Fiction Round-Up

There are some books that, for a range of reasons, I read but just didn’t get around to reviewing in full this year. Because I’d like to start the new year without a pile of books I haven’t reviewed yet glaring at me I thought I’d do a couple of round-ups instead. Today it’s fiction, later in the week will be non-fiction.

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The Vanishing Futurist – Charlotte Hobson

In 1914, Gerty Freely moves from Cornwall to Moscow and becomes a governess. Narrated in Gerty’s old age from the house in Hackney where she lived with her husband until his death sixth months previously, The Vanishing Futurist tells a story of the Russian Revolution through Gerty’s involvement with Nikita Slavin and the commune they establish with friends. We know from the prologue that Slavin, an inventor, disappeared in January 1919. The official story is that he left in an invention of his own making but Gerty reveals the truth. A smart and ultimately heart-breaking novel about the price of freedom from social norms.

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Speak – Louisa Hall

Five voices tell the story of the evolution of Artificial Intelligence. In 2040, Stephen R. Chinn, incarcerated in Texas State Correctional Institution, tells of how he designed babybots to help children with their speech. The babybots were programmed to respond to the things their owner told them, storing details in their memory. In transcripts from Chinn’s trial, we meet Gaby Ann White who talks to the voice of a former babybot called Mary3. Through the discussion we learn about the bond these children developed with their babybots before they were taken from them. In 1968, Karl Dettman writes to his wife, Ruth, who is using the computer he’s designed, called Mary, as a child substitute, causing tension in their marriage. The fourth voice are letters from Alan Turing which chart his friendship with Chris Morcom and his thoughts regarding Artificial Intelligence. Finally there’s The Diary of Mary Bradford, a pilgrim girl from the 1660s, which Ruth Dettman is editing – and has named her husband’s voice activated computer programme after. Hall weaves the five voices together showing a society both enamoured with and frightened of AI. A superb novel which should have garnered far more attention than it has.

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The Big Lie – Julie Mayhew

A counterfactual novel in which the Nazis have won World War Two and the UK is part of the Greater German Reich. Jessika Keller is the daughter of a high-ranking official, loyal to the state and a promising ice skater. When Jess is seven, the Hart family move onto her street and their daughter, Clementine, becomes her best friend. But Clementine and her family aren’t like the Kellers. Clementine is a rebel and soon her attitude starts to have an effect on Jess. And what would happen in a right-wing state if Jess were to fall in love with the wrong person? Beautifully written and all the more chilling considering current world events.

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LaRose – Louise Erdrich

LaRose begins with Landreaux accidentally shooting dead his neighbour’s young son. Following traditional example, Landreaux and his wife, Emmaline, send their young son, LaRose, to live with their neighbours in place of the dead son. LaRose not only tells the story of the fallout of the death, the switch and the impact on both families, it tells the families’ backstories. There had been a LaRose in each generation of Emmaline’s family for over a hundred years. We follow the story of Emmaline’s ancestor LaRose and discover the relationship between Landreaux and Romeo Puyat, who used to be classmates and now despise each other. A complex, engrossing, family/community saga that explores how earlier generations affect and influence the present.

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The Girls – Emma Cline

No doubt you’ve already heard of Emma Cline’s debut The Girls. Set in California in 1969, Cline details the summer when her narrator Evie becomes enamoured with a group of girls and becomes part of a cult. This leads to an encounter with a Manson-like figure. The summer and adolescence are well-captured. Evie rebels against her mother, pushing boundaries at home, as well as legally, in her desire to be part of an adult world she doesn’t understand. However, Cline inserts chapters told in a present day in which Evie is staying at a friend’s apartment with her friend’s son and his girlfriend. This gives Evie the opportunity to reflect upon what happened in 1969, commenting on some of the behaviour displayed by the two young adults she finds herself living with. Not only are these chapters not as vivid and atmospheric as those from Evie’s adolescence but knowing Evie survives to middle-age also serves to undercut the tension of the 1969 scenes. Cline’s a writer with a promising future but The Girls fails to live up to its promise.

 

Thanks to Faber and Faber, Orbit, HotKey Books, Corsair and Chatto & Windus for the review copies.

Interview with Anakana Schofield

In the final of my Goldsmiths Prize posts before the winner is announced this evening, I’m very pleased to welcome Anakana Schofield to the blog to discuss her novel Martin John.

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Where did the initial idea for writing about an inadequate molester come from?

In my first novel, Malarky, there’s a character towards the end called Beirut. He is the man in the opposite bed in the psychiatric ward from the main character, Our Woman. He’s a man who believes he’d been to Beirut, is fixated on it. There’s a footnote that says ‘See Martin John: A footnote novel’ which I inserted as devilment. It was an act of self-provocation; I didn’t know whether I’d ever write that novel.

The original title of the novel was Martin John: A Footnote Novel but the publishers requested I remove the subtitle and I agreed as once the works were complete, they’re very much separate, independent works. Although they are a diptych.

The first line of Martin John is ‘Martin John has not been to Beirut’ because the last time we met Martin John he was babbling on about Beirut. In Malarky, he was a jolly, eccentric, harmless, benign seeming man, rather a nice character and then I took him to a very, very dark place.

