms, I think it was way before the memoir even. This book is a prequel to the memoir. I was writing it before the memoir. People pointed out to me: Monique, you’ve already written about sex under your own name, it’s ridiculous. With sex writing there’s a lot of shame, I’ve got all sorts of friends who’ve used pen names but that never works, eventually people get outed – horribly – often by other women. It’s horrendous. So I decided I wanted to be on the right side of the fence and, also, if you out yourself, no one can hurt you. No one’s going to shame you because you’re out, you own whatever’s dark and difficult, transgressive. I’ve got my name on it, that’s all true, so no nasty, weird stories are going to turn up about me. There’s no kiss and tell, no photographs. I wanted to be able to own everything that I’ve done and it has worked.

I want to go back a little bit to Lilah and the magical element. You’ve already mentioned she comes from a type. She talks about being a woodland type and there are conversations about whether she’s a nymph or a spirit. Why did you bring the supernatural element into it, rather than it being a straightforward love triangle?

That’s a really good question; I’m not even sure I’ve got an answer for that because this is a novel and you can do what you like with a novel, it doesn’t have to make sense. What I’ve been told is we can’t sell it in France or in Europe because they like a literal [story]. I even went to a well-known festival director – he really wanted to read the book – and he said, ‘I don’t understand it, she’s a pixie’. In a way, it’s a big risk but Lilah is a descendent of Lilith, in the book, and she’s also a manifestation of Jane’s erotic trysts, her dreams and her fantasies. She just turns up, she’s dreamed her into her life and she banishes her. She wins. She gets to live a dream, in a way, so I really wanted that otherworldly possibility. Otherwise you’ve just got bog standard realism, haven’t you? They met a woman, she’s a bit of a whore and I don’t want to stigmatise the whore. Lilah’s quite evil but she’s also very beautiful, isn’t she? I think she is. She’s a devil.

I liked the idea that she could possibly have just been a manifestation of Jane’s imagination. That she changed everything herself.

I think at some point in the book I say, ‘By the time I was so lost, I was so lost and overwhelmed by all my fantasies, by the time Lilah turned up, I couldn’t work out whether it was me that dreamed her up. Was she just another dream?’

There’s a power in that, isn’t there?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And we all know that. Sexual energy is also really directly related to creative energy. Sexual energy is powerful. Women don’t really understand how powerful we are, let alone how to direct that energy, how to use it to get what we want, overtly, subtly. It’s all there for us to explore. Modern women haven’t really got the teachers, I don’t think, to show them the way to use their sexual power. Not just to get what they want out of the world but to be creative. Most creative women, I would say, are very in touch with their libido.

You’ve mentioned there about power and sexuality and there is a real power struggle in the novel. I wondered whether it was there to drive the narrative or whether there was more to that, whether you’d got something to say about sex and the way the two work together?

There is a power struggle, there is a triangle but before there’s a triangle, there’s a couple. I think in many relationships where there’s no sex happening, the person who doesn’t want it has the power. That person is the one who is silently calling the shots. Meanwhile, the other person is silently suffering. Sometimes they’re both suffering but there’s definitely the whole thing about it’s his house, it’s his mother’s house, she redecorated. All those subtle forms of co-existing between men and women. He ends up in the shed, he hasn’t really dealt with his ex-wife, he’s been depressed, he hasn’t really dealt with his mum. He’s got issues building up, she hasn’t dealt with her pain so there’s a whole lot of complex love story before Lilah turns up. And, of course, Lilah really just wants to fuck them up and hurt them and to say, I’ll probably be good for you, but she then loses her footing and gets drawn in and then, all of a sudden, she’s lost her power. She’s omnipotently powerful and conscious and aware of what she’s doing. Really in a different ballpark to the quite naïve and innocent Bill and Jane. She’s just come in there with a bag of tricks, everything she’s got to bring, and she slips because she’s met by Bill, which is a huge surprise.

I hope it’s one of the big surprises in the book that I’ve written a male who’s a really good lover and meets this witch, this little imp, and they fall in love. There’s something going on between them. I wanted them all to underestimate each other. Lilah sneers at them, Jane sneers at her – she’s quite cheap, stonewashed, court platforms, bangles, looks cheap, ‘like a novelty bar of soap’, she says, Alabama. She doesn’t realise that this woman is just playing her along. That’s what women do, don’t we? We size each other up, we’ve all got each other covered. We know who’s the Alpha Female, we know whether or not to get on the right side of that person, if we’re in with her, if we’re not, do we care? Are we Alpha? Who are we? All this stuff’s going on. Jane is an Alpha Female and Lilah is like a triple Alpha Female.

