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.

When the Sky Fell Apart – Caroline Lea

When he was on fire, the man smelt bitter. Like the stink when Claudine had once tried to burn Maman’s old wool blankets because they had itched.

Even after they had tipped buckets of sea water over him, he still smelt. But sweeter. It reminded her of Maman’s Sunday lunch: roast pork with blackened skin and the cooked fat seeping out through the cracks.

When the Sky Fell Apart begins as the Second World War reaches Jersey. First come the bombers and then comes the occupation. It’s told through the eyes of four characters: ten-year-old, Claudine; Edith, a herbalist; Dr. Carter, an English doctor who remains on the island, and Maurice, a fisherman.

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Claudine is clever in a family suspicious of intelligence. Her father goes to fight in the war while her mother struggles to survive, never mind look after her children. Claudine, according to Edith is ‘thin-faced, sallow and ill-kempt. Wild, knotted hair and a torn boys’ trousers and a boys’ shirt – grubby around the collar’. Claudine befriends a German soldier, a move that leads her into a terrible situation.

When Clement Hacquoil, the butcher, burns on the beach, Edith arrives to help. She sends for the doctor but it’s one of her ‘legendary’ potions which revives him. The locals seem to be torn between those who are thankful for her concoctions and those who call her a witch and believe she has ‘the devil’s magic in her fingers’. Edith was widowed in the First World War and has lived alone since. She’s the straight-talking main character and provides an insight into other characters as an astute reader of people.

Dr. Carter is one of the people who comes to rely on Edith, seeing her as a support to his work, not a hindrance. Carter’s the character with a dark secret from the outset. When the bombs begin to fall and a large number of women and children arrive at the hospital looking for sanctuary, he faces them

He held up his hands and quelled the first quiver of fear in his gut by reminding himself of the sensation of the ruler slapping down on his palms if his hands had ever trembled as a boy.

The sacrifices Carter makes throughout the war take an incredible toil on him. His story is a particularly fascinating element of the novel.

Finally, Maurice. He’s stayed to care for his wife, Marthe. She has the degenerative disease Huntingdon’s Chorea and Maurice feels he can’t leave her with anyone else after he discovers her carer has been going out and leaving her alone for hours and because he fears the Germans finding her and sending her to a concentration camp.

But he knew he must stop the fishing when he came home and she’d spilled a pan of boiling water down her legs. She was rubbing at them – perhaps she had thought that might take the pain. But her skin was peeling off in her hands where the hot water had blistered it. Translucent pairings of flesh, like white petals, which she threw to the floor, while underneath, her blood – so much blood.

As the novel progresses, all four characters’ lives will become entwined and they’ll need each other if they have any hope of survival.

When the Sky Fell Apart is an engaging look at the occupation of Jersey. Lea considers the way the locals are treated and what they do to survive – from stealing and hiding to becoming ‘Jerry Bags’ to working for the Germans. All of the characters’ stories have dark elements to them although Lea’s style and tone prevents the novel from being the bleak piece it could easily have been. My only criticism is that Edith is often referred to as ‘old’ when she must be all of fifty. However, without giving anything away, there’s a glimpse of a much more youthful version of her as the story progresses. Over all, When the Sky Fell Apart is a good read and if, like me, you know little about the German occupation of Jersey, an interesting introduction to it.

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Caroline Lea appears with Simon Scarrow at Jersey Arts Centre at 11.45am, Sunday 2nd October, 2016. Tickets are available here.

Cry, Mother Spain – Lydie Salvayre (translated by Ben Faccini)

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Spain, 1936. As writer, Georges Bernanos, witnesses the events he would later describe in his book Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune, José Arjona returns from Lérida with thoughts of revolution that will change his and, Montse, his fifteen-year-old sister’s lives.

The novel is narrated by Montse’s daughter. Now ninety, Montse has dementia…

Yet her memories of the summer of 1936, when the unimaginable took place, are still intact. It was a time, she says, when she discovered life – without doubt the only adventure of her existence.

She recalls that year, telling the tale through her daughter in the trans-Pyrenean language she’s spoken since she ended up in a village in the south-west of France seventy-five years earlier.

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Her story begins with a visit to the house of Jaime Burgos Obregón who’s looking to employ a new maid.

He studied my mother from head to toe, and stated with an air of assurance that my mother has never forgotten: She seems quite humble. My grandmother thanked him as if he were congratulating her, But that comment, my mother says, throws me into turmoil. For me it’s an insult, a patada in the arse, a kick in the culo, it makes me leap ten metros within my own head, it jolts my brain which had been slumbering for more than fifteen years. It makes me understand the meaning of the words my brother José had just bought back from the Anarchist communes around Lérida. So when we are in the street again, I start to shriek, to griter: “She seems quite humble”! Do you realise what he meant?…What don Jaime means – I was really boiling, my darling, ma chérie, I was boiling with rage – is that I will make a good maid, sweet and thick, and obedient with it. It means I will accept doña Sol’s orders without flinching, that I will clean up her shit without protest. It means I seem to have all the qualities of an idiot, and I won’t balk at anything, I won’t cause any sort of moleste to anyone. It means don Jaime will pay me, how do you say it? clopinettes, peanuts, and I’ll have to say muchísimas gracias with my sweet, grateful, humble face.

I’ve quoted at length because I wanted to show what an absolute firecracker Montse is (though she’d undoubtedly hate that term too!). She’s a fantastic character who spends the first section of the book watching events around her and then, inspired by the young men in the village, going off to have her own big adventure.