The idea for writing about an inadequate molester came from the recent plethora of  clerical abuse reports. There’s been an unveiling on the scale of incursions made into women’s bodies. (I say women because I’m interested in women but there are lots of men were abused.) I’m also interested specifically in the incursions that are made in public space, so was curious to explore a flasher. We tend to think of molesters, sex offenders as a distant aberration rather than at the kitchen table, on the bus. They are us. We don’t that idea, we like the idea that they are somehow separate.

I had to respond to the fact that there had been a particularly important moment in the consciousness of these deviant, criminal acts and the impact they have. There’s no geographic limit on these acts; there were clerical abuse reports in England, Boston, Ireland and dreadful clerical sexual abuse in First Nations residential schools and commuities here in Canada.

The novel’s written in a third person subjective narrative voice. It’s very much from the perspective of Martin John (and occasionally his mother). How did it feel to spend an extended period of time living in that character’s head?

The writing of the book was deeply uncomfortable, deeply discomforting and very challenging. However, I don’t write novels in a conventional way and I don’t conceive of writing them in that way. It’s not a process where I entered his head in any kind of sequential, linear manner. My entry point is form and language; I have to find the language to create that man’s head. In Martin John that’s clear because I’m creating recursive prose. The real challenge was how to deploy language to get into his head.

In this book, I took the idea of form as content into the shape of the syntax. It had to be that way because it was predicated on this idea of cycles: cycle of reoffending, cycle of mental illness, cycle of complicity. Martin John has these refrains roiling around his head and they govern much of his response to his behaviour.

It was unpleasant: I had to spend time in his groin more than his head. That was challenging. You have to be prepared to do the work the novel demands and sometimes that work isn’t pleasant but I find myself able for the job. If I’m not, I ask myself why and then I tell myself, ‘Don’t turn away’.

The character of the mother really interests me; she left me questioning what I would do if Martin John was my son. How do you feel about the mother and the way society sees his behaviour as her fault?

We meet Martin John’s mother through him. Her voice is in his head. That speaks to guilt and shame. His mother’s voice is relayed narratively through his head, yet the reader also knows how she feels. I like to innovate with point of view. However, I try not to have or impose feelings about my characters because, as a novelist, I’m not here to sit in judgement or program how the reader responds to them. Beckett had a great line in one of his letters where he’d been asked to explain some aspect of his work: ‘Hamm as stated, Clov as stated, together as stated’. I think that perfectly sums up your question. I don’t prescribe feelings for the reader; I give you his mother, I give you Martin John, I give you the two of them and then the reader takes over. If I decide how I feel, it won’t make for a complex portrait. They’re difficult questions I’m positing.

There was a period of time during the seventies and eighties when the atmosphere was very different. I don’t know how a woman who was living in a Catholic culture where the church and priests and shame had such power would have known what to do. How would she have gotten help? I don’t find it that difficult to imagine the quandary his mother has and her fear of what’s my son doing? What am I going to do about this behaviour? Her response entails telling him to stop it, repeatedly, and then dispatching him away to London and still telling him to stop it.

I don’t know if society sees his behaviour as her fault. I don’t know whether I sought to set it up that way. This is what’s so interesting about the reader’s relationship with a text; the completion of the parsing of the writer and the reader and what takes place in between. Blanchot had that great line where he said the writer is the first reader of the work and to some extent that’s true; I learn things from the reader’s interface with my work. Also, I can find it very frustrating when the terms of literary engagement can be so lacking.

What’s interesting about Martin John though is that the response has been incredible. I’m deeply grateful for the engagement; it makes me optimistic because fiction has been through a fairly conservative time. There are occasions when people will recoil from my novel, they’ll make decisions about it before they’ve read a line of it. That’s troubled me but when I’ve considered it further, that response to the novel mimics our response to the complex psychosexual problems of molesters, flashers, sex offenders, even mental illness to an extent. We recoil from it and don’t want to deal with it. If I hadn’t had that response, the novel would have failed on some level because the form is the content and the form the reader brings – this emotional response – reflects the content.

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The novel has a non-linear structure. Was it obvious to you that this story needed to be structured in this way or did it develop as you began to write?

I don’t plan; the structure emerges and then IF it fails I have to go back and keep digging. With Martin John, there was a moment quite far into the process where I decided to impose an entirely new structure on it. I deployed refrains and I had to overhaul everything about it. I remember thinking it will either work and you’ll have a book or it will fail and you’ll have to go back to where you were before. It was risky.

I have to be prepared to fail, that’s very important. I go down lots of ravines and sometimes off cliff faces then belay back up. The beginning – where I’m thinking what I’m interested in – is fun, but the actual writing of the work isn’t fun. It’s a lot of anxiety. I’ve just writtenand published an essay about process, imagination and the devaluing of imagination in an anthology called Alchemy. A lot of novel writing is about putting value on the imagination, being willing to do trapeze in an imaginative realm.

I love the rhythm of your sentences, the repetition and the word play. Is this something that came easily or is it the result of the redrafting process?

It’s very much a result of arduous redrafting. It became slowly obvious that I was going to go further than I went with Malarky and it would be right into the syntax. The conceptual ideas I was working with were the idea of the loop, the circle, the cyclical, the way in which blood travels around the body, the DNA, the genetics. The sentences loop, they repeat and they repeat in different directions. I was playing with language as the means to create form.

