Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: Build Your House Around My Body

9780861542147_2

In 2011, Winnie, a young Vietnamese-American woman, is eking out her days as an English teacher in Saigon, scarcely bothering to teach her students anything more than the slang phrases she scribbles on the board (‘Humblebrag, catfishing, bikini body, friends with benefits’). Long Phan, now Winnie’s boyfriend, is haunted by Binh, a girl he met when they were children – but not as haunted as his brother Tan. Seven months earlier, Fortune Teller and his two assistants are called to investigate a ghostly dripping sound in a house in Ia Kare, isolated in the rural highlands of Vietnam. In 1949, two Frenchmen lease twenty acres of bushland in the same area and plant rubber trees, hoping it’s the route to a quick fortune. And in 1986, the teenage daughter of a wealthy Vietnamese man gets lost in that forest trying to escape the horrors of her present.

Build Your House Around My Body flips between these different characters in different times, not stopping to explain to the reader how they are connected, so it’s only really in the last quarter of the novel that it starts to come together. However, I found one of the attractions of this narrative was its puzzle-box nature; when the links finally click, it’s both chilling and satisfying. This is definitely very reminiscent of David Mitchell, especially his The Bone Clocks and Slade House (although I liked it a lot more than I liked Slade House), with a smattering of other horror tropes; Kupersmith has fun playing with imagery from The Ring/Ringu, for example. And that’s another aspect of Build Your House that you might not anticipate from the blurb; there’s a dry wit that runs through it; it doesn’t take itself too seriously. (‘Though the Fortune Teller’s horoscopes were always alarmingly accurate, whenever he bet on soccer games he lost’).

I’d agree with other reviewers that this novel is too long – especially because it spends so much time on disparate episodes before tying up its threads – but it partly makes up for its length by some incredibly memorable set-pieces. Three children meet a man in a graveyard whose jaw gradually unhinges to emit red smoke. A wealthy coffee plantation owner possesses a book with a strand of hair from all of his sexual conquests who return in unusual form. A woman’s hair lengthens and lengthens until a man can braid it into three braids each as thick as his forearm.

For much of Build Your House, I agreed with Sharlene Teo in the Guardian that Winnie is one of the ‘disaffected millennial heroines’ that I would call Disaster Women, and which I’ve come to tire of as a fictional trope. I wished we’d get more of the vivid Binh and less of Winnie’s endless moping. But by the end of the novel, I began to see what Kupersmith was doing with Winnie. She’s less a Disaster Woman in the mould of Edie in Luster or Ava in Exciting Times and more like the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. She’s literally trying to break down and discard her own body. This insight still left me feeling that we got too much Winnie, but at least her travails had some direction.

While this is undoubtedly a flawed novel, I loved its originality and daring, and I think it’s likely to be one of my favourites on the Women’s Prize longlist. In addition, my Waterstones special edition of the novel contained a bonus short story, ‘My Darkling’. This had shades of the Julia Armfield/Carmen Maria Machado/Kate Folk axis that I wrote about in my review of Folk’s Out There, but was an exceptional example of this weird sub-genre, so I’ll definitely be looking to read Kupersmith’s earlier short story collection, The Frangipani Hotel.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. This is number eight. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness, Careless, The Sentence, The Paper Palace, Remote Sympathy and The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev

71Y8n5Q9UOL

First things first: I found The Final Revival of Opal & Nev intensely frustrating. There’s so much potential here, but the novel feels like an early draft of itself. As this is Dawnie Walton’s debut, I hope more of that potential is fulfilled in her next book. I’ve also found it difficult to talk about this novel without intermittently mentioning spoilers. If you want to avoid these, click through to my Goodreads review, which has spoiler tags.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is told as a series of excerpts from oral history interviews collected by journalist Sunny, who also provides a framing narrative for the novel. (This structural choice feels like a bit of a mash-up between two Taylor Jenkins Reid novels – Daisy Jones and the Six and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo). Opal & Nev were an iconic rock duo in the 1970s, but later split to pursue solo careers, and are now planning a final reunion. Their early days, however, were overshadowed by a concert that turned violent when their black drummer Jimmy was murdered by white racists. Here, Sunny has a personal stake; Jimmy was her father, and was having an affair with Opal when he died.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev turns on a central revelation at the midpoint of the novel, when we find out that what we thought happened at that fatal concert was not the full story. In short, we discover that Nev may have made Jimmy a target of racist violence by falsely telling the thuggish band that he stole their Confederate flag. I was disappointed by this twist; basically, because I feel that twists in novels should make stories more complex, not less so. The initial draw of Opal and Nev for the reader is the question of how two such different people formed a creative collaboration. We fully expect it to fall apart and we suspect it will be because Nev will be unable to recognise his white privilege and the difficulties Opal faces as a radical black female artist. The twist, therefore, is hardly a surprise, it’s a confirmation of what we already knew.

In structural terms, this twist and its placement in the novel robs the rest of the book of any momentum. We know we’re going to watch Opal & Nev’s ultimate decline. From my point of view as a reader – and I acknowledge this might not have worked with Walton’s vision for the novel – it would have been much more interesting if Nev had played no role in Jimmy’s death, but if he and Opal had come to blows over her onstage protest after the concert. Maybe he could even have wrongly blamed her for inciting violence? This would show his obliviousness as a white man, but have opened up more subtle fault-lines between them that were genuinely about race rather than sexual jealousy.

