Literary Fiction in Late Spring

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Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise is one of those books I’d heard a great deal about before I picked it up, and I was so intrigued that I put it on my ideal longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (to be honest, even though I didn’t like it, I still wish that it had been longlisted, as it would have shaken things up a bit). The first half of the novel immerses us in heated teen drama at a performing arts school in Houston, focusing on an on/off relationship between students Sarah and David, but also suggesting that a number of the staff are unable to maintain professional boundaries. Afterwards, it does the kind of structural flip that novels like Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry pull off so beautifully – but here, I don’t think it works. I felt completely disengaged from both halves of the novel, and while I can see that Choi is posing questions about who gets to control the narrative, I just didn’t find them very interesting. If anything, after the perspective switches, the side we should take is too obvious and there isn’t enough left for the reader to wrestle with. In one sense, I felt this was an ultra-literary take on a problem that genre writers have been engaging with for decades: who engages the reader’s sympathies and how can writers play with that? It’s also a #MeToo novel, once again written before #MeToo (this interview with Choi is really worth reading, though it has significant spoilers for Trust Exercise) but published at a time when I’m starting to feel that a straightforward take on these themes is becoming too familiar. I loved the idea of a novel called Trust Exercise that demands time and patience from its readers, but I didn’t feel I was repaid.

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I’m not having a lot of luck with experimental literary fiction recently, because Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel didn’t work for me either, although I admired her A Girl Is A Half-Formed ThingLike McBride’s debut, Strange Hotel excels at tracing the precise shifts in a woman’s thought processes; however, her protagonist here is not the chaotic young narrator of Girl but a relatively older woman, in her mid-thirties, who is travelling from hotel room to hotel room in a number of different cities. Her own relationship with herself is much more detached and ironic, and the prose reflects this: ‘She drinks [the wine] down with some considerable relief at outmanoeuvring her travel fatigue… That’s it right now, agitating her veins. Coursing through until the arches of her feet unclench – the most secret pleasure of drinking, she thinks, and unquantifiably nice.’ McBride knows how we become different people when alone in unfamiliar hotel rooms, and the first quarter of the book could be a brilliant short story. There are hints of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation in how this woman secludes herself from the world and seeks the optimum state of intoxication. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it any further, because I couldn’t face spending any more time with the protagonist’s convoluted and depressing voice. I’ll be checking out McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, instead.

Although I found these two novels disappointing, I’ve not had a bad time with all literary fiction this month – I’m completely immersed in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Lightwhich I think is the best of the Cromwell trilogy, and am now almost halfway through! Review to come once I finish, but I’m deliberately taking my time.

Have you read any good literary novels recently?

Belated April ARCs

I feel very sorry for these three April ARCs. Not only have these three authors had to deal with being published in the middle of a global pandemic, they’ve also been personally neglected by me because I was so busy with my Women’s Prize reading. Nevertheless, I’ve finally got round to them, and I have to say that all three are worthwhile – so I hope that they get at least some of the attention that they deserve!

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You People, Nikita Lalwani’s third novel, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2020, though I wish it hadn’t been burdened with such a hideous cover. It’s set in 2003 in an Italian restaurant in London that’s run by Tuli, who enjoys the reputation of being a benefactor to the undocumented migrants and other recent arrivals who work there, many of whom are Tamils from Sri Lanka fleeing civil war. It has two narrators: first, Nia, a nineteen-year-old Welsh waitress who passes for white and privileged and is happy to reap the advantages of that, but whose father was Bengali and who’s refusing to return home so she won’t have to deal with her alcoholic mother. Second, Shan, one of the Sri Lankan refugees, who is desperately seeking to reunite with his wife and child. Lalwani carefully draws the reader into the net that Tuli is weaving, causing us to continuously reassess what we think we know about the situation that Nia and Shan find themselves in. As ever, Lalwani writes so well about complicated moral choices and inhabits each of her characters with sharp empathy, although I didn’t find this novel to be quite as clever or memorable as her brilliant The VillageNevertheless, she creates a complex community of word-of-mouth bargains and secrets, and she’s still streets ahead of many of her contemporaries. I’ll be interested to see how this compares to Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty, which – although it’s set in Sydney – also deals with an undocumented immigrant from Sri Lanka who has to make a difficult ethical decision!

