Trans Histories, Trans Lives

I read these two books in quick succession over the past few weeks: I had a lot of Thoughts about both of them, so I’ve put together shorter (though still long) summaries here then linked to my super long Goodreads reviews!

Ezra Woodger’s To Be A Trans Man is a short collection of interviews with trans men and non-binary transmasculine people; while some of his interviewees are people of colour and/or disabled people, almost all of them identify as artists, social media influencers and/or activists, and most of them are relatively young. This uniformity, coupled with a lack of editorial control by Woodger, makes this a much less interesting book than it should have been. As Woodger makes clear, trans men’s experiences are still rarely talked about, and myths about trans men abound; it’s so important that we understand the particular kinds of oppression that trans men and transmasculine people face.

One recurring theme is the idea of ‘male femininity’; a number of Woodger’s interviewees push back against the idea that being a trans man means conforming to stereotypical masculine norms, and yet they insightfully discuss how they often tried to fit into male stereotypes earlier in their transitions, believing this was the only way to be seen as a ‘real man’. Kasper sums this up as the idea that if ‘you’re a trans man… you have to give up every single feminine thing about yourself’ but emphasises the joy he feels when wearing elaborate makeup, arguing that his masculinity has always been flamboyant and camp. He also criticises ‘passing tips’: ‘they were all things like “don’t smile and don’t move out of the way of people in the street”. Be really mean to everybody and then everyone will think you’re a man’. Ironically, he suggests, it can be harder for trans men to play with masculinity, because they still feel they have to prove themselves. Having said this, I would have loved to see this theme explored more deeply, as the same point is repeated throughout a number of the interviews without Woodger delving any further. (I’m thinking of texts such as Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinity and Finn Mackay’s work on butch/queer masculinities – I’d love to see similar work on ‘male femininity’.)

Unsurprisingly, the interviewees often have much to say about how gender expectations pigeonhole everyone, even people who are not trans. Leo, a disabled trans man, reflects that when they use their wheelchair, they are read as more gender ambiguous: ‘The fact that I’m in a more passive physical pose is enough for them to add up what they’re seeing to way over on the side of “probably a woman”‘. Charlie reflects on the benefits and harms of being ‘invisible’ as a trans man: ‘I am still very well aware of the fact that women get hassled on the street. When I have women friends talk to me about the kind of stuff that they have to put up with on a daily basis and it’s like, well, I just exist. I walk outside my house and I exist outside my house, and that’s the way it is.’ Woodger comments: ‘‘The invisibility that we experience has led to a significant disregard for our rights and the issues we face but is also a privilege in its own way.’ This recognition, however, linked to one of my frustrations with the book; that it pushes the idea of a cis/trans dichotomy, rather than recognising how everyone struggles with performing gender and living up to gender expectations. This is not to say that trans men’s particular experiences aren’t valuable here, but that the book as a whole risked setting up a new binary while claiming to break down barriers.

I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review. My even longer review is on Goodreads!

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The Public Universal Friend, depicted in an 1821 biography

Kit Heyam’s Before We Were Trans is a popular history that thinks about how we can find trans lives in the past. Heyam offers a series of case studies of what Heyam terms ‘trans history’ across the globe, from seventeenth-century West African female kings to contemporary South Asian hijra to figures like Jemima Wilkinson, who rose from their deathbed as the genderless Public Universal Friend in 1776 and preached Quaker ideology throughout the northwestern United States. Heyam’s definition of ‘trans history’ is ‘deliberately expansive’: he argues that trans history must include ‘people who’ve troubled the relationship between our bodies and how we live; people who’ve taken creative, critical approaches to gender binaries; people who’ve approached gender disruptively or messily.’

Heyam’s introduction to this book is extremely useful and insightful, making a number of key methodological points. These points are followed through in a couple of especially strong chapters. Heyam is careful to show that intersex histories, for example, should not simply be appropriated by trans people, talking through the example of Roberta Cowell, a British trans woman who had gender reassignment surgery in 1948. Cowell always claimed that she was really intersex rather than trans, and had ‘developed along the wrong lines‘. However, in order to support her own story, she relied on homophobic and transphobic tropes to present herself as a ‘real woman’. Another excellent chapter concerns the experiences of men who lived and performed as women in First World War internment camps. Heyam effectively uses these histories to show how many different motives people in the past might have had for gender non-conformity, whether it was to ‘legitimise’ homosexual attraction, to participate in music-hall traditions of drag, or to seize the opportunity to express their true gender.

This book, then, is almost more about the methodology of doing trans history than it is about trans history, and I had some problems with how Heyam’s approach played out in practice. For example, he sets up a false binary between simplistic histories of homosexuality that are focused solely on who you sleep with, and the more expansive trans history that he advocates. I like Heyam’s umbrella definition of trans history but it ignores the ways in which lesbian historians, in particular, have drawn on lesbian activism to present similarly expansive definitions of lesbian history that overlap with Heyam’s trans umbrella. Judith Bennett, for example, argues that by using the term ‘lesbian-like’, ‘we might incorporate into lesbian history sexual rebels, gender rebels, marriage-resisters, cross-dressers, singlewomen’. This draws on earlier activist ideas from groups like Radicalesbians who argued that lesbians are positioned in a specific way in relation to patriarchy; being a ‘lesbian’ is to step outside the acceptable boundaries of what it means to be a woman, and therefore to face the full force of patriarchal oppression, as well as making as the choice to orientate your energies towards other women rather than men. As historians, we might sometimes find ‘trans’ or ‘lesbian’ history to be a more useful umbrella term, but it’s not true that one is inclusive and one is not: they include different people.

