The Gender Games – Juno Dawson

Juno Dawson had me at:

Gender is not sex.
Gender is something else.
If that’s all you take away from this book, I’ve won.
Gender, as convincing as he is, is full of shit.
If you take that away from this book, even better.

Gender, despite anything he might tell us to the contrary, is nothing but characteristics we have assigned to the sexes. Like a group of horny teenagers with a Ouija board, Gender was summoned into being by us.

Yes, yes, YES. Not only do I agree with this, I love that Dawson gives gender a male pronoun and the connotations which come with this.

The Gender Games then is part-memoir, part-gender theory, part-cultural critique. Dawson interweaves all three of these aspects to discuss her transition from cis male to trans woman, considering the effect her transition has had (and is still having) on herself and her family.

The book begins with a reimagining of the day Dawson’s mother went into labour.

‘Congratulations, Mr and Mrs Dawson. You have a healthy baby boy.’
And that was where it all went wrong.

Once upon a time there was a little girl.
No.
Once upon a time there was a little boy.

Also no. Any creative writing teacher worth their salt will tell you that a great story never starts at the beginning, it starts when something changes. On 6 August 2015, I told my mother that I was a woman.

Her reply was, ‘Well, I can’t say I’m surprised.’

Dawson alternates between snapshots of her life – from growing up in Bingley, West Yorkshire, to being ‘a right pair of little cunts’ with a friend at school, to coming out as a gay man, to being a primary school teacher, to deciding to transition and the process of that so far – and discussions around gender theory. As someone who’s studying the latter as part of their PhD work, I found Dawson’s relaying of the key ideas of performative gender theory (the idea that gender isn’t fixed) to be clear, succinct and well-researched (there are footnotes) while maintaining the conversational tone in which she has chosen to write. As an introduction to gender theory alone, The Gender Games is worth reading.

There are many other things I loved about this book too: Dawson’s honesty is striking; she’s no holds barred in terms of discussing the shape her life has taken, including her sex life (a section which comes with four pages of warning for her parents encouraging them to skip this bit). She talks about being a teacher and the limits of the education system – just how bloody difficult it is to work in a system that values results over the well-being of students, teachers and parents. And she discusses the impact of culture on the way we view ourselves:

Culture and society are a two-way mirror. Ropey and clichéd, but life does imitate art as much as art imitates life. ‘The media is the message and the messenger,’ said Pat Mitchell, former CEO of PBS, in the fantastic 2011 documentary Miss Representation.

She looks at TV, film and music. She discusses wanting to be a Spice Girl, the impact Madonna has had on our view of women, and the idea of ‘strong female characters’ – a term Dawson seems to dislike as much as I do while acknowledging that these representations are beginning to shift our society’s view of women.

Dawson is very clear that she isn’t representing the trans community, this is her transition and her story. What I do think she does very well which she does – and should – own as representative, is discuss feminism and what it can do for women and men from her position as a modern-day Tiresias:

My credentials to speak on such issues have been challenged, but I think trans voices are uniquely positioned to discuss inequality. For thirty years, I was given access to the ultimate prize: white male privilege. As you’ll learn, I never ‘passed’ as a straight man, so it’s hard to say what power I ever really had at my disposal, but I have lived as both a man and a woman while at the same time never being accepted wholly as either. Like some mad soothsayer in mythology, I’ve lived slightly outside of my gender my whole life – and I’ve seen both sides.

The Gender Games isn’t just a cracking good read, for the times we live in and the fight we still need to win over the destruction gender wreaks on us and our society, it’s an essential one.

The Gender Games is out now and available from Amazon, Waterstones or your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t an independent near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Two Roads for the review copy.

The Rules Do Not Apply – Ariel Levy

People have been telling me since I was a little girl that I was too fervent, too forceful, too much. I thought I had harnessed the power of my own strength and greed and love in a life that could contain it. But it has exploded.

You may be aware of Ariel Levy and, therefore, why this memoir is a big deal. Levy is a staff writer at The New Yorker and in 2013 wrote a piece called ‘Thanksgiving in Mongolia’. It’s one of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever read and went on to win the National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism in 2014. The Rules Do Not Apply grew out of that piece.

