The Book of Joan – Lidia Yuknavitch

I mean to give myself two birthday presents before I’m forced to leave this existence and turn to dust and energy. The first is a recorded history. Oh, I know, there’s a good chance this won’t attract the epic attention I am shooting for. On the other hand, smaller spectacles have moved epochs. And anyway, I’ve got that gnawing human compulsion to tell what happened.

The second present is a more physical lesson. I am an expert at skin grafting, the new form of storytelling. I intend to leave the wealth of my knowledge and skill behind. And the last of my grafts I intend to be a masterwork.

2049. Christine Pizan lives on CIEL, a free-floating space station which siphons resources from the ravaged, dying Earth below. At 49, Christine is a year from the time when residents of CIEL die to make room for others; she’s determined she’s going out in spectacular fashion.

CIEL’s leader is Jean de Men. He’s risen from self-help guru to author to TV star to military leader. I have no idea who Yuknavitch was thinking of when she gave Pizan the line ‘We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power.’

Jean de Men wrote CIEL’s most famous narrative graft, a romance. The irony of this being that CIEL’s inhabitants are mostly genderless and without genitalia. Humans have devolved.

It was a wish like the moth’s wish for flame. It was a wish to fuck the sun. To be burned alive inside a story where our bodies could still want and do what bodies want to do.

Grafting, creating skin stories, is the latest entertainment and a way of telling someone’s worth and social class. It’s how Christine earns a living. It’s also how she’s waged war against Jean de Men. In his stories, ‘all the women […] demanded to be raped’. In hers she re-creates the story of people’s bodies ‘as desiring abysses, creation and destruction’. Her work has inspired women to reclaim their bodies, their space, themselves.

A new philosophy took hold and pulsed: the idea that men and women – or the distinction between men and women – was radically and forever dead.

Christine’s partner-in-crime is her oldest friend and the love of her life, Trinculo. Trinculo is an engineer, inventor and illustrator, the person who designed and engineered CIEL. When we meet him, he’s wearing a belt garnered with vibrating appendages. The two main crimes on CIEL? Any acts that resemble the act or idea of sex and anything other than blind allegiance to Joan of Dirt’s official death story, the one where she was burnt at the stake. Clearly Trinculo’s taking charge of breaking the first law. The second? Christine’s last graft, her masterwork, the story she’s going to tell the reader, is the true story of Joan.

In a reworked version of the story of Joan of Arc, told by Christine de Pizan, Yuknavitch considers the damage we’re doing to Earth and to humanity. How we’ve made ourselves more important than the universe because we can’t cope with the idea that we’re a small, insignificant part of it. She looks at our need to take and hold onto power and the myriad ways in which women are belittled in order for this to happen.

The voice and tone of the novel is fierce from beginning to end. It is also very funny in parts. Trinculo, in particular, pertains to play the part of the joker, quoting insults from a favourite childhood app which generated medieval insults.

The Book of Joan is furious, eloquent and inventive. The best feminist dystopia since The Power and an early contender for one of my books of the year.

Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.

Quick Reads 2018 + giveaway

Two years ago for the 10th anniversary of Quick Reads, I wrote about the difference reading the type of texts Quick Reads publishes made to a group of boys I taught early in my career. I’m reposting it today in celebration of this year’s new Quick Reads title. I also have a copy of Tammy Cohen’s Quick Reads book Clean Break to give away. See below for details of how to win.

In 2004 I became Literacy Coordinator at a school in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. Barnsley has consistently been one of the lowest ranked local authorities in the country for student progress. The town was decimated by the closure of the mines and has never really recovered.

The school I worked at was considered to be one of the ‘nice’ schools in the town for several reasons: results hovered around the national average; some of the pupils were lower middle class (it was near the M1 so some of those commuting to Leeds chose to live there), and the school was situated on the edge of the countryside (everyone seemed to forget that the view from the other side of the site was the M1). Despite this, we still had a significant number of students entering the school with a reading age lower than their chronological age.

Before I began the role of Literacy Coordinator, I went on a course run by the National Literacy Trust. On that course I learned about The Matthew Effect, named after the Bible verse: For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath. (Matthew 25:29) In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer or in terms of literacy, those who enter school word rich become word richer and those who enter school word poor become word poorer. At age 7, children in the top quartile have approximately 7100 words in their vocabulary, while those in the lowest quartile have fewer than 3000. In other words, those children with fewer than 3000 words probably become one of the 1 in 6 adults who struggle with their reading.

