Sex, the sea and academia: Night Waking (Sarah Moss) & The Pisces (Melissa Broder)

 

At first glance, it might seem perverse to pair Sarah Moss’s Night Waking and Melissa Broder’s The Pisces. One is about an harassed, exhausted mother trying to write an academic book and deal with two children on a remote Scottish island, ‘Colsay’ (St Kilda), while her ornithologist husband counts puffins; the other is about a single woman who, seeking no-strings sex, falls in love with a merman whom she meets on an LA beach. Nevertheless, I happened to read the two side by side, and that made me think about the ways both Moss and Broder write about sex, the sea and academia.

I first read Night WakingMoss’s second novel, eight years ago, and it’s been nettling me ever since. I couldn’t decide then, and I still can’t decide now, who to like and dislike, whose fault is what, and I think this is quite deliberate. Anna, our first-person narrator, a historian of childhood in her early thirties and mother to seven-year-old Raphael and two-year-old Moth, is not an easy person to warm to, even though her narrative is frequently hilarious and her complaints are usually justified. She tends to express her resentment through sidelong comments to her children; for example, when reading Moth the adventures of Lucy and Tom: ‘Lucy is helping to pack up the picnic… Tom, reinforcing gender stereotypes, has gone to get the buckets and spades from the sandpit.’ Or when Moth pleads ‘Mummy stop it raining’, ‘I can’t stop it raining. Believe me, if I had supernatural powers the world would be a very different place.’ 

When I first read this book, in my early twenties, I felt uncomfortable about Anna’s frank relationship with her children, but now I find myself applauding her. What’s less relatable now about her character, for me, is why she puts up with so much. We never find out why she decided to have two children so young (for her demographic), with a significant age gap between them (Anna is in her early thirties, so must have had Raphael when she was around twenty-five), why she insists on baking her own bread and cooking for the family when she hates it and is rubbish at it, or why she doesn’t just give husband Giles an ultimatum about his lack of contribution to childcare and housework.

On first glance, Lucy, the thirty-eight-year-old protagonist of The Pisces, might conceivably be more relatable to other single, childless women, and Broder certainly has her come out with some brilliant sets of observations, especially near the start of the novel. But she’s also frustrating in similar ways to the unnamed heroine of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and RelaxationLike Anna, Lucy has an academic book to write; unlike Anna, she has no caring responsibilities (short of a friendly dog called Dominic) and is being allowed to stay for free in her sister’s LA beach house.

This is reflected in the symbolic landscapes of the two novels. The sea that Anna encounters on Colsay is wild, cold and obviously deadly; she almost comes to grief trying to get back to the island in a small boat on one occasion, and we know that people have died in it in the past. Meanwhile, Lucy’s California ocean is warm, erotic and welcoming; we only find out later that it too has a fatal edge.

But what about the sex? This might seem to be the biggest difference between the two novels. The Pisces is deliberately explicit; Lucy’s sexual experiences both with her merman, and with a range of random Tinder dates, are described in detail, and while I didn’t find the novel crude in the way I was expecting, it actually becomes completely non-erotic in its clear descriptions of bodily functions. Meanwhile, Anna does have sex with Giles, but it happens offscreen every time, and is blink-and-you’ll-miss it, buried under the narrative’s dominant concerns of childcare, academic writing and the infant skeleton that Anna finds in their garden, which turns out to date from the 1860s. If Lucy’s Tinder profile says ‘Let’s make out in a dark alley’, Anna’s would probably say ‘Please leave me alone in a dark bedroom’. However, sex is significant in Night Waking in a way I didn’t appreciate at first, and less significant in The Pisces than I had expected.

Lucy pretends to be seeking carnal experience, but she really wants to be loved. All her pre-merman sex is disappointing, and while sex with the merman is transcendent, it doesn’t silence her deep conviction that all relationships are essentially power games. ‘When Romeo cried for Juliet, because he thought she was dead, it was Juliet who had the power. But then she cried for him when he was really dead, and he had the power. It’s the dead one who is the most cherished in the end.’ The Pisces ends with Lucy rejecting sexual love for platonic love: ‘I had hoped that fantasy would triumph. Now I was left with neither. But I had my sister.’ 

