Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2023: Black Butterflies

Zora is a middle-aged Serbian artist living in Sarajevo in 1992. After raising a daughter to adulthood, she’s hoping this will be her time to devote to her paintings – but then she’s caught up in the siege of the city that begins after Bosnia and Herzegovina declare independence from Yugoslavia. Quickly, her daily life descends into a daily struggle: the electricity, and then the water supply, to the city is cut off, the citizens become dependent upon food aid packages, and bombs fall frequently. Even worse, Zora is unable to access her studio, which is on the top floor of the beautiful Vijećnica, the Sarajevo City Hall. Trapped behind the Serbian blockade, Zora is unable to communicate with her husband, daughter and granddaughter, who are safe in England; she turns instead to painting a gigantic tree on the walls of her flat with the help of a small neighbour. But when the Vijećnica is shelled and its priceless library burnt, sending ‘black butterflies’ – charred scraps of manuscript – floating across Sarajevo, Zora is tempted to give in to despair.

Priscilla Morris writes smoothly, and the pages of Black Butterflies fly by. Zora, too, is a slightly unusual protagonist – an older female artist – and I enjoyed inhabiting her perspective. It’s easy to see why the Women’s Prize judges thought this was a topical read, but it also sheds light on an important historical event – the siege of Sarajevo is, to date, the longest siege of a capital city in modern history. Morris beautifully conveys Zora’s love for her home, and why she was so reluctant to leave even when she knew she should. Having said that, Black Butterflies lacks the raw immediacy of other fiction I’ve read set during the Bosnian War, such as Sara Nović’s heartbreaking if uneven Girl at War – but, because it strictly focuses on a period of about a year, can’t access a deeper perspective in the same way as novels that examine the long aftermath of the conflict do, such as Téa Obreht’s brilliant The Tiger’s Wife and Aminatta Forna’s skilful The Hired ManIt follows a familiar narrative arc and doesn’t have much new to say; even Zora’s art fades into the background. It’s not a bad novel, but it’s not one I’d personally have shortlisted or even longlisted for the Women’s Prize.

May Superlatives, 2023

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…


Phase Six by Jim Shepard. This is the best book about the immediate onset of, and response to, a pandemic that I’ve ever read. Unlike most pandemic literature (for example: Emily St John Mandel’s wonderful Station Eleven), Phase Six is very closely focused on the first few weeks and months after a new pathogen is released into the environment due to the thawing of Greenlandic permafrost. Jim Shepard digs deep to produce an incredibly well-researched picture of how the CDC, WHO, and healthcare centres might respond, which I found fascinating to read in its own right. I love medical detail, especially epidemiology, and the way Shepard has woven in references to Covid-19 in what was clearly a later draft of this novel only emphasises how realistic his original version was. However, Shepard also transcends this material to tell the human stories of a handful of characters caught up in this pandemic; the abrupt and open ending is intentionally frustrating, but also beautiful, speaking to how our own personal stories always finish before we want them to. This makes Phase Six sound like a dark and difficult read, but I didn’t find it so. In many ways, it’s uplifting, emphasising co-operation and collaboration between humans rather than selfishness. This is not a dystopian novel, but a realistic exploration of how people respond to adversity, and the power as well as the limitations of scientific research. If the Wellcome Book Prize had still been active in 2021, this would have been a perfect winner.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…


… Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird by Agustina Bazterrica, trans. Sarah Moses. This collection of very short stories has echoes of a number of other collections I’ve read recently about girls and women, sex and violence; the stories that worked better for me in Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird, like ‘Roberto’ and ‘Unamuno’s Boxes’, are reminiscent of writers like Julia Armfield, Carmen Maria Machado and Kate Folk, whereas the more experimental and bizarre pieces, like ‘Candy Pink’ and ‘Dishwasher’, reminded me more of Irenosen Okojie‘s stories with their accumulation of detail, a style I’ve struggled with in the past. Most of the stories aim to shock and I found that, once I’d worked out the pattern, I was often just waiting for the twist ending, so although they are tonally different, they also feel very similar. I wasn’t greatly impressed. I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

The Book I Just Simply Enjoyed The Most This Month Was…


… Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld. Sittenfeld is such a reliable joy for me; if you exclude her bizarre Eligible, I’ve loved everything she’s ever written. And her latest novel is just as captivating, if not as complex as some of her other work. Sally works as a scriptwriter on comedy sketch show The Night Owls [Saturday Night Live]. When her friend Danny hooks up with a movie star, she’s frustrated enough at this latest example of a trend to propose a sketch that she calls ‘The Danny Horst Rule’: men often date and marry women far more beautiful and successful than them, but ordinary women never end up with celebrity men. Of course, before Sally has even finished writing her sketch, she’s met pop idol Noah, who seems interested in her – but obviously, he can’t be. Can he? The first third of this novel was the most truly satisfying for me, as Sittenfeld convincingly explores the way Sally’s show is put together, with some great observations on how comedy sketches are written, and traces her developing connection with Noah as well as her sparky friendships with her colleagues. The rest of the book, which relies heavily on emails, felt slighter, giving Sittenfeld less opportunity to show what she’s good at, which is mapping complicated human connections. Nevertheless, it made me reflect that if all romance was written this well, I might be more of a fan of the genre.

The Book That Was Ruined By Its Protagonist This Month Was…


… Girl In Ice by Erica Ferencik. I ought to have loved this slow-burn speculative thriller, which ticked all my boxes. Set in a remote Arctic research station, it focuses on the mysterious thawing of a small girl, alive, from the ice. How did she survive, and will she continue to do so? At the same time, there’s a nice touch of horror with the introduction of freezing katabatic winds that are striking people unawares throughout the world and killing them on the spot. Ferencik is a great writer, and the Arctic landscape is beautifully evoked. BUT, I could not handle Girl In Ice‘s protagonist, a linguist called Val who suffers from such crippling anxiety that she has barely travelled anywhere in her life and relies heavily on medication, which she starts to supplement with alcohol once she’s forced to travel out to the Arctic to try and understand what the unfrozen girl is saying. I’m absolutely on board with novels exploring this kind of anxiety and trauma, but I just don’t think it can be explored well in this kind of thriller, and yet novelists keep on trying to do it (see also: The Dark by Emma Haughton). In this sort of book, I really want a competent and practical protagonist who’s able to deal sensibly with other people. It made me reflect on why the nervous, incompetent protagonist of Ferencik’s first, brilliant thriller, The River At Night, worked so well for me: one, she wasn’t faced with urgent research mysteries, and two, her apprehension about going white-water rafting turned out to be totally reasonable and justified! Other readers, though, might warm to Val more than I did.