One of the things the course advocated was establishing a ‘reading buddies’ programme. This had been successful in other schools where local volunteers had listened to pupils read. It was suggested you could use support staff or sixth formers, if your school had some.

I decided to do something different. My school had a particular issue with boys’ literacy and there was little hope, I felt, of persuading some of these Y7 (11/12-year-old) boys to come out of a lesson once a week to read with someone from the local community or any other adult. So I recruited a group of Y11 (15/16-year-old) boys for them to read with and bribed them with a day off-timetable for training and a certificate detailing the skills they’d used to put in their National Record of Achievement. Some of these boys were diligent pupils, some were ‘characters’, some were ‘trouble makers’. A significant number of them were on the borderline between achieving a D or the magical C grade in GCSE English.

On the training day, the first thing I asked them to do was to think about a time they’d struggled with learning something. I shared mine: maths. It still tortures me, repeatedly leaving me feeling stupid. The boys could share their responses if they wanted to. A few said learning to swim. Then one of the ‘trouble makers’, a broad built lad with very short hair and a stud in one ear, said ‘Learning to read. I still find it hard now.’

Some of the staff thought I was deluded: I was told that several of the Y11 boys wouldn’t turn up, they were unreliable; it was also suggested to me that the Y7 boys wouldn’t make any progress. I was young and exuberant; I ploughed on regardless.

The first week wasn’t perfect – pupils had to be collected from classrooms and it was a lively session – but the boys soon settled into a rhythm. The programme ran for twelve weeks. For the first half of the session students read a range of texts – fiction and non-fiction – that I’d selected because they were appropriate but offered enough challenge to stretch their vocabulary and understanding. In the second half, they read a book of their choice.

Several weeks in we began to notice ‘soft’ changes: the Y7 and the Y11 boys acknowledged each other around school; the Y7s I taught came to my lesson one day thrilled that their Y11 buddies had saved them places on the back of the bus; the boys were more confident in lessons; the Y11s I’d been told were unreliable turned up every week (one even arriving to work with his buddy and then skiving my lesson later in the day!), and in one memorable instance, one of the Y11 boys I taught ran from my classroom as we were discussing his coursework, returning five minutes later.

‘What was that about?’ I said.
‘They were getting at J [his Y7 buddy], I’m not having that!’

At the end of the twelve weeks, I retested the Y7 pupils. The minimum their reading age had increased by was 8 months, the maximum 3½ years. At the end of the academic year almost all of the Y11 boys who were on ‘the borderline’ achieved a C in GCSE English.

Hopefully it’s obvious I’ve told you all this to highlight the power of reading, but you already know that reading’s a great thing or you wouldn’t be here. For me, what’s really important about the anecdote is that the boys made progress because they were reading things that suited them. It’s often said that non-readers just need to find the right story, but what if the complexity of the story which might be ‘perfect’ for them makes it difficult to comprehend and ends in frustration?

This is where Quick Reads comes in: the books are short, the stories are linear, the vocabulary is straightforward, the plots are gripping and they’re written by big-name authors. Here’s this year’s titles:

The Reading Agency/Quick Reads have kindly given me a copy of Tammy Cohen’s Clean Break to give away. To be in with a chance comment below on what reading means to you. Entries are open until midnight (UK) Sunday 4th February. The giveaway is open to readers in the UK and Ireland only. The winner will be drawn at random and notified as soon as possible after the close of entries.

This Is How It Ends – Eva Dolan + Q&A

Ella looked away from the dead man’s body. Dead, she thought, but didn’t know, because she couldn’t bring herself to touch his skin again. She could feel the places where he’d touched her. Knew they would be bruises tomorrow, perfect impressions of fingerprints.

At a party celebrating reaching the crowdfunding target for her book, Ella kills a man. No one sees it happen. The flats where the party takes place are due to be knocked down, only six residents remaining. Ella’s part of a campaign to support the residents, protesting against the gentrification of the area, as high-rise tower blocks appear next door and all over London.

The only person Ella tells is her friend, and resident of the flats, Molly. At 60, Molly is a veteran campaigner and has witnessed her fair share of violence. Together, they move the body to the lift shaft and push it down. Molly cleans the flat where the incident has taken place, ensuring no traces of blood remain. She assumes that once the body’s discovered, the police won’t pay too much attention to a building marked for demolition.

