The Writes of Woman 2.0

Hello! Welcome to the updated, upgraded The Writes of Woman.

What’s new? Well, apart from the technical stuff (which I won’t bore you with), today sees the start of a new feature, The Writes of Woman Interviews… in which I interview a writer alongside a feature review of their work. The feature will appear every Wednesday and the video, yes video, will be on my new YouTube channel, also conveniently titled The Writes of Woman. The first one is up today with debut author Olivia Sudjic. I’m very keen that this feature is representative of all women writers – I’ve tried to ensure that this blog is intersectional for several years now – so expect a wide range of writers on this feature.

The blog now has its own Instagram feed also imaginatively titled thewritesofwoman. If you want to keep up with the books arriving in the post, what I’m reading and who I’m interviewing, you’ll see it all on there.

And you might notice I have some fabulous new headers and logos. These were all designed by Jess Yates, who’s a BA (Hons) Graphic Design graduate from Sheffield Hallam University. If you like her work, she’s available for commissions. You can contact her on @jessyatesdesign (all social media accounts) or via jessyatesbusiness@gmail.com.

I hope you continue to enjoy the blog.

In the Media: May 2017

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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In prize news, the Granta Best of Young American Novelists list was announced:

Fiona McFarlane took The Dylan Thomas Prize for her short story collection The High Places, Maylis de Kerangal won The Wellcome Book Prize, and Sarah Perry and Kiran Millwood-Hargrave were winners at The British Book Awards. While Kit de Waal and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan were shortlisted for The Desmond Elliott Prize.

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Chris Kraus and I Love Dick are having a moment:

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And The Handmaid’s Tale has generated even more pieces:

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

He was still bleeding. I yelled, ‘Someone’s killed father.’ I breathed in kerosene air, licked the thickness from my teeth. The clock on the mantle ticked ticked. I looked at father, the way hands clutched to thighs, the way the little gold ring on his pinky finger sat like a sun. I gave him that ring for his birthday when I no longer wanted it. ‘Daddy,’ I had said. ‘I’m giving this to you because I love you.’ He had smiled and kissed my forehead.

Sarah Schmidt takes the unsolved murder of Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother as her starting point.  Around it, she weaves a tense, claustrophobic exploration of the relationships and events which may have played out in the house on the day of the murders and the day proceeding it.

The narrative moves between four characters: Lizzie; Emma, Lizzie’s older sister; Bridget, the housekeeper, and Benjamin, a stranger who meets Lizzie and Emma’s Uncle John in a bar.

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Schmidt’s Lizzie is evasive, veering from cruel and manipulative to child-like. She’s the centre of her world and expects everyone else to treat her as the centre of theirs. While Lizzie’s role in the narrative is largely focused on events around the murders, Emma is allowed a slightly broader view. The older sister allows us a deeper insight into Lizzie’s character, recounting incidents and behaviour which stretch further back in time. Emma is envious of the way Lizzie’s been indulged but also frustrated at her own ability to escape the family set up. Even when she attempts to move away, living with a friend and attending a private art class, Lizzie continues to invade her life, sending daily letters recounting scenes from the Borden household.

Bridget, the housekeeper, begins her narrative by telling the reader that she’s twice tried to quit the Borden’s:

The second time I tried to leave, after Emma and Lizzie temporarily split the house in two by locking all the adjoining doors, Mrs. Borden raised my wages to three dollars a week and gave me Sundays off. ‘Don’t let them put you off,’ she’d said quietly. ‘It happens from time to time. We’ll get over it.’

I didn’t want to face another day with Lizzie, not another day with any of them, not another day of God knows what.

Bridget gives us an insider-outsider perspective, a different take on the cause of internal tensions.

Benjamin, the stranger, is enlisted by John, the brother of Lizzie and Emma’s dead mother to send a message to their father.

‘I want him to know that I’ve been paying close attention to how he’s been treating his daughters lately.’ He paused again, thought some. ‘And I want him to reconsider where he’s spending his money.’

