The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

As an unnamed woman gives birth to a son, floodwaters rise in London. Unable to return to their flat, the woman, her husband, R, and their baby, Z, go to R’s parents’ house. R begins to build a shed for them to live in.

Words float up the stairs like so many childhood letter magnets. Endgame, civilization, catastrophe, humanitarian.

Everyone but the narrator and Z leave to get supplies. G, her mother-in-law, doesn’t return, the explanation given is ‘pandemonium’. On the second trip to get supplies, N, her father-in-law fails to return. From that point, the narrator, R and Z are refugees, sleeping in their car before finally deciding on a camp to live in.

I try to feel the solidity of the date beneath me try to make the day and the month and the year mean something.

It is never quiet here. Z learns to cry loudly again. He is not the only one.

Hunter follows this woman cut adrift, literally and metaphorical, through a year of her life. While the narrative can be read as a dystopic version of the UK in which the effects of climate change have wrought havoc, it also works as a metaphor for the first year of motherhood. It mirrors the feelings of isolation and fear, of the loss of sense of self and sense of time.

The prose is sparse, considered. Paragraphs are short and there is plenty of white space on the page. The reader is cut adrift along, the first person narrative allowing us to only see and feel as this mother of a new-born does.

Interspersed with the narrator’s story are pieces inspired by and adapted from a range of mythical texts. These link to Hunter’s themes: ideas of creation, flooding and the quest for a better place to live. They add to the sense that the narrative is a carefully crafted jigsaw puzzle that’s been laid out in the correct order but left for someone else to slot together.

The End We Start From is powerful, taut, compelling, unsettling. A bold, beautiful work of art.

 

Thanks to Picador for the review copy.

 

 

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

I’ve reviewed the Man Booker shortlisted Elmet/written about why it’s an important working class novel for Ozy.

I’m delighted to have contributed to the new, extended books section on the site. It’s edited by the brilliant Sarah Ladipo Manyika, who wrote the Goldsmith’s Prize shortlisted Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun. I highly recommend having a look around, there’s some great pieces on there.

Bluebird, Bluebird – Attica Locke

It’s 2016 and in Lark, Texas two bodies have been found within a week. The first, a black male, a visitor to the town. The second, a local white woman. It’s the talk of Geneva Sweet’s cafe:

“And ain’t nobody done a damn thing about that black man got killed up the road just last week,” Huxley said.

“They ain’t thinking about that man,” Tim said, tossing a grease-stained napkin on his plate. “Not when a white girl come up dead.”

“Mark my words,” Huxley said, looking gravely at each and every black face in the cafe. “Somebody is going down for this.”

Locke introduces Texas Ranger, Darren Mathews into the equation. Mathews is suspended from duty and his marriage is on the rocks over an ultimatum issued by his wife who wants him to quit his job. His suspension is due to him being called out late at night by a friend, Rutherford McMillan, over an incident with Ronnie Malvo. Two days later, Malvo was found dead. The bullet wounds matched McMillan’s gun, a gun which he’d reported missing the previous day.

Ronnie “Redrum” Malvo was a tatted-up cracker with ties to the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a criminal organization that made money off meth production and the sale of illegal guns – a gang whose only initiation rite was to kill a nigger. Ronnie had been harassing Mack’s granddaughter, Breanna, a part-time student at Sam Houston State, for weeks – following her in his car as she walked to and from town, calling out words she didn’t want to repeat, driving back and forth in front of her house when he knew she was home, cussing her color, her body, the way she wore her “nappy” hair.

When Mathews gets a call from his friend Greg Heglund, an agent within the Houston field office of the FBI, telling him about the case in Lark and suggesting he go and find out why the local sheriff’s refusing outside help, Mathews can’t help himself.

In Lark, Locke creates a town dominated by the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and the power and money of Wally Jefferson. A man who lives in a house which is a near perfect replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and sits bang opposite Geneva’s cafe. Bluebird, Bluebird is a tale of racial hatred but Locke’s created something much more complex than the initial premise appears. As Mathews uncovers the town’s secrets, Locke shows how the heritage of blacks and whites in America is deeply entwined and suggests that white hatred comes from a more complicated place than they might wish to acknowledge.

