Jersey Festival of Words, Days Three and Four: Changing the Conversation

Day three of the festival begins with me chairing two events. The first is Cathy Rentzenbrink who I interview at Jersey Hospice. It’s an amazing setting, a £5 million facility on a hill overlooking the sea. The event goes well; if you haven’t seen Cathy speak about her books and her experiences, I highly recommend it. She speaks so eloquently, full of heart and compassion and makes time for everyone who comes to share their experiences with her too. She’s also very funny and that feels important considering the subject matter.

The second event is a panel on fake news and social media curation with Felicia Yap, author of the dystopian thriller Yesterday; Miranda Doyle, author of the memoir A Book of Untruths, and Peter Mourant, Picture Editor of the Jersey Evening Post. We discuss their work’s relation to the truth, Twitter and Donald Trump. I recommend both books, very different but both very interesting.

The last four events I watch, over the remainder of Saturday and into Sunday, all have something in common: they’re about books that are beginning to change the conversation. Whether that conversation is about women and sexuality, trans women, Muslim women or the stigma around mental health, each contributes to the shift that’s beginning to take place around these topics (colour me an optimist).

First up is Rhyannon Styles, author of the The New Girl, a memoir about her transition. The interview gets off to a poor start when the interviewer uses Rhyannon’s dead name twice in the introduction. She corrects him from off-stage.

Rhyannon has lots of interesting things to say about her experiences and there’s plenty for us to hear about the way trans gender people are treated. She talks about recognising something of herself in Madonna in the Beautiful Stranger video. Art college was ‘the breath of fresh air I needed’ and where she first met people with similar interests – music, film, artists. At the time she identified as a gay male, ‘I let the role of a gay male dictate my sexuality’. She describes the nightclub Heaven as ‘monumental’ for her. It was a safe place to express herself and she began dressing and performing as female. In 2011, she saw the TV programme My Transsexual Summer which she describes as ‘the key to the door’.

‘You don’t transition on a whim,’ says Rhyannon, describing it as a long, hard, arduous process. The psychologist she saw was sexist, asking her whether she wore dresses and heels when she attended her appointment in jeans and a sweater. There was an 18-month waiting list at the gender clinic so Rhyannon bought hormones online and began taking them.

She discusses the other elements of her transition: the changes to her body; the laser hair removal treatment she describes as ‘eighteen session of torture’; the speech therapy, and the clothing experiments. ‘Some of my outfits are still mental…I was like the kid in the sweetshop.’

Early in the interview, Rhyannon’s asked what’s acceptable in terms of language. She explains that trans is an umbrella term. The best way to approach the issue would be to say, ‘Hi, Rhyannon, how would you like me to describe you? What’s your preferred pronoun?’

This desire to learn seems at odds with other parts of the interview, however. The story about the parents who removed their son from a school because of a transgender child in his class is raised. The interviewer mentions The Daily Mail to which Rhyannon replies, ‘The Daily Mail is hysterical’. On the subject of uniform rules and clothes for school she says, ‘Clothes are all made from the same fabric, they’re just cut in different ways’. The interviewer pushes her asking if she can understand the parents’ perspective. I don’t see why Rhyannon, or any other trans person, should be expected to understand the point of view of someone who’s transphobic.

Towards the end of the interview, the conversation turns back to Rhyannon’s body. At the end of the book, she discusses gender reassignment surgery. She says she thinks it’s an acceptable topic of discussion for the interview as she’s included in her book, however, some trans people think it’s unacceptable and it reduces them to their genitalia. Unfortunately, the interviewer states that it was the one thing he wanted to know and bemoans the fact he had to wait until the end of the book to discover the answer. Rhyannon turns the discussion back to her experience and thoughts. She says the NHS offered her surgery but it made her wonder whether the decision was about her or whether it was about what society expects her to look like. ‘My womanhood was for me to define; I don’t think having a vaginoplasty makes me a woman.’ She says she fell for an idea of completeness and that it’s not about the physical, it’s about the mental. Something for many of us to think about.

Daisy Buchanan talks to Cathy Rentzenbrink about her latest book, How to Be a Grown Up. It’s aimed at 20-somethings, although I’m pretty certain I could still do with some help at 39.