A number of reviewers note that, with the exception of Opal, Walton tends to rely on stereotype, and I would agree; aside from the flattening of Nev’s character, we have the white ‘trailer trash’ racists, the flamboyant gay costume designer, the Bernie Sanders fan who thinks everything is about false consciousness, the greedy record label head honcho… Again, this is only more frustrating because there are flashes of greater insight in her writing. I loved that Opal’s deeply religious sister, Pearl, was not a villain but a source of support, for example, and had a great singing voice of her own. Having said that, I thought that Opal herself was also unevenly developed as a character. Her affair with Jimmy is so pivotal to the novel, but we barely see the two together. There’s also a suggestion that her key conflict is between her desire for recognition and her own values, but I never really felt this – Opal always seemed to come down on the right side of history. Finally, we don’t get enough of Opal and Nev when things were good between them, which means his betrayal doesn’t land with enough emotional weight. Sunny, also, never comes alive in her own right.

There’s a lot that’s good about this book – the imaginative descriptions of Opal & Nev’s hit songs and their stage performances, and the ways in which they intersected with seventies protest culture, are brilliant – but it didn’t quite land for me.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. This is number seven. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness, Careless, The Sentence, The Paper Palace and Remote Sympathy.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Paper Palace and Remote Sympathy

First, an update on my progress with the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I have to say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the quality of the titles I’ve read so far. I’m now thinking that the judges were actually onto something with their off-the-wall picks. Therefore, I’ve decided to expand the number of titles I plan to read from the longlist from eight to eleven. It’s still unlikely that I’ll read the remaining five longlisted titles (Flamingo, This One Sky Day, The Exhibitionist, The Island of Missing Trees and Salt Lick) unless they make the shortlist.

71SR3RkZgeS

The Paper Palace, Miranda Cowley Heller’s debut novel, is narrated by fifty-year-old Elle, who has returned every summer throughout her life to an idyllic family hideaway at Cape Cod. This summer, she’s there with her three children and her husband, Peter, when she abruptly reconnects with an old flame, Jonas, who is also the keeper of her darkest secrets. The Paper Palace flashes back and forward through time to trace the events since Elle’s earliest childhood as her story also unfolds in the present, a structural choice that works effectively when Heller confines herself to the two central timelines, but can become unnecessarily confusing in the few instances when multiple flashbacks and flash-forwards are employed at the same time.

Numerous reviewers mention the traumatic subject-matter of The Paper Palace. While I don’t believe the central incident of the novel is gratuitous per se, as it is the hook upon which the story hangs, I would certainly concur that the numerous other mentions of sexual abuse, other kinds of childhood abuse and neglect, unlikely accidents and early deaths are indeed gratuitous and unnecessary. This is a book where we can’t witness an old man swimming happily with his friend in the men’s pond on Hampstead Heath without him abruptly drowning, where children are smothered by sand dunes for no reason, where adolescents are constantly exposed to random adults having sex in front of them. (I feel I can mention these incidents freely because they are in no way spoilers for the main plot or the primary or secondary characters’ journeys – which itself indicates how easily Heller could have removed them.) The Paper Palace, despite its incredibly familiar plot-line and flat characters, is a weirdly compelling read, and I think a big part of this is Heller’s car-crash writing – we don’t want to look away because we know there’s going to be something awful on the next page. This is certainly one way to compel your reader, but a good novel it does not make.

Even putting this material aside, The Paper Palace is not a well-executed novel. Elle, Peter and Jonas are all very sketchily characterised and largely unsympathetic. Heller might claim to be exploring the generational impacts of trauma, and to be reflecting her characters’ experience thematically through the string of arbitrary misfortunes that befall other people in this book, but I just didn’t think she pulled it off. There are also small annoyances. The book is weirdly obsessed with Elle’s hymen being intact (so obviously intact a gynaecologist comments on it!) before she has sex for the first time, despite the fact she uses tampons, which perpetuates myths about what the hymen is and how it’s related to female ‘virginity’. Sex scenes are used to stand in for any kind of meaningful emotional development between Elle and her two lovers. And while, unlike some other readers, I felt that it was pretty clear what Elle decides to do at the end of the novel, I simply did not care by this point. Ultimately, this reads like sub-par Jodi Picoult, and I don’t believe it belongs on the Women’s Prize longlist.

cover_9781609456276__id1850_w600_t1615909633__1x

Remote Sympathy, Catherine Chidgey’s sixth novel, alternates between four perspectives on the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald during the final years of the Second World War. SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn was the camp’s administrator; his sections are narrated from the vantage point of the 1950s when he is being interviewed after his release from prison. His young wife, Greta Hahn, is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer in 1943, and tells us what is happening to her as it happens. The doctor Lenard Weber is a ‘political prisoner’ in the camp, arrested for an invented crime after Dietrich found out about his pre-war invention, the ‘Sympathetic Vitaliser’, which was intended to cure cancers through the transmission of electric current through the body. His contributions come in the form of letters to his small daughter Lotte, who has been taken with her Jewish mother Anna to another concentration camp, Theresienstadt. A fourth and, in my opinion, superfluous, perspective is an occasional contribution from a chorus of Weimar villagers who live near Buchenwald.