One of the thing’s that’s really nice in the book is the way they start to reveal they’re all playing each other and everyone thinks they’re not. That comes out in the narration. You’ve written it from all three points of view. Did you start with that or did it develop as you went along? And how do you tell the same scenes without making it repetitive?

I’m so glad you think it’s not repetitive because that was why this book’s taken so long. Initially we had three stories and it was all of Jane, followed by all of Bill, followed by all of Leilah. One after the other, they were all telling one long narrative and I just realised it was really boring. And you’d forgotten Jane by the time you were with Lilah. I realised it needed to be cut up, concertinaed, and if I split it right, then you would get overlap but you wouldn’t get repetition. I wanted them all to be giving us their different point of view because it’s really different, what they’re all thinking. And, also, that Bill’s no fool, he gets it. He’s in there, along for the ride. They’ve all got their grief, they’ve all got their story. I also had a really good editor who helped.

Back to your writing more generally. You’ve written books looking at a wide range of topics. The last one was House of Ashes, which I loved. It was my Book of the Year.

You’re kidding!

No, I absolutely loved it. I wondered how important it is to you to write about different subjects.

Well, I only think I’ve tackled two, which is sex and I’m also known for writing books which are based in the Caribbean, where I come from, where my family live. I think it’s really important to keep testing yourself and pushing yourself and trying new things but also staying within the realms of your expertise of what you think about, what’s important to you, what you know about, what other people don’t. For example, I teach creative writing up in Manchester and many of my students are from the north and they don’t seem to be interested in their own back yard. That is your world, I don’t know your world. I can’t write about the north, I’d get it so wrong.

For me, I’ve ploughed my areas, I’ve ploughed my back yard. For example, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle’s all about my mum and dad and my family. This bloody bicycle which she brought with her from England. Archipelago’s all about my brother and this flood which destroyed his house. And then House of Ashes was a huge leap because, for the first time, I wasn’t writing about me. I’d been really worried because it’s historical fiction and the people who perpetrated this coup are still alive. They never got tried. Spent two years in prison and they were all released. There was that issue. And then, incredibly, as I decided to go ahead with it, to do some research, there was a commissioned enquiry, in Trinidad, 24 years later. So I got to go to court and I got all the witness testimony’s online and I got to meet people and witness them. That, again, is magical. When you decide to commit to a book that’s really risky and then the door just opens and goes here’s all the information you need. That’s my favourite book too. It got nominated for a couple of prizes but it didn’t sell very well because who’s interested in a coup in the Caribbean? I don’t know.

I definitely hope that there’s going to be more. There’s another Caribbean book, that’s now at second draft stage, about a mermaid. Most mermaids are not happy creatures, they’ve been cursed. If you seal up a woman’s legs, you’re sealing up her sexuality. She can no longer have periods, she can no longer have sex. This myth is an old Cuban myth. There was a beautiful ingénue woman who was singing. The men were so entranced by her that the women of the village banished her to a rock. The men still found their way up to see her sing and to try and win her. Eventually, they got the goddess down and said, what do we do with her? The goddess said, I will send a hurricane and we’ll send her into the sea. This young woman is banished, sealed up, sexuality sealed. Away, off, forever. If you curse someone today – and we live 70 years and die – that person’s still cursed. She’s still living with that curse long after those women have cursed her. She gets caught in the modern time so we have an old Shamanic woman who’s been cursed to be a mermaid with old language, old ideas, not quite Neanderthal, people who were living in the Caribbean four or five thousand years ago. So she comes back, has a love affair.

My blog’s about female writers. I always ask everyone if they’ve read anything really interesting by a female writer recently that they’d recommend to us.

I’ve just read, for the first time, The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. It’s absolutely, rivetingly brilliant. I’ve got so much to say about it; I’m teaching it next year at MMU [Manchester Metropolitan University]. It’s a thriller told from the point of view of the killer. He’s this kind of likeable sociopath, Tom Ripley. I’ve been asked to teach the novel, so I’m now ploughing my way through 10 novels and it was the first one I read and I was like, wow because I’m not really a thriller reader, generally.