Bluebird, Bluebird is a gripping, timely novel. The first in a new series featuring Darren Mathews, I’m already looking forward to the next instalment.

I’m delighted to welcome Attica Locke to the blog to answer some questions about the book.

Bluebird, Bluebird has a contemporary setting; did it feel important to be writing about race in America now?

It’s simply my world view. I’m a person of color and so I frequently write characters who are of color and in portraying the contemporary world they live in, I end up writing about race in America. I will say that I wrote this book before Trump was elected and we’ve seen this ugly cancer of racism metastasize all over the country. So it’s been odd seeing how prescient the book is. Although…. Just the fact that Trump was running for President of the United States so successfully was hint enough as to where we were headed.

A small section of the novel is written from the point of view of a white supremacist; how did it feel to get into the mindset of that character?

Oddly freeing. It wasn’t hard to write at all. I just typed up all my worst nightmares about what white supremacist think of me and let it all out. Somewhere in there too I was trying to understand where all that rage comes from. I have a theory that so much of hate and crime has to do with people’s perceived concept of scarcity—their belief, often false belief, that there isn’t enough for them. I think Keith—that character—believes that black men have taken something from him. It’s really a wounded point of view. It actually, I hope, shows you how small these white supremacists are.

The relationships you portray, particularly the marriages, are complex and often difficult. What interests you about people’s romantic relationships?

I suppose the usual stuff—what draws people together. It’s always interesting to write two people who don’t seem like they should be drawn to each other but they are anyway. And of course romantic conflict can be so irrational and passionate. That’s always fun to write too.

Why did you choose to write crime fiction?

It goes to what I was saying before. It’s a mix of exploring what scares me and also philosophically looking at the way people respond to perceived scarcity—whether scarcity of money of love and affection. I’m so curious about why some people lash out and some people don’t.

You’re a screenwriter as well as a novelist; do you treat them as separate entities or does your work in one form inform your work in the other?

I think they can’t help but inform each other—maybe in ways I can’t even see. But I understand the two mediums very well and I treat them differently when I’m writing.

Are we going to see more of Ranger Darren Matthews?

Yes! This is the beginning of a series of novels along Highway 59 in east Texas, all featuring Darren Mathews.

And, I have to ask, will Jay Porter be back at any point?

I’m sure. But it’s nothing I’d try to force. I’d have to wait for the right story to demand that he return.

My blog focuses on women writers; who are your favourite female writers and have you read anything recently by a woman writer that you’d recommend?

Jane Smiley. Toni Morrison. Francine Prose. Jesmyn Ward. Paula Daly. Liane Moriarty. Curtis Sittenfeld. Tayari Jones. Jami Attenberg.

My favourite books of the last 18 months or so are All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg; Swing Time by Zadie Smith; Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng; Made for LoveMade for Love by Alisa Nutting; Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki; and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

Thanks to Attica Locke for the Q&A and to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.

Dark Chapter – Winnie M. Li

Trigger warning: This book focuses on the sexual assault of a young woman and its aftermath.

I am not the same person. I am different. I am now a rape victim.

Dark Chapter tells the story of two people: Vivian, a young woman who is raped in a park just outside Belfast, and Johnny, a fifteen-year-old traveller boy and Vivian’s rapist.

Vivian is an educated woman. Her family, who own a dry-cleaners, have pushed her to go to Harvard. She wants to see the world and owns a map pinpointing the trails she wants to walk. Johnny’s memories of his childhood are of his mum and dad splitting up, his older brother Michael being caught stealing by the police and the prejudice his family faced.

The overall structure of the book is in four sections: the first covers the characters’ childhoods/youth up to and including the rape; the second looks at the aftermath of the rape; the third the trial, and the final section sees how their lives change following the verdict. Within the sections themselves, the point-of-view moves between Vivian and Johnny, juxtaposing their lives.

