‘I ain’t no homosexual, I am a Barrysexual!’: Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

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There’s so much to love about Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, starting with the title. A phrase that conjures up images of heterosexual virility (I hadn’t heard of the Shabba Ranks song before reading this book) headlines a story about a 74-year-old gay British-Antiguan man who, yes, does sleep around, but is ultimately devoted to his boyhood best friend Morris. Barry, our hilarious but poignant protagonist, is still in the closet. While he knows he’s attracted to men, he shuns the term ‘homosexual’, which for him means effeminate; ‘I, for one, do not wear make-up, dye my hair, or do the mince-walk… I ain’t no homosexual, I am a… Barrysexual!’. Barry has been unhappily married to Carmel for more than fifty years, but can’t bring himself to tell her the truth, even though she knows he’s been unfaithful. He’s afraid of how it will affect his relationship with his two daughters, Donna and Maxine, but perhaps even more than that, he’s scared of people seeing him as something that he thinks he’s not. A tea-time scene early in the novel where Carmel’s closest female friends are casually homophobic and Barry tries to call them out on it, but is assumed to just be being his usual disruptive and misogynistic self, shows what the stakes are.

Barry’s story feels like the perfect companion to the twelve narratives that Evaristo highlighted in her brilliant Girl, Woman, OtherHis voice is both unforgettable and very carefully crafted, two things that don’t always go together; it’s relatively easy to write an outrageous narrator if you want to, but more difficult to make them feel like a real person by remembering that people don’t sound the same when you put them into different circumstances. For example, as Barry explains to grandson Daniel, who is jealous of his freedom to speak patois: ‘you got to treat patois as a separate language that you slip into when it’s socially acceptable to do so. I can speak the Queen’s when I feel like it. But most of the time I just do me own thing. Fear thee not, though, I know my syntax from my semiotics, my homographs from my homophones, and don’t even get me started on my dangling participles.’ In this scene, Evaristo tells us so much about Barry – his pride at being an autodidact, his inability to resist sexual innuendo – and about the ways in which language is used to enforce class and race prejudice (Daniel has been forbidden to speak patois by his mother because she thinks it will make him sound stupid).

Nevertheless, I didn’t completely adore this novel in the way that I was expecting to (and I know that I’m in the minority here, given how glowing its Goodreads reviews are). Structurally, it didn’t quite work for me. [Spoilers ahead, although it’s difficult to ‘spoil’ a novel like this that is so character-led.] The main tension throughout Mr Loverman is: will Barry ever come clean to Carmel, move in with Morris, and be open with the world about who he really is? Evaristo positions this as the central conflict, so it can’t be resolved until near the end of the novel. Because of this, though, there are quite a few sequences in Mr Loverman that felt like the novel was spinning its wheels, such as a scene where Barry goes to a gay pub for the first time (I know this was supposed to be part of his induction into gay culture, but the scene didn’t connect emotionally for me, and seemed more of an excuse to introduce some vivid but inconsequential minor characters). The stalling on this made me wonder if Mr Loverman should have been much shorteror whether Evaristo should have had Barry come out at the midpoint, giving her more time to deal with the fallout, which is rather hastily tidied up at the end.

Furthermore, having waited so long for Barry to tell Carmel the truth, I wanted this to be a serious dramatic moment, and the novel doesn’t deliver. When Barry finally screws up his courage and decides to ask for a divorce, Carmel pips him to the post, having found out about his sexuality during a long visit to Antigua, and tells him that she’s dumping him. I can absolutely see why Evaristo made this decision. She recognises, quite rightly, that Barry is not the only victim of this marriage, and hands agency back to Carmel after her years of stifled suppression. This narrative decision also emphasises that ‘coming out’ is rarely the cathartic moment that you might want it to be. In the end, Barry realises that he finally ‘came out’ when he shouted at a bunch of teenage boys trashing his house, ‘Yes, I am a cock-sucker’. But even so, it felt frustrating to have this central conflict resolved off-screen, sorted whatever Barry did or didn’t do (although there are short sections of the novel narrated from Carmel’s point of view, we don’t hear about her time in Antigua until she finally tells Barry to get lost).

Having said that, this is a novel that deserves a wide readership, and looks like it is finally getting it, seven years after its first publication. As in Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo illuminates some of the unheard stories of modern British history, and she does it with huge style. So while I might not quite have fallen in love with Mr Loverman, I still love everything about Evaristo’s literary project.

#SciFiMonth Reading, 2020

I haven’t really participated properly in #SciFiMonth this year, but here’s a round up of the science fiction and speculative fiction that I did read in November!

Megan Giddings’ debut novel Lakewood unites horror and speculative fiction in the story of Lena, a young black woman living in Michigan who drops out of college to participate in a secret medical testing programme to pay her mother’s medical bills after her grandmother dies. It soon becomes apparent that things at Lakewood, the location of the programme, are not right, but Lena can’t see another way forward – she’s gripped by the inertia that results from living in a system where both healthcare and education aren’t treated as universal rights, and black lives are viewed as less valuable. Despite the importance of Giddings’ message, however, and her deft use of some horror tropes, Lakewood didn’t function successfully as fiction for me. Like Mary South’s recent collection of short stories, You Will Never Be ForgottenI found it both too surreal and too obvious. Especially in its final third, Lakewood becomes hallucinatory in a way that I found frustrating, but at the same time, we’re told exactly what we should take away from this book, with Lena namechecking infamous historical medical experiments on black people such as Tuskagee

I’m late to the party with Octavia E. Butler’s science fiction classic Kindred, but I’m so glad I got there in the end. Kindred follows a black female writer, Dana, who is unexpectedly thrown back in time to antebellum Maryland, where she’s called upon to save the life of a drowning white boy. As she continues to jump back and forth through time, she realises that this boy is her ancestor, and that he will grow up to become a slaveowner in his own right – and that their fates seem to have become linked. This novel is more of a time-slip than a time travel narrative. Butler is uninterested in the metaphysical questions that get raised in a lot of time travel fiction, preferring instead to reckon with issues of historical relativism, culpability and empathy. I was struck by how naturally the story is told, although this isn’t the first time I’ve been impressed by how (American) science fiction writers from the 1970s and 1980s seem almost to speak from the page. Butler makes her set-up feel completely real through the very simple device of having her characters ask the right questions, allowing her to demonstrate that their actions and reactions make sense, and the novel is both emotionally engaging and incredibly thought-provoking. I’m definitely a Butler convert.