In contrast, Giles and Anna continuously squabble but do not separate, and it’s implied that what holds them together is a deep and mutual sexual bond, all the more powerful for not being shown to the reader, and revealed largely through Raphael and Moth’s surprise at their parents being more openly affectionate than usual after the deed: ‘ “Daddy, why did you do that?”…”What?”… “Kiss Mummy.”‘ Both books leave the reader with thorny questions. Is good sex worth it, if it binds you to someone who’s exploiting your emotional and domestic labour? Is it better to be with someone with whom you’re less sexually compatible, but who you can live a full life with, rather than having to mould your life around theirs? Does love need good sex? Does good sex need love? I wasn’t totally won over by either of these novels, but I know that both will continue to niggle at me.

A note re. the Women’s Prize 2019; while I’m not sure whether or not The Pisces, which was longlisted, would make my personal shortlist, it’s definitely better than at least half the books on the actual shortlist, and so should be there. And Sarah Moss being shunned unfairly by the Women’s Prize judges has a long history; Night Waking was not longlisted in 2011.

 

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Science fiction for the spring, May 2019

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Having now read Nina Allan’s second novel, The Rift, shortly after finishing her third novel, The DollmakerI feel like I’m getting a better grasp of her overarching literary project. Allan’s novels explore the line between fantasy and reality, presenting a relatively realistic version of the present while making our own world persistently sinister. She’s especially interested in parallel stories – both The Rift and The Dollmaker include sections from fictional texts, whether those are fairy tales, newspaper cuttings, lists, alien histories or alien novels. Because of this, both these novels are ‘speculative’ in the broadest sense; neither absolutely rests on the existence of any SF or fantasy element. However, The Rift opens up a much bigger space for reader speculation than The Dollmaker, and perhaps that was one of the reasons I liked it so much better.

The premise is simple. Selena’s sister Julie goes missing at the age of seventeen and turns up twenty years later, claiming to have been mysteriously transported to another planet, which she calls Tristane. Selena wonders if Julie is deliberately deceiving her, or if she is mentally ill, or if she’s really her sister at all. However, Julie’s own narrative is remarkably coherent, and she knows things that only she could know about the sisters’ past. On one reading, The Rift, like The Dollmaker, uses this set-up to explore the experience of loss and change on a metaphorical level. Allan doesn’t make the connections for us, but lets us draw our own conclusions. Selena watches a documentary about a woman in the States, Sharon, who was kidnapped and held prisoner for seven years: ‘Selena gained the impression that Sharon Wade no longer cared if people believed her or not. They could believe her or think she was lying, that was their choice.’ Julie hears an apocryphal story about Tristane’s twin planet, Dea, and a monster called the creef that invades human bodies and hollows them out from the inside, gradually eroding their identity.

However, what worked better about The Rift for me is that there’s also space for the reader to believe Julie’s story, if they want to. The novel is infused with eeriness; nothing overtly scary happens, but it’s still a very unsettling reading experience, uncanny in the most specific sense. As Julie’s teacher recalls in a newspaper article after her disappearance: ‘You know the strangest thing about her? Julie was terrified of black holes. She told me they gave her nightmares. When I asked her why, she said that black holes proved there were a lot of things we didn’t know about the universe, and most of them were terrifying.’ Allan explores the line between what we know to be true and what we know to be false, and suggests that the state of that knowledge is fragmentary at best. This incredible novel has to be a contender for one of my favourite books of 2019. Thanks to Victoria at Eve’s Alexandria for the recommendation!

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Unlike The Rift, Children of Time, which won the Arthur C. Clarke award for best novel in 2016, is proper, hard-core science fiction. The remains of the human race are sleeping in stasis on a cargo ship called the Gilgamesh having fled from an uninhabitable Earth. Far in the past, their space-faring ancestors terraformed distant planets as homes for new life, and the Gilgamesh happens upon one of these planets, which looks like the last hope for humanity. Unfortunately, it’s guarded by an aggressive and hostile AI, and populated by giant spiders. Children of Time spans centuries through the eyes of its principal protagonist, the classicist Holsten, who is continually awoken at times of crisis and then sent back to stasis.This incredibly clever device allows Tchaikovsy to tell a massive story about the human race’s interactions with this new planet while giving the reader an anchor.