Here the story diverges into two strands. The present-day section follows Molly’s first-person narrative as she and Ella wait for someone to discover the body and the police to arrive. Molly attempts to look after and manage Ella, scared that she will crumble under interrogation, while trying to continue as normal herself. She’s involved in a relationship with a younger man, Callum, who also lives in the flats, and she works as a photographer. One of her most famous shots is of Ella being beaten by a police office at student protest.

Ella’s narrative travels backwards, slowly revealing who she is and what she’s been through. Her story’s entwined with several men: Dylan, who she meets for sex; Quinn, a campaigner who prefers more violent methods of protest and has just been released from prison, and Sinclair, a journalist who’s writing a book on a history of the protest movement. Probably the most significant man in her life though is her father, ACC Alec Riordan.

In her first standalone novel, Dolan explores themes of protest, violence and female friendship. The feminist slant on the protest movement, looking at women’s involvement in a number of big campaigns including the miners’ strike, is an interesting and welcome one. Bar Greenham Common, much of women’s contribution to these events has been erased. The friendship between an older and younger woman is also significant. It’s rare to see this type of friendship depicted in literature, particularly taking such a central role.

This Is How It Ends is a triumph. Gripping, thoughtful, feminist; I loved it.

I’m delighted that Eva agreed to answer some question about the book and her work.

This Is How It Ends has two protagonists: Ella, who’s in her 20s, and Molly, who’s 60. What interests you about women’s stories and why did you choose to make your characters such different ages?

I’m interested in telling the stories of women who might be considered outside the mainstream, narratives which aren’t driven by marriage or motherhood or competing over lovers, because there are plenty of writers doing that already and doing a better job of it than I would. Specifically I wanted to write about intergenerational female friendships because they seem quite rare in fiction. Happy for recommendations if I’ve missed those books!

I suspect age gap friendships are quite scarce in real life as well, but I’m not sure why. I cherish the friendships I have with older women, they bring a different perspective and experience I simply don’t have, some are a steadying influence but some are much wilder than me; all of them are very similar to my mum, which is probably significant. I’m lucky enough to have a fierce and amazing mother who I’m very close to, and I think that’s why my fiction keeps coming back to characters who don’t have that great relationship and how the lack of it affects them.

I wanted to put all that stuff on the page.

Molly has lived the life she expects Ella to commit herself to and she believes she can help Ella live it better than she did by showing her all the pitfalls and essentially fast tracking her along with advice and contacts. Will Ella take that advice? Will she learn from Molly’s mistakes or repeat them? I also wanted to explore a proxy mother/daughter relationship, the kind you see with people who are bonded by profession or beliefs. Does it fall into the same patterns as a blood bond? Does social conditioning drive the parties into that familiar pattern because we don’t know any other way to conceive of intergenerational female friendship except through the lens of maternal instinct? That turned into quite a big theme of Molly and Ella’s relationship.

One of the themes of the novel is the idea of protest – historic ones such as Greenham Common and contemporary ones against gentrification. Why did you choose this as a central theme?

My earlier books have all been about individual outsiders or marginalised groups crushed by society and I suppose, in some small way, I wanted to write a more optimistic story this time around; individuals coming together to fight the system, solidarity in the face of overwhelming opposition. Also, it does feel like we’re experiencing a moment right now – from Occupy to Black Lives Matter to #MeToo – there’s revolution in the air. I can’t think of another point in my lifetime when protest has felt so necessary and so, maybe, hopefully, capable of prompting real and positive change.

Crime fiction prides itself that it operates on the bleeding edge of social issues and this is a development which has been crying out for attention for a good few years now. There are tiny hints towards it in the Zigic and Ferreira books – my way of alluding to something I was itching to write about – and this time I got to plunge headlong into it, writing about subjects which I couldn’t before; the social cleansing of our cities, the legacy of Greenham Common, the importance of direct action and the personal sacrifices people make to try and change the world for the better.

The novel has an interesting structure, Molly tells events from the discovery of the dead body to their conclusion, while Ella’s sections move backwards slowly revealing aspects of her past. Why did you decide to tell the story in this way and were there any challenges in the writing of it?

