Reading on My Travels, Sydney 2019: Mini-Reviews

I headed onwards from Tokyo to Sydney for the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth conference at Australian Catholic University. Sydney wasn’t as high on my personal wish list as Tokyo, but it was still amazing to get the chance to spend time there (and in the Blue Mountains):

I read two books not from my 20 Books of Summer list in Sydney (and started The Nix and Atlantic Winds as well):

Never Far From Nowhere, one of Andrea Levy’s earlier novels, actually felt much more original to me than her later, more well-known works The Long Song or Small Island. Perhaps this is simply my aversion to much historical fiction, or perhaps Levy herself wrote better about more contemporary times and places. Technically, Never Far From Nowhere, published in 1996, is historical fiction: set on a council estate in the 1970s, it revels in the details of teenage life in that decade, from bovver boots to tights with carefully-positioned rows of holes to hippie hair to Ben Sherman checked shirts. However, Levy is clearly drawing on her own experiences growing up in Islington (although the book is set in Finsbury Park) and so this deluge of detail feels properly authentic.

Never Far From Nowhere follows two sisters, Olive and Vivian. Neither of them is traditionally likeable. Olive, darker-skinned and both much more acutely aware of her blackness and more willing to adopt it as an identity, leaves school with no qualifications and struggles in a series of short-term jobs. She rows constantly with her mother, but her younger sister, Vivian, is jealous of how Olive always seems to be the centre of attention, the one that their mother really cares about. This is despite the fact that Vivian makes every effort to meet their mother’s expectations: she works hard at grammar school and has ambitions to go to art college. Levy carefully balances the family dynamics, not allowing her story to become a simple binary between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sister.

The plot also plays with ideas of a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ working-class immigrant – Olive and Vivian were both born in England, but their parents emigrated from Jamaica. ‘Mouthy’ Olive ends up on benefits and doggedly chases up a council flat; Vivian aspires to be socially mobile and keeps her mouth shut when her friends toss around racial slurs. Olive’s recalcitrance seems deliberate; why should we only have sympathy for those who are doing all the right things? And despite Vivian’s academic intelligence, it’s Olive who is clearest about the structural oppression the sisters face in England, although she can be strikingly naïve in certain situations. Never Far From Nowhere lacks deliberate structure; it’s a slice of these sisters’ lives, and ends at a point that feels largely arbitary. It’s also a pretty grim read. Nevertheless, Levy’s portrayal of 1970s north London through the eyes of these two sisters stands out.

Because I work on young people’s writing in post-war Britain, I was excited to read Rife: Twenty-One Stories From Britain’s Youth, a collection of essays by young people aged sixteen to twenty-four, edited by Nikesh Shukla and Sammy Jones. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in most of these essays on a number of counts. Firstly, it has to be said: most of the writing here isn’t very good. I know from reading blogs, short stories and novels written by young/er people, as well as from reading the writing of my own undergraduate students, that writers in their late teens and early twenties are as capable of producing wonderful and insightful prose as any other group of writers. However, I worry that others reading this collection will lazily assume that nothing better can be expected from young people.

The problem possibly lies in the way many of these essays were produced: rather than seeking out twenty-one independent contributions, a lot of these essays emerged from a single project at Watershed in Bristol, which produced Rife magazine. Whatever the process was, it seems to have encouraged many of these writers towards a ponderous and formal style; individual voice is smothered and a lot of the essays sound the same. Rather than drawing on personal experience, many of the essays pontificate on very familiar topics: the rental crisis, poor funding for mental health and university fees. (One essay on the university experience was particularly enraging; the writer rightly criticises high fees but seems to blame lecturers for not providing ‘value for money’ e.g. for going on strike over staff pensions, rather than government policies. I know from talking to my own students about these issues that many undergraduates are not this short-sighted).