Benjamin’s a good choice for the task as he has his own parent/child issues:

I used to be butter – the way I’d disappear at the sign of heat. There had been all those school boy days of knuckle busting skin, taunts about my chicken coop smell. My papa was a tall, hulk fist. He had ways of shaping children into adults.

His insertion into the narrative brings a question over Lizzie’s involvement in the murders: is it possible someone else was involved, someone the police were unaware of?

What really makes See What I Have Done a compelling, memorable novel though is the atmosphere Schmidt creates. The tension is palpable from the first page and at no point in the following 315 does it let up. The clock tick ticks on the mantle, the heat stifles inside and outside the house, the blood permeates.

There’s a lot of buzz around See What I Have Done and rightly so; this is a tightly crafted work and Sarah Schmidt is one to watch. A must read.

 

Thanks to Tinder Press for the review copy.

The Night Visitor – Lucy Atkins

‘I didn’t just choose to write about Annabel because of her diary, though her personal story is certainly sensational…’ She heard her voice waver and took another deep breath, forcing herself to continue. ‘I wanted to do something bigger. I wanted to acknowledge the debt that we owe Annabel Burley and all her brave Victorian contemporaries at the London School of Medicine for Women. These women had to fight for their calling in a way that few of us today can possibly comprehend…’

Celebrated television historian, Professor Olivia Sweetman, has just published her first non-academic book, Annabel. It tells the story of Lady Annabel Burley, who Atkins makes one of the first women to graduate from medical school and become a house surgeon. According to Annabel’s diary, which Olivia sees for the first time on a day out, she also murdered her husband and confessed in writing, a secret that’s been kept for decades.

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Olivia is introduced to the diary by Vivian Tester, a recluse and the housekeeper at Ilford Manor, owned by the Burley family and where the murder took place. Vivian is instrumental in helping Olivia with her research but by the time The Night Visitor begins, the relationship’s turned sour.

Vivian’s presence in her life is not Olivia’s only problem: there’s an issue in her marriage – a secret that her husband, David, has been keeping from her; David and their eldest son, Dominic are barely speaking, and her agent wants her to accept an offer from the BBC to dance on prime-time TV (the words Strictly Come Dancing must be subject to copyright as the title of the programme is never actually stated).

Atkins moves the story between the points of view of Vivian, in first person, and Olivia, in third person subjective. Vivian appears to be the archetypal lonely spinster who’s latched on to a glamourous, successful woman. She goes as far as to follow Olivia to the village in the South of France where her family are on holiday, pursuing Olivia in an attempt to convince her to work on a second book together. But, of course, Vivian has secrets of her own.

Olivia’s problems seem to stem from her success. Here Atkins successfully exploits society’s views of, and problems with, successful women. David is also a non-fiction writer but is struggling with his second book:

Things had become difficult between them, she knew, when she’d started Annabel. She was just too busy and stressed all the time and he was consumed by his writer’s block, his stalling career. Perhaps he also felt threatened that suddenly she was the one writing. Perhaps, deep down, David was afraid that her book might be as successful as his once was.

When Carol, Olivia’s agent, tries to persuade her to do Strictly because of the impact it will have on her sales and the offers that will follow, the narrator tells us:

What Carol didn’t understand was that, apart from anything else, she’d lose all academic credibility if she accepted the BBC offer…At a recent conference she’d overheard an Oxford history professor, an older woman who she’d always looked up to, saying, ‘Oh, Olivia Sweetman, the telly-don? I’ve got no time for eye-candy TV academics. She isn’t a serious historian.’ She’d wanted to take this woman aside and remind her that she’d spent twenty-five years in serious academia, that she’d published two well-regarded, complex and highly academic books and that there was nothing wrong with inspiring the general public.

Atkins delivers the obligatory twists and turns, some shocking, some more heavily foreshadowed, but all delivered with a pace and timing which keeps you turning the pages. 

In The Night Visitor, the combination of historical research, an unbalanced female friendship and a marriage in peril drive the narrative to a revelation that has the power to destroy careers. It’s a compelling look at how intelligent women are treated.