Both structural decisions are interesting; in choosing to cover such an extended period of time, Li’s focus is wider than the rape itself. She considers events in Johnny’s life that might have led to the sense of entitlement he has, particularly in the way misogyny and rape culture pervade our society. The police process and victim support is looked at in a way I’ve never seen in fiction before, demonstrating how arduous it is for the survivor as well as the lack of resources and funding that are available. And she shows how it is possible to build a new life, both for the survivor and the perpetrator.

It’s a brave and shocking decision to tell the story from both sides. While Johnny’s actions are horrific, by delving into his backstory, Li humanises him. While it’s impossible to like him, it is possible to understand the way culture and some of the people he associates with might have influenced his reading of the world and his place in it. Li avoids demonising traveller communities by including Johnny’s family, who have a range of reactions to his behaviour. His dad, in particular, has a very interesting response.

The other focus of the book is the way women are allowed to move through the world. When Vivian’s roommate thinks she’s ‘nuts’ for wanting to hike trails alone, Vivian sees the solitariness as key:

After all, isn’t that the whole point? Thoreau living in solitude, off in his cabin by Walden Pond. Walt Whitman waxing lyrical about leaves of grass, writing under a tree while his beard grew longer and shaggier with the passing seasons. Edward Abbey drifting down a vast canyon in the American Southwest, the rock walls rising on either side of him, just him and the canyon.

It’s notable that all the examples Vivian thinks of are men. Why can’t women move through the world in the same way? Well, the answer is in the various examples Li provides of some of Vivian’s travels, both before and after the rape. Sometimes everything’s absolutely fine, at other times it isn’t.

Dark Chapter is a compelling novel. Li tells a rounded tale of the lives of two people utterly altered by one horrific event. It’s an important and timely book.

I spoke to Winnie M. Li about her decision to write the book, being a woman in the world and winning The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize.

Thanks to Winnie M. Li and Imogen Harris for the interview and to Legend Press for the review copy.

 

 

The Handsworth Times – Sharon Duggal + interview

In the first two chapters of The Handsworth Times, one boy is turned into a fire ball by petrol bombs thrown during a riot and another is killed, knocked off his bike by an ambulance. It’s one of the most arresting openings I’ve ever read.

The character who connects both of the boys is Mukesh Agarwal, father of the boy who is killed and saviour of the one who is not.

The churning alcohol in Mukesh’s stomach begins to rise up towards his mouth, scorching his throat along the way. He takes in a long, deep breath of the smoky air through his nostrils and it halts the acidic bile attempting to rise up through his body. Sobriety hits him suddenly and he too becomes transfixed by the burning boy just a few meters ahead. Without thinking he begins undoing the small, transparent buttons on his work shirt with clumsy fingers. Finally, the damp shirt is undone and he removes it fully before pushing his way through a small gap in the crowd. He strides towards the burning figure.

The Agarwal family are a family of seven living in Handsworth, Birmingham in 1981. Mukesh works at Hardiman’s Sheet Metals and spends his wages in the Black Eagle. His wife, Usha, gets up at six o’clock every weekday and five on Saturdays to scrub the house of imaginary mice piss. There are five children, two boys and three girls. Billy dies at the beginning of the novel and, while they attempt to come to terms with their brother’s death, the others have their own issues to deal with too. Kavi, the other boy, starts skipping school and withdrawing from his friends. When one of them suggests he should make the most of life, regardless, he responds:

‘Make the most of it – make the most of what? What have we got here in Lozells or even in Handsworth? What have I got to look forward to, or you? Bloody teachers who decide we are thick before we even open our gobs just because our dads have an accent? And then what, the dole? A dead-end job like my dad who is already miserable enough for the whole family? Fuck off, Marcus, there is nothing for me here.’

Kavi isn’t convinced by Marcus’ attempts to get him to join Handsworth Youth Movement but Kavi’s sister, Anila is when there’s a recruitment drive outside her school. The eldest sister, Nina, leaves for university in Leeds, corresponding with her siblings via letter and the odd telephone call, while the other sibling, Kamela, falls in love.