A Caribbean writer who I think is just amazing, an amazing poet who’s going to be published in the autumn is called Shivanee Ramlochan who has a collection out called Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting. I think that Shivanee is going to be really famous and hugely influential in the Caribbean. She’s got a queer perspective and writes about Lilith, sexual violence, rape, queerness, women, folklore creatures. She’s just got an amazing range, she just has this rich inner world: magic and realism and lore and reality. Everyday things and mum and dad and family. I think she’s amazing.

Rosamond King, another Caribbean poet. I read a lot of Caribbean literature.

Huge thanks to Monique Roffey for the interview and to Dodo Ink for the review copy.

Books mentioned:

The Tryst – Monique Roffey

House of Ashes – Monique Roffey

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle – Monique Roffey

Archipelago – Monique Roffey

The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith

Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting – Shivanee Ramlochan

Rosamond King

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

Seeing Red begins with a brutal, violent incident that happens at a house party the narrator, Lucina/Lina, is attending with her partner:

And then a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most gorgeous. The most terrifying. The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw the pressure rise, I watched as I got dizzy, I saw my stomach turn, saw that I was starting to retch, and even so. I didn’t straighten up or move an inch, didn’t even try to breathe while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.

Her other eye begins to fill with blood soon after and by three a.m. ‘even the most powerful magnifying glass wouldn’t have helped me’. The only compensation is that the following morning Lucina finds the blood in her left eye has sunk to the bottom leaving a slither of light.

In simple terms, what follows is the narrator’s attempt to come to terms with what is happening to her. Of course, the changes that will be wrought in her life are anything other than simple.

The ophthalmologist tells her that she’s ineligible for an experimental transplant and all that can be done for now is ‘to just keep an eye on it’. If the worst happens, he concludes ‘we would have to see’. Lucina is furious.

We follow Lucina as she begins to negotiate her terrain by learning to count the number of steps between places, by attempting to rely on her other senses which sometimes fail her, by having to rely on her partner, Ignacio.

Some of the chapters are bracketed and written directly to Ignacio, detailing the way in which their relationship is changing:

And you were there, and it was as if you were one-eyed, too, you couldn’t understand what had happened. You couldn’t calculate the gravity. You couldn’t bring yourself to ask the questions. You balled them up and stuffed them, like now, in your pockets.

Meruane explores the impact of forced dependency on an independent, ambitious woman. Lucina progresses from telling Ignacio, ‘I am only an apprentice blind woman and I have very little ambitious in the trade’ to telling her mother, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to get better. I have to learn how to be blind. You’re not helping’. These two relationships, with her partner and her mother, are the key ones in her life and, almost inevitably, the ones which take most of the strain. As the book progresses, Lucina becomes angrier and the narrative more violent.

The tension that builds throughout the novel is aided by the short, flash fiction style chapters and the intensity of Meruane’s use of language and grammar, superbly translated by McDowell. Sentences are short and spiky, they cut off before they are finished. Words are picked up and played with, repetition and association are used to brilliant effect.

Seeing Red is a taut, brutal, horrifying novel. Fierce and unmissable.

I spoke to Lina Meruane about autobiographical writing, family relationships and women in translation.

My review of Hot Milk is here.

Books mentioned:

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

Amazon

Waterstones

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

Amazon

Waterstones

Darkness Visible – William Styron

Amazon

Waterstones

Hot Milk – Deborah Levy

Amazon 

Waterstones

Thanks to Lina Meruane and Kirsty Doole for the interview and to Atlantic Books for the review copy.

The Core of the Sun – Johanna Sinisalo (translated by Lola Rogers)

Finland, 2016.

I lift my skirt, pull aside the waistband of my underwear, and push my index finger in to test the sample.

The seller’s eyes go wide. The maple tree’s branches and sparse leaves splash shadows over his face, the whites of his eyes flash, and I can see his Adam’s apple as he swallows.

Vanna/Vera is a chilli addict, a banned substance which she buys from dealers who advertise using a covert system of keywords and pictures.

As well as including chillis on their banned substances list, Finnish society has divided women into two groups: Elois and Morlocks, terms taken from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Elois or femiwomen are allowed to reproduce. There are dedicated ‘to the overall advancement of the male sex’. Morlocks or neuterwomen are excluded from reproducing and made to do routine work tasks. These are intelligent women who might disrupt the status quo; they are supressed by sterilisation and drudgery.