The Best Novel I Read About Capitalism This Month Was…


… For The Win by Cory Doctorow. Set between LA, South China and Mumbai in the near-future, this novel follows a group of young people, mostly teenagers, who are getting exploited by capitalist bosses in their low-wage, long-hour jobs. However, its major focus isn’t the traditional setting of the factory but the virtual world of online multiplayer games, where most of the protagonists are making money by churning through quests to earn virtual gold and level up avatars that can be sold on to richer players. ‘Gold farming’ in these games is technically illegal, but there’s little the game companies can do about it. This means, though, that gold farmers are vulnerable to mistreatment, getting locked out of their workplaces – internet cafes – or having their pay cut if they dare to complain. Big Sister Nor, who started off organising workers in the ‘real world’, now leads trade union Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web, or the ‘Webblies’, playing on the ‘Wobblies’ of the early twentieth-century US. The Webblies are trying to organise workers across borders, breaking down old rules about unionisation, which is often about resisting undercutting by foreign labour; but they have all the power of the internet on their side.

For The Win is both a fast-paced techno-thriller and a crash course in basic economics and how workers might stand up for their rights. It’s now more than a decade old, but it possibly feels even more relevant today than it did when it was published. I loved the way that Doctorow weaves his accessible explanations into the story, and how this information becomes crucial as the plot unfolds. I also loved that this is a story without individual villains. There are people who do bad things, but the antagonist is the bigger social and economic system rather than any of our narrating characters, even those who hold power in companies like Nintendo. This was apparently badged as YA when it was first sold, but it definitely doesn’t feel like a young adult novel – though I’m sure many teenagers would get a lot out of it. It’s basically a serious, thoughtful and yet still fun examination of what Marx would have called alienated labour. Brilliant. I borrowed this book from my local library #LoveYourLibrary

The Best Summer Thriller I Read This Month Was…


… The New Wife by JP Delaney. I’ve read and enjoyed some of Delaney’s earlier thrillers, but this felt like a big, and interesting, change of pace. (The cover art reflects the way his other books have been marketed, but doesn’t feel right at all for this novel – don’t be put off!). Finn and his sister grew up in Mallorca on a decaying finca, but after an abusive childhood, both of them left in their teens and haven’t looked back. Now their father has died and they’ve inherited the finca – but their father’s new wife, Ruensa, is still living there with her adult daughter Roze. Finn travels to Mallorca to sort out the legalities, but is stunned by what he finds – Ruensa and Roze have transformed the finca and its grounds, planning to set it up as a functioning agrotourism spot and a hostel for hikers. Moreover, he’s immediately attracted to Roze, who draws him in with her mix of lightheartedness, practicality, and fragility. But was it really a coincidence that Finn’s father died so shortly after his marriage? And will Ruensa and Roze give up their fledging business so easily?

In short: this is a retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s unforgettable My Cousin Rachel, and Delaney does capture some of its beauty and menace, gorgeously evoking his Mallorcan setting. As with Rachel in the du Maurier novel, we both want Roze to be what she seems and fear that she isn’t – Delaney makes it completely convincing that Finn would be entranced by her against his better judgment. A late twist is effective, but I did feel that, unlike My Cousin Rachel, The New Wife then leans a little too hard into one interpretation of the characters, despite Delaney’s efforts to keep the ending open. Du Maurier said that she deliberately never made up her mind about Rachel’s true motives; Delaney admits, in his afterword, that he does know what Roze was about. Nevertheless, this is perfect summer reading.

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

The Best Debut Novel I Read This Month Was…


… Neon Roses by Rachel Dawson. It’s 1984 in the valleys of South Wales, and Eluned is tired of her boyfriend, her job and her life. In the midst of the miners’ strike, having fun is a distant memory, as all her wages need to go to support her family. Even worse, her sister Mabli is sleeping with the enemy, being wined and dined by one of the policemen who oppress the miners on the pickets. When LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) turn up in Eluned’s village, her attraction to lesbian June makes her realise why she has never quite fit in with her community’s expectations – but can she really leave her whole life behind? This accomplished novel vividly evokes a range of settings across Britain in the mid-1980s, from rural Wales to Cardiff to London to Manchester. It has all the verisimilitude of Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses but, for me, much more originality and heart. As a historian of this period, I loved how effortlessly Dawson brought queer communities and protest movements to life, weaving in detail without over-explaining or overloading. I know much less about the specifics of her South Wales setting, but I felt that was also beautifully done; Dawson refuses to pander to the reader by explaining the ‘Wenglish’ that many of her characters use, but I never felt lost. There’s a depth to this novel that is absent from most twentieth-century historical fiction.

My only question is: why didn’t I love it more, as it literally ticks all my boxes? This is probably a me problem rather than a book problem, but I never quite warmed to Eluned as much as I wanted to, despite the homophobia and hardship she faces, and the solidarity she shows. (So great to read a book that understands that identifying as a lesbian, especially in the 1980s, is about more than who you sleep with.) On a macro level, she never seemed to truly experience any vulnerability, although I can appreciate that Dawson puts her in many situations where she’s positioned as vulnerable; something about what was happening to Eluned on the outside and what was happening in her head didn’t quite connect. On a micro level, I wondered if this wasn’t helped by the slightly detached prose, which keeps us at a fair distance from Eluned (Dawson continually uses ‘Eluned’ when ‘she’ would have done, and this jolted me outside of her consciousness). I wanted to fall in love with Eluned and June, and I just didn’t. Nevertheless, a brilliant debut. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Re-Read That Made Me Think The Most About Rereading This Month Was…

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… The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank. I adored this novel when I first read it aged twenty, in 2007; I re-read it in 2008 and 2009, and was equally captivated each time. Last summer, I re-read Bank’s debut, The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing, which I never had liked as much, and commented ‘I enjoyed revisiting Girls’ Guide, but I have much higher hopes for [rereading] The Wonder Spot’. Both books follow a similar trajectory, tracing the life of a young Jewish woman struggling with jobs and dating; in The Wonder Spot, our heroine is Sophie. I do still think The Wonder Spot is better than Girls’ Guide; the humour is subtler, and Bank has abandoned the tics that annoyed me in her first novel. But, I was disappointed! Although I still admired Bank’s observational skill and the way she doesn’t feel the need to tell the reader everything, I couldn’t remember why I had once loved The Wonder Spot so much.