Daisy describes her 20s as ‘difficult’ consisting of crap boyfriends, dreadful jobs and hangovers. At 27, she went freelance and met someone lovely and now at 29, she feels that some things have fallen into place. She’s still poor at managing money though, she reveals. She’s fantasised about there being an adult auditor and says she wanted to write a book you could pull off the shelf at 3am and feel that you could find some help and support.

She talks about the jobs she had before she went freelance. At 22, she was a Mortgage PR, ‘It wasn’t for me’. She says there are parallels between jobs and relationships in the sense that you decided you’d quite like to be a particular type of person so you force yourself into things. She says ‘Be yourself’ is crap advice; ‘You don’t know, when you’re 22, who you are.’

The discussion turns to social media, of which Daisy says she’s a big fan. It’s where she met her husband and is an easy way of continuing friendships. However, she says it used to be a mix between a house party, a bar and a coffee morning and you could wander away. You can’t do that as much anymore. She comments that it’s difficult to have boundaries on social media, it creates a false sense of intimacy.

Cathy asks about sex and masturbation as it’s a topic Daisy’s written on regularly as well as there being a section in the book on it. Daisy says she has a fear and fascination of it. She was raised as a Catholic which meant that going to hell was a greater fear than getting pregnant but getting pregnant meant there’d be evidence of your sins. ‘We demonise women wanting to have agency over their own bodies.’

Daisy’s mother wrote to her school so she wasn’t allowed to take part in sex ed. Her writing about sex openly is Daisy’s way of covering what she wishes she’d know. She says we’re so quick to demonise porn that we’re not learning from it and how it can lead to expectations and male entitlement. They’ve grown up in a world that says this is okay. She says there needs to be a sexual revolution around pleasure, comfort and desire and there needs to be a language for women to express this.

Sunday begins with Ayisha Malik, author of Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged and The Other Half of Happiness. She talks about conceiving Sofia Khan as a Muslim version of Bridget Jones. She was Muslim dating at the time and had stories which her friends convinced her to write. ‘I never read about Muslim characters who aren’t oppressed,’ she says, ‘I just wanted her to be a normal human being’.

She uses humour because, she says, any situation that arises to do with racism, if you meet it with humour, it reduces it and the person doing it. It’s also an antidote to identity politics. On the reaction to the books, she comments, ‘I’ve not had a fatwa out against me, which is great.’

Khan talks about not wanting to be confined to writing one kind of book. She states her inspirations as Jane Austen, Nora Ephron, Anne Enright and Ruth Ozeki. The novel she’s working on at the moment is about a man trying to fulfil his mum’s dying wish by building a mosque in a West Dorset village. She links the idea to recent bombings saying, ‘When the perpetrator claims to share your faith that has a profound effect on you. Why should I always have to defend my beliefs?’ She says being a Muslim woman has made her ‘grittier’ and describes Muslim women as ‘Unashamed of our multiple identities. We’re multifaceted’.

She says she was honoured to be asked to ghost write Nadia Hussein’s novels (the second has recently been completed), although it ‘might be because I’m the only hijabi Muslim in publishing right now’. She describes the process as ‘a very different kind of writing. It’s quite prescriptive; the ideas are very much hers. I take myself completely out of it. I think that’s part and parcel of the process’. She agreed to do it because the publishers were transparent that it was Malik doing the writing.

The final event of the festival is one designed to help our mental health. Rachel Kelly is a former reporter for The Times and the author of Walking on Sunshine. She begins the event by asking us to stand if we or a member of our family has ever experienced a form of mental illness. If there’s anyone left seated, I can’t see them. She then asks us to remain standing if we’ve felt we could speak openly about it. Around 50% of the audience sits down. Kelly says she hopes she can contribute to changing that stigma.

Kelly tells her story: in 1997, she was working at The Times and had two small children. One night she couldn’t sleep. Her heartrate speeded up, she felt sick. She gripped the bed because she felt as though she was falling. She started to think that if she couldn’t get to sleep, she wouldn’t be able to go to work. If she couldn’t go to work, she wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage which would result in her losing the house and then her children. She was ruminating and catastrophising. She didn’t sleep for a further two nights. On the third night, she assumed she was having a heart attack and went to A&E. At the hospital she saw a psychiatrist who told Kelly her fight or flight response had become chronic.