Vanna/Vera is an unusual woman; thanks to her quick-thinking grandmother, she is a Morlock disguised as an Eloi. Vanna is her Eloi name – all Eloi names end in ‘na’ – but she maintains her original name in the hope that one day she’ll be able to use it again. She has a boyfriend, Jare, in name only. Essentially, he protects her identity and ensures that she sources enough chilli for her needs. Her need for chilli is linked to Vanna/Vera’s other desire: to find her sister, Manna. Manna’s been missing for some time, having disappeared from her and Vanna/Vera’s childhood home where Manna was living with her husband, Harri. Despite there being a grave for Manna, Vanna/Vera’s convinced she’s still alive and is determined to find her. However, dealing with her disappearance often leads Vanna/Vera to what she terms ‘the cellar’:

The door to the cellar is in the back of my head.

Sometimes the door to the Cellar is made of solid steel with clunking metal bolts and rusty, creaking hinges – heavy. Sometimes it’s made of rotten wood, sometimes gauze that flutters in the wind. Sometimes there’s no door at all, and the ice-cold wind blows out of it.

[…]

At the bottom of the Cellar, dark, ominous water splashes. It seeps out of openings the size of molecules through walls sealed with nuclear fire. I can bear the black wind, the merciless mist, but when the deep water starts to lap at the threshold of the Cellar and threatens to flood the rooms in my head, I know how close I am to drowning.

During the first half of the novel, Vanna/Vera writes to Manna, recounting moments from their childhood and revealing to the reader the depth of their grandmother’s deception. It also details how Jare came into Vanna/Vera’s life and the problems this caused them. As a device, this could grate but Sinisalo uses it as a way for Vanna/Vera to work up to and through the reasons her sister might have disappeared. The letters are never intended to be sent. Sinisalo also interweaves definitions, a re-written fairytale and extracts into the text in order to world build while keeping the focus on Vanna/Vera and the chase for chilli.

In the second half of the book, the chase becomes more significant as Jare meets a group of Gaians who are farming fresh chilli and are on a quest which might offer both Jare and Vanna/Vera a means of escape.

The Core of the Sun is an engaging tale of two female siblings divided by a patriarchal society and a quest for the ultimate high. The Handmaid’s Tale meets Breaking Bad.

Thanks to Grove Press for the review copy.

 

 

When We Speak of Nothing – Olumide Popoola

The what to do and when to place it. The how to undress and how much to leave underneath. The give someone all that could hurt oneself. Or them. And then stand still. Just stand.

Karl is Abu’s ‘brother from another mother’. The pair are seventeen years old, studying for A Levels and living with their families in the King’s Cross area of London. The novel opens with them walking home from school.

Then, out of nowhere, three wannabe guys they knew from sixth form jumping them, right at the corner to Leigh Street. Like real jump. Two of them at Abu calling him Abu-ka-ha-ba-ha-ha-ha-r-pussy and other things that shouldn’t be said in front of anyone, twisting his arm back in its socket like they just got their GCSEs in bullying.

It was crunching. Abu whined.

Being beaten up is a regular occurrence for their pair. The reason for this is revealed as the story unfolds: Karl is transgender and some of his classmates take this as a reason to be abusive towards him and Abu.

And Karl would be all, ‘You know you can just tell them you ain’t gay and be done with it. It’s just me this is for anyway.’ And Abu would be, ‘For real? Bruv, do I look like I have a problem with gay or anything? They know we ain’t gay. I’m not even going to go there. When have I ever let you down? Tell me? Do I really look like I will talk to some pisshead? Got better things to do with my time, mate. If you want to preach again find yourself someone who doesn’t know how to act. Ain’t me.’

Part of what makes this book great is the level of acceptance for Karl from Abu, Abu’s family and Karl’s mum. This isn’t a story about someone transitioning, it’s a coming of age tale of a teenager trying to find their place in the world.

The narrative’s driven by Karl’s lack of contact with his father whom he’s never met. While his mother, who has Multiple Sclerosis, is in hospital, Karl opens a letter from his Uncle Tunde. In it, he tells Karl’s mum, Rebecca, that Karl’s father is ill and now knows of Karl’s existence. He wishes to see Karl. With some manoeuvring that involves Karl, his guardian, Godfrey, and Abu’s family lying to Rebecca, Karl flies to Port Harcourt to meet his father. Things don’t go as expected though: Karl’s father is mysteriously absent and Karl begins to fall in love with a young woman he meets. Back in London, violence is escalating, not only against Abu but across the city following the killing of Mark Duggan.

