Some Forthcoming February Novels: girls, schools, sex and death

Looking ahead to three February releases that share a lot of common themes – and none of which quite worked for me, although some came closer than others.

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Clare Beams’ debut novel, The Illness Lesson, is set in Massachusetts in 1871 and is narrated in the third person by Caroline, an unmarried woman in her late twenties who still lives with her father, Samuel, and feels stifled by the narrowness of her life; as she reflects when lying in bed ‘where she lay in the same darkness that had covered her at twenty-four, eighteen, twelve, eight, the walls and ceiling of her room like a box that fit her’. Caroline’s world promises to change when Samuel starts a progressive school for young ladies in their home, aiming to teach them such masculine subjects as Greek and philosophy, and recruiting Caroline to teach English literature. However, the presence of the girls, coupled with the strange behaviour of the trilling hearts, the imaginary species of bird that haunt the school’s environs, starts to stir up old secrets from the past and new tensions in the present.

The Illness Lesson’s blurb foregrounds the group of students, but this is really Caroline’s story, and she’s a convincing narrator, acutely aware of the loneliness of her position as intellectual companion to her father, and unsure whether it is fair to educate girls in a world that does not give them the opportunity to exercise their talents. Beams is a skilful writer, and the quiet prose is consistently vivid and impressive. The problem for me was that the story the novel focuses on is so familiar. There have been lots of post-Victorian fictions about female hysteria and its abusive treatments, and I didn’t think that this one brought anything very new, even though it is elevated by Beams’ careful telling.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on February 6th.

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This is a weird and refreshing little book that doesn’t follow the normal rules of this kind of fiction. It starts off in a relatively familiar space; our protagonist has a very literary name (Henna) and is doing a very literary job (writing encyclopaedia entries for a publisher on water and ice) after her parents and twin sister Claire died in a very literary way (being lost at sea). The first chapter made me think that The Snow Collectors would be full of the kind of drifty, quasi-magical prose that you find in writers like Alice Hoffman. However, this book, and Hall’s writing, actually sits in a more interesting space. While there are sentences that stray into sentimentality – ‘his palm was dry and warm, speckled with grains of salt which rolled between our joined hands like secrets we hadn’t told yet’ – there are other, much more robust, passages that are more typical of the novel: ‘Attached to the gas station near the interstate was a Dunkin’ Donuts, and I sat at the counter and sipped coffee with skim milk… By the counter of the gas station was a display of souvenirs. Apples dangling from key chains and packets of pancake mix, resin moose and dead skyscrapers in globes of water… Everything smelled the chemical scent of strawberry air freshener. The clerk wished a nice day on everyone, as if it were a curse.’

The Snow Collectors is also weird because it doesn’t seem to be set in either our present or the future. There’s a fantastical air to the world that Hall has created – Claire used to be able to hold her breath for four days – but there’s also a SF hint to the near-future Alaskan setting, where bees are gone and the rest of the US never sees snow. It also shoots off in some unexpected directions. The death of Claire, and of Henna’s parents, barely impinges on the plot, except to give Henna a plausible reason to be so isolated. Instead, the book revolves around a dead girl found in the woods and an archive concerning the lost John Franklin Arctic expedition that is held in the town. In between Henna’s chapters, we get short but captivating glimpses of Jane Franklin, who kept up the search for her husband long after everyone else had given up hope. Ultimately, this felt a little incomplete to me, as if it hadn’t quite been imagined fully enough, but there’s enough promise here that I’d definitely be interested in reading whatever Hall writes next.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on February 12th.

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The Temple House Vanishing is billed as a novel set in an elite Catholic girls’ boarding school in Ireland in 1990, where creepy nuns rule the roost but attractive art teacher Mr Lavelle offers a possibility of escape. It’s surprising how little of this the novel actually delivers on. Louisa arrives at the school as a scholarship girl and forms an intensive friendship with Victoria; both are drawn into Mr Lavelle’s orbit and become somewhat set apart from the other girls. A second plot thread is narrated by a journalist who is investigating the disappearance of Louisa and Mr Lavelle, now decades in the past; she really wants to contact Victoria, but Victoria isn’t talking.

