2021 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2021 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2021, not necessarily first published in 2021.

Highly Commended

 In prize lists, I loved Annabel Lyon’s Consentwhich should have made the Women’s Prize shortlist – and Richard Powers’s Bewildermentwhich did make the Booker Prize shortlist.

The new Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You, was massively overhyped, but it was easily my favourite Rooney so far – I loved her clever use of psychic distance, switching between an observer’s view of her characters to their innermost thoughts.

In science fiction and speculative fiction, I thought the writing team behind James S.A. Corey pulled off a hugely satisfying conclusion to The Expanse series with the final instalment, Leviathan Falls – this series stuttered a bit in the middle but the last three books were all great, and Corey effectively tied up all the loose ends while wisely leaving the ‘dark gods’ of the universe still mysterious. Tade Thompson’s Far From the Light of Heaven was a hugely inventive space-opera-cum-crime-thriller with touches of horror. Will Maclean’s The Apparition Phase was a brilliant ghost story, something that is almost impossible to achieve at novel-length. Finally, Nina Allan’s short story collection The Art of Space Travel showcased what I love best about her writing in haunting stories such as ‘Flying in the Face of God’, ‘Four Abstracts’ and ‘The Art of Space Travel’ itself.

In historical fiction, I was pleasantly surprised by Stacey Halls’s engaging Mrs Englandwhich had one of the dreaded floral covers but actually featured a complex, sympathetic protagonist who works as a Norland nanny in Edwardian England. Meanwhile, everything this damning review says about Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary is true (except that Cambridge does offer a masters degree in eighteenth-century and Romantic studies – that’s Cambridge being weird, not Penner!). Nevertheless, I found it irresistibly fun and gripping, so I guess I recommend it anyway, if you can deal with the terrible history?

Finally, in YA and YA-adjacent, I liked Angeline Boulley’s Firekeeper’s Daughter (one of my most anticipated reads of 2021) despite its pacing problems and tendency to spell things out for the reader – it follows an Ojibwe teenager who’s an unenrolled tribal member, and so feels she’s never quite fit into her family. Emily Layden’s All Girls gave me Prep vibes (amazing), and was serious and insightful about the inner worlds of teenage girls (rare). I picked up T. Kingfisher’s Bryony and Roses after loving her short story in Escape Pod; this Beauty and the Beast retelling is heavily influenced by Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter, but still brings its own wit and logic to the table, plus a nicely chilling touch of horror.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations. I have to say, there were a lot of disappointments in 2021. For whatever reason, this was a pretty lacklustre reading year for me. So this list is longer than normal.

I was disappointed by quite a few books written by authors I’ve loved in the past. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun promised a fresh take on AI but was just a tired rehash of Never Let Me Go. Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness drowned in its own tweeness about literature, despite a promising central cast. And Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew abandoned all the subtlety of Elmet for Dickensian caricatures.

Elizabeth Macneal’s Circus of Wonders unfortunately didn’t live up to her excellent debut, The Doll FactoryJessie Greengrass’s The High House had none of the originality of Sight. Mark O’Connell’s Notes From an Apocalypse was only mildly disappointing compared to his To Be A Machine until I reached the end, where he admits he regularly lies to his young son about the state of the world – this is horrific (children know what’s going on, so lying to them just leaves them alone with their fears). Sarah Moss’s The Fell confirmed to me that I don’t like the direction her writing is currently going. Finally, after loving Kindred so much, I did not get on at all with Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, although some of this was not Butler’s fault – so many YA writers have clearly copied her dystopian tropes that they now feel cliched in a way they wouldn’t have done when the book was originally published. Still, I found the heroine disturbingly monomaniacal and the diary entry format limiting.

At least some of this must be me, rather than the books! But I think it explains why 2021 felt like such a dud of a reading year, even though I also read many books that I loved. On that note…

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2021!

More #NovellasInNovember: Kashimada and Serpell

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I looked forward to reading this collection of two novellas in translation from the Japanese writer Maki Kashimada (trans. Haydn Trowell) back in January 2021. I have to admit, part of the attraction was the cover; this design from Europa Editions is simply gorgeous. However, I’ve liked a lot of Japanese novellas and short novels in recent years, and was excited to try a writer new to me. And I enjoyed the first and longer novella in this collection, Touring the Land of the Dead, a lot. It’s an introspective third-person piece that focuses on Natsuko, who is accompanying her disabled husband Taichi to a spa hotel she used to visit with her family in her childhood. Natsuko’s family shun and jeer at Taichi for not being able to support Natsuko. However, as Natsuko’s mind darts between past and present, we learn that ‘that life’, her past with her mother and brother, was a place of horror for her, and she is still trying to shrug them off in the present. Natsuko’s striving to become her own person in the face of family expectations is a familiar theme from much Japanese fiction written by women that I’ve read, but Kashimada puts a different slant on it. As we come to realise, Natsuko has already got out, but can’t quite credit that she’s escaped.