This is necessary, because Children of Time, like a number of epic SF novels I’ve read, suffers from a certain coldness. Tchaikovsy is clearly most interested in exploring big questions about evolution, co-operation and society, and I love cerebral science fiction, but the individual element sometimes gets a little lost. While the characterisation isn’t bad, we only ever see these people when they’re doing important things; there’s no sense of what they do when they need to take a break, or be with other people. Arguably, this is because the key characters are only awake for short periods of time, but if so, I’d have liked to have seen the psychological impact of this more deeply explored (although Tchaikovsy, to be fair, does make a stab at this through a running theme about Holsten being ‘the oldest man in the universe’, a statement that’s both true and not true at different points).

Alongside the story of the Gilgamesh, a second, equally dominant narrative thread in Children of Time covers the evolution of a race of giant, sentient spiders on the terraformed planet, and how they too begin to reach out to the stars. Again, this is imaginatively handled; while generations of spiders are born and die, Tchaikovsy uses the same set of names for his central characters in each generation (‘Portia’, ‘Bianca’, ‘Viola’, ‘Fabian’), so we feel like we have something to hang onto. However, I found this strand of this story much less compelling than the alternate half of the novel. Part of this is personal preference: I’m not especially interested in reading about primitive societies. By the end of the novel, the spiders have become an interesting, sophisticated civilisation, but this is really only in play for the last few chapters. There are good plot reasons for this, but sometimes I couldn’t shake the sense that this was 600 pages of set-up for the next novel in the series, Children of Ruin. The inevitable conflict between human and spider is solved rather neatly, and while I don’t think the solution is a cop-out, as such, I’d have bought into it more if it had been the beginning of a novel rather than the end. Nevertheless, I have to admire Tchaikovsy’s ambition and imagination, and I’d be up for reading the sequel.

I have also recently read one relatively poor speculative novel, Luiza Sauma’s Everything You Ever Wantedand one really awful science fiction novel, SK Vaughn’s Across the VoidLinks are to my Goodreads reviews! Finally, I’ve just started reading Annalee Newitz’s Autonomouswhich is about space pirates.

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.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2019

I have now read eleven of the sixteen titles longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019, which is pretty much what I planned (I’m definitely going to read Normal People whatever happens, but I won’t be reading Praise Song for the Butterflies, Swan Song, Number One Chinese Restaurant or The Pisces unless they’re shortlisted, based on a combination of other bloggers’ reviews and personal taste). First, I’ll present my own personal wish list. WHICH IS:

I’ve made the executive decision to put Normal People on here without actually reading it, as I’m so annoyed by how I’ve been continually thwarted by my local libraries in my efforts to read this novel, but in case I hate it, I have an runner-up option:

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I have to say that, for me, this longlist isn’t nearly as strong as the 2018 longlist, which explains the inclusion of titles such as An American Marriage and Bottled Goods on my personal wish list, even if neither of these novels blew me away. However, here’s why I chose each of these titles, with links to my reviews. In no particular order:

  • Normal People by Sally Rooney. While, as admitted above, I haven’t read this story of schoolfriends Connell and Marianne growing up in rural Ireland and heading to Dublin for university, I’m pretty sure I’m going to like it. My review of Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friendsis here.
  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. This debut novel, which memorably declares ‘One does not challenge their chi to a wrestling match’, considers Ada’s struggle with her various selves, understood through the lens of Igbo belief rather than Western psychological categories. Original and thought-provoking.
  • The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. For me, this was probably the most emotionally engaging of the longlisted titles; I was riveted by Barker’s brutal account of the enslaving of Briseis by the Greek army and her life among the other women of the camp. Yes, it treads familiar ground, but with enough authenticity to put it head and shoulders over other recent classical retellings.
  • Milkman by Anna Burns. This account of a young woman’s negotiation of the power politics of her Northern Irish neighbourhood was a worthy winner of the Booker Prize. Burns’s elliptic writing is both infuriating and illuminating; I can’t stop thinking about the way in which she conjures up paranoia.
  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. I don’t seem to have been as blown away by this novella as other bloggers were; I think Moss has written better, notably The Tidal Zone and Signs for Lost Children. Nevertheless, this first-person narrative from teenage Silvie, who’s been taken by her controlling father to a recreated Iron Age camp in Northumbria, displays Moss’s characteristic intelligence and observational skill. It deserves to be on the shortlist.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. While this is not an technically brilliant novel in the same way as others on my wishlist (Jones’s debut, Leaving Atlantawas a lot better), Jones’s incredibly readable prose belies the skill of her writing. This novel focuses on an African-American couple, Celestial and Roy, who are torn apart after Roy is falsely accused of rape and sent to prison. What I really liked about An American Marriage was the even-handedness with which Jones dealt with her main characters, and its thoughtful exploration of genuine moral dilemmas.
  • BONUS INSURANCE CHOICE! Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn. This little novella has been niggling at me since I finished it. While I initially found this series of flash fiction pieces set in communist Romania somewhat underwhelming, its final image – and the reason for its title – won’t leave me. The way in which van Llewyn weaves in the magical realism/folktale element here is very well done, and  reminiscent of Tea Obreht’s wonderful The Tiger’s Wife. I’d be happy to see this on the shortlist.