It’s not a spoiler to say that Ella is responsible for the dead body she and Molly hide. This Is How It Ends is as much a whydunnit as anything and I wanted to put the reader in a similar position to Molly – wondering if she did the right thing in helping Ella cover up her crime. So I decided we’d gradually unpeel Ella’s layers, just as Molly does, catching her out in small lies and then discovering the reason for each of them as her storyline unspools backwards. Without a hefty police strand in the book this seemed the best way to dig into Ella’s past and the events which brought her to that room with that corpse.

Honestly, there was a lot of swearing and hair pulling while I tried to make the two intertwining narratives work. It was important that they touch in lots of places to help the story stay clear and those moments of crossover were some of the first things I plotted. Once those big events were fixed fitting the rest of the plot in around them was a much more relaxed process.

This is the first time you’ve set a novel in London rather than Peterborough; why did you decide on the change?

It’s a subject I’ve wanted to explore for a few years but it felt like it needed a bigger setting than Peterborough and also wouldn’t work within the confines of a detective novel. London was the natural choice because the property market there is super charged, awash with money of dubious provenance and with developers seeming to operate with very little in the way of constraints from the various councils. The more research I did the more opaque it seemed; essentially lawless and massively damaging to a precarious working class population who are being put out of their homes to make way for ‘lock up and leave’ investment opportunities, as well as the young who are finding it impossible to get a foot on the property ladder. It’s also where the vast majority of protests are being mounted, so the natural setting.

This is your first standalone novel following four Zigic and Ferreira books. How did it feel to write something different?

Liberating! The police procedural genre is attractive because it comes with a fairly firm structure built into it – your detectives investigate a murder, you know roughly where you’re going before you even start to plan. But, after four books published and lots more written and stowed away in the drawer, I felt like I needed to push myself and see what I could achieve without that helpful skeleton in place.

I discovered that I really like being free from the constraints and from my series characters – sorry Zigic and Ferreira. With This Is How It Ends I got the opportunity to write lead characters who were more like me, who share my political beliefs and who were, finally, operating on the other side of the law. Laws, in this case, which are frequently unjust and stacked firmly against the people. That was hugely freeing.

What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I’m massively superstitious about discussing works in progress but I can say it’s another standalone, also set in London, but this time the political intrigue takes place at the other end of the social scale. It follows three women who are locked in a power struggle with each other and the system which they work within.

My blog focuses on women writers; what are your favourite books by women?

Ooh, so many! Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout, Autumn by Ali Smith, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, NW by Zadie Smith, Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark. Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre.

It’s only been the last few years that I’ve realised how my reading habits have skewed male and canonical ever since my teens, so I’m in the process of plugging the gaps in my reading right now.

Thanks to Eva Dolan for the interview and to Bloomsbury for the proof of the novel.

Three Things About Elsie – Joanna Cannon

84-year-old Florence is lying on the floor of her sheltered housing flat. Her alarm hangs on the bathroom door, unreachable. As she waits to be found, she thinks about the thing she needs to tell someone, the secret she’s been keeping.

A month prior to Florence’s fall, a new resident arrives at Cherry Tree. He calls himself Gabriel Price but Florence knows he’s Ronnie Butler, a man who drowned 60 years earlier.

I have felt fear many times in my life. I feel it each time I sit alone in darkness, and dare to peel away a corner of the past. I’ve felt it over the years in an unexpected mention of his name, or a casual remark. It was strange, because until that day, it had been the absence of him which frightened me, but now he was here, standing not ten feet in front of me, I finally knew what real terror was, and there was nothing quite like it. It felt as though it could pull my heart right out of my chest.

And then things in Florence’s flat begin to move.

But no one believes Florence; she’s 84, she’s forgetful, of course. She’s also a troublemaker. She’s not interested in spending time in the day room, socialising with the others. She thinks the cleaners aren’t doing a very good job and dusts again after they’ve finished. She’s angry that the people in charge of the accommodation don’t listen to her. Miss Ambrose, the manager, places Florence on a month’s probation; if Florence doesn’t begin to participate in life at Cherry Tree, she’ll be sent to Greenbank. People don’t come back from Greenbank.

Florence enlists her friends, Elsie and Jack, to help her prove that Gabriel Price is actually Ronnie Butler. She also wants to piece together exactly what happened before he drowned; it’s time to tell her secret.

The structure of the novel moves between Florence lying on the floor – a time stated at the head of the chapter indicates how long it’s been since Florence fell – and the month leading up to this date, as Florence’s past is revealed. Other characters also have chapters from their points of view – Miss Ambrose, who has ambitions beyond working at Cherry Tree that have never been fulfilled and Handy Simon, the handyman, who relies on facts that few others are interested in. The shifts in perspective allow Cannon to create a picture of those who look after the elderly as well as the elderly themselves. It’s a stance that might make the reader question their own behaviour.