I’m also just not interested in the traditional narrative arc at all; that seems like a falsehood. Especially when considering the social class of the people I’m writing about. Those lives don’t add up to neat crescendos where things get fixed and sorted. It’s important for me to create works that don’t necessarily end. Novels that acknowledge that these people carry on amidst quiet despair. So as a mother, how do you save your kid? Well, good luck with that one. Is it unreasonable to think a mother might protect her child to the detriment of another child? I wanted to ask that question and it seemed to me it wasn’t an unreasonable thing. What would drive a mother? What might you ignore about your offspring? That’s where it gets interesting for me. I don’t want to create novels that are just descriptive  sentences.

How do you feel about Martin John being shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize?

I feel ecstatic! It’s very surprising and a mighty thing for my work. It’s a very special prize because it rewards innovation. I don’t think there could be a finer compliment for a writer who’s deeply interested in breaking and challenging literary form and curious about what the novel might become.

And what a shortlist!

I’m back with my women: Rachel Cusk and I were on the Giller shortlist together. I think she’s a marvellous writer and a marvellous woman. I think Eimear McBride is an absolute genius; our books are definitely in conversation with each other. You’re only as good as the work you sit beside so it’s wonderful. I’m looking forward to discovering Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s work. Deborah Levy is creating a very interesting body of work. I’m familiar with Mike McCormack’s earlier work; he wears very significant hats. It’s great.

The readings are taking place in Peckham; I got very exciting when I discovered that. It was a very difficult book to write so I’m very happy to be going to Peckham.

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

Malarky and Martin John are part of a quartet of novels. I’m working on the last two novels in the sequence. Number three is a novel about the character Bina, who appears in Malarky. The final novel brings us to Vancouver and completes the quartet. I’m thinking of them as 4 musical notes in a bar.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

So many it’s hard to know where to begin and where to end; my bedroom is a dormitory of women authors.

Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Margarite Duras, Elfriede Jellinek, Jenny Diski, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Rosa Luxumberg, Annabel Lyon, Lisa Robertson, Gail Scott, Eimear McBride, Thalia Field (whose new novel is extraordinary), Rachel Cusk, Nuala O’Connor, Sinéad Gleeson’s essays are terrific,  Meghan Bradbury’s debut novel is on my to read list.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne wrote a lovely novel called The Dancers Dancing written from the point of view of some young girls on their way to the Gaeltacht in Donegal. I felt as though I was hearing them speaking and thinking in the Irish language but I was reading it in English. I thought it was the most marvellous thing to achieve.

I’ve just discovered the South African writer, Yewande Omotoso. She wrote the novel The Woman Next Door. It’s just wonderful. There’s a warm narrative voice in it.

I could simply keep typing names here all night long, but I have to jog out in the darkness and go to dinner with a woman writer instead!

Huge thanks to Anakana Schofield for the interview.

 

The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

Before him I thought that when love came it would come perfectly. Not in a dingy room on dirty sheets and not caring at all about those things.

Remember those heady days when you set off for university? Young, fresh, desperate to see the world and all it had to offer? Eily has left Ireland for London and drama school. She’s intoxicated by the city:

Get out at Barbican.

Her first into the salient wind, fists of grasping hair. Me blinking the grit over the bridge and after her. Brick and towers. Lour and paint. Here’s nowhere like any life I’ve learned. Even going under, it goes on up. She’s saying how it’s ugly and I think not. I think it is Metropolis.

It’s also her introduction to drink, drugs and, she hopes, sex. Despite her Irish landlady who doesn’t allow her to have men in her room and complains constantly about her using all the hot water, Eily sets out to lose her virginity.

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She meets Stephen when the ash from his cigarette drops onto her hand as they’re standing at the bar in a busy pub. He’s a relatively famous actor, although she doesn’t know that. They have some tetchy discussions about reading Dostoyevsky, love and youth and Eily lies to him about how much travelling she’s done.

When they go back to his and begin to undress, she begins to worry about what she’s about to do: ‘But Oh my God, I just Oh God, exhale. Ah now Ireland too much shame.’ He attempts to ally her fears, acknowledges it’s her first time and gains her consent.

Kissing then sloping me, shifting his weight Ready? Yes. And he. Jesus Christ! No don’t pull away. It hurts. I know but it’s not quite in yet. I can’t. You can, just let me, he says It’ll never be as bad again. How do you fucking know? Educated guess. Then Oh fuck, he goes That’s it. And he is all against me. And he is inside. Attempting to kiss through a pain running wild from his body into mine. I bite my own lip and stare above. Ceiling swirls there. Cracks. Worlds beyond the pain not improving. Now. Or now. Or yet. I wish I hadn’t. I’d never done this. I wish he didn’t know.

It ends badly but he convinces her to stay the night. When she leaves the next morning, she doesn’t look back, choosing instead to remember how much she loves London: ‘This is the finest city I think and, no matter how awkward or bloodily, I am in it now too’.

What Eily doesn’t bank on is seeing Stephen again, this time in the National Theatre, where he makes a beeline for her and convinces her to leave before the play’s over. Despite the twenty-year age gap – she’s eighteen and he thirty-eight – a relationship, of sorts, begins.

Remember this moment. I will remember this because, even though this morning’s not much of his life, it’s very much of mine. Whatever happens, nothing will be the same after and nothing will be like it again.

The novel’s narrated by Eily in a similar style to the one McBride used in A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, although I think this is generally less staccato than her debut. Sentences are rhythmic and sometimes rhyme, with echoes of Shakespeare built into some of the phrases. However, at the mid-point of the book, Stephen delivers a monologue, in straight prose, telling Eily (and the reader) the full horror of his childhood. He has some dark secrets which he’s never shared before. It seems fitting that McBride chose a monologue for him, as he’s the type of character who would have to tell all in one go or not at all.