The second novella in this collection, Ninety-Nine Kisses, is very different in style and tone. It’s narrated in first person by the youngest of four sisters, Nanako. Her three older sisters remain unmarried and living at home with their mother, and we come to realise that Nanako sees them as parts of the same whole, and is sexually possessive over them, although she denies their relationship is incestuous. As the novella develops, we realise there is something off-kilter about the whole family, who pride themselves on being able to engage in ‘dirty talk’ with each other as a sign of their closeness. This is undoubtedly a weird and disturbing story, but I didn’t find that to be a problem in itself; instead, the style didn’t work for me because it felt like everything was spelt out as explicitly as possible. There’s a sense that Kashimada wants to shock here with blatant sexual content, but this overshadowed the more interesting aspects of the relationship between the four sisters, and made it feel like nothing changed or emerged over the course of the novella, because it was all there from the beginning.

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(Technically, this is a short collection of essays rather than a novella, but it’s also Non-Fiction November, so…)

I put Stranger Faces on my 2021 TBR after being hugely impressed by Namwali Serpell’s essay on empathy in fiction. Serpell is a professor of English at Harvard, so it’s no surprise that these short essays on faces as signifiers have an academic bent. All have moments of real, accessible insight, but most use an interpretive framework that feels a little alien to somebody like me, who’s used to reading texts either as a historian or as an ‘ordinary reader’, whatever that is, rather than being trained in film or literary criticism. Serpell’s interested in how texts, both written and visual, are put together, excavating their juxtapositions and shots for layers of meaning, whereas I tend to think of texts in terms of story structure and unreliable narration. For example, ‘Mop head’, her analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the murder of Marion Crane, focuses heavily on the visual doubling that transfers the viewer’s interest from Marion to her sister Lila, whereas I’m more interested in thinking about Marion as a decoy protagonist and how this affects the storytelling (although unlike Serpell, I’m certainly no expert on Psycho!)

Both our sets of interests come together in ‘Two-faced’, Serpell’s essay on Hannah Crafts’ ‘The Bondwoman’s Narrative’, a novel that may have been written between 1853 and 1861 by an enslaved woman. If this book was really written by an escaped female slave, it would be the ‘only known novel written by a fugitive from slavery and the first by an African-American woman.’ However, as Serpell outlines, since this text was republished in 2002, academics have fiercely debated its ‘authenticity’, with some arguing that it was written by a white abolitionist. Serpell points out the anachronistic claims made by critics such as John Bloom, who argued that the text could not really have been written by an enslaved woman because of its multiple literary references and sophisticated vocabulary, which ignores the erudition of former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Phyllis Wheatley.  However, she also deconstructs our assumptions about what makes a text ‘real’ or ‘fake’, highlighting Karen Sánchez-Eppler’s argument that no text can be truly pure, and that our instinctive assumptions about ‘tells’ that reveal a text’s authorship are often wrong (Crafts’ class snobbery has been cited by critics as a sign that Crafts must have been white and as a sign she must have been black). This reminded me, incidentally, of the female reviewer who thought Jane Eyre must have been written by a man because the writer had such a poor knowledge of women’s clothes.

Although I admired ‘Two-faced’, the real gem here is ‘E-faced’, the final essay in Stranger Faces, which I absolutely loved. ‘E-faced’ focuses on emoji, and while I’m sure Serpell is not the first writer to analyse emoji, this is the first serious piece on them I’ve read, and I found it fascinating. Serpell points out that emoji were intended to clarify meaning but, like all languages, have developed shifting and uncertain meanings of their own. She also thinks about how we use emoji – often ‘stacking’ them, posting multiple emoji in one go – and how emoji are almost always unnecessary, but add a kind of warmth to a message (which I guess makes sense of why I, personally, so often add a pointless one to the end of a text, e.g. ‘Hope you have a good time at the party!’ 🎉) There are also some great bits of trivia. Wittgenstein experimented with ‘proto-emoji’ in his ‘Lectures on Aesthetics’ in the late 1930s, arguing that simplified drawings of expressions could make language more flexible and more precise. And the word ’emoji’ has nothing to do with e- as in electronic or emo- as in emotion, but comes from the Japanese words (picture) and moji (character). Interesting stuff! 👍