There are some beautiful and heart-breaking insights into humanity and the way we treat each other. When a resident dies and their flat is cleared out, Florence watches the collection of the skip from her window: They loaded someone’s whole life into a lorry and drove it away. There wasn’t even a mark on the pavement to say where it had been. Later, when one of the residents, Mrs Honeyman, disappears on a trip to Whitby, the police interview Florence and Elsie. They tell him that Mrs Honeyman was quiet and slept a lot.

‘I wonder if she was depressed as well,’ I said. ‘She never seems to have anyone to talk to.’

‘Really?’ The policeman looked at his notes. ‘No one else has mentioned that. Has she recently lost someone?’

‘Just the person she used to be,’ I said, but the policeman chose not to reply.

Cannon’s strength lies in her portrayals of those on the fringes of society; how many novels have an old woman telling their story in first person? Not only does the book allow Florence a voice, it looks at domestic violence and the way men use their power to intimidate women. Don’t speak out because, even if someone does seem to be listening to you, they probably won’t believe you anyway.

Three Things About Elsie is an engaging novel with an interesting protagonist and a social conscience. It will delight the many fans of Cannon’s debut The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and – deservedly – win her many more.

Books of the Year 2017

Due to life interfering, I read half as many books this year as I have in previous years. What I have read though has, on the whole, been incredibly good. I’ve selected the ten I loved the most and included five others I highly recommend at the end of the piece. If I’ve reviewed the book in full, there’s a link at the bottom of the description.

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

The story of a marriage between a young, educated woman and a university lecturer. When I Hit You is both a tale of domestic violence and of a woman becoming a writer by writing her way out of her situation. Kandasamy’s experimental style frames the experience as though the narrator is witnessing the horror brought upon her. It’s brutal, it’s thoughtful, it’s shocking. It’s incredibly relevant in 2017.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Meena Kandasamy here.

 

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky – Leslie Nnedi Arimah

Hands down the best short story collection I’ve ever read. Arimah does things with the form that shouldn’t be possible. In the first story, for example, the protagonist is held in a moment while the back story of everything that led to that point is revealed and yet the tension holds sharp. Many of the stories are concerned with the way women are shaped by/shape themselves around men, all of them carry an emotional punch.

 

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Two sisters, Effia and Esa, born in West Africa in the 1770s are separated. One becomes the wife of a slave trader, the other is shipped to America as a slave. Gyasi follows the two lines to the present day. Each chapter focuses on the next branch of the family tree and works as a short story in its own right. Alongside this runs the story of the creation of the black race, its reasons and consequences. It’s an incredible achievement.

My full review is here.

 

Attrib. and Other Stories – Eley Williams

Williams’ debut short story collection is full of animals, clever word play, humour and love. While all of these elements contribute to intelligent, engaging stories, it’s the emotions at the core of the tales which elevate them to something special. The reader’s transported to the position of the narrator, feeling their anticipation at the potential lover standing next to them or their loss at the one who’s just left.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Eley Williams here.

 

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Neve is a writer in her mid-thirties, exploring her marriage to an older man, Edwyn, and the impact previous relationships, both romantic and familial, have had on who they are now. Almost everyone in Neve’s life is abusive in some form; Riley conveys this through a range of incidents told from Neve’s perspective, leading the reader to question whether or not she’s telling the truth. Searing and utterly pertinent in 2017.

My full review is here.

 

Vernon Subutex 1 – Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne)

Vernon Subutex once ran a legendary record shop in Paris. When his benefactor and musician friend, Alex Bleach, dies, Vernon is left homeless. Subutex moves between the houses and apartments of friends and acquaintances before ending up on the streets. Despentes gives a searing commentary on Western society’s views of a range of hot topics: social media, hijabs, the rich, sex workers and a whole lot more.

 

 

The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

An unnamed narrator gives birth to a boy as floodwaters rise in the U.K. Soon London is covered and the narrator and her new family can’t return to their flat. They move to their in-laws and then on to a refugee camp. Also works as a metaphor for the first year of motherhood. Taut and compelling.

My full review is here.