My second problem with this collection is more an issue of personal preference. Most of these writers talk about their experience as young people by invoking the language of generational inequality; making the usual arguments about the unfairness of rising house prices, unemployment and student debt in comparison to the experience of their parents’ generation. While I agree with these arguments, I was hoping that these writers might have more to say about the way that age itself acts as an oppressive category. This may in its turn result from the limited range of ages represented by the contributors. The majority are in their early twenties – already looking back on adolescence. The one essay that is obviously written by a teenager, ‘Sweet Sixteen: Kiss, Marry, Vote’, was one of my favourites. Amber Kirk-Ford effectively challenges the relevance of chronological age, arguing: ‘If some sixteen-year-olds are disengaged or badly behaved, that is equally true of apparent grown-ups… [not giving sixteen-year-olds the vote] is based on the myth that all young people are exactly the same, and are less mature than adults’. Other essays worked well for me despite the fact that they weren’t focused on questions of age because of the way they explored other intersectional identities; for example, Shona Cobb’s essay on her experiences of living with Marfan Syndrome, ‘Exclusion’, and Mariam Khan’s essay on being an hijabi, ‘My Body, My Choice’. On the whole, however, while I think projects of this kind are really important, I’ve read much better writing by teenagers and young adults elsewhere.

I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 11th July 2019.

Edit: I meant to add my (dissatisfied) thoughts about The Nix and Atlantic Winds to this post and forgot, so here are links to my Goodreads reviews:

The Nix (**1/2), DNF @ 35%

Atlantic Winds (**1/2), only finished because it was so short

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Unhappy People: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jeanette Winterson) & Normal People (Sally Rooney)

Jeanette Winterson grew up in an English Pentecostal family. Her adoptive parents were shocked when she came out as a lesbian, and had their church conduct an exorcism. Winterson ended up leaving home at sixteen, and broke contact with her family shortly after. Famously, she published a fictionalised account of her childhood and adolescence, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, when she was only twenty-five, but this memoir addresses her experiences from her own point of view. The title has a simple origin. When Winterson told her mother that she had fallen in love with another woman, and that this relationship made her very happy, her mother said: ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’

While few people would put this question as bluntly as Mrs Winterson (Winterson refers to her mother in this way throughout Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?) I think that it’s a question that a lot of us grapple with. That’s certainly true for the protagonists of Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, Connell and Marianne, who meet at school in Carricklea and carry on an one-off relationship through their years at university in Dublin. While Marianne’s family are far better off than Connell’s – Connell’s mother cleans their house – Marianne’s class privilege does little to help her at school, where Connell possesses all the social cachet. When they start sleeping together, both simply assume that the relationship should be kept secret. Cleverly, Rooney reverses the power dynamics in Dublin, where it is Marianne who is striving for social success, whereas Connell takes the brunt of not only being working-class but rural. Both characters feel the pressures of being what Marianne calls ‘normal people’, a state that is both aspirational and stifling.

Like Connell, Winterson came from a working-class family in a relatively out-of-the-way location (in her case, Accrington) and went to a glamorous world-class university (in her case, Cambridge). She writes so well about both class and religion. Despite the oppressive nature of the Pentecostal church, she remembers how she valued the sense of community it brought and the simple fact of ‘having somewhere to go in the evening’ in a declining north-west England industrial town where communal facilities had been steadily stripped away. Not connecting this to the bigger picture at the time, Winterson, as a young woman, voted for Thatcher in 1979, valuing what she seemed to represent: a self-made woman in a world where left politics felt dominated by masculine trade unionism. In contrast, both class and (especially) religion are relatively slight in Normal People. While class differences feed into the consistent miscommunication between Connell and Marianne, Rooney seems more interested in analysing how they misunderstand each other word by word and sentence by sentence, rather than suggesting that there are macro factors that keep them apart. The sadness of their story is that it could so easily have been different. In terms of politics, Marianne talks vaguely about Marxism, but that’s as far as it goes.

Rooney is a wonderfully observational writer. This Goodreads review seems to me to miss the point of her prose; it accuses her of piling up irrelevant details, but actually the content of this quote is who is doing what:

Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing people’s plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of a bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others.

While I don’t think this is the strongest example of Rooney’s writing, there’s a certain power dynamic here that we can see through Connell’s eyes; Marianne bringing out more bottles; handing him a corkscrew while her current partner, Jamie, tries to get her attention; Peggy taking charge through clearing the plates.

Ordinary People is an addictive read, and I found it less limited than Conversations With Friends (the critics who have suggested that Rooney has somehow regressed because she’s writing about characters who are chronologically younger than her last set of protagonists need to think again). However, I have to confess that I’m baffled as to why it’s being hailed as ‘a future classic’. I feel like I’ve read quite a few novels like this, most notably Belinda McKeon’s beautiful TenderI’d still put it on my personal shortlist for this year’s Women’s Prize, but this is partly due to the weakness of the overall longlist rather than feeling blown away by this book.

