Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: No One Is Talking About This

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Patricia Lockwood’s uber-contemporary No One Is Talking About This has been described as a novel of two halves. In the first half, our unnamed protagonist is completely absorbed by what she calls ‘the portal’ and what we would call Twitter: ‘Why did the portal feel so private,’ she reflects, ‘when you only entered it when you needed to be everywhere?’ In the second half, she is consumed by something else: the short life of her baby niece, who is born with the rare condition Proteus Syndrome. Again, it’s technology – the babycam at the hospital – that allows her to fully enter her obsession: ‘There was a channel that played the baby in fuzzy black and white… and this is what she used to think the angels did, watch the channel that played her.’ I’ve read a number of reviews of this novel that suggest that Lockwood is intending to juxtapose the unreality of the protagonist’s existence of Twitter to the hard reality of her niece’s illness. However, while I think that is one of the things Lockwood is trying to do – and that the title of the novel indicates this – I didn’t find that No One Is Talking About This split that neatly into two halves.

I am very weary of fiction that tells us that the Internet is Bad and is Wrecking Our Minds, and I did feel that Lockwood fell into that trap, although she writes with greater subtlety than many others who have tackled the topic. When I think of popular Twitter memes, like feral hogs, Bernie at the inauguration, or the distracted boyfriend, they honestly make me feel more positive about humanity, not less. I like seeing people have fun, be clever, and be inventive, especially in the face of a lot of difficult things. The kind of ‘humorous’ Twitter that our protagonist is steeped in isn’t a kind that I recognise; it’s not funny and not cheering. I’m sure this was a deliberate choice on Lockwood’s part, but I don’t have much time for this one-sided view of technology. And while Lockwood sometimes hits on a clever turn of phrase, I found much of this novel grimly unreadable.

Where I think things get more interesting with No One Is Talking About This is how the sub-plot with the protagonist’s niece relates to the rest of the novel. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I couldn’t help seeing thematic links between the baby’s condition and the protagonist’s existence as part of the collective consciousness of the portal. Because of the baby’s illness, her head grows out of proportion to the rest of her body, but her caregivers perceive her as having great abilities that she cannot exercise, defying her prognosis: ‘As the baby struggled to breathe, as it became clear that her airway was collapsing, as her head grew too heavy to even turn from side to side, it slowly dawned on them that she was experiencing an enlightenment, a golden age… Against all wisdom… she was learning, she could learn.’ There’s a sense that being part of the ‘Twitter hive mind’ has as much promise as the baby but is also weighing humans down in the same way as the baby struggles with her head, because we weren’t meant to be connected to so much as once; we too have an overgrowth of neural connections. If you buy into this reading, what the book is saying about the internet is much more thoughtful and equivocal. However, I guess I wasn’t convinced that I wasn’t just seeing things that weren’t there.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected ten titles that I do want to read. This is number eight. I’ve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times, Small Pleasures and Detransition, Baby.

Late Spring Reading, 2021

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Mehar, Harbans and Gurleen are three recently married young women living in rural Punjab in 1929. They are the brides of three brothers, but none of the three women know which brother it is that they have married. They spend most of their nights in the ‘china room’, where they share a pair of charpoys, string beds, and whisper together under the display of their mother-in-law’s wedding china that came as part of her dowry. However, every so often, one of the women is called to sleep with her husband in a ‘windowless chamber at the back of the farm.’ In the blackness, each struggles to identify her bridegroom, but at first, none of them are able to. With this compelling set-up, Sunjeev Sahota’s third novel, China Room, immediately has something of the folkloric about it. This is countered or perhaps enhanced by the modernity of Sahota’s language and his refusal to slip into distancing, archaic prose. This usually works very well, although there were a couple of phrases that made me pause: it does feel jarring for these isolated characters to say things like ‘Ants in your pants?’, although I get that Sahota is already ‘translating’ their words into English and so we’re already only getting a version of what they say. On the other hand, this decision definitely gives China Room the immediacy that a lot of historical novels lack.

