The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner 2017

And the winner is… The Power by Naomi Alderman. Good choice and very fitting for this prize, I think. I loved Alderman’s comment that the women’s movement meant more to her than electricity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you haven’t read the book yet, I highly recommend it – I bought several copies as Christmas presents, which isn’t something I do often. If you want to know more, I interviewed Alderman in October.

Exquisite – Sarah Stovell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.

The Writes of Woman Interviews Olivia Sudjic, author of Sympathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks to Tinder Press for the review copy.

The Night Visitor – Lucy Atkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks to Quercus for the review copy.

He Said/She Said – Erin Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a recent blog post, Kelly stated:

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

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

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

 

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the review copy.

A Separation – Katie Kitamura

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

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

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

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

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

Kitamura’s narrator is a translator.

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks to Profile Books for the review copy.

The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan

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

Those Forges are motherfucking nuts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks to 4th Estate for the review copy.

 

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.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

I’m beginning this review with a trigger warning for sexual violence. There are occurrences throughout the novel but it opens with an incident that’s shocking and, I feel, it’s impossible to write a review of the book without discussing it.

A young girl’s body is the most dangerous place in the world, as it is the spot where violence is most likely to be enacted.

The book begins with the births of our two protagonists – Pierrot and Rose. Pierrot is born to a girl who is ‘only twelve years old’. Her cousin, a soldier, comes to see her in his uniform and tells her he’ll give her a medical examination to see if she’s fit to be a soldier too.

He’d said that he had to stick his penis inside her in order to test her internal temperature. When he was done, satisfied with her perfect health, he had handed her a little red ribbon that had come off a cake box. Then he pinned it to her jacket as a badge of honour for her grand consummated service to her country.

The girl is sent to the Hôpital de Misericorde to give birth in shame like other young girls.

These girls had thrown their whole lives away just to have five lovely minutes on a back staircase. Now, with strangers living in their bellies, they had been sent into hiding by their parents, while the young fathers went about their business, riding bicycles and whistling in the bathtub.

Pierrot’s father is named – Thomas – but his mother is only ever know by the name the nuns at the hospital give her – Ignorance.

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Rose’s mother is eighteen.

[She] hadn’t particularly liked Rose’s father. The boy waited for her on the corner of the street every day. He would always beg her to come into the alley with him and let him have a peek at her breasts. She decided to give in one afternoon. Somehow she thought that if she made love to him, he would go away and leave her alone. Which, actually, proved to be the case.

O’Neill clearly begins the novel this way to shock the reader. I’ve quoted at length from the first few pages because I think it’s important to get a sense of the tone of the book. O’Neill is firmly on the side of women and girls and scornful of the way in which society treats them – not just men but also other women who’ve bought into patriarchal ideas of how women should behave. 

She also explores the idea of sexual shame and the impact it can have on people’s behaviour; Pierrot is repeatedly abused at the orphanage by one of the nuns. Also…

At the orphanage, those caught masturbating had their hands whipped with a ruler fifty times. And then they would stand on a chair in the common room wearing red gloves so that everyone would know what they had done. There was a different little boy standing up on the chair every few weeks. And then one day there was the lovely Rose. Nobody could believe it. But perhaps most shocking was the look on her face. She stood with her chin up in the air, a look close to pride on her face.

Pierrot sometimes told people that that was the moment he fell in love with Rose.

At the heart of The Lonely Hearts Hotel is the love story of Pierrot and Rose. Pierrot’s an excellent pianist and acrobat; Rose dances and acts, her most successful performance taking place with an imaginary bear. After they’re seen by the cousin of the prime minister in a play put on by the orphanage, they begin to get regular work performing in the houses of the rich. Just at the point where it looks as though things might begin to work out for them, life intervenes. There are gangsters, prostitution and heroin waiting to derail the pair of them. For some time, they will lose themselves and each other.

O’Neill skewers society, its obsession with sex and money and how both can be derailed by love. There are lots of fantastic lines, I highlighted so many:

While the only females in society who had any real bargaining power were the dopey little virgins with rags, safety-pinned to their underwear, filling up with blood the colour of fallen dead rose petals. The minute they gave themselves up, they really had no agency whatsoever.

“I’ve had it up to here with crazy women. All you have to do is be fucking pleasant and spread your legs, and you are taken care of. You don’t know how easy you have it.”

Everything written by any woman was written by all women, because they all benefitted from it.

If this sounds too depressing (and O’Neill does emphasise the miserable by setting the majority of the action during The Great Depression), there is light in Pierrot’s playing, Rose’s performances and a surprisingly optimistic, although not saccharine, ending.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel probably isn’t for everyone – if the reactions of the Baileys Prize shadow panel are anything to go by it’s definitely marmite – but I absolutely loved it.

 

Thanks to riverrun for the review copy.