Heyam argues that there is an emotional case for trans history; that it is important for trans people to see themselves in the past. ‘We’re… trying to reassure ourselves that our genders are real’. While I completely agree, I thought this book did treat some histories with less care than others, especially Global South and indigenous histories, and the histories of lesbians/wlw. (Heyam does reflect on the problems of white Western trans people appropriating terms like ‘two-spirit’, but then goes on to include these kind of histories in their book on trans history; there’s something not quite right here). In short, I’m totally behind Heyam’s ideas about trans history, but they don’t always play out convincingly in practice, and the book ends up sitting uneasily between popular history and academic theory.

I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review. My even longer review is on Goodreads!

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I had hoped to include Kristen Schilt’s Just One Of The Guys?: Transgender Men And The Persistence of Gender Inequality in this post, one of the books on my 2022 reading list. Unfortunately, although I’ve ordered it, it won’t arrive for a while! This academic book promises to examine, via interviews and ethnographies, how trans men are still subject to systemic gender inequality in the workplace: while ‘some transmen gain acceptance—and even privileges—by becoming “just one of the guys,”… some are coerced into working as women or marginalized for being openly transgender’. I think it will be a great counterpart to these two popular/non-academic books.

Have you read any non-fiction about trans histories or trans lives recently? Any recommendations?

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September Superlatives, Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

The Best ‘Dark Academia’ Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman, published back in 2002 before ‘dark academia’ really became a trend as such, although it owes a bit to The Secret History. When Jane was a pupil at a private girls’ school by the shores of Heart Lake, both her roommates committed suicide. Now she’s back as a Latin teacher with her young daughter in tow. But as the lake gradually freezes over, the secrets Jane has been keeping all these years rise back to the surface. The Lake of Dead Languages is a pitch-perfect example of this sub-sub-genre. Goodman expertly interweaves the past with the present, and treads carefully enough to avoid too much melodrama, despite her sensational subject-matter. The biggest triumph, though, is the evocative atmosphere, and the way in which the lake functions so elegantly as metaphor; ‘overturn’, we learn, is what happens when a body of water cools, with the denser, colder water sinking to the bottom and the warmer water rising to the top to cool in its turn. I found a number of the revelations predictable, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment; if anything, I liked seeing how Goodman was setting up her dominos.  If you liked Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House, Bridget Collins’s The Betrayals or Tana French’s The Secret PlaceI’d suggest trying this one. [My copy was discovered in a little free library!]

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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… The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly. Loosely based on Kit Williams’ famous Masqueradethis novel invents another treasure hunt started by The Golden Bones, a picture book full of clues that lead to a set of tiny golden models of a folktale lady’s bones. Decades on, so-called ‘Bonehunters’ are still obsessed with finding the final bone, and Nell, who has grown up under the shadow of this book her father wrote with his best friend, is still dealing with the fallout. Erin Kelly is known for her sophisticated thrillers, but this felt like a step beyond even what she’s done before, with such psychological realism as she explores the network of relationships within Nell’s family. It took a little while, but ultimately I fell in love with this complicated, intricate story. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Non-Fiction Book I Read This Month Was… 

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… Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored by Jeffrey Boakye. I’ve read a number of excellent recent books on black British culture and the legacy of the British Empire – Akala’s Natives and Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) come to mind. Black, Listed isn’t quite as good as those two, but Boakye cleverly structures his reflections around the language that has been used to describe black people in Britain, and the language they use to describe themselves. So we have short sections on official descriptors like ‘Afro-Caribbean’, ‘ethnic minority’ and ‘person of colour’, alongside openly derogatory language like ‘half-caste’, historical terms like ‘Moor’ and what Boakye calls ‘loaded terms’ like ‘ebony’, ‘exotic’ and ‘powerful’. (In a book full of violent words, I found it striking that Boakye admits that the thing he’d most hate to be called is ‘sellout’, which reflects his continuing struggle with his black identity and his fear of being seen as ‘not black enough’.) This tight focus on terminology was consistently thought-provoking, even if some of the content was familiar. I’ve immediately set a section of the book for my undergraduates.

The Book That Left Me Feeling Most Conflicted This Month Was…

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… The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. Hustvedt is always a cerebral writer, but I found this significantly more challenging than What I Loved and Memories of the FutureHarriet Burden has struggled for artistic recognition all her life, and now, in early old age, she conducts an experiment that she calls the ‘Masking’: she stages three art exhibitions using three different male artists as her alter egos, and watches as the accolades roll in. The book is told via a compilation of Harriet’s notebooks, written or spoken accounts from other key players, and reviews of the shows. I’ve no doubt this novel will stay indelibly fixed in my mind. Hustvedt brilliantly explores how Harriet’s art changes as she imagines herself as each of the three men she chooses, and how she creates a complicated web of self-reflection, writing to an art journal under yet another male name to both reveal and critique her own project. You get the sense that Harriet’s fatal flaw is that she can’t quite recognise that the rest of the world are not as clever as she is. She’s a marvellous character. Having said that, though, I felt this worked better as a thought experiment than as a novel. I found some sections nearly unreadable, and others dragged down by the weight of academic footnotes that added very little. Like Harriet, it’s a bit too smart for its own good. Hustvedt’s follow-up, Memories of the Future, is a much better piece of fiction; still, I’d rather read a book like this than many tidier novels. [Borrowed from my local library #LoveYourLibrary]

The Best Romcom I Read This Month Was…

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… Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband? by Lizzie Damilola Blackburn. This charming first novel is basically rebranded ‘chick lit’, of the sort I used to devour in my early twenties, and none the worse for that, especially as it changes things up by starring a dark-skinned Nigerian-British woman. Yinka is tired of being asked by older relatives when she is going to find a ‘huzband’ – especially as she’s secretly a hopeless romantic and would love to settle down with a man. So she finally agrees to try out some of the strategies recommended by her community, including attending a different (more evangelical, less C of E) church with lots of eligible bachelors. I adored Yinka, and her story is great fun. A more light-hearted version of Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie and a better-written, more engaging version of Ayisha Malik’s Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. 