Alongside the story of Mehar and her sisters-in-law, we follow an unnamed eighteen-year-old male narrator in 1999, who is detoxing from heroin addiction on his family’s farm in the Punjab, having grown up in England. Our narrator becomes slightly interested in his family history – we discover that Mehar is his great-grandmother – but Sahota doesn’t draw the connections tightly between these two threads, preferring instead that the stories mirror each other thematically through their depiction of social exclusion and agency. This makes the modern narrator feel a little unnecessary at times, as Mehar’s section of the narrative has much greater tension and direction. However, I did like the perspective that his experiences brought, as he reflects upon the vicious racism he suffered as a teenager, confounding some of our assumptions about the relevant privilege of a young man raised in modern Britain as opposed to a young woman in an arranged marriage in 1920s India. China Room didn’t have quite the same kind of impact on me as Sahota’s previous book, The Year of the Runawaysbut it’s a beautifully quiet and moving novel.

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

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Dantiel W. Moniz’s debut collection of short stories, Milk Blood Heat, plays on some familiar themes: quite a few of the stories are about a pair of girls on the cusp of adolescence, knotted together by their own closeness but already sensing the encroachment of the outside world, where class, race and sexual attractiveness will start to define them. I am quite tired of fiction that stresses the strangeness of girlhood – why can’t we write about teenagers like they’re people, like everybody else? – but to be fair, Moniz only occasionally uses this register. Two things stood out to me from this collection, which I otherwise found a bit forgettable. One, most of the stories continue a couple of pages past where I expected where they were going to end, which was refreshing, as Moniz pulled a bit more out of each situation than I thought it could hold. Two, what will stay with me from Milk Blood Heat is not the plots of its stories but a series of arresting, brutal images. A woman grieving for a lost baby is fascinated by an octopus in an aquarium consuming its own tentacles. A girl hangs onto her non-swimmer friend to save herself when their raft drifts too far out to sea. A sister confronts her younger brother’s school bully in a closet and terrifies him. Tying into what I’ve already said, it’s not surprising that all these scenes came near the end of their respective stories. It’s almost as if Moniz had to write through the mundane before reaching the surprising. I’ve just read too many collections like this for Milk Blood Heat to stand out, I’m afraid, but Moniz definitely has promise.

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

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The unnamed narrator of Natasha Brown’s debut, Assembly, is a black woman working in finance, and its ostensible focus is a visit to her boyfriend’s family estate. However, the story takes place almost entirely inside the narrator’s head. This stream-of-consciousness novella sometimes strays closer to being a polemic essay than a piece of fiction, which in this instance, isn’t a bad thing at all. We find out early on that the narrator has been diagnosed with some kind of life-threatening condition and is refusing treatment, but doesn’t seem too concerned with her physical future. Instead, she consistently bashes against the walls of her own mind as she muses on the impossibilities of truly existing as a black woman in Britain. The central theme is how black lives have been monetised, from the compensation paid to slaveowners after Britain abolished slavery early in the nineteenth century, to the way she is exploited and tokenised by capitalism today.

The narrator’s voice becomes increasingly desperate as she considers how futile it is to make people see white supremacy when they don’t believe it’s there: ‘Explain air… Prove what can’t be seen. A breezy brutality cuts you each day.’ To survive, she feels she is being asked to ‘become the air’ and so considers opting out, letting her own body kill her. Her younger sister is on the same ‘successful’ life trajectory, and she believes that by dying she can help her out: ‘I have amassed a new opportunity, something to pass on. Forwards. To my sister.’ However, the claustrophobic twist in this tale is that the narrator herself still can’t think past money, giving her sister a stake in the system that has ground her down: ‘I have the flat, savings and some investments, pensions, plus a substantial life-insurance policy.’ While I admired what Brown was doing with this book, for me it did suffer a bit from the typical curse of the novella; I felt it could have been tightened into an incredible short story or expanded into a wonderful novel. But although it didn’t quite hit as hard as it might have done, it’s still a haunting piece of writing.

I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 3rd June.

‘An act of furious defiance’: The High House by Jessie Greengrass

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I thought Jessie Greengrass’s debut novel, Sight, was fantastic; complex but incredibly readable, weaving together the narrator’s musings on motherhood with the lives of three historical figures, Wilhelm Röntgen, Anna Freud and John Hunter, via the theme of inner sight. The High House, her second novel, is deliberately different. Greengrass still writes beautiful prose, but here it is much simpler, and focuses on description and action rather than the close anatomisation of inner worlds. It’s narrated by three people – Caro, Sally and Pauly – but their voices are the same, which again, I felt was a purposeful choice, as Greengrass certainly has the literary skill to differentiate her narrators if she so chooses. Finally, The High House is focused on a static period of time, a drawn-out experience of waiting for catastrophe to unfold, which starts to get to the reader in the same way as it does to the characters. No diving away from your own experience to think about the history of X rays or psychoanalysis in this novel; Greengrass keeps us all suspended in the high house.