Events in both Stephen and Eily’s lives bring into question memory and individual viewpoints, of people choosing what to see and what to remember. McBride explores the damage the past can do to the present through Stephen and Eily’s behaviour and the constantly changing status of their relationship.

In a recent review of the novel in The New York Times, Jeanette Winterson commented:

There’s endless sex in this novel. If the writing were terrible, we’d be in “Fifty Shades” territory. But McBride is good at describing heterosexual sex because she doesn’t describe it in the usual ways…

Well, of course there’s lots of sex, this is a couple in the early days of their relationship. But I don’t think McBride’s success in writing about sex is merely down to the style of the writing, it’s also because she writes sex that’s messy and real. This isn’t Hollywood, it’s a bedsit in Camden and a thousand other rooms around the world.

I feel similarly about The Lesser Bohemians as I did The Essex Serpent; I didn’t read this novel, I lived inside its pages. McBride has a rare talent for placing you inside the character, seeing what they see, feeling how they feel. I was filled with joy and wrenched apart again and again; it was exhausting and exhilarating. I revelled in it. On the back of the book, there’s a quote from Anne Enright in which she declares Eimear McBride ‘a genius’, she’ll get no argument from me.

 

Thanks to Faber & Faber for the review copy.

Pimp State – Kat Banyard

The second week of my coverage of books by women appearing at Jersey Festival of Words focuses on non-fiction. It’s not often I choose to read non-fiction books but I always enjoy them when I do. Note to self: read non-fiction more often.

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The first book I’m reviewing is Pimp State by Kat Banyard, founder of the campaign group UK Feminista and, according to The Guardian in 2010, ‘the most influential young feminist in the country’. She appears at Jersey Festival of Words on Saturday 1st October, 3pm in the Opera House, where she will be joined by former sex worker, Diane Martins, for a discussion about Pimp State. Tickets are available here.

‘While we have the demand for prostitution not being addressed we cannot achieve gender equality,’ insists Madlala-Routledge. ‘Men who buy sex don’t regard the woman as a whole human being. Basically they regard her as an object – something that’s available to them for their satisfaction for the money…So basically that says to us this can’t be somebody you treat as an equal, this can’t be somebody you treat as having dignity, as being a whole human being, for you to actually treat them like that or think of them like that.’

Banyard makes the focus of her book clear from the outset:

A pimp state – a society where commercial sexual exploitation is promoted, not prevented – is not one where women and men can live as equals.

It is a state that we can – and must – change.

She draws links within the first few pages between the sex trade and ‘society’s notions of sexual consent, violence and equality’ which she explores further in the six chapters of the book, chapters which she titles ‘Myth 1’ to ‘Myth 6’.

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The six myths Banyard unpicks are: demand for the sex trade is inevitable; being paid for sex is regular service work; porn is fantasy; objecting to the sex trade makes you a pearl-clutching, sexually conservative prude; decriminalise the entire prostitution trade and you make women safe, and resistance is futile.

In Myth 1, Banyard looks at the different areas of the sex trade – prostitution, lap-dancing clubs, pornography – and speaks to women who have worked in these areas as well as the men who’ve used them. Interspersed throughout the chapter are reviews culled from a website called ‘Punternet’ where men leave comments about the sex workers they’ve visited. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that they’re grim at best.

Throughout the book, Banyard talks to people who’ve worked in the sex trade, who’ve run elements of the sex trade, who’ve policed the sex trade, who’ve studied the sex trade in an academic context. Parts of it are horrifying. Some of it is very interesting, particularly when she writes about countries where ‘The Sex Buyer Law’ has been introduced.

For me, the section that had me asking the most questions was Myth 2, where Banyard considers the term ‘sex work’, which has become the preferred lexis in recent years. She questions the adoption of the term by a number of international organisations and then gives us the following paragraph:

So if ‘sex work is work’, then presumably if an airline company requires all its female flight attendants to offer male passengers blow-jobs, as well as drinks and snacks, that’s all right? What about City firms stipulating that female employees must have sex with male clients as part of their corporate entertaining duties? OK? How about when a male boss asks his female secretary to give him a blow-job? It’s the kind of scenario feminists have spent decades working to get recognised as sexual harassment. But, I guess, if this is ordinary work then at worst the requested task is merely outside her job description?

It’s an interesting – and a provocative – link supporting the line of argument Banyard takes throughout: How we respond to the core message of the sex trade speaks volumes about how seriously society takes violence against all women. She then invokes legal experts to explain the connotations of sex work becoming a recognised, legal profession. Here she focuses on the rights of the buyer to a ‘good service’ and how, as a worker required to pay tax, a sex worker’s body would be owned by both the buyer and the state.

Banyard’s foci gave me an insight into elements of the sex trade of which I was previously unaware. Her links between domestic/sexual violence and the sex trade are compelling and supported by detailed research, as is her support of The Sex Buyer Law. In general terms, I agree with the points she puts forward but one thing has bothered me since finishing the book: there are no dissenting views considered from a single woman at the front of the sex trade (I’m not including those in ‘management’ roles in this definition i.e. brothel owners). If every sex worker agrees with Banyard’s arguments – even if they would rather not declare it publicly – then fine, but it would have been interesting to hear the views of those sex workers who have embraced the term sex work and want their job to be legalised.