She tells us that mental illness happens in a context and you can alter that context. (I think that’s too simplistic a response which doesn’t take structural factors into account.) However, Kelly didn’t change anything in her life except for taking the medication she was prescribed for a period of time.

In 2007, she became ill for a second time. This lasted for two years. This time around she became aware there was a pattern emerging and that if a form of mental illness occurs once it’s more likely to occur again. She changed her lifestyle.

The rest of the event consists of Kelly giving us some ideas as to how we can help ourselves. She begins with a breathing exercise during which we close our eyes and she talks to us about focusing on our breathing and our bodies. The reason for this is that we can only breathe in the present; it helps slow the sensation of time down. If you’re physically relaxed, your mentally relaxed, she says.

Kelly goes on to tell us some jokes about cheese – for example, Which kind of cheese do you use to disguise a small horse? Mascarpone – because laughter is good for us. She also recommends exercise and happy foods, which she says are oily fish, dark green leafy vegetables and dark chocolate. She tells us she’s providing us with a toolkit and knows that not all of her suggestions will work for everyone.

The final two things she mentions are the ones that appeal to me the most: first, we have to do an active listening exercise in which we tell someone we’ve never met before three things we’re grateful for and then they do the same. The idea is that we focus on the good things in our lives but, to be honest, I’m more interested in the other person’s story and we have a good chat about our lives. It’s a nice reminder that I like meeting new people and finding out about them. The second is about the idea of Flow as documented by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I haven’t thought about this in years (there was a point when it was trendy to discuss it in relation to teaching and learning) even though I know I love it when I’m in a state of flow reading a book or playing music. Kelly says that she learns poems off by heart and proves it by performing Love by George Herbert for us. I think about how much time I spend on social media and vow to book myself some long promised piano lessons when I get home.

Then it’s all over bar the long journey home for me. Jersey Festival of Words 2017 was bigger and more interesting than ever. I’m already looking forward to 2018.

Jersey Festival of Words: The Non-Fiction

I tweeted on Saturday afternoon that one of the things I love about Jersey Festival of Words is the number of non-fiction writers who also happen to be female who are hosted by the festival. In 2015, I saw Rachel Bridge, Irma Kurtz, Ella Berthoud, Jane Hawking and Dr Gilly Carr. This year, it’s Anne Sebba, Cathy Retzenbrink, Kat Banyard and Sarah Turner aka The Unmumsy Mum.

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Kat Banyard takes to the Opera House stage along with former sex worker Diane Martins on Saturday afternoon. They’ve come to discuss the ‘uncharted territory’ society finds itself in following the ‘huge and unprecedented expansion of the global sex trade’.

In her book Pimp State, Banyard discusses each area of the sex trade but for this event, he focuses solely on prostitution, looking at ideas around power, money, equality and policy choices. She states that ‘the global sex trade affects everyone’ as the trades weave themselves into the fabric of society. This promotes a message about the ways in which it’s acceptable to treat another human being.

Banyard reiterates much of the ground covered in the book with regards to sex buyers and their views; the women who become sex workers; those who control the trade, and the different legal stances, from legalisation to the Sex Buyer Law.

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Diane Martins supports women exiting the sex trade and campaigns to end demand for sexual exploitation through implementation of the Sex Buyer Law. She tells us her story, which you can read here.

She has some interesting things to say about the work she does with women exiting the trade, in particular. She talks about the disassociation she felt and other women often feel from their bodies, ‘My vagina’s not attached to me by velcro’ and how powerful words are, ‘The power of words is so strong. You’re worth nothing. You’ll do as I say. This is what your life is’. But she hopes that her words can help impart hope and change ideas.

Both Martins and Banyard comment on the Home Affairs Select Committee they were asked to give evidence at with regards to prostitution laws. The committee was chaired by Keith Vaz, who was later revealed to be a sex buyer himself. Diane talks about how vulnerable some of the women who gave evidence were and how difficult revelations like this make it for them to talk about their experiences.

Banyard ends by saying that men take experiences of the sex industry into other areas of their life: work and home.

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Photograph by Yasmin Hannah

On Saturday evening, the Opera House plays host to Sarah Turner aka The Unmumsy Mum, who’s interviewed by some blogger from the north of England. It’s difficult to talk about an event when you’re the person on stage asking the questions, but Turner’s fantastic: funny and honest. Her audience of 300 parents (mostly mums) roar with laughter as she talks about wanting to put the kids up on eBay, not having a kitchen with an island, the milking incident and What Would Ruth Do?