I think this was a book that spoke much more to my younger self; I intensely re-read it during the period of my life when I was struggling the most with romantic relationships, meeting men (that was my first mistake) who messed me around, played games or just weren’t right. And The Wonder Spot is incredibly good at showing us, rather than telling us, why Sophie’s relationships don’t work out. Most of the chapters in the book stand alone as short stories that dissect the behaviour of men who seem to have potential, but just aren’t the one; I especially enjoyed ‘Teen Romance’ and ‘The One After You’, which have the most mature takes on Sophie’s love life. More than fifteen years on, though, this reminded me too much of the Disaster Women novels that are now so popular, although Sophie is definitely Gen X rather than a millennial or Gen Z, and Bank can write much better than most. Having said that, though, I would press her books on anybody who actually likes this kind of fiction; Bank was well ahead of her time. PUBLISHERS TAKE NOTE: if this were rejacketed for 2023, I think it would be a hit again.

What books stood out for you in May?

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2023: Demon Copperhead #LoveYourLibrary


I was absolutely certain I was going to hate Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. David Copperfield is very probably my least favourite novel of all time (I loathe Dickens, and it’s peak Dickens: idealised hero, massive misogyny, infuriating caricatures, stupidly large cast, incredible self-congratulatory ‘tackling’ of social issues, patronising moralism about poverty). Plus, although I think Kingsolver has written some incredible books (Flight Behaviour, Prodigal Summer) she does have a tendency to preach. This seemed like the worst combination possible, and I only picked this novel up in a fit of morbid curiosity.

Well, I had to think again, because Kingsolver-does-Dickens actually WORKS. How?

First, because of Demon. Every review of this novel has commented on its incredible narrative voice, and although I’m always a little wary of voice-led novels, which can so easily become gimmicky, this one is just fantastic. David C is reimagined here as a boy born to an addict mother in southern Appalachia, who grows up between a series of foster families and is ultimately drawn into drugs himself – there is a particular focus on the opioid crisis, as Kingsolver hammers home the exploitation of poor rural American communities by pharmaceutical companies. Demon is an irresistible narrator, and it’s he who pulls us through this book even when it DOES become too long and IS a bit preachy. On a line-by-line level, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kingsolver write better prose, and she’s no slouch normally. I loved the way she followed the slight disconnection of Demon’s thoughts, as he returns to familiar refrains and picks up on fragments of words, looping through his own mind. ‘It was a Wednesday this all happened, which supposedly is the bad one. Full of woe etc.’ He’s also frequently very funny: ‘They stopped whooping and yelled at me that my friends were up ahead. Thanks, guys. I thought they might have raptured.’

Second, although Kingsolver does become too didactic at times – we’re told on at least four occasions about how awful it is that Americans stereotype rednecks and don’t care about rural poverty – this book does dig deep into questions of place and class that feel relatively fresh to me. It reminded me of Monica Potts’s memoir of growing up in rural Arkansas, The Forgotten Girlswhich examines why life expectancy has declined so quickly for the least educated white Americans, who often live in rural areas. The economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton attribute these early deaths to drug overdoses, suicides and alcoholism, calling them ‘deaths of despair’. The emotional realities of living in such a community are completely evoked by Demon Copperhead. The book occasionally strays a little too close to misery porn for my tastes, but these moments are rare; Kingsolver is adept at picking herself up again and rendering the complexities of Demon’s world, rather than allowing him and his neighbours to collapse into a pitiful mass.

Demon Copperhead also brilliantly reinvents Dickens’ painfully stereotyped secondary cast. I honestly think it has helped me understand what Dickens was trying to do with characters like the Micawbers and Uriah Heep, whom I can’t think about without wincing. Kingsolver’s cast retains the essence of Dickens’s but is so much more real and complicated. I particularly loved what she does with the female characters: Dori (Dora), Angus (Agnes) and Emmy (Little Em’ly – cannot type that without cringing). However, she also does a beautiful job on Fast Forward (Steerforth), capturing his dangerous magnetism, and Tommy Traddles, whom she manages to render as essentially good without making him simply a two-dimensional moral exemplar – such a difficult thing for a writer to pull off. The problems with Demon Copperhead’s cast are the fault of David Copperfield – there are just too many characters, and if I were Kingsolver, I’d have been tempted to cut tertiary figures such as Mouse. This adds to the sense that the book is just too long and self-indulgent in places, as well.

Nevertheless, what Kingsolver has managed to do here is to recreate the remarkable, immersive narrative pull of the best of nineteenth-century fiction. This isn’t my favourite novel on the Women’s Prize shortlist or longlist, but it would be a worthy winner.

I borrowed this book from my local library #LoveYourLibrary

The Book Reviewing Tag

This tag was invented by Fatma at The Book Place!

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Maddy ponders her thoughts on her latest read.

What’s your review writing process like (do you write notes somewhere, make annotations, highlights, etc.)?

I very rarely take any notes at all when reading fiction – I feel like it ruins the reading experience for me. I do sometimes use the very reliable method of trying to remember the page number in my head if I see a quote I think will really work in my review. Luckily, with paper books, I can usually remember where on the page I saw the quote, so this makes it a bit easier when I’m flicking back and forth…

What do you struggle with most when it comes to writing book reviews?

Summarising novels that have complex plots, many different settings and many different characters. I like to sum up books in a couple sentences, and don’t want to create a ‘word salad’ at the start of my review. I worked really hard on this in my review of Violet Kupersmith’s Build Your House Around My Bodyfor example – whether it bore fruit or not is another question!

Your favourite review(s) that you’ve written

I wrote a post about this in 2019, but I am STILL VERY PROUD of my review of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Womanand my double review of Sarah Moss’s Night Waking and Melissa Broder’s The Pisces. Since 2019, I’ve been pleased with my reviews of Sheena Patel’s I’m A Fan; David Almond’s Skellig; Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise; Cherie Jones’s How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House; Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This; Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby; Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman;  Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships; and Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces. I also enjoyed writing round-up posts like Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends and ‘The Sequel Is So Much Darker’: Why Series Don’t Always Get Darker – and Why That’s A Good Thing.

A review that you struggled to write

Often when I struggle to write reviews I just don’t write them – as was the case with Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. However, when I’ve had an ARC of something and had to review it, I have definitely written some reviews that I don’t think were great. I couldn’t think of much to say about Kathy Wang’s Impostor Syndrome, or Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat

A review you still want to write

I’m looking forward to writing my review of Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead!