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Levy had it all: a great job, a wife, a baby on the way. And then she was left with just the job, her personal life in ruins. This is the story of how that happened.

Unpopular as a child because she preferred to pretend to be an explorer than play house. She was also ‘domineering, impatient, relentlessly verbal, and, as an only child, baffled by the mores of other kids’.

She loved books and became a journalist after deciding to write a story about a nightclub for obese women in Queens and presenting it to the editor at New York magazine where she was an assistant. The story gave her the focus for the journalism she wanted to produce:

I was writing about an unconventional kind of female life. What does it mean to be a woman? What are the rules? What are your options and encumbrances? I wanted to tell stories that answered, or at least asked, those questions.

If you’re looking for confidence, Levy has it by the bucket load.

But there was one area of life she was unsure about:

To becomes a mother, I feared, was to relinquish your status as the protagonist of your own life. Your question was answered, your freedom was gone, your path would calcify in front of you. And yet it still pulled at me. Being a professional explorer would become largely impossible if I had a child, but having a kid seemed in many ways like the wildest possible trip.

The Rules Do Not Apply combines three strands of Levy’s life: how her journalism evolved to the point where she was offered a position at The New Yorker; her marriage, including her wife’s alcoholism and Levy’s affair; the lengthy debate over whether or not to have a child and her subsequent pregnancy.

What’s most striking about the memoir is Levy’s apparent honesty; no one comes out looking great, least of all Levy herself. But this is not a misery memoir, rather it is the story of those women who ‘were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism – a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we would live, what would become of us’.

Levy’s aware of her own privilege but is stunned to discover that it won’t protect her from all of life’s sorrows and hardships. She is ill-equipped to deal with them and the memoir appears to be her attempt to come to terms with this. By writing her story, she wrests back control.

Daring to think that the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary. It’s also a symptom of narcissism.

Levy’s prose is crystal clear and never mawkish, although there are many points in her story where a lesser writer would’ve descended into the sentimental. What I found most interesting – and surprisingly endearing – is the degree to which Levy, the protagonist, could be described as ‘unlikeable’ (by people who are wont to do so). The quotation I headed the review with – that she was too much, even as a child – says more about society’s views of girls and, ultimately, women than it does about Levy herself. That she owns this, writes unabashedly about it, is a triumph of its own.

The Rules Do Not Apply is a gripping, multi-layered, non-fiction narrative about a woman coming to terms with the limits of her own agency. It’s a book that ought to contribute to a change in the way we view women.

 

Thanks to Fleet for the review copy.

Books of the Year 2016, Part One

As usual I’m dividing my Books of the Year into two parts. Part Two, coming tomorrow will be fiction published in 2016. Part One is fiction published pre-2016 and 2016 non-fiction. If you click on the pictures of the books they will take you to my full review.

WL PBK FINALWaking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

Doctor Etian Green finishes a nineteen hour shift at Soroka Hospital, six of which he spent helping to stabilise road traffic accident victims. In the time it takes for him to walk from the hospital ward to his car, he goes from exhausted to adrenaline-fueled. He decides to drive to ‘a particularly challenging SUV track’ he’s read about. Sprinting along, he hits a man and leaves him for dead. The next morning, Sirkit, the man’s wife, appears at his door along with Etian’s wallet which he dropped at the scene. Sirkit offers him a deal but it’s one that will have serious consequences for his home life and his job. Everything in Waking Lions is grey area. Sharp, thoughtful and challenging.

