The Other Half of Happiness – Ayisha Malik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It’s Conall.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m Pakistani,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best place to be you – Guest Post by Olumide Popoola

The blurb for Olumide Popoola’s new novel When We Speak of Nothing says:

Best mates Karl and Abu who are both 17 and live near Kings Cross. Its 2011 and racial tensions are set to explode across London. Abu is infatuated with gorgeous classmate Nalini but dares not speak to her. Meanwhile, Karl is the target of the local “wannabe” thugs just for being different. When Karl finds out his father lives in Nigeria, he decides that Port Harcourt is the best place to escape the sound and fury of London, and connect with a Dad he’s never known. Rejected on arrival, Karl befriends Nakale, an activist who wants to expose the ecocide in the Niger Delta to the world, and falls headlong for his feisty cousin Janoma. Meanwhile, the murder of Mark Duggan triggers a full-scale riot in London. Abu finds himself in its midst, leading to a near-tragedy that forces Karl to race back home.When We Speak of Nothing launches a powerful new voice onto the literary stage.The fluid prose, peppered with contemporary slang, captures what it means to be young, black and queer in London. If grime music were a novel, it would be this.

My review will be up in a few weeks along with an interview with Popoola. In the meantime, do check out Eric’s excellent review over on Lonesome Reader.

To kick off a week long blog tour for the book (details of which are below), Popoola explains her reasons for setting a novel looking at legal and societal acceptance of LGBT people in both the UK and Nigeria.

The best place to be you

A few years ago the BBC ran a programme called ‘The world’s worst place to be gay?’. The programme presenter travelled to Uganda which was on the brink of passing a new law that could have introduced the death penalty for being gay, the so called Kill The Gays Bill. In the end an amended version was approved, the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2014. Nigeria has its own version and introduced the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act in January 2014. The BBC programme looked in detail at the reasons that made the Kill The Gays Bill possible, especially the connection to right-wing, fundamentalist evangelists from the US, who are using Uganda (and other places) as their playground for playing god.

I found the framing of the narrative unnecessary, difficult, especially with the title. It is too close to the self-congratulating notion that the West is progressive – ‘see, all the marriage equality laws we have now?’ – while in this assumption the global South is portrayed as archaic, queerphobic by nature, and the worst place to be when you live your life outside the heteronormative status quo. No mistaking, these anti-LGBT laws are horrible and do real life threatening damage. They legitimise queer- and transphobic attacks and criminalise sexuality and gender. They need to be contested and fought because they infringe on human rights.

On the other hand they do not tell you who will accept you, or where you might feel safe in your day to day life. And laws are not always a reflection of the cultural possibilities.

This type of framing – The Worst Place To Be Gay – also erases cultural histories and opportunities.

Esu Elegba, the Yoruba god of the crossroads was my writing patron for When we Speak of Nothing. Esu is widely accepted to be androgynous, simultaneously a beautiful woman and a potent man. If you thought through the mythology from a contemporary standpoint, with current discussions around gender in mind, it is easy to see Esu as a possible patron for trans persons.

In When We Speak of Nothing I reverse the notion that law equals acceptance. Karl, the trans protagonist, has a much harder time finding widespread acceptance in London, than in Nigeria. In Nigeria Mena, the cook at the bottom of the apartment complex Karl stays in, makes links to other Nigerians who have openly lived gender as the continuum it is. She references Charly Boy, a musician and entertainer who wore women’s makeup and hairstyles. And Area Scatter, a 1960s musician widely described as cross-dressing but  who allegedly, by his own accounts, went into the wilderness to return seven month later as a woman.

When we look at how far we have come in the UK, celebrating 50 years of partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, it is good to look at the whole picture: hate crimes do exists, even in cool urban places like London. And Nigeria, like Uganda, has a thriving LGBT scene. Perhaps underground but nonetheless. There is activism and advocacy, scholarly work and artist expression.