Sci-Fi Novellas for #SciFiMonth #NovellasinNovember

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Premee Mohamed’s These Lifeless Things is a dystopian novella that switches between the diary entries of Eva, a forty-something survivor of an apocalyptic attack, and the first-person point-of-view of Emerson, an anthropologist studying the ruins of her city fifty years later. Eva refers to the monsters that have devastated the world only as ‘Them’, and both narrators struggle to understand what they truly are/were: they don’t seem to be aliens who hail from the same kind of time and space as we do, nor beings that have emerged from Earth itself. The narrative chillingly hints at Their ability to affect human minds themselves, with millions committing suicide at the beginning of the invasion. In Emerson’s time, They have disappeared without a trace, but Emerson is convinced that her research is essential to understand what happened during the three years now known as ‘the Setback’. However, her colleagues in the hard sciences aren’t convinced, and tell her she is wasting her time studying Eva’s diary, even when what she finds in the ruins starts to mirror what Eva described.

I found These Lifeless Things to be an adept and skilful read, but it didn’t affect me in the ways I’d hoped. There was something in the way the story was told that made me expect more of a twist, or perhaps more of a sudden linkage between Eva’s world and Emerson’s. Unless I’ve been too stupid to miss subtle clues, this doesn’t really happen. Instead, Eva’s story devolves into a cliched -let’s-rescue-the-children plot, and Emerson’s frustrations with her colleagues are spelt out rather too clearly at the end of the novella when she bursts out: ‘you think there has to be an application for things we study? You think everything has to end up in some… lab somewhere, a product for people to buy. Well, I happen to think there are other questions in the world.’ The novella wasn’t quite as scary as I had hoped, either, despite some good lines about statues coming to life and trees being possessed by Them. I found Emerson’s sections much more engaging than Eva’s diary entries (but then I love fictional anthropologists and hate diary entries as a narrative device, so that was pretty inevitable) and I found myself wondering if this might not have been better, and more frightening, if it had been told completely from Emerson’s point of view, with perhaps quoted snippets from Eva’s entries. (Interestingly, Eva’s close alliance with another survivor in the face of this devastation reminded me of Sarah Hall’s pandemic novel Burntcoatbut I wasn’t sure what it added here). However, I would certainly read more by Mohamed.

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That was the dystopia, now for the utopia! I loved Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series and her previous novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate, so her latest novella, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, was one of my most anticipated 2021 releases. Chambers’s brand of sci-fi is often described as cozy or comforting, but I think at its best, it’s optimistic; there are certainly darker strands in all of her previous work, such as the enslaved clones in A Close and Common Orbit or the horrific experience of having your ship buried in alien slugs in To Be Taught, If Fortunate. For me, then, A Psalm for the Wild-Built marks a bit of a departure; dedicated ‘to anyone who needs a break’, it is cozy to the max. Non-binary* monk, Sibling Dex, leaves their job tending the monastery garden to become an itinerant tea-monk, dispensing tea and advice as they travel around, but even this new life starts to feel limiting. When they strike out into the wilderness where the robots that humans made disappeared after the ‘Factory Age’, they meet robot Mosscap, and wander around with Mosscap chatting about life and humanity.

And… that’s it. I love positive visions of the future after endless recycled dystopias, but this felt so thin. It reads more like children’s fiction than anything else, but without the profundity and timelessness that the best children’s fiction delivers. The characters’ voices are far too similar for a novella that promises a meeting of two beings from very different worlds, and this makes their philosophical dialogue feel especially contrived. In general, I think Chambers’ meditations on ethics are original and engaging, but she doesn’t manage to make them feel organic in this story. By the end, I wished we had just stayed with Dex handing out different kinds of tea to suffering people; that’s the kind of cozy I could possibly suspend my critical faculties for.

*I’m not sure if this is the right term in this futuristic context – Dex describes themselves as ‘not having a gender’, while other people in this world do use gendered titles and pronouns.

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As the hip-hop group clipping explain in their afterword to The Deep, this novella emerges from a collaborative creative space. clipping were inspired by the music of techno-electronic duo Drexciya to write their song, ‘The Deep’, which drew from the same mythology – an underwater world peopled by the descendants of enslaved, pregnant African women who were thrown overboard from slave ships. Solomon’s novella is another link in this chain, and I loved the way clipping described their contribution: ‘It’s a retelling that reaches back to the materials it adapts, and complicates them; makes them better. In this sense, Rivers has coauthored our song in as profound a way as we have inspired this book.’ I also liked the way clipping rejected the concept of this universe having a fixed ‘canon’: ‘We prefer to imagine each of these objects as artefacts – as primary sources – each showing a different angle on a world whose nature can never be observed in totality’. The Deep, therefore, draws from an incredibly rich imaginative space, telling a story about historical suffering, and who has to bear its weight. Its protagonist, Yetu, has been selected by the community as its ‘historian’, carrying these memories so the community doesn’t have to, but bringing them back together through the ritual of the Remembering so they retain their identity as a people.