All this is to say that I think, technically, Greengrass does exactly what she wanted to do, but I still couldn’t quite embrace this novel. It tells a familiar, if still horrifying, story of a handful of English survivors clinging on after devastating floods sweep much of the globe as a result of climate change. Their refuge was prepared in advance, so they have the resources to survive – for now. But because they were already anticipating disaster before it happened, their before and after is not that different. If the ‘after’ is worse, it’s because Pauly, who was a small child when the floods struck, is now an adult, and so Caro and Sally no longer have somebody to care for in the same way. This picks up on interesting questions about the future generation. Pauly’s mother, Francesca, was a climate activist and was killed by a storm even as she continued to predict Armageddon; she couldn’t enjoy sunny weather because she sees it as a harbinger of doom. And yet, she chose to give birth to Pauly, which Caro thinks was ‘an act of furious defiance… a kind of pact with the world that, having increased her stake in it, she should try to protect what she had found to love’. 

But whether or not this was actually why Francesca had a child, it doesn’t sum up what Pauly comes to mean to Caro and Sally, and how bringing him up, putting his needs first, provides them with psychic defences against the horror they’re facing. Pauly, who is the only one of the trio who can’t remember the world as it used to be, also finds it easiest to adapt to their new reality. Greengrass raises a number of questions that don’t have answers: is it wrong to choose not to reproduce because you’re afraid of the future, because that means you’ve abandoned hope? On the other hand, is it wrong to create a child who has to live in this kind of world simply as a comfort for yourself? Or is this a disaster that humanity will ultimately live through, and the new generation are needed precisely because they’ll have the skills to do that? Nevertheless, the bleakness of this novel wore me down somewhat. It’s not as good as Jenny Offill’s Weatherwhich is similarly grim about future generations, but is also funny and bright and complicated. At times, The High House just feels like a warning, and I’m not sure anyone who reads this book will really need such a warning.

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

Nuns In Novel(la)s

This year, despite not being religious myself, I’ve become slightly obsessed with fictional nuns. I thought I’d think a little about why nuns offer such interesting possibilities for novelists, in anticipation of Lauren Groff’s forthcoming MatrixHere, I’ll be discussing three very different books about three very different kinds of nuns: Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts (2008), which depicts a convent in sixteenth-century Italy; Lina Rather’s Sisters of the Vast Black (2019), which follows an unspecified order of nuns on board a living spaceship; and Rumer Godden’s In This House Of Brede (1969), which is set in an English Benedictine community in the 1960s. However, although these nuns are far apart in space and time, they all sit within the Catholic tradition; this post will therefore focus on Catholic nuns, while recognising that these aren’t the only nuns that exist, even in the Christian faith – and recommendations for books that deal with non-Christian nuns would be very welcome!

Catholic nuns tend to be the butt of jokes, either portrayed as incredibly prudish or sex-obsessed; because nuns are supposed to be angelic, any hint of misbehaviour from a nun is somehow funnier than if it came from a ‘normal’ person. (One of my favourite jokes as a child – no idea why – was ‘What goes black white black white?’/’A nun rolling down a hill.’/’What’s black and white and goes ha ha?’/’The nun who pushed her!’) The radical potential in stories about Catholic nuns, therefore, lies in asking what it’s really like to be a nun and whether this popular stereotype of repressed, unhappy, usually elderly women holds true. If you take out references to nuns or convents from the blurbs of Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede, they suddenly sound a lot more subversive: 

Sixteen-year-old Serafina is ripped by her family from an illicit love affair and forced into the women’s community of Santa Caterina, renowned for its superb music. 

Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman, leaves her life among the London elite to join a women’s community.

This is not to say that you can simply ‘take out’ the religion from these kinds of communities and reimagine them as proto-feminist communes, but that there’s obvious potential in telling stories about groups of women who live together and rely on each other, and are often able to do things they could not do in the outside world, while recognising that this kind of life comes with its own set of restrictions. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Matrix sparks a new trend for this kind of novel, as it speaks to a lot of twenty-first century concerns: women who are not defined as wives or mothers; female separatism; loneliness vs chosen solitude; the un/importance of sex.