However, what I want to see shortlisted isn’t necessarily what I actually think will be shortlisted, so, regardless of my personal preferences, here are six predictions:

My logic:

  • I think one of the Greek retellings will make it, and Circe seems to be getting more traction than The Silence of the Girls, even though it’s far inferior.
  • There’s so much buzz around Valeria Luiselli, and it would be nice for the Prize to shortlist someone from a Latin American background, so I think Lost Children Archive will make it through, despite my personal misgivings.
  • It seems like it might finally be Sarah Moss’s moment, so I think Ghost Wall will be shortlisted.
  • Freshwater has the dual advantages of being written by the Prize’s first non-binary longlistee, and drawing expertly on Igbo belief.
  • My sense is that one of the longlisted novels that deal with black oppression in the US will also make it through, and I can only hope that the Prize has the sense to make it An American Marriage.
  • Finally, I was torn between two Irish novelsNormal People and Milkman, for the final slot, but felt that Burns’ examination of cold civil war might edge it.

This would also leave us with a nicely balanced shortlist that reflects the racial diversity of the longlist. I would actually be quite happy with this shortlist, though it isn’t my ideal, so hopefully I’ll be proved right!

EDIT 29/4/19: The actual shortlist is here!

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Overall, I’m pretty pleased with this. Three that I predicted, three that I wanted, six that I’ve read (!), and my two frontrunners, Milkman and The Silence of the Girls, still in play! While I wasn’t sure there was much depth to My Sister, The Serial Killer, it’s definitely a memorable read, and while Circe didn’t convince me as a whole, Miller’s prose is wonderful, and there are some very strong chapters and scenes. The only title I can’t really get behind is Ordinary People, which I thought was middle-brow and mediocre. However, there were certainly much weaker titles on the longlist, and Evans is not a bad writer by any means. Poor Sarah Moss has been slighted once again, and I’m still going to seek out Sally Rooney’s latest. But I’m looking forward to see who wins the Prize when the result is announced on the 5th June, though I’m finding the winner very hard to predict – Circe? Silence of the Girls? An American Marriage?

What are your thoughts on my shortlist predictions and wishlist, and the official shortlist itself? Who do you think will win the Prize this year?

 

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.

 

Three Things… March 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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The Language of Kindness is Christie Watson’s memoir of her twenty years as a nurse, working across a range of specialisms that included resuscitation, paediatrics and mental health. I totally agree with Watson’s emphasis on the importance of nursing care, and how, as a female-dominated profession, it is systematically overlooked and undervalued. A number of my close family members are nurses and the work they do is so important. So why did this memoir irritate me consistently? Partly, I think, it’s Watson’s voice – there’s a lack of the kind of soul-searching and self-doubt that I’ve encountered in junior doctors’ memoirs such as Rachel Clarke’s Your Life in My Hands, or in other professional memoirs such as barrister Sarah Langford’s In Your Defence (both highly recommended!) and so Watson comes across as far too complacent.

It’s difficult for me to review this fairly, I think, because once you lose trust in the narrator of a memoir like this, that’s it – you keep on finding fault. For me, this happened pretty early on. I’ve encountered a recent spate of horror stories about the way parents are treated by nurses in PICU, Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, and SCBU, Special Care Baby Unit (search ‘Mumsnet SCBU/NNU/PICU’ for some of these). Watson has nothing but praise for the nurses in these units, and I’m sure many of them are doing a very good job under extremely tough circumstances. However, the judgmental and misogynistic expectations placed on mothers in these units come through even in Watson’s positive account:  ‘The nurses do everything they can to treat mother and baby as one unit… In maternity units in some private hospitals, babies are taken from the mum directly after birth to be cared for in the nursery’. But what about the mother’s needs, which are separate from those of her infant? The fact that it’s relatively new practice to refuse to part mothers and babies after birth, even if the mother is recovering from an emergency C-section and can’t safely take care of her baby? Accounts from mothers also indicate that they were judged harshly for not being by their baby’s side night and day in PICU/SCBU – even if they had other children to care for at home.