The Deep is a portrait of Yetu and her community, who call themselves the wajinru, and so it is not, and does not need to be, plot-driven. Solomon evokes the deep underwater world of the wajinru atmospherically, as well as the ways they have developed away from their original human forms. However, given the nature of this novella, this fascinating world really needed to be matched by exceptional writing, and unfortunately, here it fell a bit short. Solomon’s prose wasn’t distinctive or memorable enough for me, and there is a tendency to spell things out that could have been more subtly conveyed, especially when it comes to Yetu’s internal struggles about her role as historian, which become quite repetitive: ‘She wasn’t used to having wants and needs of her own at all. It had always been a battle between what the wajinru needed, what the ancestors needed, and what she needed. A single lonely girl, her own needs never won.’ Thematically, The Deep is brilliant; it takes the central concept of Lois Lowry’s The Giver and thinks about it specifically in the context of the burden of memory that oppressed groups carry, and it also reminded me of the figure of Arha in Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, whose personal identity is ‘eaten’ by the Nameless Ones. But for this to work for me as a fiction rather than merely an exploration of ideas, it needed something else, something more.

More Nuns in Novels: Matrix by Lauren Groff

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Lauren Groff’s Matrix was my most anticipated book of 2021. I was captivated by the synopsis: ‘seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey… at first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions.’ I was also intrigued as to how a writer like Groff, who has only written very contemporary fiction before, would handle the distant twelfth-century past; I hoped this would avoid the ponderousness that drags down a lot of historical fiction, and lead to more freedom and inventiveness with the subject-matter. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m also obsessed with novels about nuns at the moment: current favourites include Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede (modern) and Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts (early modern). Could Matrix possibly live up to all these expectations?

The answer is: yes, almost! Groff’s novel returns to a lot of the themes that novels about women’s religious communities are well-placed to explore: female solidarity, solitude, duty, sexuality. Unlike Godden’s and Dunant’s novels – which have protagonists, but which are very much ensemble stories – Groff focuses completely on the dominant figure of Marie herself, and how she transforms the abbey in her own image. (Marie has at least one historical counterpart; I knew nothing about this when I read the novel, so it didn’t affect my experience of it, but these Goodreads reviews – one negative and one positive! – give good background if you’re interested: Review 1; Review 2). Marie is both this novel’s strength and its weakness. Groff, refreshingly, isn’t interested in depicting women who get their comeuppance for exercising power, and while there are twists and turns in Marie’s life, she remains fiercely defiant. There’s more than a trace of Nicola Griffith’s Hild in her exceptional stature and intelligence. However, by exalting Marie, Groff misses the opportunity to more fully explore the lives of the other nuns and novices – and so presents a less interesting and less complex version of the convent as social community than do Godden and Dunant. She also goes full throttle on lesbian nuns, which – while I’m never going to complain there are too many lesbians in a book – focuses very much on sex between women rather than other aspects of close romantic attachment, and feels a bit like it was dropped in to be daring.

This also emerges in the way that Matrix is written. Groff skips across great swathes of years very quickly, relating the progress of the abbey to Marie’s own life, and particularly to her own biological ageing, as she suffers with painful periods and then with an early menopause. Even dramatic incidents don’t hold the pace back for too long; we are always moving forward. I thought that this worked beautifully in telling Marie’s own story, but again, less well in capturing the everyday texture of life at the abbey. There are also odd lacunae; I wanted to know more about how Marie initially resigned herself to the convent, and her turn to her Marian faith. All in all, this is not the best novel about nuns I’ve read, but it’s certainly one to add to reading lists.