You People was released in the UK on April 2nd. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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C. Pam Zhang’s debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, is set in California at the end  of the Gold Rush of the 1850s. It explores the lives and histories of two young Chinese siblings, Lucy and Sam, as they struggle to survive after the deaths of both their parents. In this, it joins novels like Téa Obreht’s Inland and Philipp Meyer’s The Son in seeking to reimagine white, male myths of the American nineteenth-century ‘pioneer spirit’. The novel starts with the siblings fleeing their home with their Ba’s body packed into a trunk on the back of their mule; it then flashes back so that Ba can relate the last generation of their family’s history; and finally flashes forward five years to a time when Lucy, now seventeen, is trying to become a respectable young woman in town while an absent Sam lives feral.

Unlike some reviewers, I didn’t find this structure especially awkward – for me, the siblings’ futures and pasts were more interesting than their present, so I was glad that Zhang decided to deftly shake it up a bit – but still, this novel doesn’t quite fulfil its ambitions. Both Lucy and Sam are vividly imagined, and yet they’re never given enough space to become totally captivating. Sam’s contested relationship with gender is handled cleverly by Zhang – it can be difficult to position this kind of narrative in a historical setting, but I thought Zhang managed to create a space for Sam that felt like a kind of  queer space that might have existed at the time, even though readers may continue to wonder what modern labels fit the character. However, as Elle points out in her review, Zhang’s refusal to commit to pronouns for Sam makes the writing clunky. Initially, I wondered if this represented Lucy’s own confusion about how to refer to Sam, but as we get sentences like ‘Sam’s hair… reaches just under Sam’s ears’ at the same time as Lucy continually refers to Sam as ‘her’, I didn’t understand why Zhang didn’t choose a set of pronouns, even if these changed later on in the book. The present tense also felt too much like a creative-writing class default setting rather than a deliberate choice. In short, How Much of These Hills Is Gold suffers, like many debut novels, from trying to pack too much into one story, but I’d much rather read something like this than a bland, competent book, and I’ll look out for more from Zhang.

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold was released in the UK on April 9th. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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How To Pronounce Knife, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut collection of short stories, was also one of my most anticipated 2020 titles. All the stories are set in a city that is deliberately unnamed, left sketchy around the edges, although I had the sense from a couple of references that we are somewhere in Canada. All, also, deal with the lives of Lao immigrants and their children, although not all of the stories are primarily about immigration or ethnicity. What I found so impressive about these quiet stories, in fact, is the way that they don’t cluster around one specific theme; Thammavongsa is sharply insightful on a number of registers. Childhood is one of these, and Thammavongsa’s thoughts on writing in the voice of a child are worth reading. The title story, which deals with a small girl trying to navigate between her family’s culture and the world of school, completely gets how frustrating it is for children not to be heard, and how adults continually fail to understand how, when young children are angry about one thing, it’s often something much bigger than just that thing.

However, Thammavongsa takes us into the head of an older woman who has just begun a sexy affair with a much younger man with equal conviction (‘Slingshot’), upturning our received ideas about age, sex, and the way that these attributes structure power dynamics in a relationship. She writes beautifully about how chicken plant worker Red (‘Paris’) only knows one kind of love: ‘that simple, uncomplicated, lonely love one feels for oneself on the quiet moments of the day. It was there, steady and solid in the laughter and talk of the television and with her in the grocery aisles on the weekends’. She vividly details the different work worlds of a man working in a nail salon (‘Mani Pedi’) and a woman picking worms in a field (‘Picking Worms’). Occasionally, a story seems to draw away from its climax rather than landing with the conviction of the others in this collection, and Thammavongsa sometimes goes for an easy emotional beat rather than pressing for something more interesting (‘Her sense of taste comes and goes now’, muses an older woman after having a stroke in ‘You Are So Embarrassing’. ‘Most of the time it all tastes bitter. And all that bitterness in her mouth is hard to swallow.’) However, these are rare missteps in a collection that is otherwise consistently good.