This section is typical of the book as a whole. Apart from a brief paragraph that admits that a few nurses are not very good at their jobs, Watson permits no criticism – and most doctors get short shrift, dropping in from on high to deliver a diagnosis then leaving the nurses with the real work. While I’m in no doubt this is how some consultants behave, it’s evident from the accounts of junior doctors that this is a misrepresentation of their work. This interesting review on Goodreads also points out that Watson is in the habit of minimising the significance of other professions as well – in this case, translators. She also has little to say about other hospital workers who are not part of a ‘profession’ but are nonetheless vital, such as healthcare assistants and porters. Ultimately, this came off as a rather sugar-coated account of life as a nurse.

Watching

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I went to see Rafiki at the Tyneside Cinema last night, directed by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiru. Rafiki (Swahili for ‘friend’) is currently banned in Kenya, where homosexuality is illegal, because it depicts a lesbian relationship too positively. Kahiru was asked by the Kenya Film Classification Board to change the hopeful ending, but she refused. From my perspective, Rafiki is more of a significant political statement about LGBT rights in Kenya than a groundbreaking piece of art. The story it tells, about two girls who discover their sexuality together and then are brutally torn apart, is very familiar. The evocation of Nairobi is colourful and vivid, and both protagonists give great performances. However, it made me think about how incredibly limited the stories we tell about bisexual and lesbian women are, and how lesbianism tends to be shallowly explored, if it features at all, in Western fiction and film as well (compare the recent Disobedience, which deletes the novel’s complexity, and both versions of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which are uplifting, but have little interesting to say). However, this is not to criticise Rafiki, which is doing a very important job. You can watch the trailer for Rafiki here.

Thinking

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Not the novel discussed below, which many people liked more than I did!

A while back, I wrote a fairly negative review of a writer’s second novel. I was especially cross about this particular book because it felt lazy and rushed. I posted the review on my blog and on Goodreads, but didn’t tag the author anywhere. Despite this, the writer in question took the time to seek me out on Twitter and block me – even though this was a platform where we’d had no interaction at all. So, this led me to think about why I write critical book reviews.

I disagree with much of what is said in this provocative article on book reviews in Harper’s, ‘Like This Or Die’, not least its eager dismissal of anything that doesn’t fall into the category of ‘literary fiction’ and its weird hostility to television. However, I think it has a point about the relentless push towards solely positive coverage of books in the mainstream media and on social media. This is (perhaps unsurprisingly) promoted by authors themselves, whom I often see tweeting things like this:

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[I love James Smythe’s work so feel bad picking on him here – it’s just the latest example of the trend I could find!]

This kind of statement is often extended to book bloggers and reviewers as well, or, more threateningly, to aspiring writers, who are told that if they want to get published themselves, they should spread positivity at all times [again, this link is to a blog that I generally like!]

I find this stance both repressive and bizarre. Firstly, there’s the suggestion that critical reviews (I think the terms ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ reviews are too loaded) are permissible, as long as they don’t come from other writers. Why? Secondly, there’s the hidden implication that actually nobody should be writing critical reviews at all – that if you don’t like a book, you shouldn’t say anything about it. I find this absurd for a number of reasons:

  • First and foremost, I don’t review books for the sake of their writers. I review them for other readers, as a reader. I don’t tag writers in critical book reviews, even if the criticism is very minor, so if they seek them out, that’s on them.
  • The idea that published writers are so fragile that they can’t deal with criticism from bloggers is a little strange to me. I tend to think that if you’ve demanded a reader’s time and attention by publishing a book, you need to be able to take polite feedback if you have sought it out (again, I don’t advocate sending bad reviews to writers, or being rude, and I assume here that writers with mental health conditions or specific personal circumstances will be able to avoid critical reviews).
  • I find this PARTICULARLY weird because all unpublished writers are essentially told to ‘just suck it up and get better’ when it comes to dealing with criticism of their work, whereas for published writers, there’s suddenly an attitude of ‘I don’t want to criticise something that someone’s put so much work into’ – so, in short, there’s a double standard in play that implies that unpublished writers’ work is less valuable and has required less labour.
  • Moreover, I think critical reviews can actually be helpful for other writers (i.e. the ones that didn’t write the book in question!) I’ve learnt a lot more about writing from reading intelligent, critical reviews than totally positive reviews.
  • It can also be impossible in practice, if you’re an honest reviewer, to avoid negative reviews if you are on a shadow panel, a blog tour, or have proof copies to review. If I really find a book unreadable I won’t review it, but this has only happened once or twice.
  • Finally, all this is off the table if a book is problematic and offensive, when suddenly everybody seems to agree that it needs to be ‘called out’, even if this jars with their usual stance on critical reviews.

