20 Books of Summer, #1: The Lauras by Sara Taylor

30965704A mother, named only as Ma, tells her teenage child, Alex, that they must both leave the house abruptly without any warning, and that Alex can only take the school backpack they’d already packed. The pair set off on a road trip across America, guided by a map upon which Ma has written annotations such as ‘Brainwashed broodmother’ in the middle of Texas, and ‘Den of prostitution and overpriced wine’ in Nevada. But there’s a pattern to some of these scribbles; many of them relate to a series of women called Laura that Ma met throughout her life. While Ma had romantic feelings for most of the Lauras, some took other roles in her life entirely; yet their influence was always positive. As she explains when Alex asks her ‘Why are they all called Laura?’, ‘You try to get the new Laura to fit into the hole the old Laura left. And when you get older it doesn’t matter that you know things don’t work like that, because your ears will be primed and your heart will beat faster at the sound of that name… until you look back when you’re forty years old and realise that you have a long string of Lauras behind you who were all important.‘ However, alongside Ma’s odyssey, Alex has their own journey; they (Alex) has no internal sense of gender identity, and take care to outwardly appear neither male nor female, so they cannot be forced into a box by others. The vicious bullying and sexual assaults Alex encounters at a series of schools has set them apart from the world, yet they are totally certain about who they are inside.

The Guardian headlined its review of The Lauras an engrossing transgender road trip‘, which is misleading; Alex does not seem to me to be trans or even non-binary under the conventional definition used by trans women and men or non-binary people, because they do not have a gender identity, and so their gender identity cannot be at odds with the sex they were assigned at birth.[1] Nevertheless, The Lauras is intensely thought-provoking about gender. This is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about recently myself after hearing Sarah Perry talk at the Emerald Street Literary Festival about how she does not have a strong internal sense of being a woman. I don’t want to paraphrase her words too much, so here is a link to an older article where she says: ‘I’m not entirely sure I think of myself as a woman.’ 

When I was a little girl, I swung year on year between being a vehement ‘tomboy’ and being the girliest girl I could imagine. When I was five, I used to ask for a ‘boy’ party bag at friends’ parties rather than a ‘girl’ party bag – because I wanted the dinosaur and truck toys, not the dolls and glitter, but also because I think I already had the sense that I didn’t want to be like the other girls. By the time I was seven, I insisted on having my long hair braided, wore the frilliest possible dresses, and policed my own behaviour for signs of anything I thought was too ‘boyish’. As a nine-year-old, I swung back again; I remember one male teacher at my primary school joking that ‘Laura’s as likely to wear a skirt as I am.’ Perhaps cued by this kind of well-intentioned comment that nevertheless, highlighted my difference from the others in my class, by twelve I was in short skirts, platform shoes and badly-applied make-up. This is all summed up for me by an entry I made as a young child in the sort of diary that gave you prompts as to what to write. Under the sentence ‘This year I’m going to change this about myself’ I wrote ‘Being Like A Boy.’ A year or so later, I rubbed the last word out and wrote ‘Being Like A Girl’.

Ramona diaryPerry’s talk chimed with me because I have also never felt an internal sense of gender identity. Because I have grown up being treated as a girl and then as a woman, I have learnt my way into this role, but it doesn’t feel like something that was mine to begin with. However, I think I differ from her when she says that ‘my being a woman only rarely occurs to me, in quite a detached and disinterested way’. Although I don’t feel that I always was female ‘inside’, I would say I have come to identify with other women through shared experience under patriarchy. Therefore, being a woman is now an important part of my identity, albeit not one that I feel has been present since birth.

This is a very long-winded way of saying that I absolutely loved the thought-provoking questions that The Lauras posed about gender and gender identity. We never find out Alex’s biological sex, or indeed, whether they are in fact intersex. As in the Ancillary Justice series, which are in all other respects very different books, I found myself trying to guess what Alex ‘really’ was, then wondering why the question mattered so much. As Alex appears androgynous, their sex has nothing to do with how they are treated by other people, except insofar as they are bullied and assaulted for being genderless. Taylor is perhaps a bit too blunt and simplistic in attacking readers’ assumptions when she has Alex think ‘Knowing someone’s sex doesn’t tell you anything… I suppose the need to know, how knowing changes the way you behave about them… tells an awful lot about you’, but it’s a point that is obviously central to the novel.

