Reading round-up, September 2018

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Angela Chadwick’s debut, XX, imagines a world where two women are able to have their own biological child – who will always be female – through ovum-to-ovum fertilisation. Jules and Rosie, a lesbian couple, jump at the chance to have a baby who is related to both of them. But as the medical trial proceeds, their situation becomes increasingly dangerous as protest mounts. While it’s still all too rare to see lesbians represented in fiction, and I enjoyed the refreshing depiction of Jules and Rosie’s happy, normal relationship, this didn’t mesh very well with the premise of the book. The wider, more interesting implications of this technology are barely mentioned. As one of the characters points out, the reason people are afraid of ovum-to-ovum is not really because of lesbians – who already live lives without men – but because of the suggestion, however small, that heterosexual women might turn away from their male partners to mother children with more reliable female friends. How far are women staying with men under patriarchy so they can have children? The close focus on Jules and Rosie means that these intriguing feminist questions are sidelined, and the issues at hand are reduced to ‘giving women more choice’. Chadwick’s clunky, journalistic writing also keeps the story very simplistic. A shame, because this is readable and potentially interesting, though not a patch on Helen Sedgwick’s fantastic The Growing Season.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 4th October.

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I loved Lissa Evans’s Their Finest Hour and a Half, though I was less enamoured by Crooked Heart*, which for me sat uncomfortably between children’s/YA and adult fiction. I’m pleased to report that her latest novel, Old Baggage, is a triumph. Mattie Simpkin still relives her glory days as a suffragette by giving illustrated talks to dwindling audiences, but it’s now 1928, and she’s starting to wonder what else she has to give to the world. Discouraged by the politically apathetic attitude of the working-class young women she sees around her, as well as by the state of their health, she starts a subversive girls’ club, the Amazons, which rebels against more familiar inter-war traditions of youth organisations by encouraging radical debates and archery. Mattie is wonderfully written, with Evans not afraid to delve into her fundamental flaws as well as her strength of character. It’s hugely refreshing to read about a female character not driven primarily by her emotional relationships, whether these are romantic, platonic or familial, but by a genuine sense of idealism coupled with some pretty massive blind spots when it comes to dealing with other people. Evans also highlights the important work that was done by women after the vote was won through the character of Mattie’s lesbian housemate and close friend, ‘The Flea’, who presses on with a discouraging vocation as a health visitor. The novel is both convincingly historical and absolutely topical, raising the familiar question that has dogged feminism since its inception: how do you convince society that there is still crucial work to be done after everybody starts believing that the battle has been won?

*Having re-read my review of Crooked Heart, in which Mattie plays a small role, it’s interesting to see that I wrote that she was ‘the character that most intrigued me’. Making her the star of her own book was certainly a wise decision.

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This is my second attempt at reading Elizabeth Strout, after Olive Kitteridge, and I’m afraid that I continue to be underwhelmed by her writing. My Name Is Lucy Barton is a very brief novel that begins when Lucy, a wife and mother, is spending several weeks in hospital with an unspecified illness. Visits from her mother prompt her to recall her abusive childhood and difficult younger years, while she also remembers attending a writing workshop led by a charismatic female writer, which prompted her to try and tell her own story. Strout’s prose is admirably clear, but I kept on being bothered by echoes of other writers – most obviously, Alice Munro and Anne Tyler, but there were also bits that sounded like Ann Patchett. I hate to say this about a novel that has received such acclaim, but I felt like I’d read very similar things before. In contrast, Olive Kitteridge possessed more character, but still didn’t blow me away. I’m not sure I’ll be trying anything else by Strout in the near future.

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19 thoughts on “Reading round-up, September 2018

  1. So pleased that you enjoyed Old Baggage – I agree that Mattie’s characterisation as someone driven primarily by political idealism and the intellect is very refreshing. Shame about XX, though. I was wondering whether I ought to pick that up. Perhaps not.

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  2. I’m not sure what has caused it, and it can’t just be the #MeToo movement because that’s fairly new, but it seems like many authors want to get on this bandwagon of what writing what it would it be like in a world without men. Since all the books are coming out at what seems like the same time, I feel underwhelmed but most of them. I did enjoy a graphic novel called Woman’s World by Aminder Dahliwal, though. The author has been creating it online for years.

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    • XX never suggests that men are genuinely under threat (I kind of wish it had!) – but I agree, there are a lot of speculative/dystopian novels at the moment about reproduction and sex differences. I think some were sparked by the success of Alderman’s The Power (and #MeToo) but as you say, both of these things are too recent to have inspired all of them.

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      • I also recently read Kingdom of Women by Rosalie Morales Kearns, which is about the first female priest and an army of women who strike back against abusive men. Men don’t disappear, but they are imprisoned. One of my favorite more recent novels about women striking back against abusive men is Dietland by Sarai Walker. AMAZING.

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