 

Thanks to Quercus for the review copy.

In the Media, April 2017, Part Two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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Photograph by Pari Dukovic

The Handmaid’s Tale is having a moment due to the television serial airing this coming week and the current political situation in America (and beyond).

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As one series begins, another ended this week:

And in women win prizes, ‘Heather Rose wins the Stella Prize for a novel that wouldn’t ‘let her go’‘ as reported by The Sydney Morning Herald.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Photograph by Adrienne Mathiowetz

Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

He Said/She Said – Erin Kelly

‘It’s going to be a classic he said/she said, textbook case decision by jury. Half the female jurors are already in love with him.’

Kit is an eclipse chaser. Not long after he meets and falls in love with Laura, he convinces her to go to Lizard Point in Cornwall to watch the 1999 eclipse. While they are there, Laura stumbles across what looks like a rape. The young woman doesn’t speak but the man tells Laura, ‘You’ve got the wrong end of the stick’. Laura doesn’t think so and phones the police. This takes place 16 years before the novel begins.

In London, 2015, Laura is pregnant with twins, the product of three rounds of IVF. It means that she won’t be travelling to see the eclipse but Kit, who she’s now married to, is heading off to the Faroes. We learn early in the novel that something terrible has happened in relation to Beth, the woman who was raped.

Beth has crossed the world to find us twice. We are only visible when we travel. A couple of years ago, I hired a private detective and challenged him to find us using only the paper trail of our previous lives. He couldn’t trace us. And if he couldn’t do it, then no one can.

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The story unfolds across the two time periods and, in the 2015 section, via two narrators – Laura and Kit. It’s no mean feat to plot a book across time periods and narrators but Kelly guides the reader smoothly between sections. She uses the different narrators for dramatic irony allowing the reader an insight into a couple of whopping secrets the couple have been keeping from each other.

Thematically the novel explores female friendship and marriage but these are largely considered through the lens of the rape and its aftermath. The perpetrator, Jamie Balcombe, is ‘public school, lovely-looking boy. His dad’s a big cheese, CEO of a FTSE 100, was in the same year as Prince Charles at Gordonstoun’. I can’t be the only reader to be reminded of the Brock Turner case as Balcombe relays the way in which his prospects at a big architectural firm have been damaged by the accusation. Kelly treads a fine line in terms of the way she presents events and how she uses them to serve the plot, exploiting the doubt that society sows around female victims. It’s difficult to say much more without ruining any of the plot but I was satisfied with the outcomes Kelly presents.

I don’t read a lot of psychological thrillers but when I do pick one up, I want to be taken by the hand and guided, via some flawless writing, up entirely the wrong path. While I’m eagerly looking for the foreshadowing, I want to be so wrong that the twists are shocking while still making perfect sense. I’m a demanding reader but with He Said/She Said, Kelly pulls this off with aplomb.

In a recent blog post, Kelly stated:

I’ve said before that Barbara Vine, Daphne du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith hugely inspired my work and they still do, but I don’t consciously measure myself against them like I did in the beginning. Anxiety of influence has been something I have gradually shrugged off over six books. This, at last, is all mine.

If this is book is all Erin Kelly then Erin Kelly has a new fan who’s keen for more. He Said/She Said is a gripping, satisfying, intelligent read.

If you want to check out the opening for yourself, He Said/She Said is this week’s Bedtime Bookclub pick on The Pool.

 

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the review copy.

A Separation – Katie Kitamura

How many times are we offered the opportunity to rewrite the past and therefore the future, to reconfigure our present personas – a widow rather than a divorcée, faithful rather than faithless? The past is subject to all kinds of revision, it is hardly a stable field, and every alteration in the past dictates an alteration in the future. Even a change in our conception of the past can result in a different future, different to the one we planned. The past cannot be relied upon, the ground gives.