What were the best and worst things you read in September?

20 Books of Summer, #18, #19 and #20: Double Fault, The Buried Giant and The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already! 

Three eclectic choices to finish up with… though all have something to say about marriage.

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Before rereading: I first read Double Fault in 2010, when I was twenty-three, and again in 2012, when I gave it the same star rating but enjoyed it more. I remember it vividly. It’s the story of an up-and-coming tennis player, Willy, who falls in love with another tennis player, Eric. At first, Willy can easily outpace him, but as his career gathers speed and hers falters, she becomes paralysed by the pain of her own unfulfilled dreams and her struggle to support Eric. This is one of Shriver’s best novels, but I remember it as quite a traumatic read. Willy’s slow failure is so horrible to witness, and I hugely identified with her inability to see herself as anything other than a tennis player (despite having only successfully hit a ball with a tennis racket a couple times in my life!!) and how viciously Eric’s success rubbed salt into her wounds. The novel has attracted a lot of moany Goodreads reviews about how Willy isn’t ‘likeable’, to which I say, whatever.

After rereading: I found Double Fault much less upsetting to read this time around, although I rated it just as highly. What was actually upsetting were the ‘reading group’ questions in my edition (the book was originally published in 1997, but this edition is from 2007, so not THAT long ago!!). Some examples:

  • Do you find Willy – or at least her plight – sympathetic? Or is her moral obligation to be supportive of her husband so profound in your mind that you cannot forgive her bad attitude?
  • To what degree do you believe that Willy engineers her own professional downfall? Might she want to succeed too much? But you can’t really blame her for her injury, can you?
  • The book’s title is obviously a play on words, implying that both parties in the marriage have some responsibility for what happens. Willy’s “fault” is pretty obvious. But in what way is Eric to blame? Or is he?
  • How do you picture Willy’s life after the last page? What will she do for a living? Will she marry again? If so, will she have learnt her lesson? And what lesson will that be?

Yes, what lesson WILL that be?

My rating in 2010/2012: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

L: The hardback edition that I used to own. R: The paperback copy I borrowed from the library this time around.

Before rereading: I was so excited about Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Never Let Me Go remains one of my favourite novels of all time, and this was his first new novel in ten years. I loved the idea of Ishiguro tackling traditional fantasy after his take on sci-fi tropes in Never Let Me Go, and I bought the novel in hardback when it first came out in 2015. Sadly, The Buried Giant was not a hit for me. While I liked the themes of memory and forgetting, I found the narrative so slow-paced that I never finished the novel. I truly hate quest or journey narratives – when the characters walk from place to place searching for something they’re not allowed to find – and this seemed like a classic example.

After rereading: The Buried Giant focuses on an ageing couple, Axel and Beatrice, who decide to leave the warren of caverns where they have been mysteriously shunned by their community, and go in search of their son. They are also troubled by the ‘mist’ that has come over their memories and those of everybody else around them, and hope to lift it so they can remember happy times together in the past. As they travel, they experience a number of strange encounters, including a community of monks who ritually allow themselves to be pecked by birds in penance, and a group of three frozen ogres, one half-submerged in a pool. They also wonder, as it becomes clear to them that this land has a violent past, if the ‘mist’ is a result of human actions; ‘Perhaps God’s so deeply ashamed of us, of something we did, that he’s wishing himself to forget.’ 

If that was all The Buried Giant was – a novella or long short story that focused on Axel and Beatrice’s journey – I’d likely find it both strange and impressive. Unfortunately, the novel is padded out with much weaker material, including a sub-plot about the ageing Sir Gawain which read like a parody of epic fantasy, complete with creaky dialogue. It’s a deliberate mishmash of influences, many of which are probably unintentional – I was reminded, at different times, of A Song Of Ice and Fire, The Neverending Story (the ‘Nothing’ bears an uncanny resemblance to Ishiguro’s mist) and the film Return To Oz. I’m inclined to agree with James Wood in the New Yorker when he says ‘a generalized Arthurian setting, perilous for most writers, is a larger liability for a writer whose mimesis tends not toward the specific but toward discursive monologue and dreamlike suspensions’ and that Ishiguro’s writing tends to (deliberately) lack ‘texture and telling particulars’, which works in his other novels but not here. I’d add that Ishiguro’s obsession with the things we misremember feels unnecessary in The Buried Giant, given that the premise of this novel is that everybody has forgotten almost everything – and yet his characters still quibble over the details of the past. Honestly, I found this a massive slog, but I was at least left with more to think about than after reading Klara and the Sun.

My rating in 2015: *** [DNF]

My rating in 2022: ***

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Before rereading: I discovered Melissa Bank’s work via her second novel, The Wonder Spot, which I re-read multiple times in my early to mid twenties. I’ve only read The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing once, in 2007, when I was twenty years old, and wasn’t as impressed with it as The Wonder Spot, though the books cover similar ground – smart, thoughtful takes on modern dating reminiscent of something like Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Man of My Dreams. I was sad to hear that Bank has recently died of lung cancer, aged only 61, and thought it would be good to return to these books, this time in publication order.

After rereading: The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing was a big hit when it was first published in 1999, and I can see why; it captures the turn-of-the-millennium zeitgeist, with its direct references to The Rules and echoes of Bridget Jones’s Diary. However, while I can understand why the titular short story made waves, the book as a whole still doesn’t hang together for me. Even putting aside the entirely random story in the middle of the collection that doesn’t feature Jane, Girls’ Guide is uneven. The other strongest stories are ‘Advanced Beginners’ and ‘The Worst Thing A Suburban Girl Can Imagine’, which are also the only two which don’t focus solely on romantic relationships. Banks’ writing is undoubtedly sharp, but the clever one-liners become a little formulaic, as they often rely on reversing a common phrase (Jane ironically accuses a boyfriend who’s trying to find her a job of ‘work harassment in the sexual place’; she calls herself ‘a truthball in search of goof’, etc.) And while a lot of the reviews of this book want to stress that it is NOT CHICK LIT, the best early 00s chick lit is better than this. I enjoyed revisiting Girls’ Guide, but I have much higher hopes for The Wonder Spot, which I plan to re-read in September.