However, if nun novels were just about women both embracing and escaping the confines of their times, Sisters of the Vast Black would be pointless. Why write about nuns in space when you can invent a future where women can do anything they want? Here, I think we see the appeal of writing about a community of people who are simply trying to do the right thing, aside from feminist concerns. The first two-thirds of Sisters of the Vast Black have a moral seriousness that isn’t preachy or theoretical but very much connected to the world the sisters are dealing with. Even more interestingly, both Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede depict closed orders, where the nuns’ job is not to do ‘good works’ but to create a community of prayer, cut off from most contact with the world around them. The purpose of this can be hard to understand; what good are the nuns doing by removing themselves from the world? However, in both novels, the power of the convent, of this way of living, is evident, although both Godden and Dunant recognise that this life is right for some women and hellish for others.

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Diana Rigg starred in a film adaptation of In This House Of Brede (1975)

Why read about Catholic nuns if you are not yourself Catholic or Christian? One great thing that these novels open up is the opportunity to write about women who are not primarily driven by one emotional tie, whether that’s to a man, a child or another family member. As I wrote in my review of Lissa Evans’s Old Baggagethese kind of novels are very rare. And while I wouldn’t want to read a nun novel that was simplistic or dogmatic about religion, none of these books are like that. Dunant vividly conveys the importance of faith to some women in her sixteenth-century convent while others suffer under its strictures. Godden has a harder task, convincing us that a twentieth-century character like Philippa would enter a convent in the first place, or thrive there as she does. But while few of us have a vocation to be a nun, I could identify with how Philippa struggles with herself, the fight to be the best version of herself she can be – I don’t need to share her beliefs to understand that.

Finally, there’s a thoughtfulness about these kind of novels, a deliberately reflective pace that I find hugely refreshing in fiction. Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede tell a big story about lots of women and the lives they lead, and they aren’t tempted to hurry us along to hit the dramatic highpoints. Sisters of the Vast Black, in my opinion, suffers in its final third because it suddenly speeds up, losing much of what made it special earlier on. These books eschew standard plots with a single, ‘active’ protagonist to think about how even the most self-reliant of nuns are part of something bigger. Along the way, they break many ‘rules’ of fiction, and they’re all the better for it.

Have you read any of these novels, or any other novels about nuns? Do you have any recommendations? (I’ve already spotted that Rumer Godden wrote two other novels about nuns, and am eagerly seeking them out!)

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Detransition, Baby

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Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby flips between present and past to tell the story of Reese, a trans woman; her ex Ames, who once lived as a trans woman called Amy but has now detransitioned; and Katrina, who is pregnant by Ames and shocked to discover his trans past. Ames proposes that they form a child-rearing triad, giving Katrina the support she needs with the baby and fulfilling Reese’s lifelong dream of being a mother. But will their different takes on parenting, relationships and what it means to be a woman torpedo this arrangement before it even gets going?

I had to read Detransition, Baby very slowly, not because it’s an inherently slow read (each chapter zips past) but because I felt like Peters was throwing so much at me that I needed time to digest it before moving on. Therefore, this review will take the form of a series of observations rather than the straightforward kind of review I usually write. It also occurs to me that this is the kind of book I’m going to rethink as time goes on, so these thoughts are also very provisional.