How to Pronounce Knife was released in the UK on April 16th. I received a free copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

If any of these books appeal, and if you’re able to do so, please consider ordering from Hive, from Waterstones, or from your local independent bookshop to support authors and bookshops at this time.

Not The Wellcome Prize 2020: Exhalation and A Good Enough Mother

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Thanks to Annabel for this graphic!

I’m delighted to be taking part in both the blog tour and the judging panel for Not the Wellcome Prize this year, which has been so brilliantly organised by Rebecca Foster of Bookish Beck. As the Wellcome Book Prize, which aims to recognise books that have a  ‘central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness’, is on hiatus this year, we are hoping to fill the gap by highlighting some of the best health-related fiction and non-fiction of 2019, then choosing our own ‘winner’ in May! Be sure to check in with the other stops on the blog tour to see what other books we’ve picked.

I’m excited to showcase two titles on my blog today: Ted Chiang’s latest collection of SF short stories, Exhalation, and Bev Thomas’s debut psychological thriller, A Good Enough Mother. These two books are very different from each other, but share common concerns about parenting, childhood and a ‘healthy’ upbringing.

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I was utterly gripped by Exhalation when it first appeared in July 2019 (as was Barack Obama, who said that it ‘will make you think, grapple with big questions, and feel more human. The best kind of science fiction’.) It was one of my top ten books of 2019 and contains one of my favourite short stories of all time. You can read my full review of Exhalation here, but for the purposes of this blog post, I thought I’d focus on one novella in this collection that seems to me to be especially concerned with themes of medicine, health and illness.

‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines a world where ‘digients’, virtual, teachable pets who seem to operate on the level of a chimp with language skills, have been created, and examines the ethical issues that this introduces. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator, Ana, among them, who’ve formed real emotional bonds with their virtual creatures and are trying to find a way for them to live better lives. Because of this, this novella asks questions about what is healthy for both the digients and their owners; is it fair to keep the digients ‘alive’ when they have minimal social interaction and are often unhappy, but on the other hand, how can it be right to ‘kill’ a sentient being simply because you’ve got bored with it? A lot of owners start to ‘suspend’ their digients as a compromise solution, but this unsurprisingly unsettles the digients when they find out they’ve missed whole chunks of time.

The story continually plays with the analogy between digients and human children, up to the point when their owners have to decide whether to let their ‘teenage’ digients be recoded as sexual beings, and which, early on, is made explicit when one of Ana’s friends gets pregnant and tells her ‘People always say that we’re evolved to want babies, and I used to think that was a bunch of crap, but not anymore… Cats, dogs, digients, they’re all just substitutes for what we’re supposed to be caring for.’ Indeed, one of Chiang’s points in this novella is that ‘healthy’ AIs will need to be brought up like human children: ‘The years [Ana] spent raising Jax… gave him… fluency at navigating the real world, creativity at solving new problems, judgement you could entrust with an important decision. Every quality that made a person more valuable than a database was a product of experience.’ Chiang writes in his ‘Story Notes’ that ‘based on our experience with human minds, it takes at least twenty years of steady effort to produce a useful person.’ I’d challenge the idea that children and adolescents can’t be creative, resourceful or trustworthy, but the overall point is one worth making.

Nevertheless, I felt there was a darker message about the biological need for creating children that Ana’s friend talks about early in the story buried in ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’. One of the major obstacles for the digients and their owners in this novella is the obsolescence of the digital platform on which the digients were living their social lives, and the need for new coding to allow them to continue to interact with digients who run on other servers. While Chiang is delightfully good at teasing out the specifics of this situation, it also has symbolic weight; is it right to create new people who will be born into a world that is becoming unfit for purpose? As ever, Chiang doesn’t offer answers, but he poses some major questions.

Other stories in this collection that, in my opinion, have something to say about health, medicine and illness are ‘Exhalation’, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’.