Pimp State is a well-argued, detailed look at the sex trade and its consequences. The fact that some of those consequences are far more wide-reaching than it might seem at first glance make this book a must read and discuss. I’m very much looking forward to Kat Banyard’s event and hearing more about her work.

 

Thanks to Faber and Faber for the review copy.

One Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

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Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg are friends. Indeed, Feinberg is Markovitch’s only friend and the pair couldn’t be more different:

[…]there are people who walk through the world as if they were there by mistake, as if at any moment someone would put a hand on their shoulder and shout in their ears, “What is this? Who let you in? Get out, fast.” And there are people who don’t walk through the world at all. Just the opposite, they sail through it, slicing the water in two wherever they pass, like a boat full of confidence.

Feinberg is the latter, while Markovitch is ‘gloriously average […his] face was remarkably free of distinguishing features. So much that your eyes could not linger on him, but slipped onwards to other objects’.

The book begins with Markovitch saving Feinberg’s life; a young Arab almost shoots him as he has sex with Rachel Mandelbaum. However, Rachel is the wife of Avraham Mandelbaum, the slaughterer, who will not hesitate to kill. The following morning when the moustache rash on Rachel’s chest confirms that she was having sex with Feinberg, he and Markovitch are forced to go on the run.

The men go to see the deputy commander of the Irgun, a friend of Feinberg’s. He sends them to Europe where they will marry ‘a Jewish girl’ and bring them back to Palestine, thus circumventing the closed gates of Europe. Once the men return, they will divorce and the women will be free to remain.

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Three women form the backbone of the story: Rachel Mandelbaum, Sonya, and Bella Zeigerman.

Rachel Mandelbaum came to Palestine five years prior to the beginning of the book. As she stood at the port, Avraham arrived, as he had every few weeks, looking for some one to fill his loneliness.

In her green dress she looked to him like a bottle that had been thrown out to sea and washed up on the shore, and he, the lonely survivor, would pick it up and read what was inside it. He took her home and married her but never succeeded in deciphering the words that were in the bottle.

Rachel never reveals herself to anyone. She abandons the German language of her childhood and keeps the Austrian soldier she loved locked inside her. Her story is one of loneliness and sadness.

Sonya is Feinberg’s girlfriend who he swears he’ll marry once he and Markovitch return from Europe because:

[…] that woman has the strength of ten men […] a heart the size of a dove, and a vagina of sweet water. […]she can make you laugh until your balls twist themselves around each other.

While Feinberg is gone, Sonya spends every day standing at the edge of the water, waiting for his return.

[…] if she was doomed to wait, even if she was cursed with the humiliating tendency of women everywhere to find a piece of sand on which to stand and look at the sea, waiting for their man to return, at least she had the strength to be angry about it. And so she cursed Zeev Feinberg with all her heart and soul, loudly and resolutely.

But after the deputy commander of the Irgun returns a visit she paid to him, she finds herself in bed with Feinberg’s friend through sheer boredom. Unfortunately, she has quite an affect on the deputy commander and it isn’t sated by her marriage to Feinberg on his return.

Bella Zeigerman is the woman Yaacov Markovitch marries in Europe.

[…]Bella Zeigerman was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most beautiful woman in the apartment. And although, unlike Yaacov Markovitch, [Feinberg] didn’t think she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, she undeniably belonged to the Olympus of goddess-like women which would never admit Yaacov Markovitch, even as a servant.

On their return, Markovitch refuses to divorce her and the two stay locked in a frosty marriage which sees Markovitch fall out with his best friend, Bella leave and return, and Markovitch raise someone else’s child.

Gundar-Goshen covers several, intertwined lives in this novel. The ups-and-downs of marriage, parenthood, war, death …basically all of life is here. The relationships and the children, born to different fathers struck me as Shakespearian. These twists could have become farcical and the fact that they do not demonstrates Gundar-Goshen’s ability to plot on a large scale. Her characters are fully-rounded and it was refreshing to read about three women who were distinctly different people.

Credit must also go to the translator, Sondra Silverston: the writing fizzes throughout. It was an utter joy to read.

I finished reading One Night, Markovitch bathed in a warm glow. Although the novel has difficult and sometimes tragic elements to it, there’s something truly life-affirming about it. Like all great literature, it has eternal truths about humanity at its core, while telling a truly individual story. It is a wonderful book.

 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

 

Book Lists for All Humans #5

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It’s been a while…not because there haven’t been lists published that weren’t gender balanced, I’m sure there have been, more because while I’m not compiling In the Media, I’m not in my media Twitter feed and so I’m not seeing them. However, I was on the Guardian website this afternoon and they’d published a new ‘Top 10 books’ list. DBC Pierre deserves some sort of award for producing the whitest, most male list I’ve seen so far. Apparently, women/people of colour don’t write books that writers should read. Be told people, only white men know how to write.

Here’s my alternative list, please feel free to suggest your own additions/alternatives in the comments:

To create a setting that feels as though it really exists: The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

To see complex characters, whose behaviour raises questions about morality, in action: Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

To write successfully from a child’s point-of-view: My Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

To manage a complex structure based on a lunar cycle and as good as any box set: The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

To change point-of-view in every chapter, including that of a dead body, and detail some of the atrocities of which humans are capable: Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

To incorporate your own life and letters into fiction/essay/critique: I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

To bring a historical character to life: Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

To write a coming-of-age story in fragmented sentences: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

To write a metafictional account of a massacre: The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandasamy

To create an unreliable, first person narrator: The Private Life of Mrs Sharma – Ratika Kapur

 

Links are to my reviews.