My rating in 2007: ***1/2

My rating in 2022: ***1/2

#20 Books of Summer, #13 and #14: True Believer and Over Sea, Under Stone

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already!

I feel like a bit of a cheat choosing two children’s/YA books (Skellig did not count because it was so awful I read it very slowly) but, to be fair, nothing against it in the rules I set myself.

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The UK edition I own – couldn’t find a stock photo online. I love the very ‘early 00s’ font choice, reminiscent of the cover of Nicola Griffiths’ The Blue Place.

Before rereading: I first read this book in 2002, when I was fifteen years old, the same age as the main character. I don’t remember much about it other than that I resonated with its themes of oppressive, evangelical Christianity and first love.  It stands out in my memory because I liked it despite the fact it was an ‘issue’ book written in blank verse – two things I usually steered clear of as a teenager. I didn’t write anything down about the novel at the time, but it was ‘Commended’ in my monthly book awards.

After rereading: Ah, I completely see why I loved this so much as a teenager, but I still really enjoyed it as an adult. The central themes of the novel – unrequited love, religion, and biochemistry – were also three of my obsessions at this age. Like LaVaughn, the protagonist of True Believer, I was disturbed by how many of my fellow classmates had become vocal evangelical Christians, committing to fundamentalist ideas about evolution and hellfire, and resisted their attempts to convert me. Although our adolescent experiences were otherwise very far apart – American LaVaughn lives in a rough inner city area with frequent shootings, both inside and outside her high school – I identified with her concerns. It also features a very early 00s take on adolescent homosexuality: our sympathetic, straight protagonist discovers that a male friend is gay and, after the initial shock, accepts it. It’s interesting how the few YA novels at the time that did tackle this topic often did it in this sidelong way (and totally unsurprising that the gay characters were always male). Passages from the book came back to me as I was reading, making me realise that they must have stayed with me ever since. And while I still struggle with novels written in blank verse, this, along with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Otheris a rare exception that works for me: Wolff uses verse so cleverly to convey the cadence of LaVaughn’s voice.

(This book is actually the second in a trilogy. I read the first, Make Lemonade, after reading this one and wasn’t too impressed with it. The third, This Full House, came out in 2009, when my teen years were over, and doesn’t seem to have got great reviews, so I’m hesitant to try it).

My rating in 2002: ****

My rating in 2022 (twenty years later 😲): ****

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Before rereading: I read this book multiple times as a young child. The American edition suggests to me that I first read it in the States, so I was probably around six or seven (c.1993-4). I remember it as being quite similar to Enid Blyton, The Magician’s Nephew and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in its Cornish holiday setting, quest narrative and hint of something darker via the character of Great-Uncle Merry, who I remember as having a bit of a Gandalf vibe. I did not read the rest of the novels in The Dark Is Rising sequence until I was a teenager, and never clicked with them in the same way. I think it was a combination of not being a big fan of high/Arthurian fantasy and feeling resentful that there were (initially) so few connections between this book and the rest of the series.

I’m rereading this as part of Annabel’s Dark Is Rising Sequence Readalong #TDiR22.

After rereading: This took me back! I read it when I was so young I still believed all books somehow existed in the same world, so it’s muddled in my head with Weirdstone – which was published five years earlier, and with which it shares certain key similarities – and other children’s books I read that dealt with Cornish folklore. It starts off feeling very Blytonesque, as the three Drew children embark on their seaside holiday, but Cooper expertly weaves in a darker and more menacing thread as they find a mysterious map and search for the Grail, and the final revelation about Great-Uncle Merry confirms my dim memory of the novel. This was a perfect read for a sunny few days spent largely on the north-east coast – plus one misty morning.

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Annabel asks:

  1. We’re reading the book in prime holiday season. Does it successfully evoke the sense of adventure of childhood holidays at the seaside for you? YES – especially the sequence when the children explore a cave at low tide.
  2. This novel was initially written in response to a competition to honour the memory of E. Nesbit, although it wasn’t actually entered for it. How well do you think Cooper achieves this? I find this a bit puzzling. I devoured many E. Nesbit books as a child – Five Children and It, The Story of the Amulet, The Story of The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Enchanted Castle (hated The Railway Children, sorry) – and this book doesn’t seem to owe much to Nesbit. As I’ve said, to me the obvious readalikes are Blyton and Garner. Over Sea, Under Stone recalls a world of ‘high’ magic linked to local legend, which doesn’t fit with the feel of the more prosaic magics in Nesbit’s books. The closest Nesbit novels are probably Treasure Seekers/Wouldbegoods, but there is no element of fantasy in those two, and they adopt a much more imaginative and interesting style of first-person narration than Over Sea, which is very straightforwardly told.
  3. I can’t help comparing the Drew children to Narnia’s Pevensies. Barney would be Lucy, Simon would be Peter – does that make Jane Susan? What other parallels are there if any? I don’t remember the Narnia novels well enough to answer this, but I was interested by the way the three children are characterised. Although Cooper’s writing is far superior to Blyton’s, there are traces of familiar roles. Simon is the leader and protective older brother, Barney is the maverick younger brother and repository of random facts, and Jane is more caring, more easily frightened and more timid. Cooper is careful to have all three children contribute equally to the quest for the grail, but I was sorry to see Jane sometimes relegated to more traditionally feminine roles – for example, waiting for the boys outside the cave.
  4. And what about the dog? How does Rufus compare with Tintin’s Snowy/Milou or Timmy in the Blyton’s Famous Five? I’m not really sure why there was a dog in this book – although he does a good line in alerting our protagonists to the presence of evil.