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

Booker Prize 2021: Bewilderment and Great Circle

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Astrobiologist Theo Byrne spends his time looking for life on other planets but is most concerned about the welfare of his nine-year-old son, Robin. Since Theo’s wife and Robin’s mother, Alyssa, died two years ago, Robin has struggled at school and with life in general, and Theo has come under increasing pressure to accept a psychological diagnosis for his son and put him on meditation. Instead, Theo turns to an experimental treatment being pioneered by one of his colleagues, ‘Decoded Neurofeedback’, which guides ‘trainees’ to mimic the brain states of ‘targets’ who have deliberately elicited particular emotions in themselves while their brains were scanned with fMRI. Because Alyssa participated in an earlier phase of the experiment, Robin can be matched to his mother’s euphoric brain patterns – a process which puts him into a state of beatific calm. Having been constantly screaming at the pain of living in a dying world, Robin now embraces the beauty of endangered species and becomes a viral news story. At the same time, Theo witnesses the world beginning to unravel. Bewilderment, Richard Powers’s thirteenth novel, is uneasily set between our present and a slightly different version of it, giving the book a speculative twist while not allowing us to feel safely distant from the America it describes:

That first Tuesday in November, online conspiracy theories, compromised ballots, and bands of armed poll protesters undermined the integrity of the vote in six different battleground states. The country slid into three days of chaos. On Saturday, the President declared the entire election invalid. He ordered a repeat, claiming it would require at least three more months to secure and implement.

As readers of Powers’s previous novel, the brilliant The Overstorywill know, Powers has a bleak view of our environmental future, and Bewilderment is, if possible, even darker than its predecessor. However, it’s also lit up by the stories about other planets, other peoples and other extinctions and rebirths that Theo tells Robin, and by Robin himself, who seems to symbolically switch between two ways of responding to our current predicament: mourning what we have lost or embracing it before it’s gone. If there’s a fault in this novel, it’s that Powers occasionally gives into the temptation to end paragraphs with a too-easy, too-sentimental line; but in general, he keeps impressively far away from sentimentality for a book about a ‘special’ child. A beautiful, if discomforting read that ought to make the shortlist.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 21st September.

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Marian Graves was a pioneering inter-war and wartime aviator whose career abruptly ended after she circumnavigated the globe in 1949 and disappeared in the Antarctic. In the present day, Hadley Baxter has been hired to portray Marian in a biopic, sensing a chance to get her career back on track after cheating on her co-star in a thinly veiled version of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. The bulk of Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle is a family saga, focused largely on Marian but circling back before her birth and outwards to explore the lives of other characters like her brother Jamie, while the Hollywood episodes with Hadley seem to belong to a lighter kind of book altogether. I have to confess that, at the point of writing this review, I’m only slightly over halfway through Great Circle, so it may make a sudden turnabout in its second half; however, it’s an incredibly long book, and 300+ pages in, I’m looking for a payback that I’m not getting. Shipstead’s prose is pedestrian, and the story she’s telling is very familiar; I found particular resonances with Michael Christie’s far superior Greenwood, but there are so many sagas of this kind. Great Circle is plodding along enjoyably enough to keep me reading, but it’s a massive potboiler that I don’t think belongs on the Booker longlist.

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The Booker shortlist will be announced on September 14th, and I don’t think I’ll be able to get to any more of the longlisted titles before then, so here’s my ranking of the six I’ve read:

  1. Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
  2. Bewilderment by Richard Powers
  3. China Room by Sunjeev Sahota
  4. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
  5. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
  6. No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

I would really like to see the Spufford, Powers and Sahota on the shortlist, but I don’t know the Booker Prize well enough or have read enough of the longlist to be confident in making any predictions!

Have you read any of the longlisted titles? Who do you think will make it to the shortlist?

10 Books of Summer, #9 and #10: The Sleeping Beauties and The Wild Laughter

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After reading Suzanne O’Sullivan’s recent article in the Guardian on ‘mystery illnesses’, I knew I wanted to seek out the book in which she explores these ideas further, Sleeping Beauties, though I found it patchier then its précis version. It worked best for me when O’Sullivan used a case study to link together wider issues, as she does in the opening chapter on ‘resignation syndrome’ among refugee children in Sweden, and in the final chapter on how Western medical labels are as open to question as indigenous explanations for illness; less well when she got too bogged down in the minutae of a single example, which was the case in most of the other chapters. The thread that links all of the outbreaks that O’Sullivan explores is the idea of a ‘functional neurological disorder’: in these disorders, patients experience nervous symptoms that are genuine but not linked to any observable physical problem. O’Sullivan understands why people resist being told that their debilitating experience of illness is ‘psychosomatic’, and emphasises that this diagnosis in no way suggests that their suffering is not real, or that they are making up their symptoms. Drawing on a biopsychosocial model of health, she suggests that the causes of these disorders arise from the interaction between body, mind and environment, and that all three of these things can be equally important in understanding certain conditions. Overall, I found this argument very interesting, and there are sections here I’ll definitely return to, but the book becomes a bit repetitive, and I felt that a couple of the chapters could have been cut.

Thanks to Rebecca from Bookish Beck for kindly passing on her proof copy of this book to me.