Ladivine – Marie NDiaye (translated by Jordan Stump)

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Clarisse Rivière felt herself floating back and forth on a warm, thick swell, whose density stilled any move she might try to make. […] She had to place her faith in the mindless but confident perseverance of the heavy, dense tide now carrying her off, and when she spotted the edge of the dark, overgrown forest, its treetops towering and black against the black sky, her only thought was “I’ve never been in a deep forest”, but she put up no resistance, certain that there she would be just where she was meant to be.

Ladivine is the story of three generations of women from the same family. It centres on Clarisse Rivière, a woman who has reinvented herself, denying her past.

On the first Tuesday of each month, Clarisse Rivière reverts to being Malinka and visits her mother. Throughout the period of time in which these visits take place, Clarisse marries and has a child – a daughter – who grows to adulthood. She never mentions any aspect of her life to her mother and her mother never asks. Clarisse is embarrassed of her upbringing: a mother who worked as a servant and cleaner in offices and apartments in Paris; two tiny rooms to live in, and an absent father.

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During a summer in Arcachon looking after the children she babysits in Paris, Malinka decides she doesn’t have to stay at home with her mother. On their return, she resigns and leaves for Bordeaux. She changes her name to Clarisse and becomes a waitress. Her mother finds her, taking a room and a cleaning job but then Clarisse meets Richard Rivière, a car salesman, and follows him to Langon.

Was it then, Clarisse Rivière would later wonder, that she’d first vowed forever to be good to Richard Rivière, a vow that would determine the whole of her life with him?

Because she must have realised, then or just a little later, that there was no other escape from what she had deliberately done to the servant, Malinka’s mother, who was never to know of Clarisse Rivière, never to delight in anything good that happened to her daughter, never to broaden her narrow circle to include those her daughter loved most, on whom she herself might lavish her vast, unused love – no, no other escape from that violence, that shame, than the deepest, most indisputable goodness in every other way.

That goodness, however, the veneer Clarisse constructs, is what eventually leads to Richard Rivière leaving her. At that point, when their daughter is an adult with her own husband and children, Clarisse meets a man who she finally opens up to. She takes Freddy Molinger to meet her mother, who thinks he’s wonderful. But Molinger is a dangerous man and his appearance in their lives will have shattering consequences.

In Ladivine, NDiaye explores the role of women in society and the relationship between mothers and daughters. Clarisse, while partially rejecting her mother, is unfailingly ‘good’ in the other areas of her life, meeting society’s expectations of how a woman should behave. This isn’t enough for either of the men in her life, however. Her daughter, Ladivine, whose story comes to the fore in the second half of the novel, seems destined to repeat her mother’s actions. She has physically distanced herself from her parents by moving to Berlin. Her father has never met his grandchildren and Clarisse only sees them occasionally.

Ladivine’s story becomes one of coincidences, déjà vu, violence and hauntings. A layer of terror hangs over her, partially driven by the loss of their luggage in the unnamed place in which they are on holiday and partially by the appearance of a dog which follows Ladivine. This may or may not be the same dog Richard Rivière’s parents acquired to guard their shop around the same time that Ladivine was born:

The dog was lying on Ladivine’s bed, a little crib whose bars were lowered on one side so the baby could be picked up more easily, and its outstretched head, lightly grazing the child’s, had a deathly stillness about it.

Equally immobile, Clarisse saw in a single sweeping glance, were the baby’s body, her colourless face, her wide eyes looking deep into the dog’s staring gaze, as if she’d plunged into an abyss of sibylline knowledge and perhaps become lost.

Yet Clarisse had the strong sense of a bond not to be rashly broken, a secret union with no immediate danger for the child. Not for a moment did she doubt the dog’s good intentions.

Ladivine is not an easy read; it asks questions about identity, erasure and women’s place in society. It moves into dark, occasionally fantastical, territory and has an ending that some readers will hate. However, it marks NDiaye out as a talented writer, unafraid to transgress boundaries and left this reader keen for more.

 

Thanks to MacLehose for the review copy.

#WITMonth and Soft in the Head – Marie-Sabine Roger (translated by Frank Wynne)

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August 1st means it’s my favourite month in the whole of the book community calendar – Women in Translation Month or WITMonth for short. It’s the month when I discover the most new-to-me books and authors. All month I’ll be featuring reviews of books written by women from around the world and translated into English. Join in by choosing something to read, blogging/tweeting about it using the #WITMonth hashtag to share your thoughts. If you want to know more about why the focus on translated books by women, have a look at founder Meytal’s blog where she discusses some bookish stats about the gender balance of translated works. Rachel Cooke also wrote a good piece for The Guardian recently on why translated fiction is having a moment in the UK. I look forward to hearing/reading about the books you’ve all chosen. My first review is of an international bestseller from France…

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I’ve decided to adopt Margueritte. She’ll be eighty-six any day now so there seemed no point putting it off. Old people have a tendency to die.

Our narrator, Germain, spends his days measuring trees with his hands, training to run for as long as possible, shooting tin cans with an air rifle, whittling wood to make animals and figurines and going to the park to count the pigeons. On the way to the park, he adds his name in capital letters to the war memorial. It’s repeatedly cleaned off and Germain gets a bollocking but he continues to do it.