My rating c.1994: *****

My rating in 2022: ****

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: Creatures of Passage

Nephthys Kinwell drives a sky-blue 1967 Plymouth Belvedere, haunted by the occasional thump of the ghost of a white girl in the trunk. She ferries lost souls across the Anacostia neighbourhood of Washington DC in 1977, helped by the fact that her car never breaks down or needs refuelling. Nephthys is haunted by the violent death of her twin brother Osiris; they were born conjoined at the finger (best to treat this as fantasy: conjoined twins cannot be different sexes, as they are always genetically identical, and this type of conjoining also seems unlikely) and she does not feel complete without him. Her niece Amber has the power to predict deaths, and when she has a dream about her son, Dash, Nephthys fears for his fate. Meanwhile, child abuser Mercy, the caretaker at the local school, stalks this troubled kingdom.

Creatures of Passage, Morowa Yejidé’s second novel, draws heavily on Ancient Egyptian mythology. I was familiar with the story of Isis and Osiris but hadn’t realised that Nephthys was their sister, and that she helped Isis to bring Osiris back from the dead after his murder and dismemberment. In some accounts she is also the mother of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death who oversaw the ‘Weighing of the Heart’ in the Egyptian journey to the underworld. Egyptian Books of the Dead map routes to the underworld that involve fearful obstacles such as a lake of fire, giving the deceased a series of spells to recite so they can pass safely. A ferryman also carries the souls of the dead into the underworld. Yejidé uses this imagery throughout the novel, including the use of ancient language such as ‘kingdoms’ and ‘kings’ to describe the United States. Certain incidents bring this mythological resonance together hauntingly and beautifully: most notably, the murder of Osiris.

Unfortunately, for much of this novel, the voice that Yejidé cultivates simply did not work for me, on both a structural level and line-by-line. Creatures of Passage is deliberately repetitive and circular, as indicated by the childhood song that is repeated by both Nephthys and Osiris: ‘Indigo swirlin’ round de vat/No beginnin’ and no end…’ Both siblings also repeat certain phrases, such as ‘the unbearable inertia of one’ and ‘the interstellar cold of his solitude’, a tic that drove me increasingly mad as the novel went on. This was perhaps especially irritating because these phrases, like much of the rest of the text, felt mannered and pretentious. Yejidé chooses complex language even when things could be said much more simply. Describing the death of a pregnant woman: ‘As the woman moved from one plane of existence to another, the preborn lay quiet in her amniotic water, listening to the sound of her progenitor’s heartbeat slowing to a stop.’ One line like this might work, but the accumulation of them is very wearing, even if it’s in keeping with the mood of the novel. There are flashes of brilliant writing – ‘the cherry-blossom flecked currents of the Tidal Basin; the shallow majesty of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool; the slushy inflow of the McMillan Reservoir; the black tranquility of the Georgetown canal; the rolling deep of the Potomac River’ – but even these get diluted by being repeated.

I genuinely admire what Yejidé was trying to do with this novel, but it did not work well for me, especially because all this is anchored by a rather thin plot that centres on child abuse, a prominent theme in the Women’s Prize longlist this year but one which is difficult to handle in fiction. Probably my biggest disappointment from the list, and I doubt it will be shortlisted.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. This is number eleven. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness, CarelessThe Sentence, The Paper Palace, Remote SympathyThe Final Revival of Opal & Nev , Build Your House Around My Body, The Bread The Devil Knead and Sorrow and Bliss.

10 Books of Summer, #6 and #7: Easy Meat and The Women of Troy

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It’s the day of the Brexit referendum but Caleb Jenkins doesn’t think he’s going to vote. Employed as a butcher in a slaughterhouse in the South Wales valleys alongside a largely Polish workforce, he’s more concerned with hanging onto his job and regaining his physical fitness so he can win the Swansea triathlon in September. Winning the 18-24 category in the Ironman five years before made him a temporary celebrity and Welsh reality TV star, but his victory also led to heartbreak when he was deceived by a girlfriend who wanted to keep him at any cost. Now he’s trying to support his unemployed family and ‘get back to the point in his life when he’d been winning’, but everything seems to be stacked against him.

I’ve read a couple of brilliant novels recently that deal with the meat industry (Ruth Gilligan’s The ButchersRuth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats) and Rachel Trezise’s novella Easy Meat is no exception, although here the slaughterhouse largely acts as a backdrop, demonstrating the brutal physicality of Caleb’s working life, rather than raising any ethical questions about meat consumption and quality. Easy Meat has also been described as an exploration of why so many chose to vote Leave, but what’s so impressive about Trezise’s take on the referendum is that Brexit very much fades into the background. Caleb ends up filling in his ballot at the very last minute, and while we can guess which way his vote went –  ‘ “Remain” meant that everything would stay the same but “Leave” meant something had to change’ – we aren’t actually told. Nor does he share the typical characteristics of stereotyped Brexit voters, demonstrating solidarity with his Polish workmates and actually envying the close bonds they have with each other.

If I had a reservation about Trezise’s portrayal of Brexit in this novella, it’s that it plays a little into the idea that the Leave vote was driven primarily by ‘left-behind’ working-class voters, when this has been debunked. Nevertheless, there’s much more to Easy Meat than its Brexit narrative; it’s a vivid snapshot of one day in a young man’s life as he tries to accelerate into his future but seems to already be slowing to a halt.