While the synopsis of this novel indicates potentially speculative elements, Remote Sympathy is in fact a straightforwardly traditional and realistic historical novel; Lenard’s ‘vitaliser’ is clearly rooted in pre-war experiments with electricity as a means of rejuvenation, and the principle of ‘remote sympathy’ which supposedly makes it effectual is based on the eighteenth-century experiments of the Scottish surgeon John Hunter. And Remote Sympathy is very good at what it does. It’s convincing and moving. Chidgey uses Dietrich’s self-justifying perspective to explore how he rationalises the horrors of Buchenwald in relation to what he believes were ‘actual’ concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, and we see how Buchenwald did indeed possess weird flourishes to try and hide its true purpose, such as a prisoners’ library and brothel. (And in the grotesque choral sections from the Weimar villagers, it’s reminiscent of Audrey Magee’s The Undertakingwhich was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize back in 2014.)  Its most heartbreaking thread is Lenard’s realisation that he must now pretend as hard as he can that his failed experimental machine may actually be working, in order to save his own life and hopefully that of his wife and child, even as he struggles with lying to Greta about her prognosis.

This is not, however, a novel that I think will stay with me. I’ve simply read too many novels that cover this ground and many of them were equally competent. I’m glad to have read Remote Sympathy and I think it deserves to be longlisted, but it doesn’t offer anything especially new.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers five and six. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness , Careless and The Sentence.

Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends

I’ve read a recent string of psychological thrillers that seem to be subconsciously angry at ambitious women. Even as some of these Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends novels highlight how women suffer from wanting things outside the traditional female domain of marriage and a family, they also portray female characters who try to achieve success as tortured and unhappy. If you’re not killed off along the way, often the only route to satisfaction as a woman in this kind of book is to abandon the career you worked so hard for, or, at the very least, to scale it back. It’s hard not to feel that readers are being told, over. and over again, that women should just stop wanting things.

Some of this stems from the demands of the genre. Women with various types of mental illness have become a staple of the form, as have people who are willing to kill for what they want. Some of these novels, to be fair, are also keen to highlight genuinely damaging and abusive practices within particular industries, often through a feminist lens. This is the case with Rachel Kapelke-Dale’s The Ballerinas, Ilaria Bernardini’s The Girls Are Good, and, to a lesser extent, Laura Vaughan’s Let’s Pretend, which focus respectively on classical ballet, gymnastics and acting. (I have not read this novel, but I suspect Megan Abbott’s The Turnout is in the same vein). Books like this highlight obsession with body image, sexual abuse, and psychological pressure, all vital issues to discuss. But yet, the cumulative impact of such books being all we ever get about women who pursue artistic or sporting careers is grim. Where are the women who experience at least some happiness in their successes, even for a moment?

Another subset of psychological thrillers take a darker turn, actively appearing to punish women who aim for the top. Let’s Pretend fits in here as well. It focuses on actor Lily, who made her name as ‘Little Lucie’ in a saccharine Christmas film as a child star, but whose career has never really taken off since. In contrast, Adam, once a fellow student at drama school, is on the brink of breaking into the A list. When Adam suggests that Lily pretend to be his girlfriend so he can hide his homosexuality and she can raise her profile, Lily is happy to agree. But things become toxic between them as Lily realises the extent of Adam’s drug habit, and becomes worried he’ll drag her down with him. Every character in this novel, including Lily herself, is shallow, catty and unhappy, and while this applies to men as well as women in this case, it’s depressing that Vaughan could provide no positive counter-examples to set against Lily’s inevitable downfall.

Even worse, arguably, are Harriet Tyce’s It Ends at Midnight and Louise O’Neill’s Idol, which I read back to back and was struck by the similarities between what, on the surface, are two quite different novels. [Spoilers for both of these novels follow.It Ends at Midnight focuses on high-flying lawyer Sylvie, whose ultimate goal is to become a judge. However, her life is derailed when she is framed for something she didn’t do, and she becomes obsessed with old friend Tess, who has recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Both women share a secret in their past, but when Tess threatens to come clean so she can die with a clear conscience, Sylvie is terrified that her life will be ruined. As it turns out, although we are initially led to believe that Tess is lying about almost everything, Sylvie is the one who was principally culpable in their teenage actions, and Tess is actually the collateral damage.

A similar bait-and-switch plays out in Louise O’Neill’s Idol, which stars an influencer, Samantha, who has built her career on being a role model to teenage girls. After speaking openly about her own sexual assault and imploring the public to ‘believe women’, she is devastated to be accused of a similar crime by her teenage best friend, Lisa. The novel is structured in such a way to make it seem that the reader is supposed to gradually realise that Sam is in the wrong about everything, but for me – given the usual stereotypes about influencers and Instagram big names in fiction – this was obvious from the start. I hoped for a while that O’Neill might be aiming for a more complex portrayal of Sam, acknowledging that she has been both abuser and abused, but this unravels near the end.

Both O’Neill and Tyce are then determined to totally destroy their errant protagonists. Idol ends with Sam’s career being completely crushed after a shocking video is leaked on social media. Of course, given what Sam has done, she ‘deserves’ this, but O’Neill constructed her and her story; she didn’t need to make Sam so irredeemably villainous. Meanwhile, Sylvie meets a fate that seems out of proportion to her actions, and indeed almost gleefully cruel; she is impaled on a set of railings after falling from a rooftop and bleeds to death. Women, that’s what comes of reaching too high. [Spoilers end.]

I have honestly started to wonder whether there are any thrillers at all where achieving success in her chosen career is the end-game for a female protagonist – and not success as a side-order to realising what’s really important in life, but success as something that’s worthwhile in its own right. (Ironically, so-called ‘bonkbusters’ like Rebecca Chance’s novels, packaged as much trashier and less worthy than psychological thrillers, are much better at this – her protagonists tend to be brilliantly successful in whatever they set out to do, even if they engage in some dodgy machinations (in more ways than one) along the way.) Why are so many thrillers still telling us that Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends? And can we accept that, while it is important for feminists to highlight the abuse and exploitation of women, it is also important to write feminist depictions of women’s joy, talent and achievement?