 

 

Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

A collection of stories about ordinary people at their worst, it’s a mirror held up to today’s society: to the misogyny, to the privilege, to the hypocrisy. Some of the characters know better but can’t be arsed to do better; some of them make an attempt but fall flat at the first hurdle. The collection’s full of characters for whom, essentially, nothing changes. Only Moshfegh could pull that off.

My full review is here.

 

Elmet – Fiona Mosley

“Daddy“ builds a house in a copse in the woods for himself and his teenage children, Daniel and Cathy. The land on which he builds is owned by Price, the most influential man in the area. Daddy is fully aware of the antagonism this will cause, but, as the best bare-knuckle fighter in the U.K. and Ireland, he wields his own form of power. From this moment, the two men are pitted against each other; it’s a matter of when, not if, the violent tension will explode. An exploration of gender roles and what happens if you transgress them, as well as a commentary on class and privilege.

I wrote about why Elmet is an important working class novel for OZY.

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

At a party, Lucina feels a pain and blood begins to fill her eyes. She begins to go blind. The doctor tells her he can do nothing other than monitor the situation, leaving her to adjust to a life in which she has to rely on others to help her. She is furious and her anger increases as the story progresses. Told in flash length chapters with short, spiky, repetitive sentences. Horrifying and brilliant.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Lina Meruane here.

 

And the highly recommended:

Tinman – Sarah Winman

Ellis and Michael are inseparable until Annie arrives in their lives and Ellis marries her. A story of hidden love, friendship, AIDS and art. Beautiful and heart-wrenching.

A Book of Untruths – Miranda Doyle

A memoir about Doyle’s family. Every chapter reveals a lie that’s been told while questioning the reliability of memory and the purpose of memoir writing.

A Manual for Heartache – Cathy Rentzenbrink

An indispensable guide for when the worst happens to you or someone close to you. My piece about it is here.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

The love story of performers Rose and Perrot and also a scathing commentary on patriarchal society’s treatment of women, particularly with regards to sex and shame.

My full review is here.

The Other Half of Happiness – Ayisha Malik

The sequel to Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. Sofia’s married to Conall but there’s a whopping great secret he hasn’t told her. Has a punch the air, feminist ending.

My full review and interview with Ayisha Malik is here.

On A Manual for Heartache by Cathy Rentzenbrink and why I’m reclaiming Christmas

In 2015, Cathy Rentzenbrink’s first book The Last Act of Love was published. It’s an incredible memoir about the impact of her brother’s road traffic accident on her and her family. In the introduction to A Manual for Heartache, Rentzenbrink talks about what happened after The Last Act of Love came out; the stories other people told her about their own grief, the advice they asked for in order to support others dealing with loss.

This is the book I wish I’d had when the worst happened, full of the advice I wish I’d been given. It’s also the book I’d like to have beside me for whatever the future may hold. I wanted to pull all my thoughts together in one place, to have something to refer to when life took another twist, or started to look bleak around the edges.

In short chapters, Rentzenbrink covers how we hide our stories because the pain is too much to bear; how grenades are thrown into our lives and the guillotine comes down on what’s gone before. She gives us ‘An Etiquette Guide for Bad News’ and suggestions of what we can do for ourselves. She talks about her depression and anxiety, what helps and what doesn’t, and she gives advice to both her young son and her future self.

I’ve read A Manual for Heartache three times this year. The first time was on the 1st of May, a week before my marriage ended. I didn’t know my marriage was about to end until the moment it did. It was, as Rentzenbrink calls it, a grenade moment.

In the immediate aftermath, in the mess of what now and how do I cope and trying to carry on doing my job and co-parenting my stepson, I took to carrying A Manual for Heartache around with me. I took it on visits to see my trainee teachers; I took it to the job interview I had two days later (I got the job); I took it to my friend’s where we drank bottomless cups of tea while I cried and she stroked my hair. Sometimes I took the book out of my bag and held it or put it on the table next to me. I didn’t re-read it, I didn’t need to. It was enough that it was there, that it had been sent to me at exactly the right time. A coincidence, no doubt, but a very welcome one.

The second and third readings were prior to interviewing Rentzenbrink at two festivals: Jersey Festival of Words in September and Off the Shelf festival in October. The conversation at each of these events was different; we were in different venues, in different cities at different times. But there was one thing we discussed on both occasions which took on more resonance for me than it had when I’d read about it.

Just past the midway point in the book there’s a chapter titled ‘Emotional Time Travel’.