One Monday at the park, he meets Margueritte, who’s sitting on a bench also counting the pigeons. They strike up a conversation.

I don’t often laugh when I’m with women. Not old women, at any rate.

It’s strange, I felt like we were friends, the two of us. Well, not really, but something quite like it. Since then, I’ve tracked down the work I needed: allies.

Germain’s not very intelligent. His mother has referred to him as a ‘halfwit’, ‘the retard’, ‘the idiot’ and ‘you stupid bastard’. She’s not a model parent. She wasn’t bothered whether he went to school or not, so he didn’t. Turned off by a primary school teacher who bullied and humiliated him: To be that much of a bastard takes talent, I think. Margueritte, however, has plenty of patience. As she and Germain begin to meet regularly on the bench in the park, she discovers he doesn’t like reading. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Margueritte has quietly resolved to turn the functionally illiterate Germain into a reader. She shares with him a short passage about pigeons from Camus’ The Plague and then…

“Would you like me to read you a few passages? I enjoy reading aloud and I so rarely have the opportunity. As I’m sure you understand, if I started to read aloud sitting here alone on my bench, I think people might start to worry about my sanity…”

I said:

“You’re absolutely right, they’d take you for a doddery old bat – no offence…”

[…]

Margueritte started to read, in her quiet, muffled voice. And then, maybe because she got caught up in the story, she started talking louder, and using different voices to let you know when there were different characters.

When you hear how brilliantly she does it, it doesn’t matter how unwilling or uninterested you are, it’s too late. You’re trapped. Or at least I was, that first time – I was knocked for six.

The précis for Soft in the Head made me think that the book might be too twee or syrupy for my taste but Germain’s voice, which is blunt and brash, and his back story, which Roger treats with a light touch but is really quite dark and upsetting, prevents it from being so. And really, what book lover could resist a tale of someone’s life changing when they’re taught to read in adulthood?

 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

 

 

Uptown Thief – Aya de León

“If I was God, women would get paid to sit on our asses and think profound thoughts. We’d only fuck people who turned us on. But as long as the female ass out earns the female brain, there are gonna be sex workers who need our clinic.”

Marisol Rivera runs The María de la Vega Health Clinic for sex workers on Avenue C, downtown New York. She combines it with an escort service to help pay the mortgage. Money’s always tight so she’s found another interesting, lucrative and very much illegal way of covering the mortgage and paying her staff: robbing the safes of a group of CEOs (Chief Executive Officers). All of the CEOs are members of an organisation called Ivy Alpha, ‘the national men’s organization whose members are all Ivy League alumni and Fortune 500 CEOs’. Riveria’s grudge against them is due to a sex trafficking charge against the group which was ‘dropped despite several first-hand accounts by the women allegedly involved’. What better revenge than to have them bankroll a clinic for sex workers?

Marisol’s past includes a sexually and physically abusive uncle from whom she protected her younger sister, Cristina, and a period as a sex worker in order to pay the rent. In her twenties, ‘she spent two years as a mistress to a Fortune 500 VP named Campbell’. Bored, living in his apartment, she began to read the books in his library which mostly consisted of texts included on reading lists for MBA students. Marisol read them all and then taught herself how to crack his safe, for the thrill of it. Clearly both sets of skills have come in handy in her current life.

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In the first few chapters of the novel, three key things happen: firstly, Marisol returns from a heist to find a young girl, Dulce, outside her apartment. Prevented by her codirector, Eva, from admitting her on fire safety grounds, Marisol takes her to her apartment. It’s not long before Dulce’s pimp, Jerry, shows up, true to his word:

“He dumped me at the ER and said to come home when I could walk. There ain’t many places in the city a beat-down whore can go. He said he knew all of them and he’d be watching.”

Secondly, Marisol meets Raul, the brother of her best friend from high school. Raul’s an ex-cop but there’s something about him that gets under Marisol’s skin. Thirdly, she meets Jeremy VanDyke, a billionaire with a proposition for her.

Uptown Heist isn’t the sort of book I’d usually choose to read: it combines what should be an unbelievable heist plot alongside the stories of a range of sex workers and Marisol’s personal life. I agreed to read it because I’ve included Aya de León’s blog posts in my In the Media round-up and I think her pieces on feminism are interesting and thought-provoking. I’m glad I did; I was gripped throughout the whole book. This is a fast-paced tale, cinematic in style, with a clear vein of smart thinking with regards to women and sex – whether for work or pleasure.

Marisol doesn’t work alone, she surrounds herself with other intelligent women – Kim and Jody, who are a couple, and Tyesha, who’s studying for a Masters in Public Health. All three work as escorts in the service attached to the clinic but also as part of Marisol’s heist team. They acknowledge that they’re part of a patriarchal society that sees women as commodities and use this to their advantage. The book’s sex positive both with regards to the women’s choice to work as escorts and their personal sex lives. However, this doesn’t mean that de León avoids showing the other side of sex work, that which is controlled by men and can be unsafe in a range of ways.

Uptown Thief considers victims and villains, often contained within the same person. It raises questions about power and exploitation and the forms they come in. It asks whether women can carve a path through a patriarchal society for themselves and if there are men who can respect that. It’s pacy, dark, funny and empowering. If you’re looking for a summer read that’s smarter than your average crime cum romantic fiction cum sisterhood novel, Uptown Thief is your book.

 

Thanks to Kensington Books for the review copy.