The two events everyone was talking about though, happened on Saturday morning at the same time – Michael Morpurgo in the Opera House and Cathy Rentzenbrink in the Arts Centre. Obviously, I was at the Arts Centre (although I did run the length of St Helier to get a signed copy of Morpurgo’s latest book for the ten-year-old).

Rentzenbrink’s interviewed by Paul Bisson, Vice Chairman of the festival. I mention this because Bisson’s first question is about interviewing as Rentzenbrink often interviews writers and chairs panels (she chaired both the thriller panel and the history panel at the festival this year). She says she’s become a better interviewer now she’s on the receiving end of it. She used to accidentally be a little bit casual, not wanting to gush over writers. Now she tells them if she loves their work. She also comments that not everyone who interviews you prepares and sometimes you realise twenty minutes into the interview…

Bisson says there’s an irony in her saying in The Last Act of Love that she didn’t want to be known as ‘coma girl’ and now she’s known for her memoir about it. She says there’s dealing with the thing and dealing with how to communicate the thing and she feels a great sense of relief now she’s on the record about what happened and who she is. ‘I’ve wrestled it into a book,’ she says. She jokes that if anything were to happen to her husband and she has to return to dating she can use the book as an introduction, ‘Read it and see if you can be bothered to take me on’.

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How big Rentzenbrink’s book would be if it contained the whole truth.

She talks about the truth of the events, saying that ‘the written version becomes the true version’ and that although ‘there’s nothing in [the book] that’s not true’ there are omissions. These fall into two categories: people involved who didn’t want to be written about and things that were removed during the editorial process.

One of the reasons Rentzenbrink wrote the book was the misunderstandings around comas. She says they’re very clean on television, you either wake up or die. She quotes Henry Marsh, author of Do No Harm, who says that it’s easy to save someone’s life with emergency brain surgery but that they’ll almost never recover. He uses the phrase, ‘The collateral damage to the family’. Rentzenbrink says that she used to think she was crazy and mad but has since realised she’s not, it’s the events that happened to her.

However, there are many moments in the book which are funny. ‘Tragedy is funny because if you couldn’t find funny you’d die on the spot,’ she says. She tells us that she got the giggles at Matty’s funeral because she thought his friends were going to drop the coffin in an Only Fools and Horses type moment.

She talks about living and working in the family pub. How people who drink in pubs are very funny but that measuring your drinking habits against them when you’re seventeen isn’t advisable. However, she credits the pub with preventing the family from the isolation they might have suffered on bringing Matty home if they’d been living in a house. She also comments on how many people seem to miss the class element of the book. ‘I love my journey from Snaith Ladies Darts Team at sixteen to the main stage at Cheltenham Literature Festival.’

On writing Rentzenbrink says, ‘I think all of writing is about self-doubt management’. She mimics herself typing, squinting at the keyboard. She says it’s only in the editing she thinks about the reader but because of her work in prisons with men who don’t read well, she’s aware of a need to make books accessible for a wide audience. She wanted to take something complex and make it simple. While editing The Last Act of Love she became very aware of the lack of books on the subject of persistent vegetative states and pictured a builder who’d never read a book reading it. This led to her editing for clarity and deleting a whole thread about her response to a range of books. ‘That man does not need to read me twatting on about Julian Barnes.’

It’s so easy for memories to be overtaken by a decaying body, she says. Writing the book helped her to remember what Matty was really like. ‘I remember new things about him all the time. He feels completely real to me now in a way I thought I’d lost him. He sort of talks to me. It might be him, wouldn’t turn that down. I think it’s my memory having a conversation with itself.’ He’s encouraging, sweary and gives career advice. He’s fondly critical and calls Rentzenbrink to account with comments like, ‘What the fuck are you worrying about that for, you crazy bitch?’

There’s a theme of religion running through the book. Rentzenbrink describes herself as ‘a hopeful agnostic. I like a bit of smells and bells. I like married clergy, love being the answer and all’. She wonders why she doesn’t allow herself to go to church and thinks religion hasn’t caught up with medical developments. She was scared that religions people would be angry about the book and the decision her family took.