  • Peters is not interested in writing trans characters that are straightforwardly likeable or who deliberately challenge trans stereotypes, which is a good thing. When I’ve read trans women or girls written by writers who don’t identify as trans, I’ve found that these depictions tend to be so respectful as to be smothering. Peters seems to have looked at this kind of writing and gone, fuck this. Reese has very little time for what she frames as trans victimhood but at the same time recognises that she plays into it when it suits her. This tactic backfires when she tries to tell Katrina, who is Chinese-American, that Katrina, as a cis woman, can’t understand how it feels to want a baby and yet to be seen as unfit to parent. Katrina isn’t having any of this: ‘I don’t know, Reese. It doesn’t sound like you’re talking about all women, it just sounds like a certain kind of woman. Like women now, here in this country – white women… When my grandma arrived here from China, she wasn’t encouraged to have kids.’ Reese is also unable to understand how cis women might perceive pregnancy as a biological burden, because she so desperately wants to get pregnant herself.
  • The book portrays a trans culture that, in Reese’s words, is ‘morbid and highly skeptical’. Peters presents this as a coping mechanism for living in a transphobic world. In one particularly memorable chapter, Reese attends yet another funeral for a trans woman who took her own life, but although she’s angry and sad, she deals with her feelings by employing black humour: ‘What no-one wants to admit about funerals, because you’re supposed to be crushed by the melancholy of being a trans girl among the prematurely dead trans girls, is that funerals for dead trans girls number among the notable social events of a season.’
  • It has really interesting things to say about age and generation. One of Reese’s favourite narratives is that trans women don’t have any ‘elders’, and so she has to be a ‘mother’ to ‘baby trans’ women. She also points out that trans women have often gone through a second puberty, and so experience a kind of second adolescence. In short, Peters takes a lot of ideas from impenetrable academic books I’ve read about queer temporality and makes them accessible 🙂 
  •  The book isn’t afraid to tackle taboos such as autogynephilia. Ames/Amy wrestles with his/her sexuality, and whether he/she really is a woman or is simply turned on by dressing up and being treated like one. (I’m using both sets of pronouns here because Ames/Amy uses both during the course of the novel). However, Peters is too smart a writer not to pursue this question to its furthest extent; Ames/Amy reflects that cis women may also be turned on by performing gender, and so this isn’t something that’s unique to trans women. I didn’t agree with all the assumptions that Ames/Amy and Reese make about cis women, but that’s fine; Peters isn’t writing a manifesto here, she’s writing a novel about characters that relate to gender in a certain way and move within a particular kind of subculture.
  • Because of all this Detransition, Baby calls into question our pre-conceived ideas about who authors are writing for and what they need to explain. I often felt incredibly uncomfortable while I was reading this novel. Some of this was because the book messed with some of my ideas about womanhood and gender, which didn’t always fit with the ideas that Ames/Amy and Reese express (not in the sense that I thought the ideas they expressed were wrong, but in the sense that there wasn’t much space for me in this world, which again, is OK, there doesn’t have to be, I’m not trans). However, I realised that some of this was because I was worrying about the reaction of an imagined reader who is not me; an imagined straight cis reader who doesn’t know much about trans issues and is inclined to be unsympathetic. (These Goodreads reviewers call this reaction ‘not in front of the cis‘ or ‘not in front of the straights‘, which is perfect). Peters clearly decided that she was going to write without worrying about whether she was leaving the reader behind or presenting an unsympathetic image of trans women. And ultimately, I think this is great: how can you create good art, or talk honestly about identity, if you are constantly worrying about a person who doesn’t understand the basics of what you want to say?
  • Having said all this, Detransition, Baby does have problems on a craft level. This book is so clever and so interesting that I often skimmed past a lot of this, but there’s no denying that it feels rather hastily put together; the tenses often go wonky and some of the dialogue doesn’t work. Given the subject-matter, I think Peters can be forgiven for a lot of the ‘telling’ she does; if you’re writing about things that haven’t been spoken about before, how do you convey those things to the reader other than by telling? However, sometimes I felt that she was just dumping too much in, and failed to connect to her characters’ emotions. You could also see the joins in the unsteady jumps between past and present. Some of the sex was thematically necessary, but some felt gratuitous. So, this feels very much like a debut, but WHAT a debut; I’d definitely rather read a book like this than a book from someone who has totally mastered their craft, but has nothing to say. 

I’d also like to recommend this Goodreads review from a non-binary reviewer who I think really nails why this book works, especially the complexity of the three main characters.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number seven. I’ve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times and Small Pleasures.

Now I’ve read all seven books, I’ll be back soon with my overall ranking and shortlist predictions!

#AllSystemsRead SF Readathon

#AllSystemsRead was a science fiction readathon hosted by Imyril @ There’s Always Room For One More and Lisa @ Dear Geek Place. It ran over the long Easter weekend, 2nd to 5th April, and the aim was just to catch up on some SF reading! Here’s what I read (NB you did not have to read All Systems Red, I wanted to read it anyway!):