What I wanted it to address, I suppose, is something that’s inchoate in the story but never quite comes to the surface: when we are teenagers, we often want more than anything to be ‘normal people’, but as we find out how easy it is to be normal, we strive to become exceptional again. This happens most obviously to Marianne when she’s accepted by a popular set at university, and is seduced into putting her own needs and interests to one side. In Winterson’s case, I get the sense that, after what her mother said to her, being ‘normal’ was never on the agenda; so her wonderful memoir is more about the cost of living on the other side of normality, which may be the right place to be, but is often a very painful space as well.

The year of the doll

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If 2018 was the year of the mermaid, with Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks, Kirsty Logan’s The GloamingMelissa Broder’s The Pisces, and Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancockit looks like 2019 might be the year of the doll, with Elizabeth Macneal’s debut, The Doll Factoryfollowing hard on the heels of Nina Allan’s The DollmakerHowever, like The Dollmaker, The Doll Factory uses dolls more figuratively than it does literally. Iris and her sister Rose paint porcelain dolls and sew their clothing for a living, able only to dream of having their own shop some day. However, when Iris catches the attention of an (invented) Pre-Raphaelite artist, Louis Frost, she becomes not only his model but also his pupil. As Iris’s world begins to open out, however, she is also watched by Silas, a resentful taxidermist, who wants to claim her as his own. With its emphasis on how women are treated as beautiful objects, and Iris’s quest for freedom, The Doll Factory recalls Mary de Morgan’s 1877 short story ‘The Toy Princess’, where a spirited princess is replaced by an identical clockwork doll after her people find the real woman too wilful. (This should also forestall any criticism that Macneal’s representation of women is too modern).

While Macneal’s writing is not as distinctive as Hermes Gowar’s in Mermaid or as Sarah Perry’s in The Essex Serpent, the two most obvious comparators for this novel, I found The Doll Factory totally absorbing and surprisingly moving, which puts it head and shoulders above most recent eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century-set historical fiction. There’s an upsetting moment about three-quarters of the way through which knocked me totally off balance; it’s not a twist as such, but I hadn’t expected it, and it reminded me of similar moments in Mermaid and in Francis Spufford’s Golden HillAnd while much of this story treads familiar ground, Macneal somehow manages to bring a sense of hope to it that makes it very refreshing to read. I particularly enjoyed the development of the relationship between the two sisters. While they were close as children, Rose’s teenage disfigurement through smallpox scars has left her jealous of her sister, and has led to their estrangement – or at least, so Iris believes. Rather than focusing on female rivalry, Macneal has the two sisters become sources of strength for each other.

However, although Silas’s obsession with Iris technically forms the key source of tension in The Doll Factory, I could have done without it. I have read too many books about stalking, dangerous men, and Silas himself is pretty two-dimensional, so I found myself dreading the chapters when he would simply rehearse his grievances against the world. There’s possibly a more complex story about class privilege lurking here, but Macneal doesn’t explore it. While this would make The Doll Factory a less traditionally ‘gripping’ novel, I would honestly have preferred to have no Silas – the social obstacles that Iris has to face are large enough on their own. And if this led to more on the art of oil painting, and less on taxidermy, I’d be all for that as well. The Doll Factory kept my attention not because I was afraid for Iris’s safety, but because the strength of Macneal’s story carries itself forward. I hope she has the courage to break further away from familiar plots in her next novel.

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

Late Spring Reading

I’m still working my way through the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I’ve now read all of the titles I planned to read before the shortlist announcement except Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant – the library just isn’t coming through for me! So, I’ve decided to change my strategy, as I want to get as many of these read before the shortlist is announced on the 29th April. I’m going to buy myself a copy of Normal People, as I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it. Then, as I’ve read some pretty poor reviews of Number One Chinese Restaurant and some pretty good reviews of Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods (plus, I love the fact she’s written this tiny literary novella for a tiny press, and yet says her favourite book/s are A Song of Ice and Fire), I’m going to read Bottled Goods instead. Therefore, I won’t be reading Number One… (or The Pisces, Swan Song or Praise Song for the Butterflies) unless it’s shortlisted, which I doubt it will be.