The day after Montse’s job interview, war breaks out. In their village, José has returned having learned the words Revolución! Comunidad! Libertad! He dreams of crushing the Nationalists and an equal future for all. At a general assembly in the town hall, José and his childhood friend Juan call for the creation of a commune. Their desires are modified by Diego, adopted son of don Jaime, who’s refusing to accept his birthright and has joined the Communist Party. Initially, the villagers ignore Diego, but as the days pass and they have time to consider the consequences a further meeting is called. This time the villagers, including José and Montse’s father, support Diego.

When José tells Montse he’s leaving, she goes with him, heading for Barcelona and freedom. Or so she thinks.

Interspersed with Montse’s recommendations are comments from her daughter as to what Bernanos was doing at this time. Where he’d travelled to and what atrocities he’d uncovered, including the corruption within the church. It leads her to comment:

I’m starting to see the weight of tragedy carried by the word “national”, and how every time it has been bandied about in the past, regardless of the cause (Ligue de la nation française, Révolution nationale, National Union of the People, National Fascist Party, etc.) it has inevitably brought violence with it, in France and elsewhere. History is awash with appalling examples.

A quick look at the world today tells you that it’s not just history that contains all the examples.

I absolutely loved Cry, Mother Spain. It’s a superb coming-of-age tale for its protagonist and the young men in the village, with a backdrop of a civil war which will change everyone’s lives. Montse’s a fabulous character; I would happily have spent more time with her.

Credit must also go to Ben Faccini whose translation fizzes. There are wonderful moments where he maintains the sense of Montse’s trans-Pyrenean language by not translating every word or by repeating it in English after the original. It was an utter joy to read.

 

Thanks to MacLehose 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.

#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.

Tales of Immigration by Levy and Ali

It seems pertinent this week to review two books which take immigration to the UK as one of their central themes. The first is a timely reminder of Britain’s appalling behaviour in the world and that Jamaicans fought alongside us in both wars and then were encouraged to come to the UK to make up labour shortages following World War II. The second is as much about gender as it is race and considers what it’s like to establish a life so far from home.

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Six Stories and an Essay – Andrea Levy

In the essay which begins this slim volume, Levy recalls her childhood, using it to examine the disparity between her parents arrival in Britain and her feelings on the integration of the Caribbean community in the UK.

They believed in order to get on in this country they should live quietly and not make a fuss. They should assimilate and be as respectable as they possibly could. Clean the front step every week. Go to church on Sundays. Keep their children well dressed and scrubbed behind the ears.

Teenage Levy’s sense of being an outsider comes from her working class upbringing. It isn’t until she’s on a racism awareness course at work and joins ‘the white side of the room’ that she begins to explore her experience of being black in Britain. This coincided with her taking a writing course as a hobby.

I am now happy to be called a black British writer, and the fiction I have written has all been about my Caribbean heritage in some way or another.

She points out that the social mix created from the relationship Britain developed with the Caribbean – one of slavery and exploitation initially, followed by a whole range of people moving to the islands – has been erased from our history books.

Levy states her aim for this book (and, I assume, the rest of her work) at the end of the essay:

My heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history.

The stories that follow revolve around ideas of power, of fear and of erasure. The first two, The Diary and Deborah show the power of secrets and how they can be used to get what you want – through a diary belonging to a famous actor and extracting violent retribution on a friend in fear of what your father might do to you.

The Polite Way that English People Have introduces Hortense from Small Island on the boat on her way to England. Here she realises her status is going to be reduced in the UK and in The Empty Pram a character who could be Hortense discovers the suspicion she’ll be subjected to simply for being from another country.

Loose Change takes a refugee from Uzbekistan and puts her in conversation with a woman who has the power to help her, while February reveals the erasure of Levy’s mother’s experience by a white teacher and the collection ends with Uriah’s War where the experience of two Jamaican soldiers in the First World War is erased by a sergeant on their return.

Levy introduces the reader to a range of characters and situations. What they all have in common is a sense of erasure or othering by someone, largely due to race but with regards to class. It’s an interesting mix of subjects and one in which Levy begins to explore Caribbean narratives which are expanded upon in Small Island.

Thanks to Tinder Press for the review copy.

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Brick Lane – Monica Ali

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003 (yes, it has taken me this long to read this book), Brick Lane tells the story of Nazneen’s marriage to Chanu and their move from Bangladesh to Tower Hamlets, London in 1985.

When they arrive in London, eighteen-year-old Nazneen can say only two words in English, sorry and thank you. She is befriended by the rebellious Razia and by Mrs Islam who ‘knew everything about everybody’ but is largely confined to the flat.

Forty-year-old Chanu is pompous. Considering himself an intellectual, he invites the local doctor for dinner, assuming he can see his way to helping Chanu get a promotion at work. While he desires something better for himself and, therefore, his wife, he doesn’t understand why Nazneen would want to learn English. She spends her days looking forward to letters from her sister and seeing that Chanu’s needs are met.

‘Ish’, said Chanu, breathing sharply. ‘Did you draw blood?’ He looked closely at his little toe. He wore only his pyjama bottoms and sat on the bed. Nazneen knelt to the side with a razor blade in her hand. It was time to cut her husband’s corns again. She sliced through the semi-translucent skin, the build-up around the yellow core, and gathered the little dead bits in the palm of her hand.

The couple has two children and the novel follows Nazneen and Chanu as their children grow. Chanu is determined that they will know about their heritage and determinedly teaches them about Bangladesh, much to his daughter’s irritation. His plans to improve their situation in London lead to him becoming entangled with Mrs Islam and her business interests whilst Nazneen discovers what it’s like to be in love.

Ali explores identity and how it’s formed. She considers how relationships are formed far from home when you find yourself part of a community living closely with some you might not have socialised with in alternate circumstances. She portrays a marriage without love but with some affection and the conflict that children can bring as they grow. Brick Lane is an engrossing read and an interesting portrait of a young woman discovering who she is and what she wants from life.