Flying Under the Radar…but well worth your time

2016 is shaping up to be such a corking year in books (thank goodness, eh, considering the state of everything else…) that I was going to do a books of the mid-year point list. However, when I drew up my longlist I noticed that it split neatly into two categories: those books you already know about because everyone is talking about them and those that I wish everyone was talking about because they’re brilliant and haven’t had the recognition they deserve. So here’s twelve books I’ve read so far this year that I think are worthy of your time and attention. Clicking on the covers will take you to my full review.

Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – Susan Fletcher

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A new patient arrives at Saint-Paul-De-Mausole, an artist called Vincent van Gogh. The story of the novel, however, belongs to Jeanne Trabuc, the warder’s wife. van Gogh serves as a catalyst for a change in her steady, claustrophobic life. A fantastic portrait of a marriage and the power of art to change how you see the world.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun – Sarah Ladipo Manyika

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Doctor Morayo Da Silva is approaching her 75th birthday. Former academic, ex-wife of an ambassador, she’s seen the world and lived it all. Now settled in San Francisco living a steady, reliable life…or so she tells us. The multiple narrators of this fascinating tale might not agree. (This also gives me an opportunity to point you in the direction of this excellent piece recommending more women novelists you might enjoy by Sarah Ladipo Manyika on Vela: Seven Bold and New International Voices.)

Martin John – Anakana Schofield

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You know that reviewers’ cliche about books staying with you long after you’ve turned the final page? Well I read this in December and I still shudder every time I think about it. Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Exiled to London from Ireland, by his mother, following an incident in a dentist’s waiting room, Martin John follows his rituals and circuits to ensure he stays on the right side of the law. But he’s already made a mistake and now Baldy Conscience has stayed too long in Martin’s house they’ll be consequences. John’s mother’s story is also very interesting, equal parts heartbreaking and disturbing.

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta

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A coming-of-age novel in 1970’s Nigeria. Ijeoma discovers her sexuality when she meets Amina. Her mother attempts to ‘correct’ her homosexuality through schooling her in The Bible and manoeuvring her into marriage. Gripping, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful.

Sitting Ducks – Lisa Blower

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The perfect post-Brexit novel if you’re one of those people wondering who was ‘stupid’ enough to vote Leave in those run-down post-industrial towns destroyed by Thatcher and neglected by subsequent administrations. ‘Totty’ Minton’s fed up of being skint, unemployed and living in a house marked for demolition by his former school mate and private property entrepreneur, Malcolm Gandy. Corruption and despair are rife in the lead-up to the 2010 general election and there seems to be no end in sight.

The Living – Anjali Joseph

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Joseph also looks at working class lives. 35-year-old, single mother, Claire, works in one of the UK’s remaining shoe factories and struggles with her teenage son, Jason, while her feud with her mother rumbles on. Arun, a shoe maker and grandfather in Kolhapur, struggles with his health and looks back on his life and marriage. An excellent character study.

Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

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The story of two women, Mahsa Weaver and Katherine Goodnow, who have two things in common: 1) jazz 2) their mixed heritage and the issues which have come with it. Two women who want independence but are prevented from having it in different ways although all under the banner of the patriarchy. Piercingly astute on women’s lives.

If You Look for Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa

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Mallika, Siva’s Amma, becomes pregnant with twins: a boy and a girl. The girl, Tara, arrives with the umbilical cord still around her neck and dies moments later. The boy, Siva, survives. But Mallika wanted a girl and her grief for Tara leads her to reject Siva and accuse her husband of killing Tara. Brought up as a boy by his father and grandmother and a girl by his mother, Siva spends his childhood and adolescence questioning whether he is a boy or a girl. His story is interwoven with that of George Gibbs, an Englishman who used to live in their house. You can read my interview with Sarayu Srivatsa here.

Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore)

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Simon Limbeau is fatally wounded in a road traffic accident. Pulled from the wreckage and transported to an Intensive Care Unit, the novel charts the progress to the point when Simon’s heart becomes that of Claire Méjan. As the heart’s journey progresses, we meet all of the people involved in transporting it from one body to another. Gripping and fascinating.

Masked Dolls – Shih Chiung-Yu (translated by Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland)

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Twenty-three chapters, each one titled ‘Conflict’ and the number of the chapter. Initially these conflicts seem to be individual tales: Judy and her Chinese lover; Jiaying and Lawrence, her Western boyfriend; Jiaying’s father’s stories of World War Two; the person who steals underwear from the flat Jiaying and her friends live in when they’re students; Jiaying’s friend Fat Luo’s increasing hatred of her. But as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that these ideas are thematically linked. Greater than the sum of its parts.

Ghostbird – Carol Lovekin

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In a Welsh village where it rains every day in August, fourteen-year-old Cadi Hopkins begins to ask questions about her dead father and sister and why she’s not allowed to go to the lake. Cadi lives with her mother, Violet, with whom she’s locked in an intensified teenage daughter/mother battle. Cadi’s aunt/Violet’s sister-in-law, Lili, lives next door and acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi. Lili also has a contentious relationship with Violet. Nature, magic realism, secrets and family relationships. Atmospheric.

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

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Eileen tells the story of ‘back then’ when she lived with her alcoholic, ex-cop, father, was a secretary in a boys’ juvenile correction facility and met Rebecca Saint John, the beautiful, intelligent, fashionable director of education who befriends Eileen and leads her down a very dark, twisty path.