I love school settings, but The Temple House Vanishing doesn’t conjure up any sense of place or time. The scenes at the school could have been set at any time in the past seventy years (and indeed, feel rather earlier than 1990; while the school itself is supposed to be stuck in the past, there’s not much sense that this causes any disjuncture with the pupils’ ordinary lives). I’m only guessing that it’s set in Ireland because of the fact that the author, Rachel Donohue, is from Dublin. Finally, the nuns have very little presence on the page; we’re told that ‘they weakened you with mind games and nightmares about limbo, and hell’, but this is never actually shown. Throughout, the prose is formal, eschewing contractions in a way that could have worked had it been confined to the narration and dialogue of a single character, but feels ponderous when generalised; here’s the journalist having an inconsequential conversation with her intern:

“Are you coming to the drinks on Friday?” she asked.

I doubt it, might have to go away this weekend,” I said.

No-one thinks you will come,” she answered.

I am predictable that way,” I said.

With so many options of boarding-school or university-set novels to read in 2020, I can’t say that I particularly recommend this one.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on February 20th.

22 thoughts on “Some Forthcoming February Novels: girls, schools, sex and death

    • For me, it slipped into ‘bad’, but it did do two of the things I hate most in novels – lack a sense of place despite place clearly being central to the story, and fail to use contractions – so others may not find it quite as grating!

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  1. Like you, I would normally be drawn to any novel that incorporates a campus setting or polar exploration, so I was keen to find the Beams and Hall … but now I’m not as sure. I definitely won’t make them priorities. Maybe I’ll look back at the end of the year and see the spread of opinion on them.

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    • Another problem I had with the Beams (this is my fault, not the book’s) is that I was anticipating a more formal girls’ school setting, but the school is very small-scale and informal, and this doesn’t fit my idea of a ‘campus novel’ so well! I liked the polar exploration sections of the Hall a lot, but they are a small % of the book. (On that note, have you read Amy Sackville’s The Still Point?)

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  2. The Snow Collectors has been intriguing me for a while, and the bit you quote in the gas station is brilliantly hyper-real in a way I really like. Might still go for that. (Have you read The Terror by Dan Simmons? A chunky sf/horror/speculative eco-fiction take on what happened to the Franklin expedition. I found it utterly addictive and haunting.)

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    • Thanks so much for the recommendation – sounds like a combination of my favourite things, as well as reminiscent of the (contemporary) Antarctic-set novel I’m currently writing! The Snow Collectors is worth reading.

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  3. I’m still plodding through The Illness Lesson – I’m finding certain elements intriguing but ultimately I will not have very nice things to say about this one. Incidentally, your criticism about Temple House is my exact problem with The Illness Lesson – it doesn’t feel rooted in its setting at all to me. It neither feels historical enough nor weird enough to really hook me.

    The Snow Collectors I’m finding much more intriguing, though I’m not very far into it yet. I may switch back to it today though. I’ll come back and read your review again once I’ve finished.

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    • Interesting – I agree that The Illness Lesson does not have a strong sense of place, but because of its weirdness and the fantastical elements like the birds, this didn’t bother me as much as it did in the more realist Temple House.

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  4. Great reviews! All three of these are on my radar, and I have been particularly looking forward to The Illness Lesson, so it’s nice to get a more balanced sense of what to expect. Actually, I think I’m even more interested in The Snow Collectors now, despite your mention of it feeling incomplete- I like what you say about the setting not being clearly historical or futuristic, and I’m very attracted to weird little books that don’t follow the expected rules, ha. I’m sorry these didn’t work better for you, they all sounded so promising!

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    • Thank you! With The Illness Lesson and The Snow Collectors, it’s very much a case of ‘didn’t completely work for me’ rather than ‘didn’t work’ so I’m glad I didn’t put you off. Still searching for my great 2020 campus novel though 🙂

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  5. Pingback: ‘You are in the house and the house is in the woods’: Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas | Laura Tisdall

  6. Pingback: 2020 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments | Laura Tisdall

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