The novel could’ve been weighed down by the issues it covers. The story meets at the intersections of race, class and gender and considers what it’s like to be a transgender teenager in two different communities; how single parents with health issues cope, and why people respond to a range of situations with violence. However, Popoola’s management of these areas is skilful: she refuses to offer any easy solutions – much of the novel operates in the grey areas of life; there is a clear story about two teenagers negotiating their entry into adulthood, and her use of language is thoughtful and aids in making these characters convincing. She interweaves the vocabulary and speech rhythms of London and Port Harcourt. It isn’t simply a matter of throwing in some dialect or imitating an accent, the grammatical structures echo the spoken word.

When We Speak of Nothing offers a view of teenagers, and of London, rarely seen in literature. It is a tale of friendship, of acceptance, of deciding what’s worth fighting for.

I spoke to Olumide Popoola about writing teenagers, creating a transgender protagonist and playing with language.

Jendella’s playlist is here.

When We Speak of Nothing on Amazon and Waterstones.

My review of The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah. The Book of Memory on Amazon and Waterstones.

Thanks to Olumide Popoola and Cassava Republic for the interview and for the review copy of the novel.

 

The Other Half of Happiness – Ayisha Malik

The Other Half of Happiness is the sequel to Malik’s debut, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. While the books can be read individually, I can’t write about The Other Half of Happiness without spoiling the end of the first book. You have been warned!

‘I’ll be shot for saying this,’ said Sakib, ‘but I always thought women preferred romance to feminism.’

Brammers shook her head while he wasn’t looking, as if it was just the typical thing a man would say.

I took another biscuit, thinking about Conall. Romance versus feminism. ‘Whoever said you can’t have both?’

We re-join Sofia on 1st January 2013 in bed with Conall, to whom she is now married. They are living in Karachi while Conall works on his documentary with Hamida, a situation which Sofia isn’t thrilled about. She still dislikes Hamida and she’s missing London and her friends. While Conall sleeps, she exchanges messages with Suj, Foz and Hannah.

Sofia’s mum’s upset that she’s married without telling anyone and, on a Skype call with her sister, Maars, some family grievances are aired:

‘It was all very quick.’ She leaned into the screen, her eyes looking bigger than usual. ‘I mean, how well do you actually know him?’

‘It’s Conall.’

She raised her eyebrows. ‘Yeah, but who’s his family?’

‘I didn’t realise we were living in a Regency novel.’

‘You can tell a lot about a person from their family,’ she said.

‘I hope not,’ I replied as she stuck her finger up at me.

She handed Adam a rusk and added: ‘You never just marry one person. You marry their whole family.’

The latter comment is what lies at the nub of the novel. Conall rarely mentions his family but, when Sofia ends up back in London, Sofia’s mum decides Sofia and Conall are having another wedding. Amongst the 300 guests, Sofia’s mum invites Conall’s parents. His mum attends and, before the wedding’s barely over, Sofia discovers a huge secret Conall’s been keeping from her.

While the problems which ensue form the main plot of the novel, there’s a number of subplots. Sofia’s back in London because Katie, her editor, and her new co-worker, Sakib, have proposed she writes a guide to marriage from her unique perspective. Her mum’s getting remarried to a man she knew 40 years ago who she’s rediscovered via Facebook and her Auntie and friends have a variety of different issues in their own lives, mostly around relationships and children.

Malik explores life beyond the ‘happy ever after’ with the added twist of a marriage between a Muslim woman of colour and a white, Irish man who’s converted to Islam. This allows her to look at the way in which the practices related to Islam are treated with suspicion. She also expands her look at diversity in publishing, which she touched on in the first book, by introducing Sakib, who’s name Katie can’t even pronounce:

‘Sakib’s here to build our list of diverse authors,’ said Brammers. ‘He’s of Indian descent and Muslim. Like you,’ she added.

‘I’m Pakistani,’ I said.

While the novel’s still very funny, it’s much darker than the first instalment and, I would argue, better for it. Sofia and her friends have steep learning curves which feel intense and realistic. She comes to realise that life doesn’t always work out as you intended it to but sometimes it’s the events you don’t expect that lead to a more interesting path.