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

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I was impressed by Pat Barker’s 2018 retelling of the siege of Troy, The Silence of the Girlsand The Women of Troy not only picks up exactly where that book left off but seems to herald a third book that will continue to follow Briseis, our protagonist from Lyrnessus who was enslaved in The Silence of the Girls but has been newly freed by marriage in The Women of Troy. Unlike The Silence of the Girls, which zipped with great economy through the major events of the Trojan War, The Women of Troy is deliberately static and brooding. Stranded on the shores of Troy after sacking the city, the Greek army and their captives can only wait for the wind to change, tortured by a brief lull in the weather each morning before the interminable gale starts up again. Briseis wanders through the camp, encountering the most famous women of Troy in turn; Hecuba, shrivelled but still defiant; Andromache, shattered by grief and trauma; Cassandra, being Cassandra (she’s been characterised exactly the same in every retelling of the Greek epics I’ve ever read, and I love her for it); Helen, being pretty selfish but a little more humanised than in other versions I’ve seen from modern writers. The first half of this novel can therefore feel a little too schematic, and Briseis seems to have the measure of all these other women almost immediately, which makes her become rather too idealised – although we also understand more explicitly that she’s telling this story from the vantage point of old age, which perhaps excuses some of her self-aggrandising narration.

Once it’s discovered, about halfway through the novel, that somebody has been trying to bury Priam’s body, which has been deliberately left to rot in the sand (an episode that seems to have been inspired by Antigone), The Women of Troy suddenly picks up its pace, although this isn’t to say I didn’t also enjoy the more reflective first half. Like The Silence of the Girls, Briseis’s first-person narration is interspersed with third-person narration from male characters – here, Achilles’ son Pyrrhus and the Trojan priest Calchas. I felt Barker handled the shift between viewpoints more smoothly in this sequel, partly because Pyrrhus and Calchas are introduced as narrators from the beginning, rather than only appearing after we’ve already had a long stretch of Briseis’s narration. Her prose remains as strong as it was in The Silence of the Girls, and she continues to use a direct, modern style very effectively, especially in dialogue. Like The Silence of the Girls, The Women of Troy didn’t absolutely bowl me away, but it’s a haunting, beautiful novel, both books are by far the best of the recent influx of feminist Greek myth and epic retellings, and if this is a trilogy, I’ll certainly be reading the third installment.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 26th August.

I couldn’t get through Lisa Taddeo’s Animal, so I subbed The Women of Troy into my 10 Books of Summer.

20 Books of Summer, #17 and #18: New Waves and The Fens

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Kevin Nguyen’s debut New Waves was one of my most anticipated new releases of 2020, and it didn’t disappoint, even though the novel I read turned out to be a very different novel from the one the blurb led me to expect. New Waves was billed as fast-paced and satirical, featuring a black woman, Margo, and a Vietnamese man, Lucas, who team up to steal their New York tech start-up’s user database after being ignored and underpaid by the company for too long. While that’s certainly where the story starts, this hook doesn’t have much to do with where it goes after that. Nevertheless, as it turned out, New Waves fits right into a sub-genre that I’ve only just realised I love: literary fiction about fascinatingly opaque characters whom we learn about solely through the viewpoints of their friends and the technological or artistic remnants they leave behind (see also: Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark and Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted). Which is to say that this novel is all about Margo, tech genius and science fiction short story writer, even though she dies in a random accident in its first few pages. Grieving the loss of his best friend, Lucas hunts through her laptop, and while he doesn’t exactly come across revelations that overturn everything he knows about Margo, he definitely finds things that switch that knowledge onto new tracks. New Waves is so smart about race and gender, but it also has a lot to say about how both people and programmes tend to add up data in a way that makes sense to them. Margo’s short stories are nihilistic, refusing to organise themselves in any way that allows a happy ending, but her actual presence in Lucas’s life was relentlessly optimistic. Because we never hear from her directly (other than in the typed and spoken material she left behind, which is more about her fiction than about her), we are left to make up our own minds about a lot of loose ends. What kind of person was she deep down? What did she really think about Lucas? This novel will probably drive some readers to distraction, but I loved it.

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Francis Pryor is an archaeologist who specialises in the study of the British Bronze and Iron Ages. The Fens: Discovering England’s Ancient Depths traces the history of this particular English region from prehistoric times to the present day, interspersing Pryor’s personal experiences on particular digs and his memories of living in the fenland with an archaeologist’s view of how and why the fens have developed and changed. Unsurprisingly, given Pryor’s area of specialism, which I wasn’t aware of when I picked up this book, the bulk of the material is prehistoric; the medieval fens, which is the period I’m personally most interested in, barely get a look in, and what he does say about medieval power relationships is pretty simplistic from a historian’s point of view. Pryor is, when it comes down to it, more interested in the evolution of technologies, buildings and settlements than in social and political history, and fair enough if that’s your kind of thing. However, I did feel this would struggle to appeal beyond a relatively narrow audience. It’s very long, goes off on a lot of tangents, and Pryor’s writing is clear but no more than that. Certainly, the autobiographical elements of this book don’t add very much, although it promises to discuss a more emotional relationship with landscape. If you’ve lived in the fens, there will be something to interest you here, but it might not be enough to engage you for the whole 400+ pages; I read the first four chapters and then skipped to the chapters that particularly appealed to me.

I’ve made a second and final substitution in my 20 Books of Summer; unfortunately, my NetGalley copy of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain was so badly formatted it was unreadable (not the first time), so I’ve subbed in Xuan Juliana Wang’s collection of short stories Home Remedies, which was on my list of books to read in 2020.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: A Thousand Ships

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There are so many ways of telling a war: the entire conflict can be encapsulated in just one incident. One man’s anger at the behaviour of another, say… But this is the women’s war, just as much as it is the men’s, and the poet will look upon their pain – the pain of the women who have always been relegated to the edges of the story, victims of men, survivors of men, slaves of men – and he will tell it, or he will tell nothing at all. They have waited long enough for their turn.