I also read two anthologies of science fiction and speculative fiction this month, Escape Pod, edited by Mur Lafferty and SB Divya, and New Suns, edited by Nisi Shawl. Escape Pod was drawn from the Escape Pod podcast to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary. As with all anthologies, there were some stories that worked for me better than others. I was disappointed to find a cluster of stories that, like Lakewood, committed the common SF error of introducing really promising concepts, but then spelling out the message of the story so clearly near the end that it ceased to be interesting. This was the case with Kameron Hurley’s ‘Citizens of Elsewhen’, Beth Cato’s ‘A Consideration of Trees’ and Tobias S. Buckell’s ‘The Machine that Would Rewild Humanity’, among others. However, in contrast to other SF collections I’ve read, this anthology was really strong on stories that were thoughtful and funny, or at least more light-hearted. I loved T. Kingfisher’s ‘Report of Dr. Hollowmas on the Incident at Jackrabbit Five’, Mary Robinette Kowal’s ‘Jaiden’s Weaver’, John Scalzi’s ‘Alien Animal Encounters’ and Cory Doctorow’s ‘Clockwork Fagin’. I’d already read NK Jemisin’s ‘Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death’, in another collection, A People’s Future of the United States, but it’s a great story that’s worth revisiting. Overall, this anthology definitely picked up in its second half, and introduced me to a number of writers I hadn’t heard of before.

I received a free proof copy of Escape Pod from the publisher for review.

Nisi Shawl’s edited collection of speculative fiction by writers of colour, New Suns, has been on my radar for a while, and while, as I say, anthologies are always a mixed bag, this is an exceptionally strong selection. (It’s made me even keener to check out Shawl’s own work, as they clearly have good taste). There were only a couple of stories that didn’t work for me at all; Jaymee Goh’s ‘The Freedom of the Shifting Sea’ had a lot of pretty gratuitous body horror, which is not my thing; E. Lily Yu’s ‘Three Variations on A Theme of Imperial Attire’ not only had the kind of title that sends up red flags for me, but was awkwardly meta; and Karin Lowachee’s ‘Blood and Bells’ was a cliched Romeo-and-Juliet gang narrative, albeit set in another world. Having said that, I basically liked everything else in New Suns; even Hiromi Goto’s ‘One Easy Trick’, which became too silly for me by the end as a woman chases her own bellyfat through a forest and encounters a talking bear, had such an arresting and memorable opening that I can’t write it off. My favourite stories were mostly on the creepy side: Alex Jennings’s ‘unkind of mercy’ mixes a terrifying premise with an incredibly authentic, inattentive narrative voice to great effect; Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s very short ‘Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister’ taps into the fear of having done something terrible in childhood which we can’t remember, and which still sets us apart from everybody else; and Indrapramit Das’s ‘The Shadow We Cast Through Time’ sets up a haunting world on another planet governed by hagtrees and kalform demons. However, I also loved Minsoo Kang’s ‘The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations’, a lighter story about how two translators team up to stop a war that reminded me of some of the more stylised stories in Ken Liu’s edited collection of Chinese science fiction, Broken Stars, although Kang is Korean. A brilliant anthology.

The End of the Year Book Tag, 2020

Resurrecting this from last year!

I. Is there a book that you started that you still need to finish by the end of the year?

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NO, because I just finished it: Hild by Nicola Griffith. I’ve been reading it since September and had tried and failed to read it before in 2017 and 2018. Set in Britain in the seventh century and following the early life of Hilda of Whitby, it’s a massive undertaking akin to Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy (although I found its thicket of names and references even harder to navigate). Eventually, I tackled it in the same way I tackled The Mirror and the Light: reading a set number of pages a day and not caring if it took me months to finish. In this way, I found myself completely sinking into Hild’s world, which although led by men has an emphasis on the bonds between women that reminded me of Griffith’s earlier SF novel Ammonite. So expansive and beautiful.

II. Do you have an autumnal book to transition to the end of the year?

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British nature-writing always feels autumnal to me, as it tends to run the full range of the seasons, and so I’m looking forward to Whitney Brown’s memoir of her time as a female dry stone-waller, Between Stone and Sky. Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her proof copy!

III. Is there a release you are still waiting for? 

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I’m excited to read Ernest Cline’s sequel to his SF smash hit Ready Player One – of course, it’s called Ready Player Two – which is out on the 24th November. I loved the first book but never took it seriously, so my expectations are both very high and very low. From the blurb, it sounds like Kline has essentially written Ready Player One redux, which is exactly what I want.

IV. Name three books you want to read by the end of the year.

Going back to my mid-year freakout tag, I’m still keen to read New Suns, a collection of speculative fiction by writers of colour edited by Nisi Shawl. I received Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman for my birthday, and I’m looking forward to diving into this story of an elderly British-Antiguan man who has hidden his homosexuality for his entire life. Finally, I picked up a proof of Buki Papillon’s An Ordinary Wonder, a debut that focuses on an intersex protagonist growing up in Nigeria.

V. Is there a book that can still shock you and become your favourite of the year?

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If I ever get round to reading it, I feel like I’m going to either love or hate Caite Dolan-Leach’s We Went To The Woods, which is about a young woman who gets kicked off a reality TV show and ends up on a 1960s-style commune.