People talk of milestones in life – graduating from university, getting your first job, buying a house, getting married, etc. – but no one really thinks about the milestones that are offered to you. And how they can mean so much more when they’re unprecedented.

Malik challenges the traditional trajectory of the romantic comedy with the strong feminist streak that runs throughout the book. I was so invested in the outcomes for Sofia, that when she did choose her path, I found myself sobbing over her decision. The Other Half of Happiness is an empowering, feminist novel and one of my books of the year.

I spoke to Ayisha Malik about writing romantic comedy, female friendships and being a ghostwriter.

You can buy The Other Half of Happiness from AmazonWaterstones
or support your local independent bookshop.

You can buy Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged from AmazonWaterstones or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for the review copy and to Ayisha Malik and Emily Burns for the interview.

The Last Summer – Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch)

The fact that everything, by virtue of coming into existence, is doomed to pass – that is the sole tragedy of life, for it is the nature of life, for life so constructed is the only one that can ever be ours.

In this epistolary novella, Lyu, a young revolutionary, takes a position as a bodyguard/secretary at the house of Yegor, the governor of the state university in St. Petersburg. Yegor and his family – his wife, Lusinya, and three children, Velya, Katya and Jessika – are staying at the family’s summer residence. The governor has made the decision to close the university following student unrest and a death threat.

We learn from the outset that hiring Lyu was a mistake. He writes to his friend, Konstantin:

I do not doubt that my plan will succeed; indeed, the circumstances appear even more favourable than might have been expected. The whole family seems well disposed towards me and I detect no hint of any suspicion, which is entirely natural, as only we in the know could fear the contrary.

His opinion isn’t quite founded on reality, however. Velya, the son, writes to his cousin, Peter:

I feel he wants more and is capable of more than other people. I suspect his views are no less revolutionary than our own, but so far he has given nothing away about himself in discussion.

Over the summer, several letters are sent between Lyu and Konstantin as well as numerous members of the family – Velya and Katya write to their cousin, Peter, while Jessika and her mother write to Tatyana, Peter’s mother. The letters build a picture of life in the family home. Lyu tries to move the family into a new era through encouraging them to buy a car, a typewriter and listen to Wagner. Katya and Jessika fall in love with Lyu, albeit briefly in Katya’s case, and Lusinya worries about Yegor.

Early in the book, Lyu decides to enter Lusinya and Yegor’s room at night. He is contemplating murdering the governor in his sleep and wants to see how far he can get into the room without being discovered. He is barely over the threshold before Lusinya is awake. She writes to Tatyana:

The fact that all of a sudden there’s a man standing in our room at night, whether because he’s sleepwalking or for any other reason, isn’t alarming to me, but I do find it most sinister. I cannot sleep anymore, because I’m always thinking that he’ll be standing there at any moment, looking at me with his strange grey eyes which seem to penetrate everything.

Lusinya’s worries are tolerated but no one seems to take them seriously. Later, Katya also expresses concerns at Lyu’s behaviour but is dismissed by her brother. There is a clear thread of women’s worries and opinions being ignored while we, from our omniscient position, can only watch the tension build and wonder whether Lyu’s plan will succeed.

The Last Summer is a gripping novella which sets family tensions against a backdrop of a changing era. Although first published in 1910, the translation allows it to feel modern and relevant. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Peirene Press for the review copy.

 You can buy The Last Summer from Amazon, Waterstones or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

 

The Last Wave – Gillian Best

Turning to face the sea, I shouted, ‘I will swim the Channel. I will not get out until I reach England.’
In return, the water threw salty spray in my face.
I squared my shoulders and stood up to it as though it were a schoolyard bully. ‘I need to do this. I need to prove to myself that I can. I need to show everyone at home that I am more than a wife and a mother. They need to see that…’

Martha is dead. Cancer. Her husband John has Alzheimer’s and when The Last Wave begins, we meet him confused, missing her, believing that she’s gone out to swim in the sea. Despite this, Martha is the character this tale of a family hinges on. Returned to life for the second chapter, she relates a story of herself as a ten-year-old girl out fishing with her father.