A female narrator, unnamed beyond ‘the wife of Mr. Wallace’ goes to Greece to search for her estranged husband. Separated for six months, the narrator and her husband, Christopher, haven’t told anyone they’ve split. This was Christopher’s request and the narrator agreed to go along with it. When Christopher’s mother, Isabella, telephones the narrator in London to say she can’t get hold of her son, she books the narrator a ticket to Greece and informs her which hotel Christopher is staying in. The narrator decides to use this as an opportunity to ask Christopher for a divorce.

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When the narrator arrives in Gerolimenas she discovers that no one’s seen Christopher for several days. He was due to check out the day after her arrival but all his possessions are still in his room. Christopher’s in Greece to carry out some research on professional mourners for the popular non-fiction book he’s writing, a follow-up to a successful debut about ‘the social life of music’. He is also a serial adulterer and there’s a suggestion that Christopher may have gone to meet a woman. The narrator is convinced early on that he’s at least flirted with the young, female receptionist at the hotel.

Now, they no longer went away – there was not, at least for most of them, a sea to roam or a desert to cross, there was nothing but the floors of an office tower, the morning commute, a familiar and monotonous landscape, in which life became something secondhand, not something a man could own for himself. It was only on the shores of infidelity that they achieved a little privacy, a little inner life, it was only in the domain of their faithlessness that they became, once again, strangers to their wives, capable of anything.

Once Christopher is found, it slowly becomes apparent to the narrator that separating isn’t going to be as easy or as straightforward as she thought. The act of being married to someone, even if that marriage appears to be over, creates ties that cannot be severed quickly or, perhaps, at all.

Kitamura’s narrator is a translator.

The task of a translator is a strange one. People are prone to saying that a successful translation doesn’t feel like a translation at all, as if the translator’s ultimate task is to be invisible.

It’s a sign, along with the withholding of her first name, that the narrator is interpreting events from her own viewpoint while attempting to erase it or, at least, attempting to make the reader forget this is the case. Taken with two other key factors: that the ‘translation’s potential for passivity’ appeals to her and her repeated comments about the role of imagination in a relationship, Kitamura creates a more complex portrait. This is enhanced by the narrator not being completely unreliable which makes it more difficult to ascertain the unbiased truth of the marriage and the narrator’s motives for later events.

In the end, what is a relationship but two people, and between two people there will always be room for surprises and misapprehensions, things that cannot be explained. Perhaps another way of putting it is that between two people, there will always be room for failures of imagination.

A Separation is an absorbing portrait of the quiet death of a marriage and the disjuncture between what we think we know about people and who they think they are.

 

Thanks to Profile Books for the review copy.

The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan

“Evolution is a ladder, and our aim is to climb it as quickly as possible.”

Those Forges are motherfucking nuts.

The Sport of Kings tells the story of four generations of the Forge family. It begins with a young Henry, running away from his father, John Henry, across the Kentucky corn fields which belong to their family. Henry’s in trouble, not for setting off a firecracker which killed the neighbouring farmer’s bull, but for lying to his father about it and embarrassing the family name. For their name, and the status which comes with it, is everything to the Forge family.

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In the first chapter we’re told the family history, of Samuel Forge and his slave ‘who was called Ben but named Dembe by a mother he could not remember’ who travelled on horseback from Virginia to Kentucky and established the farm which seven generations of the family have born and died in by the time Henry Forge arrives in the world.

Henry’s raised and educated by his father – who won’t tolerate him attending school at a time when segregation is ending – to believe that he is superior to women, black people and poorly educated whites.

“What you don’t yet comprehend about women, Henry, is a great deal.” He stared at the cars as they flipped past. “I wouldn’t say that they’re naturally intellectually inferior, as the Negroes are. They’re not unintelligent. In fact, I’ve always found little girls to be as intelligent as little boys, perhaps more so. But women live a life of the body. It chains them to material things – children and home – and prevents them from striving towards loftier pursuits.”

Henry hates his father. His rebellion takes the form of declaring that when he inherits the farm, he’s going to abandon the corn and raise racehorses instead. His father forbids him but, of course, that has no bearing once someone’s dead.