It was important for me to show in When We Speak of Nothing that understanding can come easily, despite horrible laws. To show how complex it is, understanding and love, how we cannot know who will embrace us the most. Even if on paper we are in the wrong place.

The Writes of Woman Interviews Salena Godden

If you’re active on social media or a regular at live spoken word events, it’s unlikely you won’t have heard of Salena Godden. It seems as though she’s been everywhere – geographically and media wise – for the last few years and with good reason. A regular (and when I say regular I mean practically every night) on the spoken word scene, 2016 also saw her included in the bestselling, award winning essay collection The Good Immigrant while the beginning of 2017 brought a shortlisting for the Ted Hughes Award for the album LIVEwire.

LIVEwire is a mixture of poems and extracts of prose (from Godden’s memoir Springfield Road). It’s a mixture of live performances and studio recordings. It’s a mixture of unaccompanied and accompanied (Godden sings during some pieces) verse.

It begins with ‘Swan’, a tale of a relationship between two people grown old together, ‘We never agree about the temperature, maps and train timetables’. It prepares the listener for the thread about relationships which runs through the collection, not just romance as in ‘You Like that One’ about the dating scene and ‘Snooker’ where Godden uses snooker as a metaphor for being hit on in a bar but also friendship. In ‘Under the Pier’ teenage girls hang out drinking and talking. This is the softer side of Godden’s work and makes an interesting contrast to the more political pieces (small and capital ‘p’).

Politics emerges as both public and personal in the collection. There are direct responses to the Paris attacks in ‘November, Paris Blue’, ‘It stinks the way they continue to lie and conspire, to make money, to trade arms, enslave and murder people’ and ‘Titanic’, which initially appears to be about the Kate Winslet/Leonardo DiCaprio starring film but takes a swift turn part-way through, ‘I used to love that film Titanic…but now it looks like the Channel 4 news’. Winslet is mentioned again in ‘Public Service Announcement’:

Kate Winslet has had three children from three different fathers
Three children from three different fathers
She has clearly been doing what the fuck she likes with her own vagina.
We have contacted her
We have scrutinised her choices
And we’ve gone through her bins

There is a feminist streak which runs through Godden’s work, although she’s not uncritical of the movement itself; ‘My Tits Are More Feminist than Your Tits’ parodies the in-fighting which take place on social media and in the press as to who’s doing feminism right.

Godden’s delivery varies from solemn to shouty, the contrast striking a good balance for the listener. The moments where she shouts lines, often repeatedly, carry a real punch and appear to be Godden at both her most passionate and her funniest. In ‘I Want Love’, written 20 years ago when she was 20, Godden descends into laughter as she sends up her younger self. She demonstrates an understanding of humanity – the good, the bad and the ugly – and also a self-awareness which means the human behind the words is often present, providing a connection to the points Godden’s making, however shocking.

LIVEwire has something for everyone. Whether you’re a seasoned reader of poetry/a regular on the poetry scene or someone new to the form looking for a way in. It’s a joy to listen to the capture of Godden’s live performances, the passion with which she delivers her thoughts. I can’t recommend her work highly enough.

I interviewed Salena Godden in Manchester last month. The photographs were taken by Matt Abbott.

You can find Salena on her blog, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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

Thanks to Salena Godden and Matt Abbott for the interview and to Nymphs and Thugs for the review copy.

“It’s important that writers remain dangerous.’ Arundhati Roy at Manchester Literature Festival

It’s a sunny evening in Manchester as I arrive at the Royal Northern College of Music for ‘An Evening with Arundhati Roy’. It’s one of a number of events which Manchester Literature Festival run throughout the year and it’s clear from many audience members that we’re excited to see a big star of world literature brought to the city.

The evening begins with a six minute video, an introduction to Roy’s second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, created by her friends. It introduces us to lines from the book and the sights and sounds of its setting.

Roy comes on stage to huge applause. When it begins to die down, she says, ‘Thank you so much and congratulations on the [M]omentum’, fist raised. Once the second round of applause dies down, she reads from the book.