In the meantime, a round-up of some non-Women’s Prize reading:

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In retrospect, everything else in The Dollmaker was overshadowed for me by the hauntingly brilliant long quotation that prefaces the novel, taken from an 1897 article called ‘A Study of Dolls’, co-authored by the famous American psychologist of adolescence, G. Stanley Hall. Here’s a little bit of it:

90 children mentioned burial, their average age being nine; 80 mentioned funerals, 73 imagined their dolls dead, 30 dug up dolls after burial to see if they had gone to heaven, or simply to get them back. Of these 11 dug them up the same day… 12 dolls came to death by accidental bumps and fractures, 1 burst, 1 died of a melted face, 2 were drowned (1 a paper doll)… 30 children had never imagined dolls dead. This parents often forbid… In 21 cases there was death but no burial; in 10, funerals but no burials; in 8, funerals but no death.

This is so ridiculous and beautiful, the kind of inadvertent poetry that you sometimes find in Victorian social studies, that The Dollmaker was never going to live up to it. Ultimately, I admired the craft and intelligence with which this novel was written, but it wasn’t really my thing.

Andrew Garvie, who has dwarfism, has spent his life collecting and making dolls. When he receives a letter from Bramber Winters, a woman living in an institution on Bodmin Moor, about his collection, this begins an enthusiastic correspondence between them. Andrew sets off on a journey across England to finally meet Bramber, and on the way, reads a book of Polish stories that she’s recommended to him by the fictional Ewa Chaplin. Chaplin’s stories are littered with characters that might be considered ‘freaks’ in nineteenth-century parlance, from a range of people who also have dwarfism to a woman whose fingers have been frozen by rheumatoid arthritis and a woman born without one of her eyes. This engages Andrew’s sympathies; recently, he has been restoring ‘monsters’, damaged dolls who don’t have perfect faces and bodies, because he sees no reason why dolls shouldn’t reflect reality.

A number of Chaplin’s stories are scattered throughout the novel, and most are riveting; subtly disturbing, they all suggest worlds that aren’t quite our own. In contrast, Andrew and Bramber’s plot-line is rooted more firmly in reality than I’d expected, and I longed for more than a hint of the speculative. The dolls themselves are more symbolically significant throughout the novel than anything else, and I wished there had been a lot more about Andrew’s work as a dollmaker, picking up on the hint of creepiness in the Stanley Hall quote. And while the Chaplin stories worked for me, they made the pace of the novel very erratic, as it took me a little while to get into each one, meaning I’d often put the novel aside for some time when a new story appeared. Without the stories, on the other hand, this is a familiar tale of two misfits finding love through letter, and Bramber never really came alive for me; I’d have preferred the whole thing to be about Andrew, his dolls, and Ewa Chaplin’s stories.

Writers often complain that reviewers review the book they wanted to read rather than the book the writer wanted to write, and that’s definitely at play for me here; I SO wanted this to be a more alternative-reality sort of novel that I kept on making up elaborate twists that didn’t come to pass (Andrew and Bramber are actually dolls in a complicated child’s game!). However, this is a very well-written novel that I’d recommend to those to whom the synopsis appeals, and as I hear Allan’s earlier novels lean more towards the SF, I’ll definitely be checking those out (The Rift is already on my 2019 reading list).

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

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College friends Jack and Wynn are canoeing the Maskwa River in Northern Canada. Wynn is the most experienced with whitewater, while Jack is an expert on wilderness survival and hunting; they don’t anticipate problems. However, when they find themselves in the path of a forest fire and overhear a couple arguing in the middle of the night, they are unwillingly plunged into a life-or-death journey down the river.

This novel, the first I’ve read by Peter Heller, sits somewhere between literary fiction and thriller; the UK cover is somewhat misleading in depicting it as a pure white-knuckle ride. Heller spends some time establishing the landscape and the relationship between the two men, so the plot doesn’t really kick in until we’re about a third of the way through. However, this is a relatively short novel, so I didn’t find this to be a problem; just don’t expect this to be thrills from page one. Once The River gets going, it’s properly gripping, and Heller’s knowledge of the wilderness is evident. It reminded me of Erica Ferencik’s equally engrossing The River at Night, with perhaps a greater touch of realism.