I received free proof copies of Let’s Pretend (7th April), It Ends at Midnight (14th April), Idol (12th May) and The Girls Are Good (4th August) from the publishers for review. 

Have you read any Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends novels? What did you think?

Are there any thrillers you would recommend that celebrate female ambition? (Or indeed any books at all set in the artistic or sporting worlds)?

March Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

418Y8P7JJ7L

… Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler (2nd ed). I’d already read the title story of this collection back in spring 2021, and it’s brilliant; I was thrilled to discover that Butler’s other SF shorts are just as good. In fact, I think my favourite story in this collection wasn’t ‘Bloodchild’ but ‘Amnesty’, another coloniser/colonised story with an even more morally complex dynamic. But I also loved ‘Speech Sounds’, which depicts a world where humans have lost most of their language abilities; ‘The Evening and The Morning and The Night’, which is about an imaginary hereditary disease and also about what we inherit more generally, even when we don’t want to; and ‘The Book of Martha’, where a woman challenged by God comes up with a pretty original idea for a utopia. (There’s something of Ted Chiang in that last one). This collection also contains two short essays by Butler on writing, neither of which is groundbreaking but which are nice to have, and two non-SF short stories, ‘Near of Kin’ and ‘Crossover’, which unfortunately didn’t work for me at all. However, a collection of five incredible miniature pieces of science fiction hardly leaves the reader shortchanged.

 The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

9781529057676.jpg

… Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-jin. This novella was translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang; my comments here are obviously based on the English translation and I can’t speak to the quality of the original Korean text. Concerning My Daughter sets up such interesting internal conflicts for its characters. Our narrator, an ageing woman, is appalled when her daughter, Green, moves into her house with her girlfriend, Lane. She can’t understand why her daughter would seek a relationship that, for her, is ‘play-acting’, without ‘real’ intimacy or the hope of biological children. She’s also ashamed of Green’s activism at work; Green, a university lecturer, has stood up for some of her colleagues who were sacked for being in a homosexual relationship. But our narrator is not a one-dimensional bigot. She, too, stands up for what she believes to be right when she witnesses the mistreatment of a woman with dementia at the care home where she works – a woman who’s lived a life much bigger than our narrator’s conventional trajectory.

Unfortunately, for me, the structure and prose made Concerning My Daughter almost unreadable. The novella jumps around in time, following its narrator’s internal monologue – something I love when a writer pulls it off, but here was just confusing and bitty. The narrator also has a habit of spelling out her thoughts on everything, leaving the reader no room for interpretation. This makes the novella feel clunky and obvious, despite its hugely promising plot-line, and reminded me a bit of Maki Kashimada’s Japanese novella-in-translation Ninety-Nine Kisses, which suffered from the same problem.

I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 14th April.

The Best Short Story Collection I Read This Month Was…

59978457._SY475_

… Out There by Kate Folk. This debut collection shares a lot of concerns and themes with many other collections I’ve read recently from female writers; body horror, AI infiltrators, the hidden violence of heterosexual relationships, female sexuality, mysterious medical conditions, folktale themes, returns from the dead. I’d place it alongside collections such as Julia Armfield’s salt slow, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other Parties, Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten and Irenosen Okojie’s Nudibranch. However, unlike these earlier books, all of which I found disappointing to one degree or another (although both the Armfield and Machado contain some excellent individual stories), Out There delivers. My full review is on Goodreads.

The Best Memoir I Read This Month Was…

9781529342895

… Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu. Owusu grew up between multiple different cultures but never felt she belonged in any; her mother was Armenian, her father Ghanaian, her stepmother Tanzanian, and she has lived in New York, Rome, London, Addis Ababa, Dar-es-Salaam, Kampala and Kumasi. The extended metaphor of the ‘seismometer’ in her head and the earthquakes it triggers allows Owusu to write incredibly effectively about trauma, as well as race and culture; as a relatively light-skinned black woman, she experiences being read differently wherever she goes. In Rome, she’s a curiosity; in Addis Ababa, she’s mistaken for a native Ethopian until people realise she can’t speak Amharic; in Ghana, she’s seen as fortunate because her skin is not too dark. In its rewarding density and its attention to the different trajectories of an extended family, this reminded me of Négar Djavadi’s novel Disoriental.

(Hon. mention: Inferno by Catherine Cho, which deals with postnatal psychosis and which I found much more emotionally resonant than I expected, given I have never been pregnant and never intend to be).

The Book That Took Me The Longest To Read This Month Was…

51C7SHIOM-S

…A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. It took me a month to read this, and I’m glad I finished it, but I don’t think I’ll be picking up the sequel any time soon – especially as the loose ends felt very tied up. Great worldbuilding, politics and thought-provoking technology, but I had the same problem with this that I had with the couple of China Mieville books I’ve read (Embassytown and The City and the City); there wasn’t enough internal depth to the characters. We know interesting things about our protagonist Mahit, such as her attraction to Teixcalaanli culture, but I never felt this really informed her as a person, especially as, given how lacking she is in backstory, she might as well have appeared out of nowhere at the start of the novel (we only learn halfway through, for example, that she has a younger brother). Meanwhile, the voices of the secondary characters tended to blend together.