A review that you don’t want to/won’t write

I don’t enjoy reviewing non-fiction as it feels too much like work. Therefore, I won’t be reviewing Robin George Andrews’s Super Volcanoes, which I’ve just finished reading.

Your most popular reviews

On the blog: Definitely my Harry Potter post, ‘Growing Down With Harry: Why the Harry Potter Books Became a Moral Sinkhole’, which I did deliberately title provocatively, shall we say (2.2K all-time views). A couple others that have done OK are my reviews of Naomi Alderman’s The Power (1.3K all-time views) and Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under The Sea (1.1K all-time views). Generally, I find that all my Women’s Prize reviews do better than anything non-Women’s Prize, which is why it’s so hard to give it up.

On Goodreads:  All my most popular Goodreads reviews are ones where I’ve been negative or lukewarm about a book everyone else seems to love. This always feels like VINDICATION. My top ones are: Philippa Perry’s The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read; Anna Hope’s ExpectationSK Vaughn’s Across The Voidand Harriet Evans’s The Garden of Lost and Found.

How you feel about your book reviewing this year

Quite good? I’ve been trying to go for fewer, good-quality reviews rather than loads of posts, and I’m still loving the Superlatives format. I’m trying to hone my skill at writing more succinct reviews.

Does this tag appeal to you? How do you review? What kinds of reviews tend to be most popular on your blog/social media?

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2023: Pod #LoveYourLibrary


When I heard that Laline Paull’s Pod had been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, my reaction was as follows: ‘I did not enjoy Paull’s The Bees, which read like a bad YA dystopia, and while I had more mixed feelings about her second novel, The Ice, there’s no way I’m picking up a book by her from the point of view of a dolphin.’  Once Pod was shortlisted for the Prize, and having read some glowing reviews of the novel as well as some terrible ones, I was tempted to give it a try. And on the whole, I’m glad I did. Pod is indeed primarily told from the point of view of a dolphin – spinner dolphin Ea, who is isolated from her pod because she cannot hear the sounds of the ocean in the same way her fellow dolphins do. However! We also get the points of view of MANY other dolphins, including bottlenose Google, who once worked for the military; a ‘lordmale’ wrasse fish; a poisonous fugu fish; a Rorqual whale; and a quasi-parasitic Remora. Lucky us!

As this suggests, this book is quite bizarre, and yet it worked a lot better for me than Paull’s previous foray into anthropomorphism in The Bees. Why? First, dolphins are obviously a lot closer to humans than bees, so Paull’s humanisation of her aquatic characters made a lot more sense in this novel, and she was able to explore how dolphins might think much more convincingly. (As I learnt from Audrey Schulman’s The Dolphin Housedolphins have very advanced linguistic capabilities, although Paull does lean towards making them ‘human’ rather than truly trying to enter the mind of a dolphin, which is probably impossible). Second, Pod doesn’t have the ‘YA dystopian’ elements that made The Bees such a slog for me. There are a few hints of it – character that’s Not Like Other Girls! Instalove! – but only in Ea’s story, and only occasionally. Third, the way that Paull uses point of view in Pod is quite clever, ranging between different creatures and groups that are linked by the ocean. At times, this really feels like watching an episode of Blue Planet, with David Attenborough narrating the characters’ motives – and Paull acknowledges both Blue Planet and Attenborough as inspirations. My favourite chapters were definitely the multivocal ones rather than the ones that focus on Ea.

My other worry about this book was that it was going to be very preachy and simplistic, especially as Paull has form for this in The Ice. But to my surprise, Paull avoids this, and gives us a genuinely fresh perspective on climate crisis. The sheer weirdness of the dolphins’ perspectives means that incidents like plastic pollution, for example, creep up on us rather than being obvious, as we’re also trying to work out why the oceans are changing. And because Paull spends a lot of time exploring the violent social order of the Tursiops pod of bottlenoses that capture Ea – including their frequent gang rapes – the book isn’t simply about dolphins as innocent victims of human action, but has more to say about how societies respond to crisis. (Some reviewers have felt that the amount of sexual violence in Pod is unnecessary, but it made sense to me given how sex functions in dolphin societies. Dolphins do take part in sexual coercion in gangs, but also, sex is central to how dolphins form social connections. It might have been better, though, to dial down the anthropomorphism of Ea here, which would have made the scenes read differently).

I’m not quite sure why this was either longlisted or shortlisted for the Women’s Prize; it’s just so weird, and reads like creative non-fiction rather than a novel. Because of that, I can’t really recommend it as fiction. I guess, for me, novels are about humans, and even eco-critical novels that successfully decentre humanity, like Richard Powers’ The Overstory, work because they are still full of complex people. Pod hobbles itself by writing characters that are not human, and not driven by human motivations, but who are still anthropomorphised. It’s also a slog to read, quite honestly. Nevertheless, I admired Paull’s ambition to write a very different kind of story, even if it didn’t quite come off.

I borrowed Pod from my local library #LoveYourLibrary

‘Who is Macbeth?’: Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton #LoveYourLibrary


Near the beginning of Birnam Wood, Tony, who was once a member of this guerrilla gardening group but left to travel the world some years ago, returns to New Zealand and treats the group to his new ideas: ‘Like, think about the fact that nobody’s willing to use the language of morality any more… Where do you think we got that from? It’s the market. The idea that human choices can ever be without morality, without a moral dimension – that’s pure capitalism.’ Quite rightly, those who actually remained committed to Birnam Wood don’t take kindly to Tony returning to lecture them on political ideology, and are particularly disgusted that he directs a lot of his comments at a female member of the group who’s just cooked dinner for them. But this is the cleverness of Eleanor Catton’s writing; even though Tony’s ideas are torn down, they serve as a central question for this ecological literary thriller. How much do our choices matter?

Francis Spufford’s review of Birnam Wood gets it exactly right when he says ‘What I admired most in ​Birnam Wood was the way that the rapid violence of the climax rises, all of it, out of the deep, patient, infinitely nuanced character-work that comes before. If George Eliot had written a thriller, it might have been a bit like this.’ Even though Catton’s concerns are very modern, the way she goes about writing this book is very, unfashionably, nineteenth-century. Characters are introduced in long set-pieces that digress to tell the reader much of their personal histories, exactly how Eliot did it; Catton’s also not afraid to put long political conversations on the page, in the same way as Eliot has her characters discuss the issues of the day at length (think how Mordecai explains his vision of a better world for Jewish people in Daniel Deronda). But to view these conversations as info-dumps is to get them wrong. Like Eliot, Catton never lets her characters talk without having other agendas in play. Tony doesn’t get to just spout out his views; he has to manage the dynamics of a group that are hostile to him, and ultimately reject what he has to say.