The ‘literariness’ of this novel is a little more questionable. Heller’s writing is somewhat reminiscent of Charles Frazier, but less deliberately meditative. However, The River doesn’t seem to have a great deal to say; the one enduring theme is the contrast between Wynn’s idealism and Jack’s cynicism, which is rather simplistically resolved. The novel also falls back on cliched gender roles; of the two women mentioned prominently in it, one, Jack’s dead mother, appears only in flashbacks as a motivation for Jack’s actions, while the other is a helpless victim of male violence. In short, I’d have liked this to either have gone full-on ‘thriller’, or to have had greater depth; although I enjoyed reading it, it sits a bit uneasily between the two.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on May 16th.

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Lucy grew up in a working-class family in Sunderland, attending a comprehensive school in nearby Washington, so when she heads to university at King’s College, London, in the mid-00s, she has to adjust to the new landscape around her, abandoning fake tan, sequins and Asti for cigarettes, leather jackets and leopard-print tights. Later, having received her degree, Lucy will flee to her grandfather’s home in Donegal, seeking out the silence of a very different world.

Saltwater, Jessica Andrews’s debut novel, is told in non-linear fragments, although the four parts of the book roughly divide up the phases of Lucy’s life, from childhood to adolescence to studenthood to the aftermath. However, I didn’t find anything especially original in either the prose or the structure. This kind of storytelling is commonplace in literary fiction – think early Maggie O’Farrell – as, increasingly, are the very short chapters. Saltwater is clearly based very closely on Andrews’s own experiences, and while I’m not against fashionable autofiction per se, it has to be really wonderful to convince me, e.g. Jessie Greengrass’s Sight.

As someone who’s recently moved to Newcastle and who has family on both sides who grew up in the north-east, I loved the idea of a novel that explored working-class experience outside London. However, Saltwater either gives us precise, repetitive litanies of sweets, toys, drinks and bands, or feels irritatingly vague. Some of the sections that explore Lucy’s adolescent experiences, such as hanging out in Exhibition Park, are a bit more satisfying, but these aren’t typical of the novel as a whole. Having read some of Andrews’s articles about being the first person in her family to go to university, I found these more illuminating than the fictional version represented here. Andrews’s writing is readable enough, but I hope she pushes herself further next time.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on May 19th.

Early Spring Reading

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As a free school meals student at a comprehensive school in the deprived Suffolk town of Nusstead, Marianne is determined to pursue her dream of studying art history at university. But things have become even worse for her family since the closure of the local mental hospital, Nazareth, during the move towards community care, which robbed Nusstead of around four hundred jobs. Exploring Nazareth’s crumbling Victorian buildings with her boyfriend, Jesse, she comes across something that might be a solution to her problems. More than thirty years later, a successfully socially mobile Marianne is abruptly brought back into contact with her past – and she’s terrified that if her long-held secret comes out, her mentally fragile daughter will suffer.

I’m a fan of all of Erin Kelly’s psychological thrillers, but with Stone Mothers, she’s really surpassed herself. The novel effortlessly manages three timelines and three voices, moving from the 1950s to the 1980s to the present day, while establishing a distinct register for each. While the opening paragraphs are a little needlessly grabby, the novel as a whole refuses to follow a traditional thriller structure, and is the better for it. The characterisation is satisfyingly complex, and I particularly admired the way that Kelly writes about Marianne’s working-class adolescence, and her relationships with her sister and mother in both the present and the past.

Thematically, mental illness is woven subtly throughout the story, from the patients incarcerated in Nazareth in the 1950s to Marianne’s mother’s dementia and her daughter’s bipolar disorder in the present day. Kelly uses her research on changing attitudes to mental health care lightly, which makes it even more convincing. Without giving anything away, I’ve read a number of novels which foreground the story of somebody committed to an asylum for social transgressions, from Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture to Anna Hope’s The Ballroom and Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and, in my opinion, Kelly writes about it most vividly and convincingly; in particular, she’s careful to note the sufferings of those who are actually mentally ill as well as of those who are mentally ‘well’.

Stone Mothers is utterly gripping, but in a rather different way from the run-of-the-mill thriller; it doesn’t rely on plot twists (although there are some!) but on the strength of its characterisation to pull the reader along. I’d recommend this confidently to fans of Tana French, Ruth Ware and Sabine Durrant.

Disclaimer: Erin tutored me on the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course I took in 2015-16, and has been so supportive of my writing ever since. However, I genuinely thought this was wonderful. I also received a proof copy from the publisher for review (not via Erin). Stone Mothers is out in the UK on the 4th April.