My feeling is, that if I ever publish a novel, I may not seek out criticism from readers; but in the abstract, I could only be grateful to those who engage thoughtfully and critically with my work, especially if they aren’t paid to do so.

What are other people’s thoughts on writing critical reviews?

Inside Voices: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

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Greer is an idealistic college student when she first encounters eminent feminist Faith Frank (her name, like Greer’s, is rather too pointed) in 2006. Nevertheless, Greer manages to make an impression on Faith, and after graduation, she ends up working for Faith’s new women’s foundation, Loci, which publicly promotes wealthy, corporate feminism but promises to do small-scale good for disadvantaged groups as well through its ‘special projects’. Greer is initially won over by Faith’s vision, but as she learns more about Loci, disillusionment begins to set in. The Female Persuasion sells itself as being about this encounter between two generations of feminism, but its energy seems to be elsewhere, following the stories of Greer’s high school Portuguese boyfriend, Cory, and her college best friend, Zee, who initially identifies as a lesbian but later decides that it’s ‘gone the way of the cassette tape… Queer felt stronger, queerer, its difference front and center’. Ironically, given that Greer will go on to publish a popular feminist book called Outside Voices, her perspective is that of an insider’s; despite straitened financial circumstances, her family are middle-class hippies fallen on hard times, and they’re there for her when she really needs them. For this reason, both she and Faith quickly become rather tiresome, and I wished that Cory and, especially, Zee, could have been more central.

Unlike Wolitzer’s The Interestingswhich I found a bit of a slog, The Female Persuasion is incredibly readable in the same way as Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot or Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding are readable; I gulped it down. Nevertheless, its central plotline doesn’t have much to say about the politics of feminism, and what it does have to say is rather misleading. Most obviously, it suggests that second-wave feminism was for wealthy white straight women, and that third-wave feminism is primarily differentiated from the earlier movement by being more intersectional, concerned with the rights of women of colour, of sex workers and LBTQ women. This is a myth that I am continually trying to challenge when I teach courses on the history of feminism, a myth that erases the work of lesbian and bisexual women, working-class women, and women of colour, and also the attempts (though often misguided and patronising) of more privileged women to engage with these critiques. If you want to learn more, the resources on Deborah Cameron’s website, Re-reading The Second Wave, are a good place to start. It might be argued that Faith is not meant to represent all second-wave feminists, just a particular type, and this is fair enough; BUT, given dominant beliefs about feminist history in both Britain and the USA, this leaves too much space for misunderstanding, and the book’s Goodreads reviews make dismaying reading.

Moreover, even if you buy the idea that third-wave feminism is genuinely more intersectional, rather than being as ridden with racism and homophobia as earlier incarnations of the movement, it’s hard to get away from the fact that this isn’t a very intersectional book. Greer herself is definitely not a representative of a younger and more radical feminism; she confronts Faith because she’s wrestling over questions of personal morality, not because they have vast political differences. While The Female Persuasion does foreground a character of colour and a queer woman in Cory and Zee, both characters are tangential to the political plot; Wolitzer seems to be using them to highlight a more interpersonal dimension to feminism, the idea of leading a feminist life rather than simply grandstanding on a stage. And yet I felt this view itself was somewhat outdated. I’d love to see women disagreeing over matters of political principle, as second-wave feminists often did, rather than over broken friendships. While I applaud Wolitzer’s emphasis on feminism as a practice that obviously takes place outside the organised feminist movement, among people who may not even call themselves feminists, this doesn’t address the question of how feminists who do devote their life to feminist campaigning ought to organise. In The Female Persuasion, the personal is certainly political; but I guess, for me, the political was also a little too personal.