One question that I kept playing with while reading Birnam Wood is ‘who is Macbeth’? It’s a question that has no answer, because this isn’t a straight retelling of Macbeth. But it’s also a question that gets straight to the heart of what Catton is doing here. While it might be easy to blame figures like Robert Lemoine, the amoral billionaire who acts as both benefactor and adversary to Birnam Wood, this isn’t the end of the story. We’re all kind of Macbeth, all vulnerable to receiving a bit of recognition and wanting more, getting corrupted by the darker side of our nature, by Lady Macbeth. Tony blazes back into Birnam Wood believing he knows better, and the plot bears that out, in some ways; he sees through Lemoine when others do not. But he, too, is never that far away from Macbeth. When he discovers what Lemoine is really up to, and that he’s going to be the one to break the story, he reacts: ‘Jesus Christ… Jesus Christ. I am going to be so fucking famous.’

I’m not surprised that many readers have struggled with this novel. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I personally loved how it injected plot back into litfic and serious morality back into thrillers. A gripping, intense ride.

I borrowed this book from my local library #LoveYourLibrary

Three SFF Novels About New Forms of Intelligence: The Mountain in the Sea, Cold People & The Book of Phoenix

I accidentally read three novels in quick succession that deal with new forms of intelligence  – whether that’s genetically modified humans, rapidly evolving octopuses, or AI!

First off, Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea. Set in the near-future on the Côn Đảo archipelago, this novel follows a group of scientists researching a colony of octopuses who seem to have accelerated into near-human cultural development. As Nayler explains, octopuses are intelligent, but hampered from transmitting cultural knowledge due to a number of factors: their short lifespans, their solitary lives and the fact that they lay eggs and move on, which stops parents passing down knowledge to their children. The Mountain in the Sea postulates that this group of octopuses have evolved past these barriers, perhaps via RNA editing which allows cephalopods to respond more swiftly to environmental pressures than other classes of animals. This novel also has a lot to say about AI and other forms of consciousness, and why humans find ‘other minds’ so frightening. As this suggests, though, there’s not really enough story in The Mountain in the Sea to make this all hang together as fiction, and although Nayler makes a stab at the end to draw the emotional journey of his central character, Ha, to the fore, it’s too little too late. Reminded me of other cerebral but detached SF about linguistics like China Mieville’s Embassytown (and made me appreciate all over again Ted Chiang’s incredible achievement in ‘Story of Your Life‘, which is both so good on language and alien minds and so intensely moving). I’d read a sequel, though.


An octopus in the aggressive ‘Nosferatu’ pose, raising its mantle.

The Mountain in the Sea proved to be a good aperitif for my next two reads, which are both about genetically modified humans who take on animal characteristics to attain superhuman strength and intelligence. Tom Rob Smith’s Cold People is a thoroughly bizarre piece of work: it starts with the entire population of Earth being ordered to relocate to Antarctica by an invading alien race, who then dissolve anybody who hasn’t made it there by the deadline into fragments of light. You might think the rest of this novel might have something to do with the aliens, but they turn out to be an extravagant deus ex machina for what Smith really wants to explore. First, how humans adapt their society to the extreme conditions of Antarctica, with few natural resources; second, how they relate to the ‘ice-adapted’ people they create through genetic experimentation. Cold People’s main problem as a novel is that it’s, well, so cold. Smith has built a second career as a screenwriter and this cinematic gaze really doesn’t help when translated into a different form. Characters have almost no interiority, and when they do, it’s super-clunky, script notes rather than emotion: ‘When he finally opened his eyes, he was crying. She hadn’t seen him cry since Echo was born. She understood that this bridge reminded him of home and the family he’d lost. “Are you thinking about your family?”‘.

Cold People also dances around the kind of interesting questions that The Mountain in the Sea explores, but never quite engages with them – it’s more interested in setting up a dramatic final showdown rather than really thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of humans as a species. Having said all that, the originality of this novel will make it difficult to forget. Smith cleverly never makes the aliens’ motives clear, so we’re left to wonder, along with the protagonists, whether they are galactic guardians punishing humanity for destroying Earth through climate change or rapacious colonisers herding humans into a reservation so they can exploit Earth themselves. I also liked how Smith resists certain dystopian tropes in his portrayal of the collective caring of some of the Antarctic communities: ‘Weren’t they better people now, better at caring for each other… fairer under even the most testing of circumstances? Maybe these virtues couldn’t ultimately save them from extinction, but they could make the last decades of people some of the best.’

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


McMurdo station, the biggest Antarctic base

Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix, in contrast, is not short on warmth nor passion. It stars an ‘accelerated woman’, Phoenix, who at the start of the novel has spent all her life in ‘Tower 7’, alongside her fellow genetic experiments. Phoenix has African ancestry, but has been severed from her people and her culture. She escapes when she comes into a full realisation of her own powers, burning the tower to the ground and rising from the ashes. Furious at the way she and her friends have been exploited, Phoenix declares that she is now the ‘villain’, and determines to wreak havoc on the other towers across the world. The opening of this novel was originally published as a short story, and it absolutely shows: the first twenty pages or so are bright and arresting. However, the rest of it just didn’t work for me. I hated Okorafor’s novella Binti, but, given her reputation as an Afrofuturist writer, was determined to give her another shot.

Unfortunately, I don’t think her work or her writing is for me. I had similar problems with this than I had with Binti: it’s morally simplistic, and the prose feels unworked, too abbreviated, YA-ish. It’s like a first draft that needs further expansion, and this really made it difficult for me to connect. And in comparison to both The Mountain in the Sea and Cold People, which both have a more complex take on humanity’s flaws and virtues, The Book of Phoenix is happy to tell us that Humans Are Just Bad, which is a SF take I can never get behind. Humans are often terrible, often amazingly good; who’s to say that a future version, or an alien race, won’t have the same contradictions? I did like the framing narrative and the way that Okorafor employs oral history and storytelling tropes, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the follow-on, Who Fears Death, unless somebody can convince me it’s totally different from Binti and The Book of Phoenix.

Have you read any good SF or speculative fiction recently?