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Claireece Precious Jones – Precious to her friends, Claireece to ‘mutherfuckers I hate’ – 16-years-old, five feet nine or ten, two hundred pounds, is pregnant for the second time to her father. Suspended from school, she goes to Each One Teach One, located on the nineteenth floor of a local hotel. Precious tells the story of her time attending the group, in which she learns to read and write, intertwined with that of her family situation. Push could be an unbearable read: every time you think it couldn’t get any darker, it does, but it’s balanced by Precious’ determination and Sapphire’s rendering of Precious’ voice which is pitch perfect and authentic.

getimage239-669x1024.aspxOne Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg go on the run after Feinberg is caught having sex with the wife of Avraham Mandelbaum, the slaughterer. The deputy commander of the Irgun, a friend of Feinberg’s, sends the pair to Europe where they will marry ‘a Jewish girl’ and bring them back to Palestine, thus circumventing the closed gates of Europe. Once the men return, they will divorce and the women will be free to remain. But Markovitch refuses to divorce his wife, the stunning but cold, Bella Zeigerman. The backbone of the story is that of three women: Bella; Feinberg’s wife, Sonya, and Mandelbaum’s wife, Rachel. Gundar-Goshen uses them to explore the ups-and-downs of marriage, parenthood, war, death …basically all of life is here.

51-2bjcqwu2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

Maureen kills Robbie O’Donovan when she finds him in her house. As the mother of Cork’s biggest gangster, Jimmy Phelan, she doesn’t need to worry about clearing up her mess. But the mess is bigger than a body and some blood: Robbie’s girlfriend, Georgie, is looking for him and she has problems of her own; Tara Duane, Georgie’s confidant is keen to know everyone’s business and she lives next door to Jimmy’s alcoholic clearer-upper, Tony Cusak. And then there’s Cusak’s son, fifteen-year-old Ryan, who loses his virginity, starts his first long term relationship and begins to step out from the shadow of his alcoholic, violent, widowed father. A bloody entertaining read.

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Ruby – Cynthia Bond

Ruby’s returned to Liberty Township, Texas from New York City. Everyone knows she’s mad: she pees in the street and has sex with many of the men in Liberty, but Ruby’s caught the attention of one man who wants to treat her differently; Ephram Jennings is planning to bring Ruby one of his sister’s white lay angel cakes. Ruby’s tortured by the ghosts which have attached themselves to her. As she gives herself to them, we learn about her childhood and the long-standing relationship she has with Jennings’ family. Bleak but threaded with hope and beautiful writing.

 

9781444775433The Devil in the Marshalsea – Antonia Hodgson

Tom Hawkins, eldest son of a Suffolk gentleman, Oxford graduate, set to join the clergy and inherit his father’s position, finds himself in the Marshalsea for unpaid rent and other debts. He arrives after the widow of Captain Roberts has taken up residence in the debtor’s  prison after Robert’s murder made to look like suicide. Hawkins gets drawn into solving the murder as he deals with his roommate, the despised Samuel Fleet, and the prison’s regime, divided by rich and poor. Intelligent, packed with period detail and plot, bawdy, has a social conscience and some hilarious lines. Entertaining.

 
9781846689499Pleasantville – Attica Locke

Pleasantville is a neighbourhood in Houston, Texas, built in 1949 “specifically for Negro families of means and class”. As a middle class, politically aware area, it also holds political power, a power which has become legendary over four decades. The story takes place in 1996 in the run-up to Houston’s mayoral election, the results of which might bring Alex Hathorne to office as the city’s first black mayor. As the novel begins the situation is quickly complicated by two events: the first is the abduction of a teenage girl, following a stint distributing campaign leaflets door-to-door in Pleasantville; the second is a break-in at Jay Porter’s office.As the story unravels, all the threads become entwined with the mayoral race at the centre. Locke considers who really runs an election campaign: a matter of business and money – who pays for the campaigns, who dictates strategy – but ultimately, how low people are prepared to go in their desperation for power.

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Negroland – Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. Born to a paediatrician father and a socialite mother, she experienced a particular type of privilege: that of the well-off, educated, black family. Personal experience is interwoven with the history of those Jefferson identifies as belonging to Negroland: Frances Jackson Coppin and Joseph Willson, for example; and cultural commentary on film, television and the media, discussing those black men and women who did appear on and in those mediums and what they came to represent for black communities. Negroland is a superb book which consider the intersections of race, class and gender. It’s a fascinating read and an insight into an underexplored area of society.