VI. Have you already started making reading plans for 2021?

Yes! I have a stack of 2021 releases to read. Of those, I’m most excited about James Smythe’s The Edge, the long-awaited third installment in his Anomaly Quartet; Natasha Pulley’s new speculative historical novel The Kingdoms, which sounds like it’s about time travel; and Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, which is about three characters who get caught up in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Kolkata.

Tagging everyone who wants to join in with this tag!

Three #NovellasInNovember (and #NaNoWriMo)

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This blog has been a bit quiet recently! The reason for this isn’t that I haven’t been reading – in fact, after a couple of bad reading months, I’ve been tearing through books in November, and have read nine already, though admittedly this included three novellas (see below) and a pretty short YA novel. No, the reason for my relative silence is that I’ve decided to properly commit to #NaNoWriMo this year to finally crank out a significant chunk of a first draft of my Antarctic-set novel, working title Old Ice. I’ve never been able to write more than about 10k words during NaNo before, but I think this year might be my year – lockdown means there are fewer distractions, so I’m getting into a really decent writing habit. Also, it turns out that all my intermittent efforts with freewriting exercises over the last couple of years mean that I’ve built up much more of the world of this novel than I anticipated already, and that I’ve got a lot better at just putting words on the page without my inner editor intervening. However, it turns out that getting out about 1700 words of fiction every day means that something has to give, and I haven’t had as much creative energy for blogposts as normal. So here’s a quick #NovellasinNovember post as a stop-gap.

I never officially join #NovNov, which is co-run by Rebecca and Cathy, because, much in the same way that some people can’t stand short stories, I’m not a big fan of novellas. I almost always end up thinking that the book could have been shorter or longer! However, by chance I usually read a couple of novellas in November anyway, and here are my thoughts on the three I did read.

Becky Albertalli’s Love, Creekwood is a YA novella that’s strictly for fans of her first two novels set in the same universe – Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda and Leah On The Offbeat. (Technically, The Upside of Unrequited is also in this universe, but I don’t like it so I tend to pretend it doesn’t exist.) If you haven’t read those two books, I don’t think this has much to offer you. But if you have, this is an unashamed 100+ pages of fanservice as we catch up with the Creekwood gang at college, especially our two favourite queer couples. Did this book need to exist? No. Did I want it to exist? Definitely, YES – and as a bonus, Albertalli is donating all her profits to The Trevor Project, an US LGBT+ suicide hotline. Normally I’d be cross at having to pay £4.99 for a novella, but I can’t begrudge that.

Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, is narrated by a Chilean writer called Lucina who, due to complications of diabetes, has been told that the veins behind her eyes are fragile and could burst at any minute, rendering her at least partly blind. She’s been instructed to ‘stop smoking… and then don’t hold your breath, don’t cough, do not for any reason pick up heavy packages, boxes, suitcases. Never ever lean over, or dive headfirst into water. The carnal throes of passion were forbidden’. At a party in New York, where she is pursuing an academic career, she suddenly sees red spreading across her vision and realises that the worst has happened. However, even as Lucina tries to navigate the world with limited sight, she realises that she has now been set free to indulge her physical urges in every way she couldn’t before because she feared her fragile veins would break. Meruane has spoken about how this novella is based on her own experience of sight impairment but is not autobiographical; however, she says, one thing she realised when she was almost blind was how visual her world still was, with her brain filling in the gaps. Therefore, Seeing Red is surprisingly full of vivid visual imagery. It’s also written in a stream-of-consciousness rush that allows us to inhabit Lucina’s world as she waits for an operation that may or may not restore her sight. This was another of those stylistically experimental books that keep the reader close inside the protagonist’s head, like A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, that I struggled to connect with emotionally, though it’s incredibly well-written (kudos to the translator, who has had to cope with a lot of figurative language that can’t translate easily, starting with the title itself, which is Sangre en el ojo in the Spanish-language version, or ‘blood in the eye’; apparently, that connotes flying into a rage in the same way that Seeing Red does in English). The medical narrative is fascinating, however, and this book would be a good fit for the Wellcome Prize had it been eligible and were the prize still running.

Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? is a quiet novella about Berie and Sils, whose were incredibly, inseparably close as adolescents in the early 1970s but who no longer see each other now they are adults. The book is framed by two sections where Berie is holidaying in Paris with her husband, but the bulk of it focuses on a single summer when the girls were working summer jobs in Storyland, a run-down children’s amusement park in upstate New York. Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? reminded me of an expanded version of one of Alice Munro’s short stories; Moore has the same ability to distil an entire life into a scant number of pages. I was especially fascinated by the title; Berie explains that the local boys used to shoot frogs with BB guns when she and Sils were children, and they used to try and bandage them up. Later, seeing the tragi-comedy in this situation, teenage Sils painted a picture called ‘Who Will Run The Frog Hospital’ which depicted them caring for the injured frogs. (Moore was reportedly inspired by a real-life painting by Nancy Mladenoff, which appears as a frontispiece in some editions of this novella). This book is all about the evocation of a particular emotional period, and the final paragraph conveys the heartbreaking loss of adolescence as well as anything I’ve read. Thanks very much to Rebecca for passing on her copy!

Have you read any novellas in November? Or is anyone else attempting #NaNoWriMo?