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Way back in October 2018, I was lucky enough to hear Bev Thomas discuss this novel, which was published in March 2019, at the Durham Book Festival. Thomas previously worked as a clinical psychologist, and her expertise is evident in the very title of this novel, which is drawn from the work of the post-war child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who published a number of popular childrearing guides as well as becoming a regular feature on BBC radio. Winnicott asserted that mothers should not worry too much about making ‘mistakes’ with their children, saying that ‘The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.’ In his popular texts, he built on this by writing that mothers would instinctively know what their infants needed, and did not need to rely on external expertise. As I’ve argued, this may have been intended to reassure mothers (coincidentally, Winnicott was reacting against the strict inter-war ‘behaviourist’ ideas that Chiang satirises in Exhalation, in his story ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’!)  but, in practice, left many feeling inadequate because their parental instincts did not seem to have kicked in and they would have liked some outside help.

So, what does this mean for Thomas’s novel (other than setting it up with a title that feels pretty sinister to me!)? The book focuses on Ruth Hartland, a professional psychotherapist who is haunted by her missing son, Tom, who disappeared a year and a half ago. As she starts treating a new patient, Dan, she can’t shake the fact that he reminds her strongly of Tom, and her increasing inability to separate the two men leads her into tragedy. A Good Enough Mother functions perfectly as a gripping psychological thriller, but is much more thought-provoking than the average thriller about therapy (or indeed than the approximately two million other thrillers that deal with missing children). We see that Ruth has never felt she was a ‘good enough mother’ to Tom, despite the supposedly soothing nature of Winnicott’s advice; Tom always struggled to separate from her and she worries that she did not encourage him to become independent. Now that they are completely apart, she can only guess how he’s navigating the world by himself. This theme is especially highlighted by the fact that Tom is a twin, which – although he and his more confident sister are obviously fraternal rather than identical – makes Ruth strain even harder to understand why her two children are so different. Ruth’s gradual emotional breakdown felt utterly convincing, and this is a hugely promising debut. (Incidentally, it also gets the thumbs up from my mum!)

Make sure to check out the other great books featured on our blog tour! 

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Have you read anything recently that deals particularly well with themes of health, medicine and/or illness?

The Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist, 2020

I have now read fifteen of the sixteen titles longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and, having read Hilary Mantel’s previous two Cromwell novels, I have a pretty clear idea of how The Mirror and The Light is going to pan out. (I didn’t want to rush through it before the longlist was announced, but I have a beautiful hardback copy waiting for me!) THEREFORE, it’s time to present my own personal shortlist wish list. Which is:

Honourable mention: Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.

This is a strange set of picks for me, because books that I thought definitely wouldn’t be strong enough to make the shortlist when it was first announced (e.g. Queenie, Djinn Patrol) have risen up the ranks simply because many of the other longlisted titles were so disappointing. This is definitely the weakest Women’s Prize longlist I’ve read since I seriously started following the Prize, and not only that, it’s depressingly repetitive; too many family sagas, too many books about women, war and rape, another classical retelling.

Nevertheless, the six books above are all solid reads that I’d enthusiastically recommend, and here’s why I chose each of them:

The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel. As I admitted above, I have not yet read this third instalment in her Tudor trilogy, but it’s going to be EPIC. I reviewed Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies here.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. We all know this is an excellent novel, narrated by twelve black* British* women (*one of whom identifies as non-binary, one of whom believes herself to be white), and telling the long histories of black people and of black feminism in Britain. I’d be shocked if it didn’t make the longlist.

Weather by Jenny Offill. I was unexpectedly blown away by this slender book that follows Lizzie, a librarian who is musing fearfully and hilariously about the future. Offill writes brilliantly, but she also traces Lizzie’s thought processes with terrifying skill.

How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee. This compelling narrative jumps between Singapore during the Second World War and at the beginning of the twenty-first century to tell the harrowing but humanised story of Wang Di, who is forced into sex slavery in a Japanese military brothel.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara. Narrated by a nine-year-old boy who lives in the slums of New Delhi, this debut novel has some flaws, but it ultimately won me over with its clever use of urban legend and its devastating emotional impact. This is one of the few novels on the longlist that I won’t forget.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. Billed as a fun read, this debut has unexpected depths as it deals with the misogynoir Queenie experiences as she looks for love as a young black woman in London. It satisfyingly reinvents the chick lit genre, and its witty originality puts it streets ahead of most of the longlist.