Rentzenbrink says that she considers herself a case study but doesn’t want to be a spokesperson for euthanasia. ‘Almost all of those arguments reduce the human.’ She says raising awareness is a great thing but, ‘I like the book to do that’. She says more cases have gone to court because of the book, people didn’t know it was an option.

She’s currently editing her second book, a non-fiction work called A Manual for Heartache which is about loss and grief more generally. She says if you remain silent people think you’re alright but when you’re honest, people say ‘me too’.

She’s also writing a novel. Doing so has liberated her from the need to tell the truth. She ends by saying that thinking about other people’s books, which she does for her Contributing Editor role at The Bookseller, ‘keeps me sane’.

Books of the Year, Part Two: 2015 Publications

Here we are then, the books from this year I’ve read and rated most highly. I’m basing my choices on the very unscientific, I thought it was brilliant at the time and I’m still thinking about it. I was concerned this would skew the list towards the end of the year but it hasn’t at all – two thirds of the books are from the first half of 2015. Publication dates are UK (where applicable) and if you click on the cover it will take you to my review.

Citizen – Claudia Rankine 

A superb book. An examination of race and the treatment of black people in present day America. Rankine uses flash fiction, essays and poetry to explore the way people of colour ‘…feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background’ and, by implication, how often, as a white person, you are complicit in creating and maintaining that background. Short, sharp and powerful, I’d like to see a copy of Citizen distributed to every household, taught in schools and university, and added to the canon. If you believe art can change the world, this is a book that should be able to do so.


A Little Life
– Hanya Yanagihara

It’s divided readers and critics but I make no apologies for including this book for several reasons: it’s utterly absorbing, I felt as though I’d been entombed in Yanagihara’s world; it focuses on male friendship which I think is unusual; the friendship group consists of four men of different ethnicities and different sexualities, one of whom is disabled and Yanagihara has written about their lives as though they are, well, people. They are not defined by their ethnicity or sexuality and this feels like a break through. It’s huge and harrowing and clearly not for everyone but I’m still thinking about it six months on.

 

The House in Smyrna – Tatiana Salem Levy (translated by Alison Entrekin)

A short, sharp tale told in fragments. At the centre of the book is the story of the key given to the unnamed narrator by her grandfather: the key to his old house in Turkey, in Smyrna. There are four threads to the book: the narrator’s journey to her grandfather’s house; the grandfather’s journey from the house to the woman who became the narrator’s grandmother; the narrator’s relationship with her dead mother, and the narrator’s passionate affair with an unnamed man. A shocking and beautiful novella about exile in many different forms.

The Private Life of Mrs Sharma – Ratika
Kapur 

Mrs Sharma’s thirty-seven-years-old and married with a fifteen-year-old son, Bobby. They live in a flat in Dehli with her parents-in-law. Her husband, Dheeraj, a physiotherapist, has been working in Dubai for over a year in a bid to raise enough money to cover his parents’ medical bills and send his son to college to do an MBA in business. She works as a receptionist in a gynaecological clinic and dreams of starting her own business. Mrs Sharma’s veneer begins to crack when she meets Vineet Seghal on a station platform. Tightly plotted with precise, often repetitive, language, this is a brilliant book about an unfulfilled woman.

Vigilante – Shelley Harris

Jenny Pepper, 42, manager of a charity bookshop, married to Elliot, graphic designer, with a 14-year-old daughter, Martha, is fed-up of her life. She’s particularly annoyed and frustrated by the way men objectify women and the consequences of this behaviour. Donning a superhero costume for a fancy dress party, she stops a mugging and gets a taste for the vigilante lifestyle. Before long, she’s on the tale of someone who’s attacking teenage girls. A gripping and believable look at the concerns of a middle-aged woman and her life.

 

The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

When Cathy Rentzenbrink was seventeen, her sixteen-year-old brother, Matty, was hit by a car and left in a persistent vegetative state for eight years. The book is Rentzenbrink’s story of the effect of Matty’s accident on her and her family. Told in an unflinching first person account with a huge amount of love and dollops of humour, Rentzenbrink brings the Matty she loved back to life and pays tribute to her parents without descending into mawkishness. Heartbreaking and heartwarming. Buy tissues before reading, I’m welling up just thinking about it.