Since I stopped treating time like the enemy, I’ve started to have a bit of fun with it and have invented a new game I call reclaiming. The first success I had was with rain. Rain has often been present when things have gone awry with me, and I began to suspect it was a contributing factor rather than a coincidence. I’ve learned that when faced with any situation, our brains start scanning for previous experiences so that we know how to respond to this new challenge. This was helpful when we needed to know what to do when a tiger hove into view, less so in a world where we are constantly bombarded with stress and stimulation. This is how we get triggered. I realized that when I sit and stare at the rain, my mind starts up a slideshow of all my previous breakdowns and pretty soon my mood is dipping because all I’m doing is remembering miserable episodes. I decided to see if I could rewire my brain.

One of the things Rentzenbrink did was buy some ‘magnificent mini wellies, grey with white and yellow daisies’ which she wore to both of our events. They were joyful and I took great delight in making her wave her foot in the air so the back row could see them. She then talked about playing in the rain with her son and how much fun they’d had, how she’d created new memories to override the old ones.

Not long after mine and Cathy’s second event, a friend asked me the question I’d been dreading: what was I doing for Christmas? I hate Christmas. I’ve hated it for years. The reasons for this are not ones I want to explain to anyone I’m not close to. This makes conversations with acquaintances and colleagues difficult. Responses from them which include references to Scrooge make me rage. But Cathy’s success at reclamation had triggered something: did I really want to feel miserable every year about an event that’s pretty much unavoidable? And, for several years now, the build-up to Christmas, the anticipation of the day, has been far worse than the day itself. I’m single again, I have no obligations, I can do whatever I like. What if I try to reclaim Christmas?

So far, I’ve got an advent calendar for the first time in a decade and I’ve bought new decorations for the tree, including some amazing Kate Bush ones. I let my stepson do the decorating.

As for Christmas Day, I’m spending it on my own, making my own rituals. Panettone for breakfast; a long walk listening to my favourite music; plenty of cheese, and binge watching a TV show (a re-watch of Breaking Bad this year). I’m looking forward to it.

There’s a line in a novel being published next year which says, ‘Any book is a self-help book, if you read it right’. A Manual for Heartache isn’t any book though, it’s a wise friend, a comforting hug, a light cutting through the darkness.

Thanks to Picador for the review copy.

The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks to Picador for the review copy.

 

 

‘I think all fiction is speculative.’ Sarah Hall at Manchester Literature Festival

Sarah Hall is my favourite writer but I’ve never seen her talk about her work until I arrive at her event at this year’s Manchester Literature Festival. It’s partly the old never meet your heroes adage and partly that I know I’ll make an idiot of myself if I do get to meet her. Now, on the verge of turning 40, my mantra is ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’. Provided I don’t do anything that would necessitate a restraining order, the worst I can come up with is embarrassing myself and, well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

The brilliant Katie Popperwell is on interviewing duties. Her first question to Hall is about how she approached the writing of her BBC National Short Story Award Winning ‘Mrs Fox’, considering the literary tradition of metamorphous/fox stories? Hall says that the story’s based on David Garnett’s novella Lady into Fox but that she hadn’t read the book before she began writing the story. She was fascinated with the idea that a husband would continue to live with a wife who’d turned into a fox. It was liberating to have the bare bones of the story but try not to think too mythically and do something different with it. ‘How can I absolutely convince the reader that this woman’s turned into a fox?’ was Hall’s driving question. She read Garnett’s story after she finished writing but didn’t change any aspect of her own story.

Popperwell asks if there’s a link between the story and Hall’s last novel The Wolf Border? Hall says it was a literal challenge to describe the wolves as you very rarely see them. She says the short story allows you to get a flashpoint of someone’s psychology and ‘Mrs Fox’ was a response to the question, how do you cope with radical change? That’s what underpins the metaphorical change into the fox.

The discussion moves more broadly onto Hall’s latest short story collection Madame Zero, of which ‘Mrs Fox’ is the opening story. Popperwell comments on the theme of desire which runs throughout the collection. ‘Desire that’s possibly not even known to the wives themselves’, says Hall. She describes Sofia in ‘Mrs Fox’ as ‘other’; she’s only seen from her husband’s point of view so is essentially unknowable. Evie, the character who the final story in the collection is named after, includes an explanation for her altered behaviour. What’s happened to her plays into the main sexual fantasy of her husband. Hall describes relationships as a complicated give and take with power struggles.