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Eleven-year-old Chinese orphan, Ren, worked as a houseboy for a British doctor before his master’s death; his last request is that Ren find his severed finger and reunite it with his corpse so that his soul doesn’t end up roaming the earth for all eternity. But Ren only has forty-two days to carry out his master’s final wish, before the doctor’s soul departs forever. Meanwhile, Ji-Lin, working at a dance hall in Ipoh to pay off her mother’s mah-jong debts and to try and save some money for her own education, receives a preserved finger in a vial from one of her clients, who then abruptly passes away in his turn. As Ren searches for the finger, he acquires a new British master, Dr William Acton, and rumours begin of a sinister weretiger that is killing local women. How are Ren’s, Ji-Lin’s and William’s stories intertwined? Set in 1930s Malaya (now Malaysia), The Night Tiger is deliberately symbolic, drawing repeatedly on the five Confucian virtues and on the pairs of twins that reoccur in the central characters’ dreams to suggest that its cast is linked by a fate that has followed them since they were born.

Choo tries hard to maintain the atmosphere of her story, but it’s a long book (480 pages), and it feels long; the plot has little direction, with the quest for the finger resolved early and the tiger attacks barely impinging on the story. While both Ren and Ji-Lin are engaging characters, I found myself waiting for the short bits from William, as it was only in those sections that anything much seemed to happen. I also found the romantic element of Ji-Lin’s plot too YA-ish, and a bit patriarchal, for my liking. Furthermore, I’m a little impatient with the way that folklore is used in plots like this – despite the promise of the weretiger myths, The Night Tiger ends up focusing almost entirely on magic sets of numbers, and even those are largely used in repetitive dream sequences. (In fact, I’m not sure why it’s called The Night Tiger at all). Despite the promise of the setting, the novel also failed to give me much of a sense of colonial Malaya. Started well, but lost momentum.

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

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Growing up in 1970s Belfast, middle sister never wanted to be interesting, but now she is.   Even though she’s been dating maybe-boyfriend for some time, a rumour’s going round that she’s actually with the milkman, who isn’t really a milkman at all but is a renouncer of the state. She tries her best to avoid the milkman, not wanting to be tagged as one of the renouncers, but he keeps on turning up – at her French class, where they don’t often speak French, and when she’s out running with third brother-in-law. Meanwhile, maybe-boyfriend is suspected of receiving a car part from over the water, and the milkman threatens to kill him. Will this all be resolved if middle sister keeps on keeping her head down, putting on her ‘I don’t know‘, ‘her terminal face’ – or will she have to take some kind of action?

Apologies in advance for the non-literariness of this review, but I found Anna Burns’s Milkman a uniquely frustrating read. Every day I would pick it up to read about fifteen pages (my daily limit), and every day I’d tell myself this was the last day, that I wouldn’t have to go back to this book ever again, that it was fine to leave it unfinished. But the bloody thing kept pulling me back in. Whenever I decided to give up on it, Burns would pull something so incredible out that I had to keep reading, however much of a slog it might be. Some of this was about the Troubles – Burns captures the experience of living in a community under threat from both outside and inside better than anything else I’d ever read – but some of it was just how well Burns writes about any subject at all. Here is middle sister on the arrival of second-wave feminism to the district:

This housewife’s notice said ‘ATTENTION ALL WOMEN OF THE DISTRICT: GREAT GOOD NEWS!!’ then followed information about some international women’s group that had been inaugurated unexpectedly into the world. It was seeking to set up sister branches in all the world’s countries, with no place… to be excluded from the remit, with no woman – again, any colour, any creed, any sexual preference, any disability, any mental illness or even general dislikeability, indeed, of any type of diversity – to be excluded from the venture… In her notice in the window, and in a daring modern fashion, she invited all women from the area to put their children out for their evening adventures as usual then, unencumbered, to make their way of a Wednesday evening to her house to hear her talk.

As this suggests, middle sister’s voice is often surprisingly, subtly funny – something you don’t often expect in experimental literary fiction. I particularly loved her interactions with ‘wee sisters’, her very bright, very contrary three younger sisters who all blend into one.

If I have one actual criticism of this book, it’s the lack of paragraphs. Seriously:

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[there are occasionally paragraph breaks, but not on every page!]