The rest of the novel follows Henry as he raises a daughter – Henrietta (of course) – in the same manner that he would’ve raised a son. She is primed to take over the farm and continue the breeding of thoroughbreds. Henry, however, doesn’t account for two things: one, Henrietta is intelligent and feels trapped by her father’s overbearing nature, she has a wild streak and a desire for freedom, however she can find it. Two, Allmon Shaughnessy, the mixed-race, former convict, who Henrietta hires as a groom and falls in love with.

Morgan’s novel is ambitious. A family saga spanning several decades, which incorporates themes of lineage, breeding, class, gender and race. There’s a reasonably large cast of characters, some of whom last a few pages, others which span significant portions of the book. The structure means that the focus is primarily on the Forges, but the middle chapter is dedicated to Allmon’s childhood, a signifier that he will play a significant part in the Forge’s future.

Now Henry smiled a hard smile. His words were clipped, surly. “Why are you even here anyway? What do you want?”

With an almost inperceptible tilt of the head, as if he was honestly surprised by the question, Allmon said, “I want what you got.”

Henry’s scornful smile died. He drew himself up to his full height and said, “All my life, I’ve made my name. It’s the most valuable thing I have.”

“And I got the rest of my life to make mine.”

Without a pause: “You can’t make a name from nothing.”

We had quite a discussion about this book in the Baileys Shadow Panel forum. Eleanor applauded ‘just for the sheer fuck-you-ness of it’, particularly in reference to some of the eye-popping twists that Morgan pulls off. It’s difficult not to admire Morgan’s ambition; undoubtedly the book falls into the Great American Novel category and I’ll happily applaud any woman writer who throws her manuscript into that ring. However, aiming for something of that scope almost inevitably means there will be flaws. For me there are three key issues: the book’s too long; the novel really centres on the relationship between Henrietta and Allmon and the effect that has on Henry. The family backstory, which takes the first 90 pages, is interesting in its own right but, in terms of the elements which really effect the rest of the story, could’ve been incorporated into the rest of the narrative as and when necessary. The voice is inconsistent: every now and then Morgan throws in a section where the narrator talks to the reader. Often these sections point out the book’s flaws – prose too purple, characters acting too stereotypically, which is a risky strategy. Finally, the ending’s a little too neat. Morgan plays tight to her themes throughout the novel and the ending delivers in this sense but it’s all a bit too convenient.

Is it worth investing the time to read it? When it’s good The Sport of Kings is an absorbing read. Henrietta’s a fantastic character – she gives no fucks, metaphorically speaking – and Allmon’s story is an engaging, if grim, tale of a black boy raised in poverty and dealt a deliberately shitty hand by society. There are parallels with current issues around class, money, health care and police treatment of black people. My biggest disappointment was that, despite the feminist thread that runs through the novel, it would barely scrape through The Bechdel Test. Wouldn’t it be great if the Great American Novel didn’t have to be centred on the men to be seen as a success?

 

Thanks to 4th Estate for the review copy.

 

In the Media, April 2017, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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Photograph by Murdo MacLeod

 

Women have been dominating the prize wins for the past fortnight. Hollie McNish won the Ted Hughes Prize and Kiran Millwood Hargrave won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize with The Girl of Ink and Stars.

While The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist was announced. Rebecca May Johnson writes ‘Notes on . . . the Baileys Women’s Prize‘ (and reading women more generally) in the Financial Times. There are interviews with several of the longlisted writers on the prize’s site: Madeleine Thien, Naomi Alderman, Linda Grant, Yewande Omotoso, Heather O’Neill, Fiona Melrose, Eimear McBride, Emma Flint.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist

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Here we are then, the official Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

When I commented on the longlist, the word of the night was wow and it’s the same again.

Wow: some big names and popular books have gone.

Wow: there are four titles in common with our Shadow Panel shortlist.

Wow: If you’re only reading the shortlist you’ve an absolute set of treats in store (although I implore you to read the longlist, it’s full of brilliant books).

Here’s my reviews of the shortlisted books:

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

The Sport of Kings – C. E. Morgan

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Do Not Say We Have Nothing –  Madeleine Thien