Miscellaneous October Reading

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Melissa Harrison’s most recent novel, All Among the Barley, set in the early 1930s, focuses on an extended encounter between fourteen-year-old Edie Mather, who lives and works on a farm in rural England, and Constance FitzAllen, who claims that she has travelled from London to document rural traditions before they are lost to the next generation. Harrison’s nature-writing is spot on, and I thought that Edie’s narrative posed a resonant question: what do you do when there is no future for you in the place where you live, but when you are so bound to that place that you can’t imagine living anywhere else? In that, and in other ways, the novel recalls Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, with its menacing sexual tension and exploration of the boundaries of consent in Edie’s ‘courtship’ with a village boy. However, I thought the threat posed by Constance was almost too sinister; I think Harrison would have had more to work with if she had made her more of an early social scientist with a less overtly horrific agenda. Other themes, such as witchcraft and mental illness, feel underdeveloped. Harrison writes so well, but I was struck by the feeling that I would have been hugely impressed by this as an older teen, and that I don’t feel quite so drawn to these kind of books any more; which actually makes me feel a little sad.

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Temi Oh’s debut, Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, is set in an alternative present where a group of British teenagers have been selected to travel to the distant planet of Terra-Two, which is envisaged as an alternative home for humanity. The catch: the journey will take twenty-three years and none of them will ever come back. Before reading this novel, I was aware that a number of reviewers had found it too ‘YA-ish’, with a heavy focus on romance that reduced the sci-fi setting to a backdrop. The first third of Do You Dream of Terra-Two? absolutely met expectations in this respect, and I almost gave up on it several times. However, once our protagonists finally leave Earth, this novel takes off as well, acquiring a dream-like quality through the characters’ visions and imaginings of the utopian Terra-Two. It’s strongly influenced by Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game; there are some obvious nods to the earlier novel, such as the final stage of training being nicknamed ‘Command School’ and one male character becoming completely obsessed with a simulation. However, Oh also captures some of the mood of Ender’s experiences at Battle School, raising questions about how these characters are going to create a new world, especially when their adult mentors are absent or inadequate and the people they’ve left behind are already starting to forget them. It still feels more like the first installment in a series rather than a book that works in its own right, but I enjoyed the time I spent in its eerie world.

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Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being was one of my top ten novels of the last ten years, but I couldn’t finish All Over Creation. Thankfully, her debut, My Year of Meats, was a hit rather than a miss. Set in 1991, it follows Jane Takagi-Little, a Japanese-American documentarian who’s been employed by a Japanese production company to film a series called My American Wife!, sponsored by an American meat-exporting business who want to offload more beef into the Japanese market. The My American Wife! formula stipulates that Jane should find an attractive white woman with a reasonable number of children who can demonstrate a delicious meat dish that she makes to feed her family, and feature one woman like this per programme. However, as Jane gains more creative control, she starts going rogue, filming Hispanic and black families, adopted children, and, in her most daring decision, featuring a vegetarian lesbian couple making pasta primavera. Interwoven with Jane’s story is that of Akiko, a Japanese housewife whose abusive husband is part of the production team, and who forces her to watch every episode of My American Wife! and make the featured dishes. Jane and Akiko are poles apart, but their stories are linked by a common experience of infertility, with Jane suffering from a deformed uterus caused by the hormonal drugs her mother took during pregnancy. This leads her to start uncovering the ways in which hormones are used, often illegally, in the American meat industry, and the human cost of these practices. The blurb of My Year of Meats wasn’t that appealing to me; I thought it would become too simplistic, preaching about male violence and the horrors of the meat industry (although as a feminist vegetarian, I’m very much on board with such criticisms!). Instead, Ozeki writes so intelligently and vividly, I was totally engrossed. I also loved the short extracts from Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, which I believe Jane is drawn to because Shōnagon shares her sharp observational abilities. Brilliant, if not quite as brilliant as A Tale For The Time Being.

Ranking All 25 Winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction #ReadingWomen

The Women’s Prize for Fiction will announce their Winner of Winners on November 1st, which marks the end of the #ReadingWomen challenge.

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I have now read all twenty-five winners of the Women’s Prize! Here is my *totally definitive* ranking. Links are to my reviews, where they exist. The dates refer to the years these novels won the Prize, which is not always the same year they were published.