April Superlatives, 2023

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…


… Know My Name by Chanel Miller. Miller wrote the famous ‘Emily Doe’ victim impact statement after being raped by Stanford student Brock Turner; after much soul-searching, she decided to waive her anonymity when publishing this memoir. I wanted to read this because I was so impressed by Miller’s incredible statement, but my expectations were relatively modest: I wondered how much more there was to say, and whether Miller could sustain the power of her long essay across hundreds of pages. Turns out, she can and she does. As she did in her statement, Miller both tells us an intimately personal story of dealing with trauma, and positions her experience against the wider social context within which it occurred. Miller has become a ‘lighthouse’ for so many victims both because of the relative unusualness of her case – less than 1% of rapes in the US lead to felony convictions – and because of her own ability to speak up, which she thoughtfully ascribes to both her own personal courage and her solid, supportive base.

I was especially struck by Miller’s recognition that the ‘future’ that Brock ‘lost’ when he chose to rape her is a privilege only afforded to elite, straight, able-bodied white men: ‘On the day the verdict of my case was read, a Washington Post article quoted Brock saying that in ten years he hoped to be in residency to be a surgeon. His sister wrote, Goodbye to the Olympics. Goodbye to being an orthopaedic surgeon… At the time of the assault, he had worked as a lifeguard for two years and then at a store called Speedy Feet. But I never read this anywhere. He was not forced to acknowledge the facts of his present. He was talked about in terms of his lost potential, what he would never be, rather than what he is. They spoke as if his future was patiently waiting for him to step into it.’ As Miller writes, ‘let’s imagine a Hispanic nineteen-year-old working in the kitchen of the fraternity commits the same crime. Does this story end differently? Does the Washington Post call him a surgeon?’

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…


The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor. Full review coming soon, but let’s file this one – and Okorafor’s work in general – under Just Not For Me.

The Most Disappointing Memoir I Read This Month Was…


… Thunderstone by Nancy Campbell. I loved Campbell’s The Library of Ice and Fifty Words For Snow so much that I picked up Thunderstone even though the blurb didn’t especially draw me in (and because I LOVED the cover). This was an error. Thunderstone is an edited version of a journal Campbell kept when she was living in a static caravan in a strip of woodland near a canal outside Oxford. The setting resonated with me: I used to live in Littlemore and could cycle into Oxford along the river, so although this was clearly not the same bit where Campbell lived, I remember the communities that staked out space in the woods there, and reading this brought back some things I had forgotten. However, I’ve almost never read a novel that works for me told in short-ish diary entries, and non-fiction seems to be no exception. I wouldn’t have decided to read this if I’d known it was written in this style, as I find it works against establishing any pace or thematic through-lines. Nevertheless, Campbell’s writing is still both beautiful and precise, and others may get on with this memoir much better than I did. I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

The Oddest Psychological Thriller I Read This Month Was…

… No Place To Hide by JS Monroe. This starts off feeling very much like a typical example of the genre. Adam is now a successful paediatrician, happily married with two children, but his past secrets from his time as a medical student at Cambridge come back to haunt him when a woman he used to know suddenly reappears.  But then it switches into more interesting territory, as Adam’s Cambridge friend Ji introduces him to the dark web and suggests that his life may be being filmed as part of a horrific game that is linked to what happened at the university all these years ago. This gripping section of the book enters a kind of Black Mirror space – I was especially reminded of the excellent ‘Shut Up and Dance’. But then, it wheels back round to a pretty unsatisfying psychological thriller resolution, where a lot seems to have been swept under the carpet. Tonally, the book also feels like it’s stuck between several kinds of narrative. The writing is noticeably more ambitious than is the case with most psychological thrillers, and Monroe seems to be attempting a nuanced, literary portrait of Adam and his social circle. But then, once the plot kicks in, much of this is lost, and Adam becomes more simplistically heroic. Having said all this, I would read more by Monroe. I admired his attempt to do something different with the thriller genre, even if it didn’t quite work for me. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Debut Novel (About Trying to Be A Good Person) I Read This Month Was…


… We Meant Well by Erum Shazia Hasan, one of my most anticipated releases of 2023. Maya worked in international development for more than a decade, running an orphanage that serves the fictional African village of Likanni. For the past few years, she’s retreated from the field, getting married and having a child of her own, overseeing operations from the United States. But when her colleague Marc is accused of raping Lele, a village girl who’s employed by Maya’s company, Maya’s ties to the locals, who affectionately call her ‘Bigabosse’, mean that she has to fly over to handle the situation. Unsurprisingly, Maya encounters a knotted ethical tangle. Did Marc rape Lele? If the accusation becomes public, will bringing justice to this community mean destroying the work they are doing with orphans and destitute children? And what kind of justice does Lele herself want? We Meant Well is a compulsive read that digs deeply into moral tensions, but its secondary cast is stereotyped, each character positioned to espouse a particular world-view; long discussions with Maya leave us in no doubt of where they stand. It reminded me strongly of Nikita Lalwani’s The Village, but I think Lalwani’s book is more subtle, vivid and challenging. Nevertheless, it’s a compelling debut. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

The Other Best Debut Novel (About Trying to Be A Good Person) I Read This Month Was…


… Which Side Are You On by Ryan Lee Wong. Reed is a young Asian-American man who wants to drop out of college to commit himself to activism full-time, disillusioned by the support of the Asian-American community for Asian-American Peter Liang, a NYPD officer who shot unarmed black man Akai Gurley. (This novel is set in 2016, which I didn’t clock at first, and was confused when Reed kept calling himself a millennial – though he is still almost young enough to be Gen Z). However, his mother, once the leader of a Korean-Black coalition during the 1992 LA uprising, has some lessons to teach him. There’s a slightly satirical edge to Which Side Are You On, with Reed often tangling himself up in jargon in a way that is unintentionally (on his part, but not on the author’s) funny. Going to a K-Town club, for example, he witnesses two separate queues: ‘one with a long line of the subaltern clubbers, the other for the normatively beautiful and very rich… I tripped on a broken sidewalk… muttered a little curse at the neglected pavement and this pedestrian-hostile city’. ‘You sound like Adorno if he, like, worked out his ideas on Twitter’, his friend CJ tells him.