The interview’s conducted by journalist Rachel Cooke who begins by asking if The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the result of everything that’s happened since the first novel – twenty years of political activism – and how the two books connect?

‘In the case of books, the newer one is the older sister,’ says Roy. However she does go on to say that Anjum would be the child of Estha and Rahel if they’d had a child. Writers get fascinated by certain things, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the result of twenty years of travelling into and looking at stories deliberately kept out of narratives.

Cooke comments that Roy’s been writing polemics, essays with specific targets, since The God of Small Things; how did she find the quiet space to write a novel?

Roy begins by saying that a few months after The God of Small Things won the Booker Prize, the government in India changed and moved sharply to Hindu nationalists. Public discoursed changed in light of this and the previously unacceptable became acceptable. Writing essays deepened her way of seeing. Solidarity is important, she says. What she does best is telling the story of struggles and blowing open closed down spaces.

‘Fiction is not an argument, fiction is a universe.’ The characters began to populate her house and she wrote in chaos. ‘Nothing terrifies me more than when people offer me retreats.’

How does the book emerge?

Roy says, ‘The world is like a city’. There are new parts, old parts, blind allies and winding roads. She thinks there are ways of trying to domesticate a novel in publishing but each of the things that form fundamental parts in the novel don’t have power. She says there’s an urge in work to specialise and compares it to an NGO funding proposal. ‘A novel can break that and put it all on the table.’

Cooke comments that this demands patience. How much control does Roy have? Is she the ringmaster?

Roy had conversations with the characters but wasn’t the ringmaster. ‘Why you fly a kite, you have to let it go and then rein it back in.’ She says that the city is a character in its own right, a walled city which turns into a big modern metropolis. She wanted the background to become the foreground sometimes. This isn’t a television series, there is a combination of controlling and letting go.

Anjum was ‘born a hermaphrodite’ says Cooke. Are the hijra a metaphor for India and turmoil?

[I have an issue with the use of the term ‘hermaphrodite’ as it’s a pejorative and outdated term. It also isn’t a direct translation of hijra, which is India’s third gender and more akin to an intersex person or a transgender person, depending on their gender identity. I’ll comment further when I review the book.]

Roy sidesteps the question somewhat by stating that Anjum moves in with people of diverse genders and religions. All the characters have ‘incendiary bodies’ running through them. One character, for example, converts to Islam and calls himself Saddam Hussein. Characters are on the border of caste and religious conversion. There’s a fine mesh of divisions designed to preclude any type of solidarity.

Cooke says that Roy has an ‘almost dreamlike’ way of describing violence and that the book cuts dramatically to the war in Kashmir. She asks about writing these sections.

Anjum has had terrible things happen to her because she’s a Muslim. Roy describes the violence in Kashmir as ‘egregious’. ‘You can’t actually tell the truth about Kashmir except in fiction.’ She says there are the Indians who allow it and celebrate it and the Kashmiris who live with it. It’s the most densely populated militarised zone in the world. What does it do to the air? What does it do to the mind? What does it do to survival? What does it do to the living who become the dead? ‘It’s turned a fighting force into a bloated administration.’ What does the moral corruption do eventually?

What kind of time is it to be a writer in India? How does she think the novel will be received there?

There isn’t one single reaction, she says. There is ‘so much unrest in the universities’, the opposition has crumbled. ‘We’re set to go through a pretty dark time.’ In literature and art anything can happen. ‘One has to do what one has to do.’ A novel is never about an immediate utilitarian political goal, she didn’t write it thinking about those people, she says.

Cooke’s final question is whether it’s going to be another twenty years before the next novel?

‘Who knows. I never felt to was my duty to keep writing books. I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ Roy says she’s laid back about writing and that she allows things to take their time.

The discussion opens to audience questions, of which I’ll cover a selection.

Why’s the book dedicated to John Berger?