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The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts charts Nelson’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, including the conception and birth of their son, Iggy, and Dodge’s decision to begin taking testosterone and have top surgery. The Argonauts is not straightforward memoir, it is intellectual argument illuminated by personal experience and supported by academic rigour. It explores love – constructing and maintaining a relationship outside of heteronormativity and maternal love as stepmother and mother (the latter from the point of view of adult child and parent as well as the expectant mother/mother of a young child) – and the body – sex, gender fluidity, pregnancy and birth. Rigorous and fascinating.

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The Lonely City – Olivia Laing

Laing examines the idea of being lonely in the busiest place on earth – the city, specifically in her case New York City. Part memoir, part mediation on art, Laing looks at a number of artists who’ve dealt with the theme of loneliness – in their work and often in their private lives too – focusing in on Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. The Lonely City is a fascinating exploration of what loneliness is; how we attempt to stave it off; why some people are consumed by it, and what its relationship to artistic creation might be.

 

Book Lists for All Humans #2

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I didn’t expect it to be so soon but here we are, courtesy of this list of Top 10 Books to Make You a Better Person in The Guardian. Four white men (sounding good so far, right?), three men of colour, three white women. Verdict = could do better (the pun wasn’t intended but I’ll take it).

There’s a problem with this list because I don’t know what making someone a ‘better’ person means. Who decides the criteria?

I’ve gone for books that made me think about the world differently (and avoided any I included in list #1 although they’re all relevant too); feel free to interpret it in your own way and leave your suggestions in the comments.

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay
Haiti, kidnapping, rape, privilege, poverty

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman
Dystopia, AAVE, disease, love, war, religion

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta
Love, religion, ‘cures’ for homosexuality, Nigeria, women

Just Call Me Superhero – Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)
Disability, friendship, love, sexuality

Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo
Counterfactual slave narrative, race reversal

The Repercussions – Catherine Hall
War photography, Afghanistan, love, women, history

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik
Hijab, dating, religion, family, writing

Tell No Tales – Eva Dolan
Far right, immigration, politics, crime, corruption

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah
Race, class, albino, women in prison, perspective

The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney
Working class, feminism, religion, crime, coming of age

(Links to my reviews.)

 

Book Lists for All Humans #1

This morning, the Independent ran a book list, ‘13 books everyone should read‘. It popped up on my Twitter feed when someone I follow (a white male) tweeted it with the words, ’13/13 men, 13/13 white. Seriously?’ Clicking the link led to the discovery that the list was voted for by reddit users. My only surprise on discovering this was that House of Leaves wasn’t one of the books on the list.

What isn’t a surprise though is that yet another book list is all-male and all-white. It happens a lot in the media. Last year I got into a debate on Twitter as to whether those writers who selected 10 books related to whichever subject their latest work is on for The Guardian should be given guidelines stating/advising/suggesting they consider a diverse list. Someone (a white male) argued that because they were personal choices they should be allowed to reflect that person’s taste. A point that would be perfectly valid if structural inequality didn’t exist and the majority of people writing these lists weren’t white. At that time, Sarah Jasmon, author of The Summer of Secrets, counteracted the largely male, all-white, list of Top Ten Summers in Fiction.

I’ve long been riled by this situation: when I used to include lists in In the Media, I spent a disproportionate amount of time checking whether the lists were gender balanced. Most were not. Include the balance of white to brown writers and there would’ve been barely any lists left. Every time one appears, I think I should counteract it with an all-female list of writers of a variety of skin tones and today I’m riled enough that I’m doing just that.

BookListsforAllHumans

Welcome to the first in a series! Here’s my take on 13 Books Everyone Should Read. I’m aware there’s many more I could’ve chosen so please, leave your suggestions in the comments. I’m hoping this will become an series of excellent crowdsourced book recommendations. Then, maybe, the media might just have a word with itself and compile lists reflective of the actual world rather than its own narrow one.

Citizen – Claudia Rankine

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronté

Americanah – Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen

Geek Love – Katherine Dunn

Push – Sapphire

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

Trumpet – Jackie Kay

(Links are to my reviews.)