 

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

A companion piece to Life After LifeA God in Ruins focuses on Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy and those who’ve shared his life – his wife, Nancy; daughter, Viola; grandchildren, Bertie and Sunny, and the men he served alongside in the RAF. The structure’s non-chronological, creating a jigsaw puzzle of Teddy’s life and the lives of his family members for the reader to reconstruct; every chapter capable of standing alone as a story in its own right. The chapters set in the war are some of Atkinson’s best writing but this is more than a character study, it’s a book that explores what fiction is. Superb.

 

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)

Mr Cheong chose his wife, Yeong-Ho, because she’s passive. But then, due to a set of reoccurring dreams, she turns vegetarian; a highly unorthodox act in South Korea. The reactions of Mr Cheong and Yeong-Ho’s family turn dark and sometimes violent quite quickly. But Yeong-Ho’s brother-in-law is fascinated with her and her mongolian mark which leads to him creating a physical work of art with her. A disconcerting story that explores society’s treatment of a woman who defies expectations and how her internalisation of those expectations affects her psyche.

 

The Ship – Antonia Honeywell 

In the not so distant future where banks have collapsed, the homeless population is out of control, food is scarce and the military rule, Lalage is protected by her father, Michael Paul, and his creation, the ship. The ship is a version of paradise, stocked with everything you might need and more. As it sets sail with Michael Paul’s chosen people on it, Lalage begins to question her father’s motives and what she really wants from life. The Ship raises questions of wealth and poverty; of governments who fail to protect all their citizens; of the value of art and artefacts. It’s futuristic setting is misleading, this is really a novel about what’s happening to society now.

The First Bad Man – Miranda July 

Cheryl Glickman, early forties, lives alone and works for a company who make self-defence, fitness DVDs. She has two fascinations: Phillip Bettelheim and babies who might be Kubelko Bondy, the son of her parents’ friends. Cheryl’s bosses ask if their daughter, Clee, can move in with her until she finds a job. First Clee trashes Cheryl’s system for keeping the house clean and tidy, then she’s physically fighting Cheryl for extended periods before Cheryl begins imagining herself as Phillip having sex with Clee. It sounds absurd but it’s a sharp exploration of loneliness which transforms into something emotionally fulfilling.

The Wolf Border – Sarah Hall

Rachel has spent almost a decade in Idaho, monitoring wolves on a reservation but an unplanned pregnancy, the death of her mother and the offer of a job supporting the reintroduction of the Grey Wolf to Great Britain sees her returning to the Lake District. The Wolf Border considers a variety of different intersections that humans come up against – birth, death, addiction, love, political change and, of course, nature. The precision of the language, particularly in the descriptions of the Lake District and the wolves, is superb as is the characterisation of Rachel. One of our best novelists, probably her best book.

Grow a Pair: 9 1/2 Fairytales About Sex 
 – Joanna Walsh

From the very opening sentences of the first story to the end of the afterword of Grow a Pair transformations occur: characters adopt and change their genitalia; a man becomes a woman; a queen becomes a witch; a woman fragments into multiple vaginas. Walsh mixes retellings of traditional fairytales like ‘The Princess and the Penis’ with new pieces. Filled with as many moments of humour as it is ones of magical realism, the collection allows its women to take control of their own sexuality and fulfilment. Entertaining, smart and thoughtful.

The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan

A dual narrative following two young women – North, who lives with Circus Excalibur, travelling the sea but performing most nights on land with her bear, and Callanish, the gracekeeper, living on a tiny island by the graveyard and performing Restings for the dead. North has a number of issues to deal with – she’s engaged to Ainsel and his father wants them to live on land, but she doesn’t want either of these things; Ainsel’s mother is jealous, and North is pregnant to someone else. She’s also tied to Callanish in ways that only begin to reveal themselves when the two meet. A beautifully rendered world.

 

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay 

Mirelle is kidnapped in front of her husband, Michael, and their baby, Christophe, directly outside the heavy steel gates at the bottom of the drive to her parents’ house in Haiti. She’s been taken because her father’s rich and the kidnappers believe he will pay a lot of money for her, his youngest and favourite daughter in U.S. dollars. He refuses, assuming they will return her unharmed. She’s repeatedly raped and tortured. The majority of the book deals with the aftermath, looking at whether it’s possible to rebuild a life, a marriage, a familial relationship after such horror. An interesting examination of power and privilege.