Berger was a friend of Roy’s, he understood the connection between her fiction and her non-fiction work, describing them as ‘the two legs you walk on’. He was the only person who knew the title of her second novel years ago and called her ‘Utmost’. He referred to himself as ‘Jumbo’ after a day he told Roy to imagine him standing behind her, as an elephant, flapping his ears to keep her cool. She says that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was the last book Berger read before he died.

What’s the role of journalists in current society?

Roy refers to a modified version of the Finley Peter Dunne quotation, ‘it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ and says that the structure of ownership of mainstream media means that it ‘afflicts the powerless and comforts the powerful’. When a president wants to lock up journalists, that’s a good sign. ‘It’s extremely important that whatever can be recorded is recorded.’

Why do you write in English?

‘If you write in English they take more notice of you.’ In India, language is complicated because there are so many languages and dialects that aren’t languages which have swallowed languages. She tries to capture the cadences of the language, which was easier in The God of Small Things, but The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is set in the North where Hindi, Kashmiri and Urdu are spoken, amongst others. How do you absorb those cadences without turning it into a gimmicky translation? Her work has been translated into many Indian languages but each translation isolates while English widens, she says.

‘It’s important that writers remain dangerous but not a martyr.’ She ends by saying ‘It’s the right time to publish this book in India, I don’t know if it’s the right time to be the author of it’.

The event ends with a second reading from the book which includes a glorious bit of swearing, leaving me keen to get on with reading the rest.

The Writes of Woman Interviews Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, there’s every possibility you’ve also come across another brilliant blog about women writers: Something Rhymed. Something Rhymed is the work of writers Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney. It looks at friendships between women writers. A Secret Sisterhood is the book that grew out of that blog.

A Secret Sisterhood looks at the friendships of a number of well-known writers. In some of the pairings, both writers are famous, as in George Eliot and Harriet Beacher-Stowe as well as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, while for Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë they’re the well-known halves of their pairings.

The book is structured in chronological order beginning with Jane Austen. Austen’s featured friendship was with a governess in her brother’s house, a woman called Anne Sharp who wrote plays. Midorikawa and Sweeney reconstruct how the friendship might have played out from unpublished letters and notebooks, ‘largely unmined by literary critics’ written by Fanny, Austen’s niece and Sharp’s charge. This friendship is particularly fascinating as it crosses the class divide and no doubt made Austen’s brother uncomfortable. I can’t discuss this section of the book without mentioning one sentence in particular; it refers to Anne Sharp whose mother died in 1803, the year before she began her employment for the Austen’s. I’ll just leave it here for your delight:

In the early nineteenth century, a single woman in her position, without affluent male relatives to support her, would have faced the unenviable task of securing a respectable way to earn her keep.

Charlotte Brontë’s friendship was with Mary Taylor, author of the feminist novel Miss Miles, although they were schoolchildren when they first met. They did not hit it off immediately:

The girl looked miserable and antiquated to Mary – a sharp contrast with the fashionable young ladies of the school. Like the newcomer, Mary and her boisterous sister Martha were far from stylish. The blue cloth coats they wore outdoors were too short for them, their black beaver bonnets only plainly trimmed. They even had to take the extra precaution of stitching over new pairs of gloves to try to make them last. But, rather than empathising with Charlotte, Mary scorned the girl’s outdated dress and cowed demeanour. Why, she noted to herself, she looks like ‘a little old woman’.

They bonded instead over intelligence and common interests – politics and literature – the best type of female friendships, I find.

George Eliot and Harriet Beacher Stowe’s friendship is particularly interesting as they never actually met. It seems some literary scholars have underestimated the strength of their friendship on the basis that they were pen pals. Despite this, the two confided in each other about their families and their work.

Despite marked differences in their temperaments – Harriet being the livelier and more impulsive of the two – their shared experiences as the most celebrated living female authors either side of the Atlantic immediately drew them close. That the pair shared this extraordinary status makes it all the more surprising that their friendship has not gone down in history.