The Most Forgettable Book I Read This Month Was…

9781787332003

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura. True to form, I’ve already forgotten almost everything about it, so there’s not much I can say! I thought the scenes in The Hague were very well done but was disappointed that the book increasingly focused on the protagonist’s romantic life. Ultimately, she ended up a bit too much disaster woman and not enough international criminal court translator.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

57693184.jpg

… Dead Silence by SA Barnes. The premise of this book is one of my favourite SF set-ups ever, although it’s a relatively familiar trope: crew of a spaceship accidentally happen upon the abandoned wreck of another spaceship that mysteriously disappeared a long time ago. The extra embellishments that Dead Silence promised only made its plot sound better; in this book, the abandoned ship is a luxury liner which was not on any kind of mission when it vanished but simply on a pleasure cruise. It’s found far away from its original course with an emergency beacon transmitting on a disused frequency; what happened? Unfortunately, Dead Silence squanders this premise, and I agree with other reviewers that it plays out more as a (tired) psychological thriller than as a relatively more original horror/SF genre-cross. My full review is on Goodreads.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

hbg-title-9781473681699-34.jpg

… Sun Damage by Sabine Durrant. I’ve read all of Durrant’s thrillers; she reliably delivers gripping but credible plots, strong prose, and well-observed characterisation. Sun Damage is no exception. Ali is making ends meet through running small scams with her partner in crime Sean, drifting between different holiday destinations to find their next mark. But when a sudden tragedy makes her realise how much Sean is exploiting her, she takes off on her own, knowing she mustn’t let Sean track her down. As she infiltrates the lives of a family group holidaying in the South of France, she keeps one eye open for Sean while struggling to keep up the deception she’s invented to allow her to remain in their midst. But is somebody on to Ali, and what will happen if Sean does find her?

I’d certainly recommend Sun Damage for anybody looking for a solid thriller that’s a notch above the rest. However, looking back on my reviews of Durrant’s earlier work – which I’ve always rated four stars – I have one reflection. For some reason, however much I enjoy Durrant’s books at the time, they quickly slip from my memory. I have no recollection of her other novels, even Take Me In, which at the time, I thought was ‘much more memorable’ than other thrillers I’d read. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s interesting to compare her to a writer like Lottie Moggach – Durrant and Moggach are very much on a par in terms of the quality of their prose and their plots, but Moggach’s Kiss Me First, Under The Sun and Brixton Hill are all vivid and distinct in my memory. This doesn’t make her a bad writer, though; I suppose it depends what you want from a book.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 2nd June.


			

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Sentence

hbg-title-9781472156983-26

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Louise Erdrich’s work. I read her acclaimed novel The Round House about six or so years ago. It’s one of those books where, looking back, I’m surprised to find that my review was so positive, because that isn’t how I remember the experience of reading it. The Round House, which deals with the epidemic of sexual violence among Native American women, is undoubtedly an important and accomplished novel, but something about it clearly didn’t click for me – perhaps it was the ‘child’s-eye-view of adult situations’ narrator, a device I really don’t like, or perhaps it was simply too grim.

The Sentence, to me, feels like it was written by a completely different person. Despite some difficult subject-matter, it’s an uplifting read. Our Objiwe narrator, Tookie, has spent ten years in prison for body-snatching and conspiracy to transport drugs across state lines, an offence she was tricked into by friends. Given the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in North American prison statistics, she isn’t surprised to initially receive what amounts to a life sentence, which is eventually commuted due to the efforts of her Objiwe defence lawyer. The Sentence is about what happens next, as Tookie takes a job at Erdrich’s own bookstore (rather sweetly, Erdrich has a bit part in the novel, and isn’t afraid to gently make fun of herself) and starts to be haunted by the ghost of its ‘most annoying customer’, Flora.

Flora is a ‘wannabe Native American’, claiming Indigenous heritage despite being obviously white, and at first, she seems like a ‘wannabe ghost’; her incursions on the life of the bookstore are only very slight. Anybody who’s put off by ghost stories should not avoid The Sentence; Flora manifests only very sparingly, and does not make direct contact with the living. Due to this restraint, Erdrich manages to make Flora chilling in death, even though she was a bit ridiculous in life. When Tookie’s alone one evening in the bookstore, ‘a song began that I knew was not on the playlist. Flora cranked up the volume; it was Johnny Cash singing ‘Ain’t No Grave’. There ain’t no grave can hold my body down… If you’ve ever heard Johnny sing this song, you can imagine.’

The Sentence pulls a number of oddly eclectic themes together; books that can kill, Indigenous religion, Covid-19, Black Lives Matter protests, dealing with stepfamilies, Tookie’s tender relationship with her husband Pollux – who happens to be the retired Potawatomi policeman who originally arrested her. The reason it works, for the most part, is Tookie’s voice. I was immediately captivated by her warmth and humour. Through her, Erdrich makes us as readers believe in all the weirdness this book throws at us, even if I would have preferred it to come together a bit more tightly in the end. The secondary cast are beautifully handled; they genuinely feel like a community that have lived together for a long time. And as a love letter to books themselves, The Sentence is much more effective and much less sentimental than its fellow longlistee The Book of Form and EmptinessI’d be happy to see this on the shortlist.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eight titles that I do want to read. This is number four. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness and Careless.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: Careless

9781398700109

Bess is fifteen years old when she finds out she’s pregnant. Although she’s been in a long-term foster care placement since she was four, she’s never felt that she truly belongs to her foster family, and her boyfriend, Boy, has gone AWOL. The only person she can really rely on is her best friend Eshal, but Eshal has problems of her own – she’s worried that her Bangladeshi Muslim family are going to encourage her into an arranged marriage she does not want. Careless, Kirsty Capes’s debut novel, starts with Bess’s discovery of her pregnancy and then flashes back to explore her relationship with Boy and friendship with Eshal, before moving forward along the original timeline.