  1. Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife (2011). Natalia’s grandfather has recently died, and she’s working as a doctor in an unnamed Balkan nation recovering from civil war. Obreht seamlessly blends the folktales that Natalia’s grandfather used to tell her into the central narrative, creating a hugely evocative and magical novel.
  2. Lisa McInerney, The Glorious Heresies (2016). Set in Cork, this marvellously vital novel never falters. Ryan is such a great evocation of a teenage boy trying to stay on the rails – and he’s just one of the cast of characters. McInerney has since written two follow-ups, The Blood Miracles and The Rules of Revelation.
  3. Lionel Shriver, We Need To Talk About Kevin (2005). Infamously, this book is narrated by Eva, who is wondering whether she should ever have had children after her repulsive teenage son Kevin murders a lot of his classmates. As always with Shriver, this book is a bit of a mess, but it’s an unforgettable mess that has a lot of interesting things to say about motherhood and childhood.
  4. Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles (2012). A wonderful, lyrical account of the Trojan War from the point of view of Patroclus which makes great use of miniature stories within the main narrative, and which benefits from having been published before the recent flood of Ancient Greek retellings!
  5. Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire (2018). Three Muslim siblings are torn apart by the legacy of their father’s torture and death in Afghanistan. Deeply moving and completely gripping, Shamsie vividly evokes this set of characters and makes you feel for them.
  6. Valerie Martin, Property (2003). Manon, a slaveowner’s wife in 1820s Louisiana, narrates the injustices of her own life while ignoring the suffering of the enslaved people on her plantation. Martin so cleverly uses ideas of who gets to speak and who is silenced to paint this horrific portrait of white supremacy.
  7. AM Homes, May We Be Forgiven (2013). A series of random and violent events in a year in the life of Harry, a university lecturer. A bizarre, funny and episodic novel which veers between brilliance and banality.
  8. Naomi Alderman, The Power (2017). Set in an alternative version of the present in which women have developed the ability to deliver fatal electric shocks through their fingertips, and so start to create a matriarchy. There’s lots to criticise in this novel, given the size of the task Alderman set herself, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read it.
  9. Eimear McBride, A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing (2014). An unnamed Irish Catholic narrator navigates her way to adulthood in a stream of consciousness. McBride’s poetry-prose is incredibly clever, and works particularly well when read aloud, but I engaged with this more as a literary experiment than on the visceral level that I think it demands.
  10. Carol Shields, Larry’s Party (1998). We witness the life of Larry Weller, an ‘ordinary’ Canadian man obsessed with hedge mazes, in year-by-year vignettes. In many ways I felt this was evocative and thoughtful, hence its relatively high ranking, but it didn’t quite come together for me.
  11. Marilynne Robinson, Home (2009). Taking place concurrently to Robinson’s incredible 2004 novel GileadGlory Boughton has returned home to care for her dying father, and re-encounters her wayward brother. None of the sequels to Gilead have really worked for me; Robinson is a wonderful writer, but I wish she’d let the original novel stand on its own.
  12. Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (2019). African-American couple Roy and Celestial are newlyweds when Roy is unjustly sentenced to prison for twelve years. Effortlessly readable and thought-provoking, there perhaps wasn’t quite enough to this book to merit its win, but it did lead me to check out Jones’s other work.
  13. Kate Grenville, The Idea of Perfection (2001). Harley has come to the tiny Australian town of Karakarook to preserve its heritage; Douglas has come to dismantle a historic bridge. Nevertheless, the two are drawn to each other. Sweet, funny and smart, this didn’t blow me away, but it’s well worth reading.
  14. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of A Yellow Sun (2007). Set in 1960s Nigeria, this explores the impact of civil war on its four central protagonists, as well as questioning who has the right to tell a country’s history. This taught me so much about the Nigeria-Biafra conflict, but it didn’t click for me as a work of fiction.
  15. Ali Smith, How To Be Both (2015). This flips between the perspectives of a teenage girl trying to come to terms with the death of her mother and the Renaissance artist  Francesco del Cossa. A lot of Ali Smith’s later books blend into one for me, although I enjoy her intelligence and inventiveness.
  16. Andrea Levy, Small Island (2004). Jamaican couple Gilbert and Hortense come to Britain after the Second World War, and find their illusions of the country shattered. Important because of its subject-matter, but for me, a little schematic.
  17. Helen Dunmore, A Spell of Winter (1996). Catherine and Rob grow up isolated from the world in their grandfather’s Edwardian Manor House before the First World War. A weird and heavily atmospheric novel, I was never quite as enthralled by this as I wanted to be, despite Dunmore’s brilliant prose.
  18. Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (2020). Shakespeare’s wife Agnes deals with the sudden death of their son Hamnet. Beautifully-written but, for me, emotionally distant, and Agnes was too much of a stock protagonist.
  19. Zadie Smith, On Beauty (2006). A retelling of EM Forster’s
    Howards End, this focuses on a mixed-race British-American family living in the US. I think this is the book on the list that I read the longest time ago, when I was an undergraduate, but I remember finding the characters caricatures.
  20. Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna (2010). Our American narrator recounts his experience of working in the household of Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the midst of the Mexican revolution. I struggle with novels that make extensive use of diary entries, so this was never going to be a hit with me, and it also suffered from Kingsolver’s tendency to moralise.
  21. Ann Patchett, Bel Canto (2002). A group of terrorists take a prestigious set of guests hostage in an unnamed South American country. Poor Ann Patchett, this is by far her worst work; I thought it was melodramatic and overly stylised.
  22. Linda Grant, When We Lived In Modern Times (2000). Evelyn emigrates from Soho to Palestine in 1946. It’s a long time since I read this one, but I remember it as extremely dry, if educational, and Grant’s more recent novels seem to follow a similar trend.
  23. Suzanne Berne, A Crime In The Neighbourhood (1999). Our ten-year-old narrator tells us about the murder of a child in a suburb of Washington DC against the backdrop of the Watergate scandal. This made very little impression on me; I found the child’s-eye-view cliched.
  24. Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces (1997). Jakob’s family were killed in the Holocaust when he was only a small boy, and he tries to make a life for himself out of the fragments of his past. This book completely drowned in its own purple prose, despite some promising emotional content.
  25. Rose Tremain, The Road Home (2008). Lev emigrates to London from an unnamed Eastern European country and observes the odd behaviour of its residents. To be honest, this is better written than Fugitive Pieces, but I found it so stereotypical and offensive that I feel it belongs in the bottom slot.

You can also check out Bookish Beck’s ranking of all 25 novels here.

Obviously, this was an odd exercise. I read some of these books a decade ago and some very recently, although I did have a pretty vivid impression of every one of them (the only exception was Larry’s Party, which I actually re-read in order to rank it, and I’m glad I did!) It also threw up the difference between what we remember of a reading experience and what we felt about it at the time. I’ve always told everyone how much I adore The Tiger’s Wife, but re-reading my review, I was a little more hesitant in 2012. In contrast, I raved about The Glorious Heresies in 2015, but events since, especially my disappointment with The Blood Miracles, have made me feel less enthusiastic. And that’s only the top two rankings… so you’ll imagine that the rest have to be taken with a pinch of salt as well.

One frustrating thing about this list was having to rank certain writers that I love so low. There seems to be a trend to award great writers the Women’s Prize for their weakest books. I grew so annoyed by this that I’ve picked out my actual favourite books by the writers concerned. Here’s my alternative list, with notes as to whether the Prize recognised these books at all at the time:

So, who do I want to win the Winner of Winners award?  Obviously:

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Who do I think will win? I’m not actually sure how the winner is being judged – it sounds like the public vote will factor in, but won’t be the only factor. So I’ll make two predictions: one for the judges’ choice and one for the public’s choice.