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Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries series is pretty famous for its Murderbot narrator, which starts by telling us: ‘I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.’ The first novella in the series, All Systems Red, follows Murderbot after it’s been deployed as a security bot to protect a team of scientists conducting a research expedition on a largely unexplored planet. It was a solid and fun read, but I admit I wasn’t quite as wowed by it as I’d expected to be after all the hype surrounding Murderbot. I think I’d been expecting something more subversive – Murderbot is the classic snarky-exterior-with-a-heart-of-gold character rather than anything more ethically experimental. I liked that, in this set-up, the AI resists the humanity that the human characters project onto it rather than trying to prove its humanity, but as Murderbot clearly thinks very much like a human, this is played for laughs rather than to seriously suggest that there’s anything fundamentally different about bots in this universe. I’m not compelled to pick up the next novella in the series unless the price significantly drops, but I enjoyed the time I spent with this one. (Interestingly, Murderbot very clearly describes itself, and is described, as an ‘it’, but about half the Goodreads reviews that ascribe it a gender say they thought of it as he and half as she. I felt happier thinking of it as an it, though I imagined its human face as generic male.)

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Octavia E. Butler’s short story ‘Bloodchild’ has only convinced me that I must read more Butler as soon as possible – I’ve already read Kindredso next up will be Parable of the Sower. ‘Bloodchild’ has an interesting colonised/coloniser dynamic; a group of humans have left Earth for another planet already inhabited by the Tlic, a race of giant insectoids. We find out that humans were originally forced to live on special preserves, but that recently the two species have developed a more symbiotic relationship that seems to rest on one child of each family rendering a particular kind of service to the Tlic. I don’t want to say much more as this is only thirty pages, but this is a brilliantly disturbing story that raises both obvious and less obvious questions.

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Next up, I read Lina Rather’s novella Sisters of the Vast Black, which focuses on an order of nuns travelling through space in a living ship. The novella opens with them arguing over whether the ship has a soul, which made me think this was going to be a rather more cerebral story than it actually is – this thread is soon dropped and seems only to have served to introduce the central characters. Nevertheless, I thought the first two-thirds of the novella were fantastic. In its last third, Rather abruptly introduces a more standard-issue science fiction plot and draws much tidier moral lines, which was a disappointment. I’m not going to say anything more about this one because I want to include it in a round-up of novels about nuns that I’m working on for later.

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Finally, I started Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu. After all this short fiction, I wanted something really long and immersive! I loved Hao’s short story ‘The New Year Train’ in Broken Stars, edited by Liu, and the premise of this novel sounded fantastic: ‘A century after the Martian war of independence, a group of kids are sent to Earth as delegates from Mars, but when they return home, they are caught between the two worlds, unable to reconcile the beauty and culture of Mars with their experiences on Earth’. I’m still reading this, so I’ll withhold judgment on it for now!

Have you read any science fiction recently, whether it was recently published, a classic text, or anything in between?

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Small Pleasures

There’s a lot to love in Clare Chambers’ absorbing Small Pleasures, set in late 1950s London – and a little that made me uncomfortable. Jean, the central character, is a journalist for the local paper and sole carer for her elderly mother. She apparently slots into a kind of literary type, but as I’ve never read any of the writers that Chambers has been compared to, like Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner, I found this to be quite a refreshing look at the unpaid and unappreciated care work done by ‘spinster’ women. Jean’s steady job is to write the ‘women’s sections’ of the paper, like ‘Pam’s Piece’ and domestic tips, but when she reads a letter from a woman who claims to have given birth ‘without the involvement of any man’, she is keen to pursue the story. This brings her into contact with Gretchen, now married to Howard, whose ‘miraculous’ daughter Margaret is now ten. Jean becomes increasingly drawn into this family, who offer her respite from her loneliness, but becoming too closely involved with their lives may turn out to have been a mistake.

As Small Pleasures unfolds, it becomes increasingly drawn away from the ‘virgin birth’ hook and more focused on the individual subjectivities of Jean, Howard and Gretchen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although I felt that the conclusion to the virgin birth thread was a bit deus ex machina, as if Chambers wanted to wrap it up quickly before getting onto the actual ending of the novel. The joy of this book lies partly in its quietness, its willingness to give time to characters that are often overlooked in fiction, with Jean musing extensively on her middle-aged dowdiness and how people assume that she no longer feels anything much. There’s a sensible kindness about interpersonal relationships throughout much of this novel, with neighbours offering help as well as judgment, and colleagues sympathy as well as pity. Even Jean’s querulous mother is allowed to have some redeeming qualities. However, this makes the moments when Chambers seems to run short on empathy even more telling. [Spoilers from now on, scroll to the bottom of the post to skip]