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

My logic, in order of certainty:

  • I think both The Mirror and The Light and Girl, Woman, Other are dead certs. I know that Girl, Woman, Other already won the Booker, but given that this was somewhat overshadowed by Evaristo’s controversial joint win with Atwood, I think the Women’s Prize will leap at the chance to recognise her again. And it’s a great book!
  • I’m almost as certain that Hamnet will be shortlisted. I think the Women’s Prize are belatedly waking up to the fact that they’ve ignored Maggie O’Farrell all these years, and this novel has received a lot of critical acclaim and attention.
  • Weather is so painfully relevant, and its length sets off the blockbusters on this list nicely. It’s also very obviously different to a lot of the other longlistees.
  • I wasn’t a huge fan of Dominicanabut after the furore over American Dirt, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Prize wanted to honour a Latina writer.
  • I hate family sagas, but the judges clearly love them, so at least one will be on the shortlist. As there are quite a few big hitters on this imagined shortlist, they might be tempted to go for something that’s more left-field than The Dutch House or Fleishman Is In Trouble, and I wonder if that might be Red At The Bone, even though I thought it was completely forgettable.

Edit 22/4/20: The actual shortlist is here!

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First thoughts: I’m extremely chuffed to have predicted five out of six of the shortlistees, which is my best hit rate ever for any prize list. I’m obviously less pleased that only three of the titles I wanted made it to the shortlist, especially as this had the corollary of making this a less diverse shortlist than last year’s. In particular, I think Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared was cheated of a spot, especially as I feel like it deserves more attention.

However, I’m not devastated to see any of these titles on the shortlist. (I would have been very cross if any of Girl, Nightingale Point, Red at the Bone or The Most Fun We Ever Had had made it). I’m closest to being annoyed about the presence of A Thousand Ships, which I thought had serious structural problems, despite some very strong individual chapters. I also think that it would have had to have been superb to justify the Prize shortlisting another Greek myth retelling, and it really isn’t. But I guess my biggest misgiving about this book is that it’s so on-the-nose about how it wants to ‘tell the untold story of the women of the Trojan war’, which is (a) not untold, even by classical authors (b) often not actually told by this novel, e.g. Penelope’s chapters focus on Odysseus, and (c) not really something I want to see the Women’s Prize rewarding, because I want to read great fiction by women, not fiction that won’t let us forget about its Important Feminist Purpose. But having said that, A Thousand Ships is certainly not devoid of literary merit.

The other thing about this shortlist is that it feels like there are only three books from it that can actually win the Prize, which is a bit weird. I’d be amazed if anything other than The Mirror and the Light, Girl, Woman, Other or Hamnet took it in September. Personally, I’ll be backing one of the first two.

 I’ll post again once I’ve read The Mirror and The Light with my final ranking order and hopes/predictions for the winner.

What do you think of the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist?

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My reviews of the fifteen titles I’ve read can be found at these links: Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We DisappearedA Thousand ShipsHamnet; Actress; WeatherFleishman Is In Trouble; Red at the Bone; The Most Fun We Ever Had.

I’ve really enjoyed reading along this year with other bloggers who are following the Women’s Prize, especially Callum, Rachel, Hannah, EmilyMarija and Gilana

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Red at the Bone and The Most Fun We Ever Had

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I’m not really sure what to say about Red at the Bone, Jacqueline Woodson’s second novel for adults. Its prose is competent and I enjoyed the warmth that Woodson brings to her characters, but I have rarely read anything that felt so pointless. This pocket-sized family saga ostensibly centres on sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming of age ceremony at her affluent African-American grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone in 2001, but is really focused on the previous generations, flicking between point-of-view chapters from Melody’s immediate relatives. Melody’s mother, Iris, became pregnant with her when she was only fifteen, and in a satisfying reversal of the usual teen pregnancy plot (I’ll give Woodson points for this), found it difficult to deal with her unwanted responsibilities, leaving her ex-boyfriend, Aubrey, to step up to fatherhood. While Iris escapes to college at Oberlin, Aubrey and Melody form a deep and loving bond. We also hear from the two different sides of the family, discovering that Sabe’s mother and grandparents fled from the 1921 Tulsa massacre, and that Aubrey’s own mother died shortly after Melody’s birth. And that’s pretty much it, except for the introduction of an unexpected external event at the end of the novel which felt not only melodramatic but downright peculiar; as if it had accidentally escaped from a different kind of book altogether. If you ignore its final few pages, there’s nothing terribly wrong with Red at the Bone, but as a number of other reviewers have commented, it’s infinitely forgettable.