It was the first day I got wet.
I fell head first towards the water but it happened so quickly that I didn’t even have time to think about taking a breath. I remembered hitting the water and thinking that it was strange that hurt so much, it felt as though I had hit something solid and hard. That moment changed the way I looked at the sea forever. Before it had been a vastness that had nothing to do with me, it was there and I knew it was cold and though I had been wading once or twice before, I had only felt the water move around me, and make way for me. But when I hit the water that day I understood that it was able to be more than one thing.

Martha’s accident is kept from her mother, as are the initial swimming lessons she has with her father’s friend, Jim. By the time her mother finds out and forbids her from continuing, Matha’s love of swimming in the sea has already taken hold.

The novel’s told from multiple perspectives, incorporating the views of Martha and Jim’s children, their daughter’s partner, their granddaughter and their next-door-neighbour. Each has a thread of their own – the daughter, Harriet, is gay, something her father is hugely uncomfortable with; the granddaughter, Myrtle, wants to follow in the waves of the grandmother she’s never met; the son, Ian, has moved to Australia, the furthest away he’s able to go, and the next-door-neighbour has a secret of his own. Best deftly weaves the character’s stories together. Not only does she move between their tales, she jumps along the chronology, leaving the reader to piece together the order of events. This is far less confusing than it sounds and makes for an engaging drama which maintains a narrative tension without obviously withholding information or making any dramatic twists.

While Best’s characters play out the type of scenarios you might expect from a fairly typical family coping with life’s challenges, they are underpinned by Martha’s extraordinary achievement: multiple swims across the English Channel. She’s a woman determined to defy the odds and convention. There’s a wonderful scene when John brings his manager home for dinner, hoping to land a promotion. Martha, sparked by a journalist’s comments that afternoon, has been swimming in the sea for the first time since their marriage. She arrives home, dripping wet, dinner uncooked.

He turned to look at Charlie through the glass doors. ‘There’s no way he’ll give me that promotion now. How can I control an entire department of men if I can’t even control my own wife?’
‘A wife isn’t for controlling,’ I said. ‘I have to do more than laundry. I want to do something bigger.’ I stepped forward, intending to change out of my dripping clothes, but he would not let me pass.
He looked furious – with me or himself I couldn’t tell.
‘I’m going to put some dry clothes on. Then I will come down and cook you and Charlie your dinner. And then, John, I’m going to swim the Channel.’
‘What is so bloody important about swimming the Channel?’ he shouted.
‘My life depends on it.’

I spoke to Gillian Best about Martha, swimming and telling stories.

You can buy The Last Wave from AmazonWaterstones or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Freight Books for the review copy and to Gillian Best for the interview.

 

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy

And cut! I am the wife playing the role of an actress playing out the role of a dutiful wife watching my husband pretend to be the hero of the everyday. I play the role with flair.

The longer I stretch the act of the happily married couple, the more I dodge his anger. It’s not a test of talent alone. My life depends upon it.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife tells the story of a marriage between a university professor and a young, unnamed woman.

There are not many things a woman can become when she is a housewife in a strange town that does not speak any of her mother-tongues. Not when her life revolves around her husband. Not when she has been trapped for two months in the space of three rooms and a veranda.

The husband expects her to be perfect. To look and dress as he believes a wife should dress. To keep house and ensure that too is perfect. We soon learn, as the narrator did, that meeting his standards is impossible.

Initially the wife’s perceived failure results in the husband inflicting harm upon himself; he lights matches, extinguishing them on his own skin until she agrees to close her Facebook account.

When I am forced to leave Facebook, my final message is not: Trouble in Second Week of Marriage: Husband-Moron Insistent I Stay Isolated. Mr Control Freak Blackmailed Me Into Deactivating Account. Writer At Risk! SOS!

Instead my swansong is serious and formal; I write about the intertwining double helix of projects and looming deadlines. I compose the picture of being a busy woman, and maintain the act to precise proportions. I write out the formulaic pretence of living the writer’s life. No one gets a clue of how precariously alone I feel.

What follows is the inevitable descent into violence against the narrator.

One of the things that’s interesting about When I Hit You is that it’s a middle class university lecturer perpetrating acts of violence against a middle class, educated, woman. Kandasamy pushes against the idea that domestic violence is confined to a particular class or stereotype.

She also – as she did in The Gypsy Goddess – brings politics into the discussion. The narrator’s class and political leanings become another area for the Communist husband to berate her about. Here Kandasamy opens up a long overdue discussion about the misogyny of the far left which is utterly relevant to current society.