I’ve written so much about Alex that there’s little space to say much more about Ma’s journey, but rest assured that, if not as theoretically thought-provoking, her travels fully earn their place in the narrative, and, indeed, provide its backbone. Travelling from place to place, Ma picks up the threads of stories that she dropped years ago, and finds out what happened next, while being as at ease with her own sexuality as she is with Alex’s (lack of) gender. And I have to say, as a Laura myself, I loved the series of different Lauras that she seeks out. As a small child I often made friends with other Lauras because we had a common point of reference, and I still have a disproportionate number of friends called Laura in the present day (although the name was so popular in the year I was born that perhaps this is inevitable; I’ve rarely been in a large group of people my age without at least one other Laura).

All this is to say that The Lauras is a beautifully-written and gripping novel, remaining upbeat about difficult questions of identity while consistently managing to steer clear of anything too kitschy or glib. It’s been a brilliant start to my 20 Books of Summer.

[1] Based on the definitions of transgender and non-binary identity put forward by Stonewall and GLAAD. Obviously these definitions can be contested.

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Less glorious heresies

611lfTHwX3L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Lisa McInerney’s debut, The Glorious Heresies, was absolutely brilliant; a worthy winner of the Baileys Prize, it interweaved the stories of a number of utterly convincing characters in the drug-dealing underbelly of Cork while also daring to experiment with prose. The Glorious Heresies centred on Ryan, who is only fifteen years old at the start of the novel, but is already being drawn into organised crime. Yet one of its strengths was that Ryan, if the emotional heart of the novel, was not its only focus. Ex-drug addict, ex-prostitute Georgie also narrated sections, while the story of Maureen, the elderly mother of Cork’s most notorious gangster, Jimmy Phelan, added a welcome thread of black humour. I’ve summarised this here because The Blood Miracles is a direct sequel to McInerney’s first novel; and while I enjoyed reading it, I was disappointed that it largely offered more of the same, or at times, a bit less.

Ryan is now twenty years old and is trying to make things right with his long-term girlfriend, Karine, while at the same time, being drawn into arranging further drug shipments by exploiting his Italian connections. A chance to set up a new club night at Catalyst offers a possible opportunity to get back on the straight and narrow, but when Ryan meets the alluring Natalie, even more things start going wrong. Meanwhile, when he bumps into Maureen when he goes on a bender late one night, he risks being drawn back into Phelan’s machinations. Unlike The Glorious Heresies, The Blood Miracles doesn’t suggest there is any real redemption for Ryan, and it’s hard not to agree with Karine’s assessment of him. This robs the novel of much of its tension, as, while we hope Ryan doesn’t manage to get himself killed, there’s little else to root for.

This is partly due to the fact that The Blood Miracles sticks closely to Ryan’s point of view, rather than switching between a range of different characters, which was one of the strengths of The Glorious Heresies. But it’s also due to the characterisation of Ryan himself. About halfway through the novel, he does something so incredibly stupid that he seems to be an entirely different person from the intelligent fifteen-year-old we met at the beginning of the first book. After that, he simply compounds his errors until he manages to get his act together in the closing pages of the novel. Because of this, my sympathy for him was far more limited. Alongside this, McInerney’s writing, while still good, lost some of the sparkle it had had in The Glorious Heresies; she’s reined back the imaginatively crazy extended metaphors and on her personification of the city. I know these passages in the earlier novel were controversial, but I loved them.

McInerney is an accomplished enough writer to pull together an interesting and readable novel despite these faults. However, I hope that her next book takes her into different territory, rather than continuing Ryan’s somewhat burnt-out story.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher.