Everything else about the book that might be seen as ‘challenging’ – the run-on sentences, the lack of proper names, the quasi-nineteenth-century voice – was completely necessary and not actually that confusing, but I don’t think it would have made any difference if Burns had hit the ‘Enter’ key a lot more often. This may be peculiar to the way that I read – as far as I can tell, I think I tend to seek out the beginnings and ends of paragraphs, then somehow take in the whole thing in one go – but I found I kept on skipping bits accidentally and having to go back. So if this is a device to make people read more carefully, it didn’t work on me. Nevertheless, I’ve never before read a book that I literally couldn’t abandon even though I wanted to, and for that alone, I think Burns deserves her Booker win. (She’s also just been longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize).

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Finally, a random observation. I finished Milkman at the same time as I was reading Jeff VanderMeer’s dystopic sci-fi Annihilation, which follows four female scientists as they embark on an expedition into the mysterious Area X, and they kept on crossing over in odd ways in my head. Whether it was the lack of names, the endemic distrust within a small group of people, the formal first-person narrators, or the feeling of being trapped in an enclosed space where nothing quite makes sense, I don’t know!

Why be happy when you could be normal?*

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Keiko Furukara is thirty-six and works in a convenience store. She has no partner and very few friends, so her family are consistently worried about her, especially her younger sister, who gives her instructions on how to behave more normally so she can get on with people, but still despairs of her progress: ‘I simply can’t take it anymore. How can we make you normal? How much longer must I put up with this?’ However, Keiko herself is entirely unconcerned about the future. She’s happy the way she is, and her commitment to the store is absolute: she knows that she ought to put out cellophane noodle soup dishes when there are a lot of female customers, that a properly presented promotion of fried chicken skewers will help the store meet its targets, and that the most popular flavour of rice balls are spicy cod roe with cream cheese. She likes being in a place where there are clear rules she can follow, and she copies her co-workers’ speech and clothing so she can try to fit in – not because she really wants to, but because it leads to less hassle.

It’s this logic that leads Keiko to flirt with the idea of getting married to a deeply unpleasant man she meets at the store. Shiraha is an entitled freeloader, full of incel kool-aid, who fancies the idea of a relationship of convenience with Keiko so he won’t have to work himself. Her sister is horrified when she finds out what’s going on, and Keiko pleads with her: ‘will I be cured if I leave the convenience store? Or am I better staying working there? And should I kick Shiraha out? Or am I better with him here? Look, I’ll do whatever you say. I don’t mind either way, so please just instruct me in specific terms.’ Her sister only calms down when Shiraha pretends that Keiko is angry with him for meeting up with an ex-girlfriend, and that’s why she’s behaving so strangely. As Keiko observes, ‘She’s far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine’. There are echoes here of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian in the absolute refusal to accept female boundaries.

A basic reading of Convenience Store Woman might view it as an indictment of capitalism. Keiko sees herself as a cog in the machine that is the convenience store, and believes that its rules of subservience are basic rules of living; she performs emotional labour for customers, anticipating their needs and greeting them with the correct, positive words. However, as Keiko’s acquaintances pour scorn on her job, it seems unclear how far they are actually living self-chosen lives, either, with the reverence for marriage and motherhood they’ve all internalised. I particularly enjoyed the performative anguish of the one friend, Miki, who hasn’t got married, when the rest are telling Keiko that she ‘must be getting desperate’: ‘”I’m getting desperate, too,” Miki chimed in. Then she added breezily: “But I’m always travelling abroad on business.”‘ 

In the anger of Keiko’s friends and family, we see the horror of those who have to confront the fact that a person – and God forbid, a woman – might actually find work more fulfilling than spending time with other people. But because Keiko’s job is so routine, we’re also forced to come face to face with our own assumptions about what we’re taught to see as ‘menial’ labour. If Keiko were writing a novel, or performing heart surgery, I imagine readers’ reactions to her would be very different. Furthermore, Keiko, despite her perfect work ethic, is less capitalism’s dream than its worst nightmare. She thinks her life is absolutely fine as it is. She doesn’t want anything, whether that’s a handsome husband, a pretty dress or a foreign holiday. Moreover, she really doesn’t care what anybody thinks about her, and doesn’t think there’s anything about herself she needs to change. With her total absence of insecurity, she may be a capitalist labourer, but she’s completely failing to be a capitalist consumer. A capitalist world populated by Keikos wouldn’t last very long; after all, someone has to buy fried chicken skewers from the convenience store.