Finally, the friendship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield is revealed to be a friendship, rather than the mere rivalry it’s been painted to be.

At their best, both women recognised that when ‘afflicted with jealousy’, as Virginia would put it, ‘the only thing is to confess’. This lesson allowed these two ambitious women to benefit from their creative competition – a process that proved as valuable to their shared art as that experienced by better-mythologised male writing duos.

The book is well-written and curated, turning historical documents into something between recreation and critique. My only criticism is that I would’ve liked more – more pairings, specifically including a wider demographic of women, the choices are very white, anglo-centric. However, I do recognise what a difficult sell this book would have been and am glad it exists.

A Secret Sisterhood is an engaging look at the little written about female friendships of significant women writers. It’s a delight to see women as the focus of this type of work; here’s hoping there’s a sequel!

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

Thanks to Emily Midorikawa, Emma Claire Sweeney and Jessie Sullivan for the interview and the proof of the book.

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.

 

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.

separation-kitamura

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 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

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing has one of the most arresting openings I’ve read in a while. The narrator who speaks these words has several names – her Chinese name, Jiang Li-ling; her English name, Marie Jiang, and Girl, her father’s nickname for her because the Chinese word for daughter and girl is the same. She lives in Vancouver, working as a university professor in mathematics, but the story that concerns her now is that of her father and, in particular, events during the creation of The People’s Republic of China and the uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

After Marie’s father dies, her mother introduces her to the Book of Records. Passed down through their family, it tells the story of Da-Wei and May Fourth. They only have book 17 of numerous volumes and Marie’s mother tells her it’s a story copied out by a ‘refined calligrapher’.

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At the end of the same year, Marie’s mother takes a young woman into their home. Nineteen-year-old, Ai-ming has left Beijing after being part of the events in Tiananmen Square. Marie’s mother has agreed she can live with them for the time being as Ai-ming’s father was Marie’s father’s composition teacher when he was a student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

Although Marie is initially hostile to Ai-ming, she relents as Ai-ming begins to share the contents of the Book of Records and how the book came to be part of their family. The latter is one of many stories her grandmother, Big Mother Knife, told her:

“I assumed.” Ai-ming told me, “that when Big Mother’s stories finished, life would continue and I would go back to being myself. But it wasn’t true. The stories got longer and longer, and I got smaller and smaller. When I told my grandmother this, she laughed her head off. She said, ‘But that’s how the world is, isn’t it? Or did you think you were bigger than the world?’

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a number of things: it is the story of a family’s history, it is a story of life in China during a turbulent period in its history; it is a story of love, and it is a meditation on art and its role in our lives. All of these parts are interesting and make for a hugely satisfying novel but it is Thien’s examination of art which I found most interesting.

Many of Thien’s characters are storytellers: Big Mother Knife, her brother-in-law – Wen the Dreamer, Ai-ming, and Marie. While Marie’s father, Kai, Ai-ming’s father, Sparrow, and Ai-ming’s aunt, Zhuki, are musicians and composers. Her exploration of their craft asks questions around the value of art in a closed society and what benefit stories serve to future generations. The former is neatly summed up in a paragraph from Sparrow’s perspective:

He wanted to tell his mother about an entirely different recording, Bach’s six sonatas for the same two instruments. Throughout his life, Bach had returned to these six pieces, polishing and revising them, rewriting them as he grew older. They were almost unbearably beautiful, as if the composer wanted to find out how much this most basic of sonata forms – exposition, development, recapitulation – could hold, and in what ways containment could hold a freedom, a life.

The role of storytelling in the way in which the Book of Record is copied but altered slightly or details inserted in the retelling, making it relevant to the new narrators and readers. Thien interweaves this discussion into the narrative without it ever threatening to overwhelm the story itself. It’s a skilful consideration of the work Thien herself is doing too.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a complex, satisfying work on family, society, history and art and the impact all four have on the future.

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.