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Caoilinn Hughes’ The Wild Laughter is a smart, short novel with a brilliant, utterly convincing narrative voice; unfortunately, I found it hard to inhabit rather than simply admire. Hart is the younger of a pair of Irish brothers who are watching their father slowly dying after the economic crash in Ireland leaves him bankrupt. His voice initially reminded me of Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies (with perhaps a bit of Edward Docx’s Let Go My Hand thrown in), but Hughes’s dense prose, which needs to be read and digested line by line, is closer to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. And while I adored the two former novels, I also found myself at arm’s length from McBride’s book, recognising her skill but not able to quite connect. Hughes is fond of complicated, poetic similes that are all wonderful in their own right but kept catching me off-balance when I tried to sink into the flow of this book, because I had to work out what they meant. At an agricultural show, ‘peach udders drooped everywhere like the rear end of a birthday party.’ The ‘restless landscape’ is ‘sporadically moonlamped, as if the night was giving sign to a dangerous reef up ahead.’ A hairstyle is ‘a bun like a hare’s tail, but rained on.’ Alongside this, Hughes comes up with many more arresting lines – but they feel buried in the rest of the prose. For me, the writing got in the way of the story she was telling.

Thanks to Rebecca from Bookish Beck for kindly passing on her proof copy of this book to me.

This concludes my 10 Books of Summer! How did you do with your summer reading?

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2021: How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House

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Cherie Jones’s debut novel, How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, starts with a grandmother telling a story to her granddaughter about two sisters, one of whom was ‘gifted with good sense’ while the other was ‘own-way and like to give the mother mouth’. The sisters are warned against entering the network of tunnels that riddle the ground, as ‘the tunnels is where bad men go where they die‘. In the way of stories, we know what will happen; the bad sister goes into the tunnel and her good sister tries to pull her back. The bad sister escapes, but at a price: she’s missing one of her arms. The granddaughter, Lala, is not especially impressed by this story, and tells her grandmother, Wilma, so:

Well I bet it not so bad having one arm.” says Lala. “She can still do things like everybody else, she can still get a husband and some children and a house.”

Stupid girl,” says Wilma. “How she gonna sweep it?”

Set in Barbados in the mid 1980s, How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is a vividly painful exploration of how a violent fate haunts three generations of women. Wilma has her own explanation for why she, her daughter and her granddaughter have suffered so: ‘She assumes it is a curse… this way the Wilkinson women have with men, this ability to so bewitch a man that he becomes besotted.’ Wilma thinks that, like the bad sister, they all grow up too fast, and it is this premature sexuality that leads them into trouble. Jones shows us how this pattern of belief makes Wilma culpable in the fates of Lala and her mother Esme, as well as how the men who abuse them are themselves shaped by poverty.

Some reviewers have criticised How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House for being too schematic – its cast defined by what happens to them rather than by who they are as people – but that wasn’t exactly my experience of it. I felt that Jones’s characters did have great potential depth, although I wished she had given more page-time to exploring their inner lives. Jones has a gift for set-piece, and particular scenes showcase how much she does know about her characters; for example, when Wilma is tending to Esme after she’s been raped or when Lala walks out on the beach to braid hair. Lala’s abusive husband, Adan, is perhaps closest to caricature, displaying classic psychopath tropes as a boy, but that still isn’t all he is; when Lala is trying to remember how her mother used to sing her name, Adan ‘had sung her name in every tone he could think of to see if she would recognise it’. And Jones’s present-tense, fluid writing is perfectly suited to this story, moving effortlessly between a ring of characters who surround Lala.

I was surprised that so many reviewers, such as Rhiannon Lucy Coslett in the Guardian, describe this book as relentlessly miserable. It’s certainly a difficult read, but I didn’t find How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House especially grim compared to many other novels that have made it onto Women’s Prize shortlists and longlists in recent years. Indeed, its ending is arguably too neat and hopeful, sweeping Lala too easily away from this cycle of intergenerational violence without really answering the question it poses at the start: how do you carry on living when you have been so wounded by the world around you? How does the one-armed sister sweep her house?

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected ten titles that I do want to read. This is number ten. I’ve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times, Small Pleasures, Detransition, Baby, No One Is Talking About This and Unsettled Ground.

This is also #8 of my 10 Books of Summer.

10 Books of Summer, #6 and #7: Easy Meat and The Women of Troy

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It’s the day of the Brexit referendum but Caleb Jenkins doesn’t think he’s going to vote. Employed as a butcher in a slaughterhouse in the South Wales valleys alongside a largely Polish workforce, he’s more concerned with hanging onto his job and regaining his physical fitness so he can win the Swansea triathlon in September. Winning the 18-24 category in the Ironman five years before made him a temporary celebrity and Welsh reality TV star, but his victory also led to heartbreak when he was deceived by a girlfriend who wanted to keep him at any cost. Now he’s trying to support his unemployed family and ‘get back to the point in his life when he’d been winning’, but everything seems to be stacked against him.