The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

In simple terms The Argonauts charts Nelson’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, including the conception and birth of their son, Iggy, and Dodge’s decision to begin taking testosterone and have top surgery, but the slightness of the book and its short sections belie the depth of thought which surrounds these events.

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Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed. This idea gets less air time than his more reverential Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent, but it is, I think, the deeper idea. Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.

For it doesn’t feed or exalt any angst one may feel about the incapacity to express, in words, that which eludes them. It doesn’t punish what can be said for what, by definition, it cannot be. Nor does it ham it up by miming a constricted throat: Lo, what I would say, were words good enough. Words are good enough.

It is this, I think, which demonstrates the power of Nelson’s writing. The Argonauts is not straightforward memoir, it is intellectual argument illuminated by personal experience and supported by academic rigour: embedded quotations from the likes of Judith Butler, Sara Ahmed and Luce Irigaray appear throughout the book. Nelson is also comfortable expressing her insecurities and allowing the reader to see her working through her relationship with Dodge.

Your inability to live in your skin was reaching its peak, your neck and back pulsing with pain all day, all night, from your torso (and hence, your lungs) having been constricted for almost thirty years. You tried to stay wrapped even while sleeping, but by morning the floor was always littered with doctored sports bras, strips of dirty fabric – “smashers”, you called them.

 

I just want you to feel free, I said in anger disguised in compassion, compassion disguised as anger.

Don’t you get it yet? you yelled back. I will never feel as free as you do, I will never feel as at home in the world, I will never feel as at home in my own skin. That’s just the way it is, and always will be.

The Argonauts explores love – constructing and maintaining a relationship outside of heteronormativity and maternal love as stepmother and mother (the latter from the point of view of adult child and parent as well as the expectant mother/mother of a young child) – and the body – sex, gender fluidity, pregnancy and birth.

Nelson juxtaposes ideas surrounding these topics with personal anecdotes, shifting seamlessly from one to another, circling around ideas returning to them again and again. She makes the structure appear effortless but this non-chronological weaving is difficult to pull off, but pull it off is exactly what she does, making the book compelling. I did, however, find myself pausing often to think through the points Nelson was making, she packs a significant amount into some of the shortest paragraphs.

Maggie Nelson is one of a number of female writers currently using the essay form in creative ways – Rebecca Solnit, Olivia Laing, Katherine Angel, to name a few – writing interesting, intellectual pieces exploring society/the political through the personal. The Argonauts is a welcome addition to this body of work. Rigorous and fascinating.

 

Thanks to Melville House UK for the review copy.

The Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction Shadow Panel Shortlist

After four weeks of reading and discussion, our shadow panel have decided upon the following shortlist. Like the official judges, we will be re-reading our choices and deciding upon a winner at the beginning of June. The official shortlist is announced this evening; we’re looking forward to seeing how it compares.

If you click the covers of the novels, they will take you to my reviews.

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The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

Rosemary Harper wakes up in a pod travelling through open space to begin a new job under a new identity – she’s bribed a government official for the latter. The job is on the Wayfarer, captained by Ashby. Rosemary’s going to be a clerk on his ship which builds wormholes in space: ‘the intergalactic passageways that ran through the Galactic Commons’.

The Wayfarer’s crew consists of Corbin, human, ‘a talented algaeist and a complete asshole’; Jenks and Kizzy, both humans and the ship’s techs; Sissix, an Aandrisk and the pilot; Dr Chef, a Grum and the cook and medic; Ohan, a Sianat Pair and a Navigator; Lovey, a sentient AI and the ship’s communication interface.

The novel’s set far in the future, long after humans have taken up residence on other planets:

The majority of living Humans were descended from the Exodus Fleet, which had sailed far beyond the reaches of their ancestral sun. Many, like Ashby, had been born within the very same homesteaders that had belonged to the original Earthen refugees. His tight black curls and amber skin were the result of generations of mingling and mixing aboard the giant ships. Most Humans, whether space born or colony kids, shared that nationless Exodan blend.