Which Side Are You On is also cleverly written as a stream of continuous action, as Reed tries to find out about his parents’ history of organising while all his mother wants to do is take him to a Korean spa and make him get a professional haircut. What his parents want him to understand, it turns out, is that building messy, difficult relationships with real people is where activism actually takes place, rather than holding everyone, including yourself, up to impossible standards. Which Side Are You On was a little too neat for me to truly love it; some of the secondary cast are reduced to stereotypes, and I wanted to feel Reed’s relationship with his mother more rather than be told about it (it reminded me a little of Michelle Zauner’s depiction of her mother in Crying In H Mart, which was much more emotionally raw). Still, it’s SO refreshing to read a book like this about inter-generational activism rather than the usual conservative parents/woke child story, Wong has loads to teach us, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

The Strangest Novel I Read This Month Was…


… The Furrows by Namwali Serpell. This hallucinatory novel about a sister, C’s, grief following the loss of her seven-year-old brother Wayne works emotionally rather than logically: if you want to try it, I’d suggest taking C’s refrain ‘I don’t want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt’ very literally. The first half of the book takes us through a series of what may be mismemories, parallel realities or nightmares as C repeats the story of Wayne’s death and her later encounter, as an adult, with an man called Wayne, played out in different settings but always with the same recurring motifs. I admired Serpell’s craft in this section of the novel but found it difficult to turn back to it whenever I put it down. This changed during the last hundred pages or so, when I found myself eager to read on to unravel the puzzle-box mystery of the multiple Waynes that wander into and through this narrative. I also loved the repeated imagery of the furrows, and the way that Serpell ties some of her ideas together in a passage that suggests ‘History is a mop’.  The final paragraphs are deliberately oblique, but I thought they were brilliant – Serpell definitely does make us feel the crashing, destructive nature of sudden death. It’s difficult to write much more about this text without ruining it, but it worked for me despite my entrenched suspicion of magical realist adjacent stuff. I borrowed this book from my local library #LoveYourLibrary.

The Best YA Novel I Read This Month Was…

… The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School by Sonora Reyes. I’ve read a lot of upbeat YA romance titles in the last couple years that explore the experiences of queer teens of colour, but The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School is distinctive in not only centring the voice of a Mexican-American lesbian, but in digging into questions of class and cultural privilege. When the book opens, our narrator, Yami, is in a precarious position: she’s transferred to Catholic school along with her slightly younger brother, Cesar, to keep him out of trouble, but because he’s got a scholarship and she hasn’t, she needs to find work to cover the fees. Meanwhile, her mother only seems to care about Cesar’s potential, and while Yami secretly feels she’s her father’s favourite, he was deported to Mexico some time ago and they mostly communicate by text. Even worse, Yami is certain that if her mother finds out she’s a lesbian, she’ll kick her out – so she also needs to build up a secret fund to allow her to rent her own apartment if necessary. I blazed through this sweet, fun book, but I do wish that the tensions that marked its first half had been more convincingly explored in its second, rather than smoothed over in a way that felt a bit untrue to the earlier character dynamics. So, not perfect, but definitely worth reading. Also, LOVE the cover. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on May 4th.

The Novel I Felt Had Been Marketed Most Confusingly This Month Was…


… Rosewater by Liv Little. The (beautiful) cover and marketing of Little’s debut made me think it was going to be literary fiction, perhaps something akin to Raven Leilani’s Luster – and this made it one of my most anticipated 2023 releases. It would have been helpful to know going in that this is much more straightforward, and yes, I would shelve it next to Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie or Lizzie Damilola Blackburn’s Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband?, though it refreshingly turns away from the very heterosexual and heteronormative worlds of those novels. Elsie, the protagonist, is a British-Guyanese dyke and unemployed poet. At the start of the novel she’s been evicted from her flat and forced to move in with best friend Juliet, who works as a teacher by day and cam girl at night. She’s a bit of a player, cutting a swathe through women on dating apps as an adult just as she used to kiss a stream of girls in the toilets at school, but doesn’t know how to get serious about a relationship. I loved the depiction of queer female community and the fact that this is a ‘disaster woman’ novel that focuses on a protagonist who’s looking for other women rather than being used by unreliable men. However, near the end, Rosewater struggles to deal with everything it wants to talk about, and there are two melodramatic and unnecessary plot twists. It fell a bit short for me, and I suspect Little’s next novel will be better. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Did you have any standout reads in April? What was the best book you read this month? What was the worst?

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2023: Cursed Bread, & Shortlist Predictions and Wishlist


I liked Sophie Mackintosh’s previous novel, Blue Ticketeven though it didn’t fulfil its dystopian promises: it was a stylised and symbolic rehearsal of the female life-cycle that managed to capture the sheer weirdness of pregnancy and early motherhood. Cursed Breadher third novel, is more formless (though it has one of the best covers I think I’ve ever seen, up there with Our Wives Under The Sea – UK publishers have really raised their game over the last few years!). Our narrator, Elodie, is a baker’s wife in a post-war French village who is captivated by a charismatic new couple who arrive in town one day: ‘the ambassador’, and his wife, Violet. Mackintosh’s writing is brilliant, and not ‘brilliant’ in an overblown or attention-seeking way, but just very, simply good: ‘In the early days of our marriage, we did everything expected of us. I washed our bedclothes in the labour while the older women looked knowingly on… I can’t forget that before anything else there was the promise of a town of pale stone and a beautiful bridge. I fell into this life, I was not thrown’. Unfortunately, this felt like two novels mixed together for me: one is the hallucinatory story of ‘cursed bread’ and mass delusion that I was promised, and one is a much more conventional story of Elodie’s obsession with Violet and her husband. There are some fantastic, dream-like sequences in Cursed Bread: the midsummer celebration that happens at the midpoint of the novel, the story passed down through generations about ‘when the dead came up the river’, and the final few pages, when the village collapses. If the book had just been like this I would have liked it a lot more, but I found the sexual longing dull, pointless and so repetitive; I’ve read too much literary fiction about this kind of madness. I borrowed this book from my local library #LoveYourLibrary.


The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022 shortlist will be announced in two days’ time! This year, I am not shadowing the Prize properly, so I only ended up reading eight titles from the longlist: all but two of these I had already read, or wanted to read already.  And given my disappointment when the list was announced, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the titles I chose to read, although I’m dead certain that I wouldn’t get on with the ones I skipped.

Here’s my ranking, with links to my reviews:

  1. Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks
  2. I’m A Fan by Sheena Patel
  3. Homesick by Jennifer Croft
  4. The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
  5. Trespasses by Louise Kennedy
  6. Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh
  7. The Bandit Queens by Parini Schroff
  8. Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin

This means that my ideal shortlist is:

I feel the same way about this as I did last year – there are only three or four books there that I really want to cheerlead for. However, I would rather see these six books get shortlisted than any of the others.