First things first: I enjoyed Careless much more than I expected to. This is a book about teenagers that could be read by teenagers, but I wouldn’t class it as YA and it doesn’t seem to have been sold as such. This is a relief. My problems with YA have never been that it’s written for a teenage audience but about the conventions and stereotypical assumptions that have become wrapped up with writing for that audience. Careless avoids these tropes. I’d place it alongside Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OKwhich deals sensitively and thoughtfully with alcoholism and sexuality. Like Nina, Careless is a dark and painful read – but this certainly should not exclude it from an adolescent as well as an adult readership.

Bess is a compelling protagonist. The book cleverly moves from the relative lightheartedness of early scenes with Eshal, watching the raft race at Shepperton Village Fair and chucking rubbish at an enemy’s raft, to much more harrowing scenes later on, which helps us to see Bess as a person and not just as a suffering statistic. Her world, too, is vividly evoked. Capes shuns generic council estate settings and allows us to really see the Studios Estate where Bess lives, in its everyday beauty and ugliness: ‘From my bedroom window on the estate, I can see the park, with two big horse chestnut trees on the green where the parakeets roost… And the long sloping sides of the reservoir, just beyond the farmer’s fields… I can see the River Ash Woods, where everyone goes to fly-tip and inject heroin. And then the tin houses, which are what everyone calls the pre-fabs, from after the Second World War’. 

However, I didn’t think the structure of the novel served Capes’s purposes particularly well. By positioning all that comes before the positive pregnancy test as flashback, the reader is simply waiting for Careless to catch up with itself. This messes with the pacing and also draws attention away from the most important element of the novel – the friendship between Bess and Eshal. I’ve been seeing this thriller device – pulling a scene from the middle and putting it at the beginning – more and more in books that are not thrillers. I suspect it is often advised by agents and editors, but it doesn’t work well for me as a reader. For Careless, certainly, I would have appreciated more time to get to know Bess before the book starts to revolve around her pregnancy.

There are also a few duff notes. I agree with this reviewer that Eshal’s plotline is too neatly concluded, although I imagine this came from Cape’s over-cautiousness in tackling this subject as a white writer. Bess’s voice generally works very well, but occasionally she feels like a mouthpiece for important things that Capes wants to say about the experience of being in care that probably wouldn’t come out of the mouth of a 1990s teenager. For example: ‘There’s something wrong with being in care, the care system, and it’s making us into a transaction… It’s not right, how we’re treated like a job. There’s too much emotional labour involved.’ Having said that, I thought that Cape’s handling of the reasons behind Bess entering foster care in the first place was exceptional. She tells the reader just enough so we can guess at what happened but allows us to understand it through the fragmented lens of Bess’s trauma, or what we might identify as complex PTSD.

So, a flawed book, for me, but one which I think deserves its Women’s Prize longlisting, and which certainly achieves what it’s trying to do much better than the other two novels on the list I’ve read so far. I doubt it will be shortlisted – the quote from Pandora Sykes on the cover makes me think it was the pet pick of a single judge – but I’m glad that I read it.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eight titles that I do want to read. This is number three. I’ve already read Great Circle and The Book of Form and Emptiness.

Write What You Know: Groundskeeping by Lee Cole & Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein

It’s 2016 America, in the months before Trump’s election, and a young man in his late twenties dreams of being a writer. However, he can only really write about what he knows from real life, including the stories that others tell him. He’s accused of stealing material from others’ lives by somebody who’s very close to him, and can’t really deny it because he’s failed to change any of the characters’ names. He meets his ideal girl and starts a relationship with her, but as the novel reaches its climax, he’s forced to choose between her and his writing as he decides whether or not to board an outgoing flight. His story is told without speech marks or chapter breaks, and is the debut novel of a youngish white male writer who lives in New York and probably shares quite a lot in common with his protagonist. 

Bizarrely, this could be the synopsis of either Groundskeeping by Lee Cole or Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein – two books which are actually very different, but share the same basic building blocks. This certainly isn’t a case of ‘if you liked this you’d also like’ – although I personally enjoyed both novels. Groundskeeping is a deliberately slow, meditative book about Owen, who grew up in rural Kentucky, and has taken a job as a groundskeeper at a local college so he can make some money and take a free writing course. In class, he’s forced to reflect on ‘jungle narratives’; at work, he fells and trims trees in the college’s grounds. Alma, a writer-in-residence at the college, is a ‘cultural Muslim’ whose parents fled Bosnia before she was born. She grew up on the outskirts of DC and was educated in the Ivy League. As the two navigate their relationship, both make uncomfortable missteps.

The heart of Groundskeeping seemed to me to be when Alma tells Owen: ‘I just wish I could think of something without thinking of a dozen other things related to it. Like, I can’t just think of a tree anymore. I think about all the poems about trees that I like. The tree as cultural signifier. I think about “Birches” by Robert Frost. But you – you just think of them as they are, I’m sure. Or you think of them in a technical sense, as something you have to work on.’ This tells us everything about who these two characters want to be and who they think the other person is, especially when Owen wonders if he likes this ‘compliment’: ‘It was true that I’d never thought of Robert Frost while working on a tree, but I knew the poem.’