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Just after Rosemary arrives on the Wayfarer, Ashby’s told to ‘watch out for some interesting work coming down the line’. The job turns out to be creating a wormhole between Hedra Ka, home of the Toremi, back to Central Space. The job pays well as one of the Toremi clans has just been granted Galactic Commons membership. This hasn’t happened before as the clans ‘came across as vicious and incomprehensible […] they had been industriously killing each other for decades’.

Most of the book is taken up by the journey to Hedra Ka and the preparation needed for the job. Along the way, we discover Rosemary’s secret, learn an incredible amount about the individuals in the crew, find out about life in the future and witness several inter-species relationships.

The novel’s about relationships – familial, romantic and friendly. Chambers has fun considering what it means to be human and where our failings lie:

‘Do you ever get tired of Humans?[…]I’m definitely tired of them today,’ Sissix said, laying her head back. ‘I’m tired of their fleshy faces. I’m tired of their smooth fingertips. I’m tired of how they pronounce their Rs. I’m tired of their inability to smell anything. I’m tired of how clingy they get around kids that don’t even belong to them. I’m tired of how neurotic they are about being naked. I want to smack every single one of them around until they realise how needlessly complicated they make their families and their social lives and their – their everything.’

Dr Chef nodded. ‘You love them and you understand them, but sometimes you wish they – and me and Ohan, too, I’m sure – could be more like ordinary people.’

Chambers also uses her cast of characters to explore gender, pronouns, bodies, politics and religion without ever losing sight of the story or dropping the pace of the plot.

When the Bailey’s Prize longlist was first announced, there were two books I didn’t think I’d enjoy at all: one was Geraldine Brooks’ The Secret Chord, the other was The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. (I might be a Doctor Who fan, but I read very little Science Fiction.) I was delighted to be proved completely wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this book from the first page to the last. It’s well-paced with plenty of twists and turns, some of which I didn’t see coming at all; the characters are fascinating and their relationships intriguing, while the themes explore many concerns affecting current society. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a cracking read and I’ll be in the queue for a copy of the sequel later this year.

 

Thanks to Hodder for the review copy.

Push – Sapphire

I don’t know what “realism” mean but I do know what REALITY is and it’s a mutherfucker, lemme tell you.

Claireece Precious Jones – Precious to her friends, Claireece to ‘mutherfuckers I hate’ – 16-years-old, five feet nine or ten, two hundred pounds, is pregnant for the second time to her father.

When she refuses a parent-teacher conference with Mrs Lichenstein, she’s suspended from school. But Mrs Lichenstein does visit and via the intercom tells Precious she’s organised a place for her at Each One Teach One, located on the nineteenth floor of a local hotel. When Precious arrives and takes the test to determine which class she should join, it soon becomes clear she’s illiterate.

The tesses paint a picture of me wiv no brain. The tesses paint a picture of me ‘an my muver – my whole family, we more than dumb, we invisible…

I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, I watch TV, do what my muver says. But I can see when the picture come back I don’t exist. Don’t nobody want me. Don’t nobody need me. I know who I am. I know who they say I am – vampire sucking the system’s blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for.

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Precious tells the story of her time attending the group intertwined with that of her family situation. Sexually abused by both of her parents, her mother also beats her and accuses her of stealing her husband. Since the birth of Little Mongo, Precious’ oldest child (so named because she has Down Syndrome), Precious’ mother hasn’t left the house. She expects Precious to wait on her as she claims benefits for the child who actually lives with Precious’ grandmother.

At Each One Teach One, Precious learns to write and she also finds the courage to begin fighting for the life she wants.

Push could be an unbearable read: every time you think it couldn’t get any darker, it does, but it’s balanced by Precious’ determination. This is supported by Precious’ voice which is pitch perfect and seems authentic. Sapphire’s done an incredible job not only of capturing Precious’ voice but of including her early attempts at writing as she learns the alphabet and begins to exchange words with Ms Rain, her teacher. She’s so well drawn that at times I wanted to bring her home with me and look after her; at others, I stood on the sidelines cheering her on. If you were to tell me she doesn’t exist, I’m not sure I’d believe you.