Popperwell asks about the influence of Cumbria on Hall’s work. Hall says she writes about living with the landscape and losing it. Sofia in ‘Mrs Fox’ sells property on new developments. She wants to get closer to the land she’s helping to destroy. ‘Is there a complicity you have with your downfalls?’ Hall asks. She says we distance ourselves from the things we really need.

How has literature served mothers? asks Popperwell. In her shortest response of the evening, Hall says, ‘It’s an open field for anyone who wants to write about it in more interesting and complex ways than it has been’.

Hall talks about how she often partners a story with a novel. She wrote The Carhullan Army alongside the story ‘Butcher’s Perfume’. She says the stories draw something off/away from the novel. In this case, it led her to think about the capabilities of women: how can they be radicalised? Can they fight on the front line? She describes the short story in this instance as ‘a starter’.

‘On a technical level, they make me better as a writer’, she says of the short story form. Everything – character, plot, description – needs to balance, ‘A slick, small machine.’ Content wise, she says she likes the episodic nature and the disquiet. The reader has to bring their own experience of life to them. ‘Your expectations are often confounded.’ She describes the qualities of short stories as ‘dizzily exciting’; they allow you to look at the psychology and the pathology of a person.

Popperwell mentions the idea that women’s writing is always autobiographical. Hall says, ‘You do look to yourself when you’re writing, that dark calibration of yourself that seems normal.’ She also says, however, that fiction allows you to get outside of yourself. Stories are transportive, you’re experiencing someone else’s experience.

The conversation returns to Cumbria and landscape and literature. ‘There have been some writers, I believe, from the Lake District, who’ve considered these things,’ says Hall. She says the sensuality she tries to create is somehow linked to the Lake District. She also has an awareness of particular words that are different in Cumbria because her parents were from the south. Don Patterson is very good on the relationship between words and content and meaning, she tells us.

What about the tenses that Hall writes stories in? It’s about finding the right voice for the thing you want to write. It’s intuitive, something in you knows already what you are doing. Popperwell asks about ‘Theatre 6’ which is written in second person. There’s a presentational distance required in using second person which allows you to do interesting things, says Hall. It draws the reader in and is discomforting. ‘I love writing in the second person.’

Do you have to know your characters well? ‘God, no.’ You have to create them well on the page, she says. If you profile the characters you’ll do it in the plot of the book. It’s fine for the writer not to know the characters well. She refers to Jackie from The Carhullan Army, calling her ‘magnetic and convincing, heroic but dreadful. Why would I want to know her when she’s going to be an unguided missile?’ We don’t know people, we get to know people’s habits. ‘You might know someone for forty years and never know them. They might fuck off.’

Does she categorise her writing as speculative fiction? ‘I think all fiction is speculative. All fiction is science fiction. You have to convince the reader of a different version of something. It’s marvellous reality.’ Returning to The Carhullan Army, she says it was written with a forty-year plan. Carlisle was down for three days in floods. There was no power, people were airlifted. You couldn’t drive out, the roads were blocked. We live mostly comfortable lives, this was an extraordinary thing. ‘It’s all coming,’ says Hall. ‘Those stories feel other but I don’t go in thinking they’re going to be science fiction, I just think I have to pull it off.’

Popperwell’s final question is about writing sex scenes. You seem to be very good at them, she says to Hall. ‘Are you asking if I’m a pervert?’ When ‘Evie’ was shortlisted for The Sunday Times Short Story Award, it was read by an actor, ‘It’s like someone’s gone in my underwear drawer’. She says, ‘The physical description is a challenge’. It’s territory that brings in society, upbringing and the state of a relationship. It’s not poetry, it’s not pornography, it’s something in between. Because she’s ‘erred towards a more stylised form of writing’ she enjoys searching for the right language. ‘It’s very hard but very rewarding.’ She ends by saying that writing about sex ‘is not a thing to shy away from as a writer’.

It’s a fantastic event. At the end, I join the signing queue, clutching my copy of The Electric Michelangelo, my favourite book. I tell Hall that I’ve brought it with me because it inspired my PhD topic but when she asks which other books I’m using I can’t remember any besides Rosie Garland’s The Palace of Curiosities. As embarrassing encounters go, I’ve had worse.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

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

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

Bluebird, Bluebird – Attica Locke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did you choose to write crime fiction?

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

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

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

Are we going to see more of Ranger Darren Matthews?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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