Caleb, the protagonist of Last Resort, is both much more privileged and much more stupid and shortsighted than Owen – although I still found myself rooting for him. He’s trying and failing to write a publishable first novel when he meets up with old college friend Avi Dietsch. Avi tells him a true story about a dying woman that somehow inspires Caleb to write well when inventing things was only leading him into dead ends. When he’s finished the manuscript, he grabs the attention of a ‘big shot’ literary agent who plans to sell the book for a lot of money. Unfortunately, Avi gets wind of what Caleb’s done, and demands that Caleb recompense him for the use of ‘his’ story – even though it actually belongs to neither of them.

Like Owen, Caleb struggles when he isn’t able to ‘write what he knows’, although in this case, he’s positioned as a writer who has to work from real life, but not his own life. Lipstein keeps the reader guessing, developing the plot in such a way that we feel surprised but not cheated about what happens next. Because of the characterisation of Caleb, these twists feel earnt – they proceed from what we already know about the character and the way that he operates. Unlike Groundskeeping, it’s a totally gripping book – I read it in a couple of sittings – but it lacks Groundskeeping‘s social nuance and commentary on being white and working-class in the rural United States.

Both novels raise questions about who stories belong to, but both present a frustrating cliche about writing by suggesting that writers can only write ‘what they know’, and so have to address these issues whenever they put pen to paper. Other readalikes might be A Ladder To The Sky by John Boyne or The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, though I think both Cole’s and Lipstein’s novels are better. But this coincidental reading experience – I read Groundskeeping and Last Resort back to back – did make me reflect on how much novels about novelists lean on this trope. I’d love to read a book about fictional writers who actually make things up – or, God forbid, write science fiction or fantasy that isn’t a thinly veiled version of their current preoccupations. But perhaps that kind of book-within-a-book would be a step too far.

Have you read any novels that feature a book-within-a-book? Or writers who write what they know?

I received free proof copies of these novels from their publishers for review. Groundskeeping and Last Resort are, incredibly, BOTH out in the UK on 17th March 2022. Are we sure somebody didn’t do a Caleb?

 

February Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

9781529017236.jpg

…Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield, which I thought was hauntingly beautiful, and gets my second five-star rating of 2022. My review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 3rd March.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

9781526612007

… A Still Life by Josie George. As much as I wanted this memoir of chronic illness to be for me, it was not for me. I’m sorry about this, because I know how much Elle and Rebecca liked this book, but I could not get on with the narrative voice, especially in the present-day sections. I’d recommend Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay instead.

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

41whhB9bGgL

… Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui, which was an impulse purchase from Forum Books. I loved Tsui’s exploration of swimming clubs, abalone divers, desperate swims for survival and public pools.

My Favourite Reread This Month Was… 

9780857867971-uk

…A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I named this as one of my favourite books of the decade (2010-19), but I was worried it wouldn’t hold up on a re-read, especially as I didn’t like Ozeki’s latest, The Book of Form and Emptiness. Thankfully, it did. My original review and my most recent thoughts are here.

The Best Sequel I Read This Month Was… 

56179337

… Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather; for me, one of those rare sequels that was actually better than the first book. Sisters of the Vast Black had a brilliant premise, focusing on an order of spacefaring nuns piloting a ‘liveship’, or a ship constructed from the body of a creature that seems to be adapted for this purpose. However, the pacing was off; the last third felt rushed and cliched compared to the thoughtful, contemplative story that preceded it. Sisters of the Forsaken Stars is much better-paced and more morally complex, although there were characters and themes that I thought could still have benefited from more page-time. I would have particularly liked to hear more about Gemma, who left the order in the last book to be with her girlfriend but is still struggling to ‘be in the world’ after years of being a nun, and is especially struggling with physical intimacy. This is the kind of thing we don’t hear much about in fiction, and although all the beats of Gemma’s character growth are present and correct, I just wanted to spend more time living through this with her. Nevertheless, great SFF.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was… 

58536005._SY475_

… Ellery Lloyd’s The Club. After a proliferation of thrillers that place unlikely ‘twists’ above all else, sacrificing characterisation and plausibility for the sake of potentially surprising the reader, The Club was a welcome change. My review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 31st March.

The Book That Grew Most On Me As It Went Along Was… 

9781529118667

… We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan. I was a little dismayed by the first couple of chapters of this debut; the writing felt simplistic and clunky, and characters had a tendency to tell other characters things they would already know. However, as the story unfolded, I started to appreciate the way Zayyan gradually layered complexity onto this unpromising beginning. I especially liked the portrayal of the two central protagonists. Sameer is a lawyer living in England who returns to Uganda to explore his heritage; his family, Ugandan Asians, were forced to flee the country in 1972 (Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill also explores this episode in British colonial history). Interspersed with Sameer’s story are letters from his grandfather, Hasan, written as the crisis unfolds in 1970s Kampala. Both Sameer and Hasan ultimately have to negotiate their positioning between their own exploitation by British colonialists and present-day racists and their relative power compared to black Ugandans; both, arguably, also possess unexamined male privilege. Zayyan does not exult nor condemn either man, but lets the reader see them as they are. This book never quite took off for me because of the problems with its prose, but I admired Zayyan’s depiction of faith, morality and racism.

The Book I Had Most Mixed Feelings About This Month Was… 

9780356515649

…The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, first in a fantasy trilogy set in a world inspired by Indian epics. I loved the three female protagonists, Priya, Malini and Bhumika, and enjoyed the atmospheric and original worldbuilding. But the male PoVs were underdeveloped (the most interesting and complex male character, Aditya, did not get to narrate); for me, this gave the book a stop-start feel, as the pace slowed to a crawl whenever a male character took the stage then sped up again when a female character returned. It’s also overlong, especially towards the end, when an obvious ‘reveal’ is dragged out for all it’s worth, and I never really believed in the romance between Priya and Malini, much as I love lesbian representation.