It’s Usha who’s at the heart of the family and the centre of the story though. As she deals with her grief over the death of Billy and tries to hold her family together, she recognises the importance of community. While Thatcher does her best to destroy it, Usha and her friends work together to build something that will bring their area together.

I spoke to Sharon Duggal by phone to ask her about the book.

The opening two chapters of the novel are dramatic and memorable. Where did the idea come from and were they always the opening of the book?

It was an idea that evolved. I had a strong sense of wanting to start with a riot but not make it the whole story. I also had a visual image of the burning boy. I saw a photograph, maybe years ago, of lanterns that float upwards. I think quite visually.

I wanted all of the family to be responding to something but in different ways and I wanted that something to be a consequence of the events at the beginning of the book. The opening chapter was always going to have the girls in the bedroom and the riot. Initially, they were that way around but I received a New Writing South bursary for a reading from The Literacy Consultancy and Rachel Trevize advised switching the bedroom scene and the riot. It made absolute sense; why didn’t I see that?

The book’s the story of a family with a number of issues told from multiple perspectives. How did you manage both the issues that arise and the different points of view?

I wanted to show that even within one family there are multiple stories going on. Minority stories are often linear. However, I didn’t start out thinking I wanted to include all of these issues, I wanted a cramped, claustrophobic household.

I’ve no idea how I managed it! I plotted each thread out separately. Having Nina leave was practical. Kamela was more difficult, she’s strong and feisty. There was a danger it could all seem a bit samey, especially the sisters, so I wanted their stories to be quiet different.

The book’s set in 1980’s Birmingham but there are clear resonances to current society. Was now the right time to write it or was it just coincidence?

It’s coincidence. It was finished pre-Brexit but as it came closer to publication these issues became more popular. Brexit gave people permission to be racist. Not that everyone who voted leave is racist but the way views were aired via mainstream politicians allowed them to become acceptable.

There are lots of references to 80’s culture in the novel. What sort of research did you do?

I was 13/14 in the early 80s and the references stick with you because you’re formulating who you are. Music, particularly ska, was a huge thing for me and ‘Ghost Town’ [by The Specials] was released in July 1981. I spent time checking references and dates. In an early draft, there was a reference to Neighbours but that didn’t start in the U.K. until 1986. I’ve had mixed reactions to it, one book group thought it was too much, others have called it rich in period detail.

You use some dialect in the book. Why did you decide to include it and did you come up against any resistance?

I didn’t come up against any resistance. I didn’t want to do the whole thing in dialect but it’s so much a part of who Brenda was. I wanted it to feel Brummie and I think dialect makes things richer but I didn’t want to replicate all the different dialects. The poet Liz Berry does it beautifully. I didn’t want to be heavy handed. The story takes place in a particular time and place but it is also universal. I still call Birmingham home and people there still call you ‘bab’.

The book is Brighton’s City Reads for 2017. How does it feel to have an entire city celebrating your work?

Absolutely amazing. I’m going to hold onto it for the whole year. You think you’ll never get published and then you realise the hardest thing is getting someone to read it. It meant that some were gifted to prisoners and socially isolated elders. I visited a lot of groups where I was asked unexpected questions and found love for the book. It’s really great to have anyone reading it, never mind a whole city. It encourages people from all walks of life to read it. There was a rough sleepers project. I had a shared meal with them and we discussed the setting and the challenges of family. Having a shared read connects people.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a second book which is very different. It’s just beginning to formulate. I’ve had a very busy year and I’m itching to get on with the next book. There’s going to be lots of writing this year.

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

Hannah Lowe. Her book Long Time No See is about Chick, her Chinese Jamaican gambler father. It’s about the different strands of who she is.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, particularly Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah.

Buchi Emechetta’s book Second Class Citizen was the first time I realised you don’t have to be posh, white, old and live in a big house to have books written about you.

Also, the Brontës, Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge.

Thanks to Sharon Duggal for the interview and to Bluemoose Books for the review copy.

 

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.

The giveaway winners are Ann Bradley, Christabel, Lara Alonso Corona, Victoria Goodbody and Eva. Please check you email for further details. Thanks to everyone who entered.

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.