The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shadow Panel Winner 2017

On Sunday morning, our Baileys Prize Shadow Panel met in central London to decide our winner. As Antonia tweeted on Sunday morning, meeting regardless of Saturday night’s attack to discuss books was our rebellion. And a cracking discussion it was too.

Before I reveal our winner, I want to give an honourable mention to a book which didn’t make our shortlist. When you shadow a prize such as the Baileys, which has a particularly long longlist, you read and judge the books in a short period of time. The process doesn’t allow for books to settle and, as you’ll know, some books lose their impact over time, others grow. We felt we’d done one particularly book a disservice by leaving it off the shortlist as, during the intervening weeks, it has grown in stature for us due to it’s ambition. That book is Barkskins by Annie Proulx. We recommend it heartily to you now and hope it will find a larger readership.

L-R: Antonia Honeywell, Eric Karl Anderson, Meera Betab, Naomi Frisby, Eleanor Franzen

Our winner then… a completely unanimous decision for it’s style, beautiful writing, engrossing storyline, political history and the way it deals with such complex issues in a thoughtful way without sacrificing story…

Click on the cover to read my review.

A huge thank you to Antonia, Eric, Meera and Eleanor, it’s been a pleasure to read and discuss the books with them.

The winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017 is announced on the evening of Wednesday 7th June.

 

Exquisite – Sarah Stovell

Successful writer Bo Luxton has moved her family – older husband, Gus, and two young children, Maggie and Lola – to the Lake District. There she’s researching the women who surrounded the Romantic poets, writing novelised versions of their lives. To supplement her income, she teaches a week on a writers’ retreat, a course for those who want to take their writing more seriously. The course provides some financial assistance for students the tutor believes is worthy of it. After reading through the work sent to her, Bo selects Alice Dark for a free place.

Oh, the words were brutal, the language sharply controlled, but I caught the vulnerability beneath: the longing, that endless, endless longing for the elusive love of the mother.

Alice, twenty-five, is living in Brighton with her artist boyfriend, Jake, and some of his friends. None of them have a job, despite Alice having a first-class English Literature degree from The University of York.

I knew where I was headed if I kept this up. It was a one-way street to blankness – the endless treadmill of boredom that sucked everything out of you until your eyes clouded over and the spark of intelligence left your face, and you spent your days longing for five o’clock and your evenings watching people behave badly on television because they were desperate, so desperate not to live tiny, insignificant lives like yours that they would actually do this: They would actually suck someone’s cock in front of the nation because they had to be remembered for something, and it was better to be remembered for sucking someone’s cock on Channel 4 than nothing at all…And I knew, as clearly as I knew night from day, that this life would destroy me, and I couldn’t live it.

The two women meet on the course. Alice is in awe of Bo, Bo is drawn to Alice: she reminds her of herself when she was younger. Bo takes Alice under her wing and strikes up a mentoring/nurturing relationship with her. But then the relationship takes on further significance, is it a mutual love affair or is Alice deeply deluded?

Stovell uses a few tricks to keep the reader guessing. Three embedded in the themes and ideas of the novel: Bo has previously had a stalker, a young man, as a result of which Gus opens her post and reads her emails; is she just a victim of people with an obsessive nature because she has a certain level of fame? Both women had a troubled childhood in some way, has this affected their ability to form successful, mutual relationships? And both women are writers, are they just making things up or embellishing facts because they write fiction?

The other is in the structure: Stovell begins the novel with a piece narrated from inside Her Majesty’s Prison for Women, Yorkshire, several more of which come before each section of the book. The reader doesn’t know who the narrator is; I changed my mind several times before the reveal. The narration of the main body of the book also moves between the two women. Initially they take a section each. What’s most interesting about this is the point where the alleged affair begins and we get both takes on it; who’s leaving details out? Who’s exaggerating? As the pace ramps up, Stovell alternates between Bo and Alice as we discover who’s lying and who’s the smarter of the two.

Exquisite is a cracking debut. An interesting premise, well-structured with some sharp writing and a gripping plot. There are a couple of missteps – a well-timed inheritance, Alice having a friend who’s a policewoman, and the odd bit of clunky dialogue – but these are minor quibbles in a book I devoured.

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

This post is part of a blog tour, if you’re interested in what other bloggers think of the book, you can find out on the sites below:

 

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.

The Writes of Woman Interviews Olivia Sudjic, author of Sympathy

“Origin stories make us feel secure; untangling them can undo us.”

Twenty-three-year-old Alice Hare doesn’t know who she is; adopted, mixed-race, born in New York but having lived in London and Tokyo, with an absent father and a mother she doesn’t get on with, she sets out for birthplace and her adopted paternal grandmother, Silvia.

In the end I guess it was that which hooked me – the idea of another beginning, begun right. Although Sylvia had offered to help me understand at least part of my origins (not my birth parents, written out entirely except for lost adoption forms), I wanted to build – half reconstruction, half my own design – a version that belonged entirely to me.

We know from the very beginning of the novel that Alice has become obsessed with Mizuko Himura, a Japanese writer living in New York. As we meet Alice she’s waiting to see whether Mizuko accepts her ‘Follow’ request on an unidentified social media site (it could be one of many). As Alice relates the events in hindsight, we know that Mizuko was ill, infested with a parasite, at the time of Alice’s excruciating wait; we also know that there is a remaining distance in their relationship, although it will be the end of the novel before the reasons for this are revealed. What comes between these two points is the tale of a young woman who, via a number of coincidences, finds herself obsessed with an older women. Whether she wants to be Mizuko or be with Mizuko isn’t clear to Alice herself. The key to this unknowing seems to lie in the fact that the version of Mizuko Alice knows is the one she’s created via her internet stalking, she actually spends very little time with the woman herself.

When we met, we were both online constantly. In fact, I would say I was online constantly because she was, and I was monitoring her usage. For her, the Internet was primarily a tool of self-promotion and reinforcement for her multiple selves while for me it became a tool designed for the sole purpose of observing her. It was the only way I could have been brave enough to approach her in real life, having dissected the pictorial equivalent of her DNA in advance.

What Sudjic has created is a multi-layered commentary on the impact of the internet on our lives, particularly those considered ‘Digital Natives’ (born after 1980 and having never known life without internet access). Rather than bringing us relevant information faster than ever, in Sudjic’s world the internet brings information overload and few answers. She combines Alice’s quest with comments on the Hadron Collider (Alice’s adopted father worked on an early version) and the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Alice is in an interesting character; while she’s largely passive, she’s also not particularly likeable and that strikes me as a brave decision in this climate where readers (and some publishers) rail against unlikeable women in novels (by unlikeable I mean like real human women). Sudjic allows her to be complex and unsure of herself. She’s trying to work out who she might be and she does so by appropriating someone else’s story, or at least a version of it.

Sympathy is an impressive debut: complex, bold, intelligent, unafraid to tackle big ideas. If Sudjic doesn’t always quite pull it off, it’s forgivable for the sheer scope of her undertaking; she means business and it’s impossible not to applaud her ambition. Sympathy’s well worth your time and I’m delighted to see a young female novelist begin her career with such aplomb.

In the first of my new series, The Writes of Woman Interviews… I was thrilled to be able to speak to Olivia Sudjic about the book and hear her read from the novel.

(Apologies for the quality of the picture; I am learning on the job and messed up a setting. If it’s too excruciating to watch, there is an audio only version below.)

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

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy of Sympathy and Tabitha Pelly and Olivia Sudjic for the interview.

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.