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The Most Fun We Ever Had, Claire Lombardo’s debut novel, is also a family saga that features teenage pregnancy, but it’s almost three times as long as Red At The Bone and nearly as pointless. Set in Chicago, this novel follows Marilyn and David Sorenson and their four adult daughters through a turbulent year as their second oldest daughter reveals that she once had a baby, Jonah, that she gave up for adoption, and that he’s now a homeless teenager who’s been unceremoniously dumped back into their lives. I’d been told that Fleishman Is In Trouble was about a group of unlikeable people, but the Sorensons easily win that contest; none of them appear to have any redeeming features whatsoever except perhaps the two youngest daughters, Lisa and Grace, and even then, I had problems with both characters. The parents project an image of a close, romantic couple who care deeply for their children, but their family is blinkered by privilege, horrible to anybody who doesn’t fit their precise standards of what is acceptable, and almost as nasty to each other. A cleverer novelist like Lionel Shriver would have torn this apart, but Lombardo’s writing just bobs along. I believe she’s aware of how unpleasant her characters are – indeed, Jonah’s presence in the novel seems to have been engineered to give us an outside perspective on these people – but she never does anything with it. I actually found this quite a fun, trashy read (I enjoyed reading it much more than Red At The Bone) so I guess in that sense, it does have a point, but it’s not a novel that should be anywhere near prize lists.

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. These are numbers fourteen and fifteen. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We DisappearedA Thousand ShipsHamnet; Actress; Weather; and Fleishman Is In Trouble.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Fleishman Is In Trouble

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I’ve rarely read so many reviews of a novel before reading it as I had for Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut, Fleishman Is In Trouble, which has attracted a lot of mainstream acclaim but has also come in for a good deal of criticism, especially from the blogging community. The novel focuses principally on Toby Fleishman, a hepatologist living in New York who has recently separated from his wife, Rachel, and is trying to juggle the care of his two pre-teen children with his unexpectedly exciting explorations of internet dating apps when Rachel goes missing. Toby has a clear narrative of why his marriage failed. Rachel was too focused on her career, he thinks, never had enough time for him and the kids, and not-so-secretly despised the fact that he preferred focusing on patient care to seeking promotion within his field. However, two-thirds of the way through this novel, we hear a little more of Rachel’s side of the story, and see how Toby – and Rachel – may have been deliberately deceiving themselves.

In a number of ways, Fleishman Is In Trouble is a mess. Firstly, it utilises a totally unnecessary framing device where, however hard you thematically squint at it, you can’t quite see why it was needed. The novel is technically narrated by Libby, an old college friend of Toby’s, and there’s some suggestion that she may have made a great deal of this up, given that she obviously doesn’t have access to Toby and Rachel’s inner thoughts, and is toying with the idea of writing a novel about her friend group. Secondly, the flip from Toby to Rachel doesn’t quite make sense, structurally, partly because it occurs so late in the novel and partly because a lot of this final section still focuses on Toby.  This is counterbalanced by the fact that Brodesser-Akner skilfully signals to us that Toby is an unreliable narrator, so we’ve already been reading between the lines of his narrative before we actually reach the ‘Rachel’ section of the novel, but this structural choice highlights the fact that the first two sections are just too long.

Nevertheless, I found myself unexpectedly warming to this novel in a way I’d never expected to warm to a literary novel about the breakdown of a marriage among New York’s privileged elite. I’d expected it to be a simplistic exposé of how awful a person Toby is, but Brodesser-Akner writes both Toby and Rachel as blinkered and selfish. Toby doesn’t get that, while he receives all the kudos for being such a hands-on dad, Rachel is still doing a huge amount of organisational work to make sure her children’s lives run smoothly behind the scenes, even if she doesn’t pick the kids up from school. Rachel is desperate to live an affluent, aspirational lifestyle and convinces herself that Toby wants this too, and that he’s selfish for forcing her to be the higher earner; however, Toby seems pretty content to live within his means, pointing out that as a doctor in a respected specialism, his salary is not exactly low. The crux of this novel, I think, occurs when Toby is standing by the bedside of a dying patient, reflecting on how her husband has both stayed by her side since she was hospitalised and has been cheating on her: ‘Toby watched him, unable to reconcile any of this. Was he a piece of shit or did he love his wife? Was he having an affair with her friend, who helped break up the marriage? Were we all everything?’