I’ve read a couple of brilliant novels recently that deal with the meat industry (Ruth Gilligan’s The ButchersRuth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats) and Rachel Trezise’s novella Easy Meat is no exception, although here the slaughterhouse largely acts as a backdrop, demonstrating the brutal physicality of Caleb’s working life, rather than raising any ethical questions about meat consumption and quality. Easy Meat has also been described as an exploration of why so many chose to vote Leave, but what’s so impressive about Trezise’s take on the referendum is that Brexit very much fades into the background. Caleb ends up filling in his ballot at the very last minute, and while we can guess which way his vote went –  ‘ “Remain” meant that everything would stay the same but “Leave” meant something had to change’ – we aren’t actually told. Nor does he share the typical characteristics of stereotyped Brexit voters, demonstrating solidarity with his Polish workmates and actually envying the close bonds they have with each other.

If I had a reservation about Trezise’s portrayal of Brexit in this novella, it’s that it plays a little into the idea that the Leave vote was driven primarily by ‘left-behind’ working-class voters, when this has been debunked. Nevertheless, there’s much more to Easy Meat than its Brexit narrative; it’s a vivid snapshot of one day in a young man’s life as he tries to accelerate into his future but seems to already be slowing to a halt.

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

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I was impressed by Pat Barker’s 2018 retelling of the siege of Troy, The Silence of the Girlsand The Women of Troy not only picks up exactly where that book left off but seems to herald a third book that will continue to follow Briseis, our protagonist from Lyrnessus who was enslaved in The Silence of the Girls but has been newly freed by marriage in The Women of Troy. Unlike The Silence of the Girls, which zipped with great economy through the major events of the Trojan War, The Women of Troy is deliberately static and brooding. Stranded on the shores of Troy after sacking the city, the Greek army and their captives can only wait for the wind to change, tortured by a brief lull in the weather each morning before the interminable gale starts up again. Briseis wanders through the camp, encountering the most famous women of Troy in turn; Hecuba, shrivelled but still defiant; Andromache, shattered by grief and trauma; Cassandra, being Cassandra (she’s been characterised exactly the same in every retelling of the Greek epics I’ve ever read, and I love her for it); Helen, being pretty selfish but a little more humanised than in other versions I’ve seen from modern writers. The first half of this novel can therefore feel a little too schematic, and Briseis seems to have the measure of all these other women almost immediately, which makes her become rather too idealised – although we also understand more explicitly that she’s telling this story from the vantage point of old age, which perhaps excuses some of her self-aggrandising narration.

Once it’s discovered, about halfway through the novel, that somebody has been trying to bury Priam’s body, which has been deliberately left to rot in the sand (an episode that seems to have been inspired by Antigone), The Women of Troy suddenly picks up its pace, although this isn’t to say I didn’t also enjoy the more reflective first half. Like The Silence of the Girls, Briseis’s first-person narration is interspersed with third-person narration from male characters – here, Achilles’ son Pyrrhus and the Trojan priest Calchas. I felt Barker handled the shift between viewpoints more smoothly in this sequel, partly because Pyrrhus and Calchas are introduced as narrators from the beginning, rather than only appearing after we’ve already had a long stretch of Briseis’s narration. Her prose remains as strong as it was in The Silence of the Girls, and she continues to use a direct, modern style very effectively, especially in dialogue. Like The Silence of the Girls, The Women of Troy didn’t absolutely bowl me away, but it’s a haunting, beautiful novel, both books are by far the best of the recent influx of feminist Greek myth and epic retellings, and if this is a trilogy, I’ll certainly be reading the third installment.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 26th August.

I couldn’t get through Lisa Taddeo’s Animal, so I subbed The Women of Troy into my 10 Books of Summer.

10 Books of Summer, #4 and #5: Milk Fed and The Startup Wife

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Melissa Broder seems to specialise in writing novels that sound like the last thing on earth I would ever want to read and then managing to surprise me. First there was The Pisceswhich sounded like another disaster woman novel but won me over with its thoughtful exploration of sex and love, and now there’s Milk Fed, which explores similar themes but plumbs darker depths. Why did Milk Fed not sound like my kind of thing? Here’s the blurb:

Rachel is twenty-four, a lapsed Jew who has made calorie restriction her religion. By day, she maintains an illusion of control by way of obsessive food rituals. At night, she pedals nowhere on the elliptical machine. Then Rachel meets Miriam, a young Orthodox Jewish woman intent upon feeding her. Rachel is suddenly and powerfully entranced by Miriam – by her sundaes and her body, her faith and her family – and as the two grow closer, Rachel embarks on a journey marked by mirrors, mysticism, mothers, milk, and honey.