What do I think will actually get shortlisted? And can I maintain my solid track record with Women’s Prize predictions when I’ve only read half the titles on the longlist? WE SHALL SEE, but:

My reasoning:

  • I’ve put through two big names, Kingsolver and O’Farrell, and Bulawayo, with her double Booker shortlistings, also might have some clout here.
  • There are a lot of short, more obscure, literary novels on the list this year – I think a lot of these will fall at longlist stage, as the Prize has a history of longlisting books like Homesick and then immediately dropping them. I considered picking I’m a Fan (which means it will almost definitely get shortlisted now, ha), but I think the combo of Fire Rush and Trespasses works well to fulfil this aspect of the list, and they are both books that may have wider appeal to the judges than some of the more experimental novels.
  • I hated Wandering Souls but it seems to, bemusingly, be impressing a lot of people and I think it might make it through, especially because refugees and migration are such a hot political topic in the UK at the moment.
  • I loved Fire Rush, so including it here might be playing too much to my own tastes, but I think it’s such a brilliant, resonant, original novel and I don’t think the judges can fail to see that.
  • Some reasons why I think particular titles won’t be shortlisted: too quirky and divisive, not ‘serious’ enough (Dog of the North); too grotesque and divisive, too literary (Children of Paradise); too literary and small press (Homesick); too bizarre (Pod); too lightweight and full of inaccuracies (The Bandit Queens); too literary and confusing (Cursed Bread); doesn’t stand out, maybe one judge’s pick? (Black Butterflies); controversial, both author and subject-matter (Memphis); yet another Greek myth retelling (Stone Blind); too literary, divisive, loads of attention from other prizes, covers some themes that other titles do, but is the one I’ve missed off that I think is most likely to get longlisted (I’m A Fan). This is not to say that I think any of these are GOOD reasons to not shortlist these books.
  • Finally, this imaginary shortlist is a nice combo of established authors and debuts; it’s diverse; and it’s issue-led, which I think these judges like.

Here are Eric’s and Rebecca’s predictions (I wrote this post before I read either!).

EDIT 26/4/23: And the actual shortlist is…


I predicted 4/6 correctly, which is on the lower end of my previous sets of predictions, but good enough going given that I only read half the longlist this year.

I am pleased with this shortlist, given the longlist. I’m thrilled to see Fire Rush, very pleased to see The Marriage Portrait, OK with Trespasses, and of the half of the list I haven’t read, the judges have managed to pick the three titles that are the most appealing to me of the books I chose to skip. I am delighted that neither The Bandit Queens nor Wandering Souls made it, and equally delighted that I don’t have to consider tackling books like Glory, The Dog of the North or Children of Paradise. 

Will I be reading the whole shortlist? Before the announcement, my answer would definitely have been NO. But I’m now reconsidering! I’ve read everything else by Paull and Kingsolver, so the completist in me is tempted, and I almost decided to read Black Butterflies at longlist stage. No promises, but we shall see!

What are your thoughts on the shortlist?

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2023: The Marriage Portrait #LoveYourLibrary


I was one of the readers who, as a long-time Maggie O’Farrell fan, was disappointed by Hamnet: I thought the characterisation was stale, the narrative familiar from many earlier historical novels set in the early modern period, and, most deadly of all, it didn’t really make me feel anything. The Marriage Portrait, therefore, O’Farrell’s version of the short life of the Italian noblewoman Lucrezia de’ Medici, rumoured murdered by her husband at fifteen in 1561, puts me in a somewhat difficult position. Intellectually I can see that it shares most of the faults of its predecessor, and yet I found it totally captivating.

The first thing to understand about The Marriage Portrait is that, in my opinion, it’s less a fictional response to the real biography of Lucrezia than a response to Robert Browning’s 1842 poem ‘My Last Duchess’. This for me explains O’Farrell’s decision to remove her novel somewhat from historical fact: she’s thinking of her Lucrezia as the foil to Browning’s depiction of Duke Alfonso, revealed through numerous small details such as the white mule that Lucrezia rides and the fact that O’Farrell, like Browning, imagines that she was strangled rather than poisoned. I’m not bothered about these discrepancies: as ever, when I read historical fiction, I’m interested in how the writer uses it to have a conversation with the past, and whether they are really inhabiting the earlier period or are just using it as window-dressing for an essentially modern story. The more history I read, the harder I find it to catch true ‘anachronism’: it’s so hard to say that something could never have happened. This is especially true in a novel like O’Farrell’s that deliberately (and wisely) adopts modern language to convey the feeling of being alive in the sixteenth century.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t criticise choices writers make about how to present the past to a modern audience, and there are problems with The Marriage Portrait. Like Hamnet, it stereotypes its secondary cast. Of course Lucrezia’s sisters are bitchy; of course Alfonso has one plain, tattling sister and one beautiful, reckless one; of course Lucrezia’s maid, Emilia, exists only to be loyal and useful to her. Lucrezia’s parents, Cosimo and Eleonora, do rather better, with O’Farrell touching on how different the dynamics of their marriage are compared to Lucrezia’s forced union, and showing how they simultaneously care about their daughter and cannot allow themselves to listen to her fears. But we get to see so very little of them. Moreover, there are dozens of historical novels (and indeed fantasy novels that draw on historical tropes) that tell this kind of story, about a young woman facing an arranged marriage, her wedding night, and the controlling abuse of her husband. There is absolutely nothing new here.

But having said that. Somehow O’Farrell makes this material fresh again. Somehow she so deeply inhabits Lucrezia’s psyche that even though she ought, like Agnes in Hamnet, to be a hopelessly uninteresting ‘strong female character’ inserted into a sixteenth-century setting, she becomes real beyond the annoying trappings of her archetype (loves painting and exploring, hates embroidery, check). O’Farrell finally manages to bring what’s so distinctive about her contemporary fiction to a historical novel. She gives herself time: she allows us to really live through the key moments of Lucrezia’s life with her. And yet, The Marriage Portrait remains riveting, as we’re drawn through it by a thread of dread, knowing the fate that Lucrezia is going to meet. All the emotional intensity that I didn’t find in Hamnet is so present here.

Should The Marriage Portrait win the Women’s Prize for Fiction? Definitely not. Is it worth reading, even if you didn’t like Hamnet? Definitely yes.

Thanks to the library for my copy of The Marriage Portrait, which I definitely didn’t want to buy in hardback #LoveYourLibrary.