Unlike novels such as Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine or The Rosie ProjectConvenience Store Woman is not about how people we think of as ‘weird’ are completely normal underneath after all, and want the same things as all the rest of us. Instead, it highlights that we all have deep weirdnesses that we cover over with a facade of normality – it’s just that some of us are better at it than others. It asks us to consider that people we think of as social rejects may not actually be seeking our sympathy, but regarding us with pity. No wonder it’s not giving readers very cosy feelings.

*NB. I haven’t actually read the Jeanette Winterson memoir that I took the title of this post from, but it fit so well that I couldn’t resist!

Three Things… September 2018

Borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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I have to admit that I’m a little relieved 20 Books of Summer is over. It’s back to reading what I want, by which I mean the backlog that has accumulated while I read my 20 books. I just finished Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, which I found emotionally exhausting, as it mirrors so many of my thoughts and concerns about potential motherhood, although I have to admit to finding Heti an irritating and self-indulgent writer at times. The thought that’s stuck with me, however, is the simple statement that if you’re genuinely undecided about having children, ‘it will probably be a fine life either way.’ It started me off thinking things that Heti doesn’t explicitly spell out. If having children is central to what you want, it makes sense to shape your life around that, but for the rest of us, the choice whether or not to have a child is less a question we can ask in isolation – Should I Be A Mother? Should I Bring A Child Into This World? – and more a practical question that’s dependent on where we find ourselves. Speaking only for myself, I know I wouldn’t want to have a child unless the circumstances were exactly right (and I have pretty specific ideas of what I mean by that!) and if that never happens, I’m better off without one. Sadly, I doubt this will be the end of my worries about it, given how patriarchy likes to make us feel guilty for even entertaining the thought of not having children.

Another thing that Heti doesn’t touch on in Motherhood is the idea that not wanting your own children means you don’t like children, an unfortunate belief that I find comes up surprisingly often. I worked part-time with children for four years when I was doing my PhD in Cambridge and absolutely loved it; I know it’s something I want to do again in the future. I’m also really looking forward to getting to know my friends’ children, and my sister and I are both very keen to be aunts (there’s only the two of us, so you can see the flaw in this plan… we’ll have to rely on (potential) partners’ siblings for the moment). As a historian of childhood, I also spend my professional life thinking about how children have been marginalised and oppressed in the past, something which is very important to me. Heti doesn’t seem to have many children in her life – which is of course absolutely fine – but even if I don’t have my own children, I know I’ll want to live a life that includes other people’s children.

Watching

Kids with Collected Junk Near Byker Bridge (Byker)  1971, printed 2012 by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen born 1948

I saw Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s film Still Here at the Side Cinema a week or so ago, and thought it was absolutely fantastic. Konttinen photographed residents in Byker from 1969-81 – her most famous photograph is probably ‘Girl on A Spacehopper’ – and in this film, she goes back to talk to some of the people she photographed who are still living in the area, although not always in Byker itself. Konttinen did a fascinating Q&A after this short film where she talked about how she tracked down her subjects. The ‘girl on a spacehopper’ has proved the most elusive; four women have claimed to be her already. I particularly enjoyed hearing from the man who was disappointed he was missing from the photograph of kids collecting junk [see above], given that his siblings were in it, but, as he said to Konttinen, ‘that was probably because I was looting your studio’. As far as I know, there aren’t any plans to tour this film outside Newcastle at the moment, which is a shame – it’s really worth seeing.

I’ve also been watching Bake Off, like everyone else – my favourite is Rahul.

Thinking

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I’m a bit tired of thinking at the moment as I’m finishing up the initial draft of my academic monograph, A Progressive Education? How Childhood Changed in Mid-Twentieth-Century English and Welsh Schools, and so have been doing a lot of thinking about that. It’s been good to get a break from cogitation by going wild swimming with my mum and sister in the Brecon Beacons; we swam in some waterfall pools and a tarn [pictured above]. I’m a big fan of wild swimming but rarely get the chance to do it; I think a proper wetsuit might be a sensible investment next spring, as the sea near Newcastle is COLD all year round. The following weekend, my sister and I rode a working fireboat in Bristol that protected Bristol docks during the Blitz, and saw it shooting water from its water cannons. This was also a very welcome respite from work.