The judges’ choice: Unlike the run-of-the mill Prize, I don’t think this is AT ALL predictable. There are a couple of rules that I think will be in play:

  • I doubt the Prize will honour its most recent winners (so An American Marriage and Hamnet, at the very least, will be out).
  • I don’t think the Prize will give this award to either of the two books it picked out for its last two winner-of-winner style things (so Small Island and Half of A Yellow Sun are out).
  • This is more subjective, but there a few books on the list that, in my opinion, have dated so badly that it would be very surprising to choose them. These are: Fugitive Pieces, The Road Home and A Crime In The Neighbourhood.
  • Lionel Shriver is such a massive liability these days that they won’t give the award to We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Unfortunately, even if you assume that all of this is 100% accurate, I still have 17 books left to choose from! So here’s my very unlikely gamble:

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I feel like this plays into the spirit and ethos of the Prize; it traces the intricate selfhood of a young woman, and it was also pretty much ignored, IIRC, until the Prize recognised it, propelling McBride to a successful literary career.

The public choice: This will be a book that has either won the prize very recently or has real staying power. For that reason, I think a number of the older novels that I ruled out above are back in play: Small Island, Half of A Yellow Sun, We Need To Talk About Kevin. However, my guess would be, simply because it’s fresh in everybody’s minds:

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What is your favourite of the books on this list? And who do you think might win the Winner of Winners award?

#ReadingWomen: Past Women’s Prize for Fiction Winners, Part Two

I’ve now read the last two Women’s Prize for Fiction winners that I had remaining (one, Larry’s Party, I’d technically read before, but I remembered so little about it I decided to start from scratch). This means I have officially finished the #ReadingWomen challenge! I’ll be posting my ranking of all twenty-five Women’s Prize for Fiction winners before the 1st November, when the Women’s Prize will announce their Winner of Winners.

So, what did I think of the last two on the list?

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I read Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection, which won the Orange Prize in 2001, as a buddy read with Rebecca at Bookish Beck. It tells the story of two misfits, Douglas and Harley, who meet in the tiny Australian town of Karakarook. Douglas is an engineer who has been sent to demolish the town’s rickety bridge; Harley is a museum curator who has been sent to preserve the region’s rural heritage. Both strangers in the community, single and lonely, they are set on a personal as well as a professional collision course. Grenville is brilliant at making the most mundane moments feel incredibly tense, whether it’s Douglas’s inability to break social convention by speaking up when he’s being driven far too fast through the outback, or Harley’s very quiet confrontation with a local storeowner who won’t sell her a bucket. The Idea of Perfection really gets into the second-by-second tick of social anxiety, with both the protagonists agonising over doing the correct thing. On the surface, this is a funny and light read, but like the patchwork that Harley puts together, Grenville is adept at balancing out the light and the dark, with the darkness in the novel largely to be found in the backstories of the two protagonists. However, The Idea of Perfection also includes a subplot about local housewife Felicity Porcelline, who is determined to be a model to everybody else but ends up being tempted by adultery, and I felt this really detracted from the novel as a whole. Felicity is a very familiar caricature and her story distracted from the warmer thread of Harley and Douglas’s growing bond. Because of this wasted page-time, the novel seemed too long, but also wrapped up too quickly; there didn’t seem to be enough space in the final chapters to really feel for our protagonists. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the quirky originality and clever observations of The Idea of Perfection, and liked it better than the only other Grenville I’ve read (The Secret River).

The cover of Larry’s Party I originally read, L, and my current edition, R. I love how green all editions of Larry’s Party are!

Carol Shields’s ninth novel, Larry’s Party, won the Orange Prize in 1998. The novel follows the life of an ‘ordinary’ Canadian man, Larry Weller, through a series of chronological vignettes that focus on specific years in his life, culminating in a dinner party he holds in his late forties. Shields’s purpose only really becomes clear in this long final chapter, when all the women who’ve been significant in Larry’s life debate the role of men in the late 1990s, and whether they are now redundant! Certain flashes of Larry’s life felt more freshly observed to me than others; I found the very first chapter particularly memorable, when Larry strolls delightedly through the streets wearing a wrong but better jacket than the one he put on that morning. It reminded me of Michel Faber’s brilliant short story ‘Vanilla Bright Like Eminem’, which similarly captures a moment of unexpected joy in the middle of an ordinary day. Larry’s journey through Annunciation paintings with his second wife, Beth, an academic who is by far the most interesting character in the novel, also stuck in my mind, as did his first wife’s callous destruction of the hedge maze he lovingly builds in his garden. Finally, Shields writes hilariously and accurately about Larry’s brief midlife crisis when he turns forty: ‘and then a dazzling thought comes at him sideways – by August he will be forty-one! No longer forty, with forty’s clumsy, abject shoulders and sting of regret, but forty-one! A decent age, a mild, assured, wise and good-hearted manly age.’ However, although I liked the novel a lot, I didn’t think that it brought anything particularly new to discussions of masculinity at the turn of the twenty-first century, although it’s refreshing to see a male protagonist who is fundamentally not a bad sort. I also found the twist at the end both disappointing and frankly, unbelievable, given its minimal seeding. It allows Shields to deploy a satisfying maze metaphor but for me, negatively coloured my final impression of this solid Orange Prize winner.

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Both these novels made me reflect on how rarely I read novels that are older than a couple of years, and what I might be missing out on by focusing so closely on contemporary fiction. I also suspect that I might have been much more impressed by both these books had I read them in my late teens or early twenties, when, for whatever reason, I felt much more drawn to these kind of quiet, character-led narratives. Nowadays, as my Women’s Prize winner ranking will reveal, I am much more enthusiastic about books that make me think, and especially to books that incorporate speculative elements, whether that’s hard SF or something with just a hint of magic. I feel like this reverses some stereotypical ideas about what you like in your teens versus your thirties, but never mind!

Has reading older novels made you reflect on your present reading preferences?