Baileys Prize Shortlist Round-Up, #3

the-dark-circleMy other reviews of the Baileys-shortlisted novels can be found here, here and here.

The Dark Circle was the last of the shortlisted Baileys books I read, and I’m afraid my feelings about it are rather lukewarm. This feels unfair, because Grant achieves everything that she sets out to do; but in contrast to the ambition displayed by the other five books on the list, The Dark Circle felt hemmed in by its own deliberate claustrophobia.

Lenny and Miriam, a Jewish brother and sister, are dispatched from the East End of London to a sanatorium in Kent when they are diagnosed with TB in 1949. Ensconced in this modernist prison, they meet a range of people from all walks of life; from Oxford student Valerie, with whom Miriam shares a freezing cold veranda, to salesman Colin Cox, to the mysterious Hannah, a German lesbian, whose girlfriend is desperately trying to get her access to the latest treatment for TB, the antibiotic streptomycin. The struggle for streptomycin, which is the only hope that most of the patients have for a cure, highlights Grant’s brilliant evocation of an institution caught between a deferential past and a welfare-state future. The sanatorium’s director finds it hard to cope with newer, bolshier, less ‘refined’ patients, and seems less sorry about the restricted supplies of antibiotics than he should be (the scene where he selects four patients to receive the doses that are available is one of the most fascinating in the book, as he makes his choice for reasons ranging from their good moral character to the fact that they build too many things out of matchsticks and it would be good to get rid of them). Grant has carefully researched the alternative, brutal treatments for TB, such as the collapse of a lung or the removal of ribs, and these experiences are vividly portrayed in the suffering of the patients.

Technically, The Dark Circle is excellent. And yet I still struggled with it. The story felt weirdly familiar, even though I can’t name a single comparison title; the arrival of the brash American Arthur Persky, who shakes up sanatorium routines, seemed inevitable, especially the way that he cuts a swathe through the nearby female population by introducing them to oral sex. But the familiarity might not have been a problem if I hadn’t found the book such grim reading. Of course, this shows that Grant has managed exactly what she wanted; she clearly wants us to feel hemmed in by the impossibly dull lives of the patients and to be distressed by the pointlessness of most of the medical options offered. But it wasn’t a novel that I wanted to return to, especially as nobody ever really seems to escape from behind their NHS-provided bars. The few chapters that deal with the world outside, such as the life of Hannah’s girlfriend Sarah, working in London on early television programmes and struggling to deal with the fact that TV is seen as both ‘low-class’ and expensive – were a great relief. The tiny world in which these characters move felt even smaller by the final page.

(Finally, I don’t know what it says about me and/or The Dark Circle that I could remember ‘streptomycin’ without referring to the text but had to look up the names of most of the characters…)

bwpffshortlist2017-5So, now to the task of putting these six very good novels in some kind of order. My top three all impressed me so much that I’d be happy to see any of them win – and to be honest, all six books have some claim to victory. But in my opinion…

MY WINNER: The Power: Naomi Alderman

2. The Sport of Kings: CE Morgan

3. Stay With Me: Ayòbámi Adébáyò

4. First Love: Gwendoline Riley

5. Do Not Say We Have Nothing: Madeleine Thien

6. The Dark Circle: Linda Grant

I’ve written lots already about these six books, so I won’t say much more here, but in brief: as a reader, I tend to admire daring, scope and heart, even when things go a bit wrong or the writer can’t quite pull it off. I loved Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Lifefor example. So big imaginative books tend to score more highly with me than smaller, more perfect works of art – which is obviously a very subjective thing. Ultimately, The Power is the book from the list that I still think about most, and which will remain with me the longest – that’s why it’s my winner.

I’m looking forward to the announcement of the actual prize on 7th June!

Finally, I was pleased to see that, adopting a collective sponsorship model, the Baileys will be the Women’s Prize For Fiction from 2018 onwards. I think this makes its future more secure – and to be honest, it’s still the Orange Prize to me…