A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes’s retelling of the Trojan War and its aftermath through the voices of myriad women on both sides of the conflict, struggles under the weight of its own good intentions. First of all, the book is much too aware of what it’s trying to do, and Haynes can’t resist the temptation to use Calliope, the ‘muse’ of the famous opening lines of the Iliad (‘Sing, O Muse, of the wrath of Achilles’) to tell us why these female voices are important. The quote above is just one example of Calliope awkwardly spelling out what was already effectively communicated through the framing of this story. Second, because Haynes wants to fracture the narrative through multiple women rather than focus on a few, the novel too often feels directionless and choppy. This can be a common risk when dealing with retellings of myths and legends (I also found Madeline Miller’s Circe too episodic, although overall it is a more interesting novel). Because women are only prominent in a few of the surviving texts, Haynes has to spread her net wide to catch her narrators, and this makes the book’s scope too big – we cover the entire siege of Troy and the full Odyssey, alongside extra stories from less well-known texts, such as the tale of the Amazon Penthesilea.

And thirdly… Pat Barker’s far superior The Silence of the Girls, which also retells the siege of Troy and which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize last year, was criticised for turning away from its female narrator, Briseis, for long periods of time to focus on Achilles, but now I’ve read A Thousand Ships, I’m even more convinced that Barker made the right narrative choices. Because women are simply not present for many of the key events of the Iliad and the Odyssey, this book contains a lot of awkward, compressed narration where characters tell us about events that they didn’t witness themselves. Sometimes, this works. Near the end of the novel, Haynes gets very clever with the prophetess Cassandra, who has been somewhat under-utilised up to this point, and uses her gift of foretelling the future to allow her to watch events as if she is replaying a film (‘Cassandra gave a low moan. This part always made her sick’). Indeed, if this whole novel had been narrated from Cassandra’s perspective, it could have been quite the ride.

But because most of the characters don’t possess Cassandra’s supernatural abilities, this narrative trick usually fails. I especially disliked the Odyssey narrated as a series of letters from Penelope to Odysseus, with Penelope retelling her husband’s exploits having heard about them second-hand through a bard. It’s bad enough that Penelope is an incredibly annoying narrator, with too many ‘witty’ proto-feminist asides (‘Obviously you would not have spent, as the bards have it, a year in her [Circe’s] halls, living as her husband, for the excellent reason that you are my husband, and such behaviour would be beneath you’) but, on reflection, I started to think that this narrative undermined the point of this book. If women at home are as important as men at war, why didn’t Haynes focus on Penelope’s trials, and ignore what Odysseus is up to?

Haynes gave herself a mammoth task, and while I’m impressed by her ambition, I wasn’t sure that she chose the correct structure to support her book. She delivers some brilliant set-piece chapters, but I couldn’t get on board with this novel as a whole, largely because it felt too meta, too self-aware, and too convinced that it’s doing something more original than it actually is.

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

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number nine. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; and How We Disappeared.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #2: The Silence of the Girls & Circe

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As a teenager, I worked my way through both popular versions of Greek myths and stories, primarily compiled by Roger Lancelyn Green, and novel-length retellings such as Adele Geras’s Troy. As an adult, I’ve tended to steer away from modern versions of classical stories – making exceptions for complete remakes like Kamila Shamsie’s take on Antigone – and was recently rather unimpressed by Colm Toibin’s House of Nameswhich focuses on the prelude and postlude to the siege of Troy. I was surprised, therefore, at how closely Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls gripped me from the start. Barker, unlike Toibin, focuses on the most famous bit of The Iliad – the siege of Troy itself by the Greek army, Patroclus’s death, Achilles’s furious return to the fight, and how Hector’s body is dragged many times around the walls of Troy before the city finally falls. At the end of the novel, there are details borrowed from Euripides’s Trojan Women, such as the killing of Trojan children by Greek soldiers.

I was less familiar with the first half of the story told here, which deals with Achilles’s anger with Agamemnon after the latter demands his war prize, an enslaved girl, Briseis, as compensation for the loss of his own ‘prize’, Chryseis. Briseis narrates the first section of The Silence of the Girls, and it was her unmediated first-person narrative that I found most impressive. Barker shows us how the women in the camp remain silent in the presence of more powerful men, but speak up when they are alone, offering their own take on the familiar characters of these epics. After meeting her fellow ‘prizes’, Briseis learns a great deal about the men whom they ‘belong’ to:

Hecamede… had been awarded to Nestor… as his prize for strategic thinking, since he was too old to take part in the actual raid.

“Too old for anything?” I ventured to hope.

Uza… hooted with laughter. “Don’t you bloody well believe it! They’re always the worst, old men”… Uza was Odysseus’s prize. No problems there, apparently. All very straightforward. When it was over, he’d lie looking up at the ceiling and indulge in long, rambling reminiscences about his wife, Penelope, to whom he was utterly devoted…

Ritsa turned to me. “What about Achilles? What’s he like?”

“Fast,” I said, and left it at that.

As with any oppressed group, the enslaved women form complex social hierarchies between themselves, based not on their status before slavery (Briseis was married to the king of Lyrnessus), but on qualities that now have more tradeable value, such as youth and beauty, and the attitude of the men who now own them. There’s debate over where the fragile Chryseis fits into all of this:

In one respect, as Uza pointed out, she was better off than most of us: Agamemnon couldn’t get enough of her. “Never sends for anybody else,” she said. “I’m amazed she’s not pregnant.”

He prefers the back door,” Ritsa said. She’d know. Ritsa had a jar of goose fat mixed with crushed roots and herbs that the common women round the campfires relied on if they’d had a particularly rough night.