Durham Book Festival Online: Dialogue Books Proof Party

This year, alongside the John Murray Proof Party that I attended last week, Durham Book Festival also hosted a Dialogue Books Proof Party, offering free copies of two upcoming releases, plus a discussion with the writers chaired by Yvonne Battle-Felton. The two books were:

Unfortunately, Buki Papillon had technical problems and couldn’t join us for the discussion, which is a shame, because I’m really excited about An Ordinary Wonder. Set in Nigeria, it’s ‘the powerful coming of age story of an intersex twin, Oto, who is forced to live as a boy despite their heartfelt belief that they are a girl.‘ I’ve read very few novels about intersex people other than Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, so I’m looking forward to receiving the proof.

The discussion therefore focused on Kit Fan’s debut novel, Diamond Hill, which is set in Hong Kong in the 1980s, told in first-person from the point of view of a recovering heroin addict, Buddha, in the shanty town of Diamond Hill. Fan read an extract from the novel where Buddha encounters two figures that are crucial to the rest of the story – actress Audrey Hepburn and a teenage gang leader, Boss. (He explained that he wanted to write about Hepburn because when he was a child in Hong Kong in the 1980s, his dad would say to his mum, when he got impatient about her spending too long putting on her make-up, ‘do you think you’re Audrey Hepburn?’) The 1980s was also crucial to his vision for the book: he sees it as a ‘lost decade’ in Hong Kong, when people were obsessed with making money but also frightened about the looming handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, especially after the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, which led to a huge flow of emigration from Hong Kong.

Fan spoke really interestingly about two aspects of writing that are often used to judge the ‘authenticity’ of fiction: language and place. The novel is peppered with Cantonese, but English translations are included in parentheses. Fan explained that he wanted to use Cantonese in the novel partly because he remembered when writing it in school was taboo, as it was seen as a dialect, not a written language, but he also wanted to make the novel accessible to readers who don’t read Chinese or Cantonese. This led to a great back-and-forth with Battle-Felton over how easy authors should make things for readers. Fan also discussed how, although he grew up in an apartment building overlooking Diamond Hill, he has never visited the shanty town. He saw this as an advantage, not a disadvantage – he’s not writing a documentary, and it’s liberating to imagine somewhere you have never been.

Do either of these books appeal to you?

Durham Book Festival Online: John Murray Proof Party

Yesterday, I went to my first online event at the Durham Book Festival! This is the third year in a row I’ve been to the John Murray Proof Party, and while it was a little sad having to attend online rather than in person, it was still a lovely event. (My report from last year is here.) We were all relieved to know that we still get copies of the three books discussed – they just get posted to us rather than handed out.

This year, the three books were:

  • Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley
  • The Rules of Revelation by Lisa McInerney
  • The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin

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No cover image is available for McInerney’s book yet.

I was SUPER excited – I loved Mozley’s debut, Elmetand McInerney’s debut, The Glorious Heresies (even if I found the follow-up, The Blood Miraclesa little disappointing). I hadn’t heard of McLaughlin’s work before, but I was super excited about her as well once I found out she had also written a collection of short stories called Dinosaurs on Other Planets.

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Clockwise from top left: the host, Grace; Lisa McInerney; Fiona Mozley; Danielle McLaughlin. I apologise to all concerned for this screenshot!

Mozley’s second novel, Hot Stew, focuses on the closure of an old brothel in Soho and the impact on the women who work there. The extract she read focused on the landlady – the daughter of an old Soho gangster – who is trying to force them out. Mozley spoke about how she doesn’t want to glamorise the sex industry, but how she wanted to present a group of women who are in a relatively good situation as they’re in control of their own work, and how the external threat of gentrification affects this. As you might expect, there was a lot of discussion about how different this all was from the rural Elmet, and whether Mozley found it difficult to write her second novel after the success of her first. She enormously impressed me by saying that ‘I started [Hot Stew] the day after I finished Elmet’ – apparently it was a book she’d always wanted to write, but promised herself that she’d finish Elmet first. While saying that this new novel is more lighthearted and joyful than Elmet, she also drew out some unexpected similarities between them – noting that at heart both novels are about a dispute over a piece of land. And although Hot Stew is set in modern, urban Soho, she said that she had the Middle Ages in mind when she was writing – Soho would have been grazing land and its roads follow the old paths of animal tracks.

McInerney’s third novel, The Rules of Revelation, is the third in the loose trilogy that started with The Glorious Heresies. She said that the books deal in turn with ‘sex, drugs and rock & roll‘, and so this book is concerned with an Irish band releasing a debut album, and the impact it has on her four protagonists. In a departure from her earlier writing, all four of her protagonists are female – she hesitated to refer to them all as ‘women’ as one is questioning her gender, though still using she/her pronouns. Two of the others, Maureen and Karine, will be familiar to those who have read her previous work: Maureen is a woman in her late sixties dealing with how Ireland is changing around her, and Karine is a young mother ‘who keeps failing at feminism – she’s just not very good at it.’ The final protagonist is Georgie, a retired sex worker. It sounds like one of the concerns of this novel might be how feminism speaks to working-class women and working-class non-binary people, which I love. McInerney also spoke so interestingly about Cork, which has been the setting of all three of her novels; she joked ‘I can write other settings!’ but also pointed out how Cork itself has changed since she published The Glorious Heresies in 2015, and how she has enjoyed charting the emergence of a ‘new glossy Instagram Cork’ against the background of massive social change across Ireland, such as the legalisation of gay marriage and abortion.

McLaughlin’s debut novel, The Art of Falling, is about a woman, Nessa, dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s affair while organising a retrospective art exhibition for the work of a famous Irish sculptor, Robert Locke. Unsurprisingly, these two threads start to intertwine in unexpected ways. McLaughlin, who has been a short story writer for years, said that she originally thought that this novel would be a short story as well, and had to figure out how to handle a bigger piece of work. She naturally gravitated towards writing strong relationships between women, such as that between Nessa and her teenage daughter, and said that as someone who suffers from social anxiety, one of the joys of being a writer is that you can play out a scene again and again on the page to work it out.