Talk of the Toun – Helen MacKinven

Angela’s short-term ambition is for her and her best friend, Lorraine, to lose their virginity over the summer holidays. Long-term, she wants to move away from the council scheme she’s grown up on and attend Glasgow School of Art. Her parents are determined she’s getting a job. Over one summer in the 1980s, Angela and Lorraine’s friendship will deteriorate thanks to Pamela aka Little Miss Brown Nose and Stevie Duffy, just out of borstal and ‘a total ride’. Class, religion, family and friendships are all explored but it’s the perceptive look at women’s sexuality and the use of Scots dialect that really make this a stand out read.

 

Honourable mentions also go to The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester; The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips; Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey; Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, The Chimes by Anna Smaill and Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller.

The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir begins almost at the end of her story. She is standing in a chapel. The chapel belongs to the hospital her brother Matty was taken to when he was knocked down by a car aged sixteen. Rentzenbrink recalls her seventeen-year-old self ‘kneeling in front of the altar all those years ago’:

She thought she was living the worst night of her life, but I know that far worse was to come. The thing she feared was that her brother would die, but I know now it would have been better for everyone if he had. It would have been better for everyone if, as she knelt here, begging for his life, his heart had ceased to beat, if the LED lines on the monitors had stopped registering his heartbeat, if death had been pronounced, accepted, dealt with. It would have been so much better if Matty had died then.

Rentzenbrink then goes back to before the accident and introduces us to her family. Her parents owned the Bell and Crown pub in Snaith, in what was then Humberside (it’s now the East Riding of Yorkshire). Cathy and Matty ‘were generally thought to be a bit too clever for our own good’; she loved reading, he was the ‘delight of the ladies’ darts team’. Their father was ‘Irish, covered in tattoos, sang in the street and went to the pub a lot’, their mother was a civil servant, going to work in a suit.

On the night of the accident, Cathy and Matty both did their usual shift in the pub and then went to the disco at the Rainbow, a snooker club about a mile outside of Snaith. Later Cathy was offered a lift back by one of the locals. She asked Matty if he wanted to come with them:

‘No,’ he said grinning, ‘I’ll hang around here. I might get lucky.’

And I threw him a half-smile, an eyebrow raise, a ‘what an arrogant fucker you are’ head-tilt, and I walked out of the Rainbow and into the car.

The next time I saw Matty he was lying in the road. And he never, in any sense of the expression, got lucky again.

The rest of the book deals with the aftermath of Matty’s accident – the eight years he spent in a persistent vegetative state and the impact that had on Rentzenbrink and her family.

There are several things which are really impressive about this book: it’s honesty, it’s humour and the creation of the voice of seventeen-year-old Cathy.

As the first quotation in this review shows, Rentzenbrink doesn’t shy away from stating her feelings about the situation. Towards the end of the book, she talks about how writing Matty’s story began with a list of all the things she felt guilty about. She includes the list which I’m sure many people who might not have dealt with Rentzenbrink’s unusual situation but have dealt with caring for a relative with a long term debilitating illness will recognise and take comfort in.

Much of the humour comes from moments recounted before the accident and helps to show Matty’s personality in particular. My favourite line though comes four days after the accident when the nurse tells Matty they’re going to give him a bath. Cathy thinks he wouldn’t mind their mum being involved, considering the circumstances but:

I could imagine the eyebrow-raise and the hard stare, could hear him say, ‘You can fuck off with the cock washing, sis.’

Rentzenbrink tells the story in first person. When I interviewed her at Urmston Bookshop, she told me that this didn’t happen until a very late draft and that she’d begun by writing the story in third person. I can understand why you’d want to tell a story this emotional at a distance but the decision to change to first person pays off. We see the story through Cathy’s eyes and empathise with her. This also means that the emotional impact of the story is significant; you will need a box of tissues to hand. I made it as far as page 12 before I started crying and there were two further points where I had to put the book down while I sobbed. Despite that, I still read it in an afternoon: it’s both heart breaking and compelling.

The Last Act of Love is a deeply personal and unique story that deals with universal issues around grief. It’s a beautiful tribute to Matty and marks Rentzenbrink as a writer to watch. If you only read one memoir this year, make it this one.

 

Thanks to Picador for the review copy.