About halfway through Small Pleasures, we find out that Gretchen was in love with another woman, Martha, during the period she spent at a sanatorium as a teenager, when she also conceived Margaret. Martha was devastated because she believed Gretchen willingly slept with a man, and cut off contact with her. Gretchen explains that she was motivated to prove that Margaret was an immaculate conception so that Martha would trust her again. Having re-established contact with Martha via Jean, Gretchen leaves Howard. Howard tells Jean that he and Gretchen stopped having sex long ago, and he and Jean embark upon an affair. This, for me, was where Small Pleasures began to feel a little uncomfortable. The text focuses on Howard’s pain, emphasising that he wasn’t able to have ‘a full marriage’ with Gretchen and how important it is for him to have found true sexual love with Jean. We’re also invited to reflect on how important this is for Jean after years of self-denial. However, perhaps inadvertently, this minimises Gretchen’s (and Martha’s) suffering; it may be unpleasant to have to live a life of involuntary celibacy, but it’s another thing altogether to have the very fact that you experience desire demonised and suppressed.

I’ve noticed that when somebody writes in to a forum or problem page to say that their spouse has come out as gay or lesbian and has left them, this is often framed as deliberate deceit. While there may be some sympathy for the spouse, it’s always assumed that they ‘always knew’ they were homosexual and so always knew that they could never be a ‘proper’ husband or wife. Chambers very much plays into this kind of narrative, suggesting that Gretchen should have been ‘honest’ with Howard. However, being a lesbian in 1950s Britain was not just an identity that couldn’t be publicly claimed; it was an identity that barely existed. As Diana Chapman said, remembering her adolescence in the early 1950s, ‘Yes, I thought I was a lesbian. But… every book on psychology I ever read… told me that it was immature and I should… reconcile myself to my femininity and find myself a good man and have children.’ If your sexual desires have been validated all of your life, it might be hard to understand how queer people can both ‘know and not know’ what they really want, but this is still real for queer people – and perhaps especially queer women – today, let alone almost seventy years ago. The very fact that Gretchen waited so long to prove her story and seek out Martha suggested to me that, even if she’d once admitted her feelings for Martha to herself, she’d tried to bury them again after marrying Howard. I understand that we get all of this through Jean, who is not primed to be sympathetic to Gretchen; but I felt that Chambers could have done a lot more work, if she had been so inclined, to indicate that our sympathies should be more complicated.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number six. I’ve already read The Vanishing Half, Transcendent KingdomPiranesi, Consent and Exciting Times.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Consent and Exciting Times

(Perhaps someone should actually write a novel called Consent and Exciting Times, it sounds fun).

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Annabel Lyon’s latest novel, Consent, is almost impossible to summarise swiftly (which may explain why the British publisher has pretty much given up and written an inaccurate summary of the entire plot on the back cover, but publishers, this really isn’t a good idea – apart from anything else, it makes Consent sound like a thriller, which it is not). In short, it’s about two pairs of sisters. Sara’s sister Mattie is intellectually disabled, and Sara starts caring for her after the death of their mother. Saskia’s sister Jenny has been out of control since she was a teenager, and now she’s in a coma following a car accident. Lyon packs so much into this relatively slim novel that there are probably multiple ways of summarising what it’s really ‘about’, but I found myself particularly picking up on the theme of bodily autonomy – what we are allowed to do with our bodies, and how that’s related to both our intellectual capacity and our capacity to live independently from other people. We valorise independence, but we’re all dependent. We want freedom, but we often throw away the things that would allow us to seek it. Some of us, Lyon seems to be saying, are allowed to wreck our own lives; some of us are not.

I thought this novel was fantastic, but I’m struggling to say why. I imagine many readers will find it incredibly unsatisfying. Lyon’s writing is elliptical, deliberately looping round pieces of key information so we have to be constantly engaged to work things out for ourselves. Such intensity might have been too much in a longer novel, but in this short book it’s perfect, like one of the strong espressos Sara drinks or the expensive scents she wears. It also strays close to the ironic commentary of some ‘millennial novels’ I’ve read without giving into the temptation to say things that are too easy. (Sara, born in the 70s, is also too old to be a millennial, and I liked the juxtaposition between her inner monologue and that of the younger Saskia’s). I’d never heard of Lyon before she was longlisted for the Women’s Prize, but now I want to check out her entire backlist. Brilliant choice, judges.