I’m looking forward to all of these novels, and also to the other events I’ve booked at the Durham Book Festival: a talk with Laura Bates, founder of Everyday Feminism, next Friday, and a Dialogue Books Proof Party next Sunday (yep I booked all the events with the free books). I’ll definitely report back on the latter, if not both!

Have you attended any virtual book festivals during lockdown?

Early Autumn Reading #ReadingWomen

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Anneliese Mackintosh’s Bright and Dangerous Objects combines two kinds of female-led stories that are currently very popular; the dysfunctional millennial drifting through her life, and the woman struggling with the realities and fantasies of potential motherhood. However, Solvig, the 37-year-old protagonist of this novel, is a bit different from a lot of her literary counterparts; alongside her internal conflicts, she is also occupied with a skilled and dangerous job, commercial deep-sea diving for an oil company in the North Sea. (This addresses one of my most frequent complaints about this kind of novel, so kudos to Mackintosh for that!) She also toys with what is probably one of the most extreme solutions to her present problems contemplated by any of these literary women: joining the first mission to Mars as a colonist. Bright and Dangerous Objects doesn’t have a lot to say about either deep-sea diving or Mars, so I wouldn’t advise picking it up if your interest really lies in either of those areas, rather than with Solvig herself. However, I thought that Mackintosh’s take on this sub-genre was smarter and more engaging than many I’ve read, especially when she starts getting into the idea that going to Mars could potentially be seen as a suicide mission, given the high death rate anticipated among colonists. While the novel never seems to take the Mars mission totally seriously as an option, this does give it some thematic resonance; is there something appealing for Solvig in bowing out of life when she could still just about be perceived as the maiden, rather than the mother or the crone? Bright and Dangerous Objects, as a piece of work, was too sketchy and brief for me, but it suggests that Mackintosh has the potential to write something brilliant.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK and US on October 6th.

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Cal has retired from the Chicago police force to a tiny town in rural Ireland, where he spends his time doing up an old farmhouse and enjoying long, casual chats with his neighbours. However, when a local teenager, Trey, whose older brother Brendan has recently gone missing, starts hanging around his property, Cal finds himself being pulled into this community far more deeply and dangerously than he intended. French is known for her brilliant Dublin Murder Squad novels, a series of police procedurals, and it seemed to me that, in The Searcher, she wanted to write about sombody conducting an investigation who can’t fall back on the apparatus of the state; no forensics, no technology, no mobile phone records. This allows French to showcase what she has always been best at – mapping out conversations between two people when one has something to hide and the other wants to find it out, which have before taken place in the interrogation room but are now set in bedrooms, shops and fields. However, thematically, Cal’s lack of formal ties also allows French to explore how this forces him to negotiate right and wrong outside the framework of the police force, and to ask questions about the role of the police themselves that are hugely relevant in the wake of the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement. As Elle says in her review, the conversation that Cal and Trey have about the difference between ‘etiquette, manners and morals’ is absolutely crucial to French’s project, as is Cal tussling with the idea that he once had a personal ‘code’ which he has lost along the way.

However, although The Searcher is an intelligent and immersive novel, it fell a little short for me. Of all French’s protagonists, I felt Cal was the one who is least called upon to truly rethink what he believes. My concern is that somebody who has bought into ideas about the silliness of ‘woke’ millennials might think that they are being vindicated here – with Cal’s comments, for example, about how everyone today is too hung up on using the correct language rather than doing the right thing – and while I don’t think that’s what French is saying at all, I wanted her to back Cal into a tighter corner. Because the narrative ended up being too straightforward, this sits in the second tier of French novels for me, alongside The Witch Elm and my least favourite Dublin Murder Squad novel, Faithful Place. I still miss the supernatural spark that lights up all of French’s best books, and I don’t think her most recent stories have been as enthralling. Nevertheless, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: French cannot write a bad novel, and this is still so worth reading.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the US on October 6th and in the UK on November 5th.

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As regular readers of this blog will know, I am aiming to read all twenty-four previous winners of the Women’s Prize as part of their #ReadingWomen challenge before the ‘Winner of Winners’ is announced in November. Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter was the first ever winner of the Prize back in 1996, and at first glance it’s a weird choice, although after I’d thought about it for a little while, I could see that it’s concerned with themes such as patriarchy and motherhood that would have seemed relevant for the inaugural winner of a prize for women writers. Catherine and her brother Rob have grown up isolated from the world in their grandfather’s slowly decaying manor house sometime shortly before the First World War. Catherine’s narration reveals how closely she feels entwined with this building and the land that surrounds it. ‘I knew as much about the house as Rob did. More. I watched it, and he never did. I knew where its walls trapped sunlight and fed it back to you when you leaned against them after dust. I knew where the pears ripened first against the kitchen-garden wall’. Ultimately, her home is overtaken by the natural world: ‘It doesn’t want to be a house any more. It swarms with life… When I went into my grandfather’s room his window was black with leaves.’ I’ve never been especially impressed with Dunmore’s writing before, but here it’s stunning; this book delivers atmosphere in spades, reminiscient of any number of classic novels about lonely girls and old houses, although Catherine’s off-kilter narration reminded me most strongly of Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle. Unlike that novel, however, A Spell of Winter feels uneasily poised between fantasy and realism, and although the secondary characters are often vivid, I wasn’t as swept away by Catherine’s voice as I felt I needed to be. While reading, I kept on feeling that I was about to be swallowed up by this book, but I never quite got there. Nevertheless, this is a distinctive novel, and I’m not surprised it appealed to the original panel of judges.