However, as the subtitle of the novel makes clear, this isn’t purely the story of a marriage steeped in fear, it is the story of a young woman becoming a writer. This is made clear from the beginning of the book with two framing devices; the first is the writer’s mother who, five years on, has claimed the story for herself. The narrator objects:

Much as I love my mother, authorship is a trait that I have come to take very seriously. It gets on my nerves when she steals the story of my life and builds her anecdotes around it. It’s plain plagiarism. It takes a lot of balls to do something like that – she’s stealing from a writer’s life – how often is that sort of atrocity even allowed to happen? The number one lesson I have learnt as a writer: Don’t let people remove you from your own story. Be ruthless, even if it is your own mother.

The second is when she reframes the story as though she is an actor playing the dutiful wife. While this could work to distance the reader, it actually provokes more empathy for the unnamed narrator; what is so bad that she has to pretend she is someone else to survive? As the novel progresses, however, it is the writing that the narrator does in secret that saves a part of herself.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is a stunning piece of work. The writing is sharp, ratcheting the tension and horror at a steady pace until it is all-consuming. Kandasamy isn’t afraid to portray an intelligent woman being subjected to manipulation and violent acts. She isn’t afraid to question the portrayal of ‘upstanding’ men, the role of the political left and how a feminist can find herself in this situation. Kandasamy is an incredible talent and When I Hit You is one of the best things I’ve read this year.

I interviewed Meena Kandasamy about the novel; we discussed autofiction, politics and reframing women’s experiences.

You can buy When I Hit You from AmazonWaterstones, or support your local independent bookshop.

You can also buy The Gypsy Goddess from AmazonWaterstones, or support your local independent bookshop.
If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Atlantic Books for the review copy and to Kirsty Doole and Meena Kandasamy for the interview.

Flesh of the Peach – Helen McClory

She was overburdened with her thoughts. A wish for comfort, for palm against palm and fingers latched. No one ever knew how to give her it. What could she want, given that she seemed to everyone a pretty cactus or a thistle pitched all by itself among the rocks, casting a twisted shadow.

We meet Sarah at the top of the Empire State building. Her mother, who was back in Cornwall, has died of cancer; she’s lost her job, and her married lover has ended their affair after her husband found out about it.

And all she was was an émigré deadmother wifefucker in pieces, spines, vibrating at an awful screeching pitch.

From there, to the Empire State building. From there, her pieces  sent out to be hopeful and reformative – somewhere other.

Sarah does the American thing and sets off on a road trip, by Greyhound bus, to the cabin her mother owned in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico.

Between encounters with a range of other passengers and Sarah’s thoughts about her current situation, we learn about Sarah’s relationship with her artist mother. Her mother was fleetingly famous and verbally cruel. She used the mixed-race Sarah as a model for her paintings but always rendered the girl as a typical English rose. Her behaviour, of course, had an impact on Sarah:

And you try not to remember how on another day it was the same stillness, creation-new. And how Lucy’s face had turned in the moments after you cut open your mother’s hand. Pillow blood, sheet blood. Cousin Lucy very still as Maud woke shrieking and gasping.

When Sarah arrives at the cabin, she becomes entangled with Theo, the young man who lives with his mother in the nearest cabin. As their relationship progresses, Sarah tries to reconcile herself with who she is.

McClory describes the book as a novel told in flash fiction: none of the chapters exceed 1000 words. This allows for the story to be told in snapshots and for a range of thoughts, ideas and events to be covered – we get Sarah’s views on art, guns, footnotes, the hierarchy of pain and much more. It also means that the writing is taught and condensed, moving between the poetic and the blunt. Often it is funny, quite often at the expense of mediocre men.

What really makes Flesh of the Peach stand out though is its unflinching portrayal of a young woman being messy and unpredictable and human. Some of her behaviour is appalling but it feels like the behaviour of someone trying to find out who they are and why that’s who they’ve become. How do you come to terms with the death of your self-centered mother? How do you rebuild a life when every part of it seems to have broken at the same time?

Flesh of the Peach is refreshing: as a road trip novel with a female protagonist, as a combination of short and long form prose writing, as a portrait of a woman.

I interviewed Helen McClory about the novel. We discussed unlikeable female protagonists, road trips and flash fiction.

You can buy Flesh of the Peach from AmazonWaterstones,
or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Helen McClory for the interview and to Freight Books for the review copy.