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It’s a rare novel that draws praise from both Marian Keyes and Hilary Mantel, but both are quoted on the cover of my copy of Naoise Dolan’s debut, Exciting Times. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been steering clear of this for some time because I felt it would be yet another ‘dysfunctional women being dysfunctional novel’, but after some persuasion, mostly by Elle, I decided to give it a try. And I’m glad I did; this is much weirder and more interesting than your typical novel about a young woman messing her life up. Ava is working as a TEFL teacher in Hong Kong, partly because she doesn’t know what to do next with her life and partly to avoid living at home in Dublin. She finds herself hate-dating banker Julian, and stays in his flat when he leaves Hong Kong for months on business. But then she meets Edith, and finds herself building a relationship that’s much sweeter and more genuine – although, if that’s really the case, why is she still so drawn to Julian?

Ava’s narration makes this novel. She’s interested in language in a way that feels much more illuminating than the wordplay that writers like Ali Smith sometimes indulge in, musing on the differences between Irish English and the ‘correct’ form of English that she’s instructed to teach to her students, as well as the differences between English and the languages she encounters in Hong Kong. Her voice is also pitched very carefully between being relatable and alienating, which perhaps explains why both Keyes and Mantel enjoyed this. Bits of Exciting Times did take me right back to my early twenties, when being the least keen in a relationship was so important, and you get interested in people who seem to be the antithesis of everything you say you believe in, because they come from a world you’ve never encountered before. However, Ava isn’t an everywoman; she’s both terrible and brilliant at social interaction, and makes some very bizarre judgments about others. She comes off at first like the kind of astute narrator that we can laugh along with, but we gradually realise how off-kilter her ideas are. All this is really cleverly handled, and although I didn’t quite fall for Exciting Times, I definitely admired it.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers four and five. I’ve already read The Vanishing Half ,Transcendent Kingdom and Piranesi.

Interview With Natasha Pulley

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed the speculative historical fiction writer Natasha Pulley for Newcastle’s Centre for the Literary Arts (NCLA). The video of this interview is now up on YouTube:

Natasha has written four novels to date – The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, The Bedlam Stacks, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, and The Kingdoms – all of which I have read and loved. (Watch out for my review of The Kingdoms coming soon – it’s out in May!)

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Piranesi

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Piranesi, Susanna Clarke’s second novel, has been called ‘a puzzleand a ‘mystery’ with ‘revelations‘ that unfold throughout the narrative. I think this sets up expectations for the book that mar the reading experience (encouraging the reader to rush to discover secrets), so I’m going to say straight off, I didn’t find any unexpected twists or shocks in Piranesi. Indeed, I felt like I knew what was going on almost from the start, although it gradually took firmer shape. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure that we were ever really meant to know what was going on, for certain; Piranesi has something of the resonant, deliberately frustrating quality of Nina Allan’s novels, perhaps especially The Silver Wind. It didn’t enchant me quite as much as I expected, but the world that Clarke creates within Piranesi’s House is so vivid and troubling that it will take me a long time to forget it.

Our narrator tells us about the limited world within which he lives, a labyrinth of marble halls that ascend into the clouds and are intermittently washed by tides, and which are filled with statues. Only fifteen people, he believes, have ever existed, and only two of those are still alive; himself, and a man he calls ‘the Other’, who visits him occasionally, only to disappear again ‘to far distant halls’. In the journal entries that make up the first couple of sections of this book, part of the fascination of the narrator’s character is figuring out how things might be if you thought such a place was the entire world. He is greatly reverent of the dead, for example, able to pay each of the collections of bones he discovers individual attention, because there are so few people to remember. As the plot gathers pace and the narrator starts to unpick things he believed were true, this aspect of the novel recedes, but there’s a haunting oddness about Piranesi that remains even when we return to a more mundane world at the end. The epigraph from The Magician’s Nephew, the only Narnia book I’ve ever enjoyed, is totally apt. 

Piranesi is an odd book to find on the Women’s Prize longlist. Even when the Prize has branched out to embrace more speculative fiction, it’s tended to stay closer to realism. Nevertheless, I completely welcome its presence here, and I hope this heralds more science fiction, horror and fantasy on future longlists, as well as all those genres that fall in between.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number three. I’ve already read The Vanishing Half and Transcendent Kingdom.