The Most Forgettable Book I Read This Month Was… 

9780571371303

…These Days by Lucy Caldwell. Set during the devastating Belfast Blitz of 1941, These Days focuses primarily on two middle-class sisters: 21-year-old Audrey, who has recently become engaged and is already having doubts, and 18-year-old Emma, secretly in love with another woman who, like her, works for the ambulance service. Their mother, Florence, also gets a significant sub-plot, as she reflects back on a long-lost love and forward as she wonders whether her life is essentially over: ‘How is it, she sometimes thinks, that this is her life, that here she is, a wife of twenty-two years this September, mother of two adult daughters, of a baby son already matching her for height?… It isn’t, she hastily thinks, that she’s unhappy, nor ungrateful with her lot: just bemused, she supposes, that this has turned out to be it.’ There are also snippets of narration from other characters: most notably, a brilliant, vividly rendered football match from the point-of-view of the sisters’ younger brother, Paul.

These Days is, in some ways, refreshing, and it’s certainly very well-written; not only does it highlight a lesser-known Blitz, but Caldwell’s writing manages to make familiar details from many, many World War Two novels feel immediate again. We feel the sudden loss of whole streets and landmarks and the fear of seeking safety in an air raid shelter that itself becomes a target. I also liked the subtle characterisation of Audrey and Emma, and the way that they are not set against each other. However, in other ways, it’s very familiar; it rehearses some stereotypical tropes about homosexuality, and I found the inclusion of perspectives from outside the family circle distracting. This seemed to be a gesture towards encompassing the working-class as well as the middle-class experience of the Blitz, but became a bit tokenistic. In particular, the narrative arc of ‘Wee Betty’, one of the family’s servants, is very sentimental.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 3rd March.

In the hadal zone: Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield

Beyond this point, there is a final layer… This layer is known as the Hadalpelagic, or Hadal Zone, a name which speaks for itself. Lying between roughly nineteen and thirty-six thousand feet, much of this layer of the water is unexplored, which is not to say uninhabited.

The deep sea is… deep. (If you want to get a sense of just how deep, I can’t recommend this enough, but brace yourself – it’s scary). Miri’s biologist wife Leah has returned home after a deep-sea mission that was supposed to last for three weeks, but took three months. Leah won’t or can’t explain the length of her absence, and when Miri repeatedly calls her employer, the Centre, she remains in an endless loop of recorded messages. Leah’s account of the mission alternates with Miri’s longer sections, as she describes how their submarine began to sink, as planned – and then just kept sinking. With the lights and power off, and the comms broken, they had no way of knowing just how deep they’d fallen – and no way of getting back up.

When I first read about Our Wives Under The Sea, Julia Armfield’s first novel, it sounded like it ticked a lot of my boxes. Deep-sea exploration, lesbians, speculative fiction, horror… plus that haunting cover. However, I couldn’t have anticipated just how much I would love this book. I am officially obsessed. Much as I love this kind of crossover between literary fiction and speculative fiction/horror, I don’t think we should underestimate just how difficult it is to pull off. While I think these two kinds of writing can work so well together (my own novel-in-progress, The Forest That Eats Bonealso occupies this space), some of their demands pull against each other. The kind of concrete explanations for mysterious phenomena that you might get in science fiction, for example, don’t always work well alongside the usual rhythms of literary prose; meanwhile, literary fiction’s penchant for strange metaphor can be confusing in a story where bizarre things are actually happening. Armfield balances this perfectly. We learn just enough about the Centre to root Leah’s mission in the real world, while also positioning it in the realms of the uncanny (in comparison, Jeff VanderMeer’s acclaimed Annihilation drifted too far into unreality for me). Her use of unsettling scientific facts about the deep sea allows what is possible and what is impossible to bleed beautifully into each other.

However, the other thing that anchors this story is the relationship between Miri and Leah. Armfield avoids the temptation of romantic vagueness that seems to catch so many writers of speculative literary fiction and makes them both wonderfully-observed, concretely realistic people. I loved Miri’s stray observations about the Leah she knew before her wife embarked on the mission: ‘The thing about Leah was that nine times out of ten she couldn’t bring herself to be unkind about anyone, but then three times a year would say something so blisteringly cruel about someone we knew that she’d clap both hands to her mouth and turn in a circle as if warding off evil’. Their world, too, is rendered in such fine detail, from the sound of the neighbour’s television that constantly blares into their flat to the way the weather was on their first date: ‘The night was wet, air close and flannel-damp’.

Our Wives Under The Sea is not one of those frustrating literary novels that is simply a metaphor for something else, but it uses the potential of its plot to talk about grief in expertly moving ways. Armfield has written about her interest in women and their bodies’ and this certainly comes through in Our Wives Under The Sea; alongside the weird metamorphosis of Leah’s body after she emerges from the ocean, Miri recollects caring for her mother in the final stages of dementia, and the way she lost control of her own movements after a life of adopting only very rigid facial expressions. The ending of the novel – and this never happens – made me cry.

Armfield’s prose is absolutely stunning, but this is not a novel that is all about the writing. (I wouldn’t love it so much if it was). It’s a gorgeous, heartbreaking book about the relationship between two women and what becomes of that relationship, and it gets a full five stars from me, which is another thing that almost never happens. But I guess stranger things have happened at sea.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 3rd March. BUY IT NOW.

Edit: In my excitement to post this review I forgot to mention that Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim is a wonderful non-fiction companion to Our Wives Under The Sea, if rather less creepy.

41whhB9bGgL