Push is a compelling story of one hell of a life, detailing the incredibly shitty deal some people are handed through no fault of their own. It also demonstrates the power of education and the enormous difference one person who cares and has access to structures can make to another. This isn’t a book you can enjoy but it is one that grips, I devoured it in one sad but hopeful gulp.

Small g: A Summer Idyll – Patricia Highsmith

Peter Ritter, 20, leaves a cinema in Zurich around midnight one Wednesday. He takes a shortcut through an alley on the way back to his parents’ house. There he’s mugged and stabbed by two men. He’s dead on arrival at the hospital.

Peter is the boyfriend of Rickie Markwalder, a 46-year-old illustrator who creates images for advertising campaigns. Rickie lives with his dog, Lulu, close to his studio and a Bierstube-Restaurant called Jakob’s.

This was known as the Small g at weekends, but that name wasn’t appropriate around 9:30 A.M. on any day. One of the guidebooks on Zurich’s attractions so categorized Jakob’s – with a ‘small g’ – meaning a partially gay clientele but not entirely.

The locals frequent Jakob’s on a regular basis, including Luisa, who had a two-month crush on Peter, and Luisa’s boss, Renate. Renate’s around 50 ‘somehow a spy, hostile’ and has a club foot which she hides with long skirts and high shoes with one sole thicker than the other.

Renate’s behind rumours that Peter was murdered in Rickie’s bed by a stranger he picked up whilst Rickie was working late in his studio. Rickie suspects she’s engaged Willi Biber, a local who seems to be intellectually disabled, to spread these lies. Her motivation?

‘It’s these homos everywhere that are the problem! So many – you’d think AIDS didn’t exist!’ She forced a titter. ‘They are the silly ones. Always changing partners. They have no partners, just sex en masse, you know. At the same time they flirt. They think they are handsome.’

Despite Renate’s opinion, Luisa and Rickie become friends after Rickie presents her with Peter’s scarf, a token for her to remember him by.

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The tension in the novel comes largely from Renate’s attitude towards Luisa. Luisa arrived at Renate’s after being sexually abused by her stepfather and running away from home. A job and a place to sleep seemed like ‘the luckiest thing’. But Renate tries to control Luisa, ridiculing her, expecting her to wait on her, dictating whom she can see, sending Willi to spy on her and setting a curfew which, if broken, will result in the door being bolted.

Renate enjoyed her near total control of Luisa, though at the same time realized that it had a sadistic element. Whenever these self-critical thoughts crossed her mind, she absolved herself utterly from blame or overcaution by remembering Luisa when she first presented herself – unkempt, even in need of a bath, broken fingernails, hair cut short and abominably by herself, Luisa had admitted.

The more involved Luisa becomes with Rickie and his group of friends at the Small g, the more sadistic Renate’s behaviour.

In Small g, Highsmith explores attitudes to homosexuality. She tackles prejudice by associating homophobia with the characters who are vicious and susceptible to manipulation whilst showing a group of friends – gay, lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual – having fun but ultimately being supportive, caring and understanding towards each other.

Small g was Highsmith’s final book. Having previously only read The Talented Mr Ripley, it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I’d hesitate to call it a crime novel: if Peter’s murder’s ever solved we aren’t told about it and the other crime that’s committed midway through the book has a fairly obvious culprit and functions as a plot device to bring Freddie, a police office, back into Rickie’s life as well as further expose Renate’s shocking behaviour towards Luisa and her friends.

What this novel does do, however, is highlight friendship and its role in life; expose some unfounded attitudes towards LGBT communities, including a shocking scene regarding the HIV virus, and include two bisexual characters. The later isn’t without issues – one is a young woman whom it seems to suggest might be in an ‘experimental phase’ and the other is a married man – but it’s notable these characters exist when bisexuality’s often erased from culture.

Small g is an interesting read but probably not an essential one unless you’re a Highsmith completest.

Small g is reissued by Virago this week along with A Game for the Living, A Dog’s Ransom and Found in the Street.

 

Thanks to Virago for the review copy.