Later on, the narrative starts to switch between Briseis’s account and Achilles’s third-person perspective, and while this narrative choice is necessary to cover some events that Briseis is not witness to, I found that the novel lost some of its power once its voice was divided. Nevertheless, Barker writes convincingly about religious belief, the duties that the men believe they owe to the gods, and Achilles’s relationship with Patroclus, which is reinvented as a profound, but non-sexual, love, although the other men are convinced they’re sleeping together.

There’s a deliberate use of modern terminology throughout the novel, which on the whole, worked well; while there’s nothing more jarring than a really anachronistic term, making historical characters speak in stilted sentences (which in this case could never be ‘accurate’ given the language difference) is alienating, and gives the false impression that slang and abbreviations are modern inventions. I particularly liked this rowdy chant that the men sing about Achilles:

Why was he born so beautiful?

Why was he born at all?

He’s no fucking use to anyone!

He’s no fucking use at all!

He may be a joy to his mother,

But he’s a pain in the arsehole to me!

This use of language, including some of the phrasing of the First World War poets elsewhere in the narrative, only enhances the power of this wonderful novel.

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Seven years ago, when her debut novel, The Song of Achilles, won what was then the Orange Prize, it was rumoured that Madeline Miller was writing a retelling of the Odyssey. Instead, her second novel takes a slightly different tack. Circe takes the witch that Odysseus famously encounters on an isolated island and gives us an alternative perspective on some of the most famous stories from Greek myth and legend. The novel begins when Circe is a mistreated nymph at her father’s court, exiled after transforming one of her fellow nymphs into the sea monster, Scylla. On her island, Circe encounters first Jason, and then Daedalus, hearing stories of her sister Pasiphae, her minotaur child, and the labyrinth Daedalus built to contain him. Her uneasy truce with the messenger god, Hermes, allows her to learn what happens to these people after they leave her. However, it’s only after Odysseus arrives that Circe really becomes deeply involved in a storyline in her own right.

It’s also been seven years since I read The Song of Achilles, but I remember being impressed by the way that Miller wove little interludes into the central narrative of the siege of Troy while not allowing the novel to feel too tangential. In contrast, much of the first half of Circe is distractingly episodic – not epic, but not really mythical either. The novel only really gets going at the halfway mark, after Circe is raped by a ship’s captain, and vows to transform all men who land on her island into pigs. This middle section is mesmerising, and from this point on, Circe begins to become more of an agent, rather than the recipient of curses, punishments, and tales. However, I still felt profoundly disappointed in her characterisation for much of the novel. She seems to be designed to win the reader’s sympathy rather than positioned as a complex mix of god, nymph and witch. All she really wants is to live the life of a mortal, to have love and children, and she only becomes truly vengeful after her rape. While Miller, like Barker, obviously wants to give us a female perspective on these male-dominated legends, I felt that Circe was much less successful in this respect than The Silence of the Girls. The morality was a bit black-and-white for me; eventually we find out that Odysseus is also a villain, overwriting what was most interesting about his characterisation in The Song of Achilles and in much of this novel. Miller’s writing is still excellent, but if only one classical retelling can make it to the Women’s Prize shortlist this year, I’d prefer it to be The Silence of the Girls.

 

Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2018

Having read fourteen of the sixteen titles longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I thought I’d have a go at putting together my dream shortlist before the actual one is announced on Monday. (This is with the caveat that I haven’t read Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY or Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I obviously just hate books about happiness).

I had anticipated this being a difficult task, as my overall impression of the longlist was that it was very strong. However, when I looked at these fourteen titles again, I realised that for me, there are six that are way ahead of the rest. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy any of the other books on the list, but that these six emphatically stood out.

In no particular order, with links to my reviews:

  • Sight by Jessie Greengrass. In some ways this is an awkward and disjointed novel, but I was blown away by Greengrass’s precise and brilliant meditations on pregnancy and early motherhood, as well as her writing on the grief of losing a parent when you are still a very young adult yourself.
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Drawing on the tropes of Southern Gothic, this novel traces the deep-rooted history of racial violence in Mississippi through the manifestion of a series of ghosts. The final page or so is simply spectacular.
  • Elmet by Fiona Mozley. An incredibly confident exploration of masculinity and patriarchy, and the deep emotional attachments we can feel to places as well as people. The narrator’s sister, Cathy, is a particularly memorable character.
  • When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy. This account of an violent marriage moves far beyond familiar cliches in the way it picks apart and rewrites this single story, repositioning both the abused wife and her abusive husband.
  • The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. A fabulous, intricate historical novel with a light touch of speculative fiction. Although it has serious themes to tackle itself, it’s also refreshingly lighter in tone than these other five titles!
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. I was totally emotionally engaged by this retelling of Antigone, which deals with Parvaiz, a young British Muslim recruited by ISIS, his two sisters, Isma and Aneeka, and Eamonn, the son of Muslim Home Secretary Karamat who is staging a ‘crackdown’ on terrorism to enhance his own reputation. Best line: ‘For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition.’

I don’t have an absolute favourite to win, but Mozley, Ward and Greengrass are all strong contenders for me, with Mozley perhaps edging slightly ahead of the other two.

I’ll update this post with my thoughts on the actual shortlist once it has been released. In the meantime, what are your wishes and predictions for the 2018 shortlist?

UPDATED 23/4/18:

The actual shortlist is here!

As you can imagine, I’m pretty thrilled that it’s so close to my dream shortlist, though perplexed by the exclusion of Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, which appeared on all the predicted shortlists I’ve seen, and was my preferred winner. I enjoyed The Idiot and I think it’s an interesting and original book in a number of ways, but found it meandering and over-long. However, I’m excited to have read all of the six shortlisted titles, and will now be backing Sight or Sing, Unburied, Sing as the overall winner.

Who do you think should win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018?