While not telling the reader who we are meant to sympathise with, and recognising that we are all sometimes terrible and sometimes exceptional people, might seem like a low bar for a novel to clear, I don’t think many writers approach this project with as much seriousness as Brodesser-Akner does in Fleishman Is In Trouble. Even when certain characters are allowed to not be all one thing or another, writers often signal to us who we should really be invested in. And perhaps this helps to explain the tangle of the framing narrative and the clunky structure of the novel as a whole; Brodesser-Akner is truly determined that we shouldn’t be able to fall back on easy judgments. Whenever we think we know whose ‘side’ we’re on, she executes another about-turn. I can’t totally agree that this novel was one of the must-read books of 2019, but I can see why it’s attracted so many different hot takes.

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

Quotidian horrors: The Bass Rock

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Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock was probably my most eagerly anticipated title of the last couple of years. Her second novel, All The Birds, Singingwith its insanely clever backwards structure, was one of my top ten books of the decade; I put The Bass Rock on my4.5 star challenge before it even had a cover because I was so sure I was going to love it. So, perhaps it could never have lived up to such high expectations, and yet I do feel a little disappointed. Before I go any further, I should say that The Bass Rock is absolutely a good novel, and it was utterly cheated by not making the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist (especially given the dubious quality of many of the titles that were longlisted). Wyld is an incredible writer, and, line-by-line, there is nothing about this book that is a letdown. However, it’s made me reflect on what I want from a novel that is really going to blow me away: and I guess I’ve concluded that I put a higher premium on originality – both in terms of structure, and content – than perhaps other readers do. Quite apart from the brilliant structural tricks that Wyld played in All The Birds, I loved its unusual setting – the protagonist, a woman called Jake, spends a good chunk of the novel as a sheep-shearer in the Australian outback – and the way that Wyld experiments with horror tropes. Nevertheless, The Bass Rock totally succeeds in everything that it sets out to do, and it is a bit unfair to be cross at it simply because it isn’t All The Birds.

The Bass Rock, like its predecessor, also takes a slightly experimental structure; the vast majority of the novel is divided between three narratives, linked by place rather than by person. Viv, in the present day, is house-sitting in the shadow of the Bass Rock, a looming presence off the Scottish coast. Ruth, in the 1950s, has just moved into the same house, navigating her relationship with Peter and his two teenage sons, who are having a turbulent time at boarding school. Finally, in the early 1700s, a woman flees for her life into the surrounding woods after she is accused of being a witch. Usually, novels that use dual or triple narratives tie them together tightly – a common trope (much disliked by me) is the person researching their family history – but, although certain links emerge, Wyld is brave enough to let these three strands stand in parallel. While I thought this aspect of the novel worked, I still found that I was constantly wishing to return to Ruth’s story, which felt by far the strongest of the three. I hate to say it, but aimless millennial narrators like Viv are starting to irritate me; she’s an old millennial, but she still fits into a groove that I feel has become increasingly worn. Meanwhile, the early modern witch-hunt felt flat and familiar.

It’s when we’re spending time with Ruth that the book really shines; the way that it traces the quotidian trauma of male violence, and how easily it can become an everyday experience. While all three stories are, of course, concerned with patriarchal power, its threads are seen most clearly in the mundane horrors of Ruth’s world; the predatory local vicar, the boys’ abusive boarding school, how Ruth’s own husband quietly oppresses her, the silencings and smothering of other girls and women. Somehow, Wyld manages to nail not just how violence works but how we come to take it for granted. She doesn’t allow us to judge these characters from outside (of course he’s an abuser; of course that’s rape) but forces us to enter into their heads and understand how difficult it is for them to see things clearly. Her take on this theme is one of the best that I’ve ever seen in fiction, and that alone makes The Bass Rock worth reading.

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