I tend to get a bit twitchy about novels that deal with weight and ‘overeating’, and I’d heard that Milk Fed was also very sexually explicit and worried that it might become a bit gratuitous. For these reasons, I wondered if it was the sort of novel that would leave me feeling disgusted and depressed. But although Broder certainly doesn’t shy away from writing scenes that push the reader to the limit of what they can stomach – as in The Pisces, her sex scenes are so detailed they lose their eroticism – I was surprised by how psychologically wholesome Milk Fed actually is. Broder isn’t afraid to show us a character who admits her fundamental hungers – for frozen yoghurt, for sex, for familial love – and writes about Rachel’s blatant pursuit of her needs in a way that makes the reader feel both horribly embarrassed by proxy and yet is also liberating.

I think Milk Fed is the only novel I’ve read that embraces food and fatness in a way that goes beyond being ‘fat-positive’, making the reader truly feel the arbitrariness of the restrictions we place on our own bodies. Miriam, who shows Rachel how to enjoy eating again, starts off as a saviour figure, but we eventually find out that she is repressed in different ways. For this reason, I disagree with readings of the novel that see Miriam as a saintly cipher and Rachel as a selfish monster; Rachel is greedy and thoughtless, but Miriam also lets her down because of her own inability to accept herself, and this balance strengthens the novel, making Miriam into a person rather than just an inspiration. I’m intrigued to see how far Broder can push me out of her comfort zone in her next book.

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When Tahmima Anam’s fourth novel, The Startup Wife, was ready to go on submission to publishers, she asked her agent to submit it under a pseudonym because she felt it was so much less serious than her previous trilogy of novels, which dealt with the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence. And it certainly is a weird book, although in some ways it’s the better for it. The blurb signals a novel that’s concerned with the impact of technology on society – Asha and her husband Cyrus launch a new social media platform called WAI (We Are Infinite) that produces tailor-made rituals for users drawn from a wide variety of religious traditions. As WAI takes off, Cyrus’s star rapidly rises, whereas Asha, who coded the platform in the first place, remains in the background. As this indicates, The Startup Wife is also concerned with how brilliant women – especially women of colour – remain unrecognised and overshadowed, and it refuses to denigrate ‘ambition’ in favour of caring duties in the way so many novels of this kind do. Asha discusses what is happening with her sister, Mira, who has just had a baby:

Mira sighs… “Do you think Stevie Wonder changed diapers?” she says… “He has nine children. Do you think he changed their diapers? Do you think he stayed up at night and rocked them to sleep?…”

No.”

“And would you want him to?”

I can’t pretend anymore that I don’t know what she’s talking about. “No.”

No. You would want him to write ‘My Cherie Amour.'”

The world would be a dark place without that song. “Yes.”

“Someone else had to do all of that.”

You’re telling me that all greatness happens on the backs of other people… This is the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

Having said that, however, The Startup Wife doesn’t feel like it’s really about tech or about structural misogyny, although both those themes are strongly present. In some ways, this makes it a better novel, because it isn’t too bogged down in preaching a message about Tech Is Bad or The World Is Sexist and Racist. Indeed, the tech parts of the story are treated with consistent irony rather than portrayed as a threat – as WAI is first taking off, Asha and Cyrus ‘go home, order poke bowls, and watch multiple episodes of Black Mirror.’ Anam is obviously an incredibly intelligent and observant writer, and Asha is such a captivating character. Nevertheless, this lack of focus does let the novel down, and although I haven’t read any of Anam’s other books, I didn’t feel she was really living up to her full potential here. Structurally, The Startup Wife lurches about for most of its length and fizzles out strangely with some shoehorned references to Covid. And although Anam has said that Cyrus was intended to be as mysterious to the readers as he is to Asha, he felt 2D, whereas Asha’s family, who get far less page time, were fully brought to life. I was left feeling that, while this might not be a must-read, Anam is certainly somebody that I want to hear more from.

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

Everyday Horror: The Other Black Girl & The Apparition Phase

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Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl starts off in relatively familiar, All About Eve territory. Nella is the only black employee at Wagner Books, and despite her continuous efforts to make her colleagues more aware of issues of race and representation, nothing much has changed in the years she’s worked there. When another black girl, Hazel, joins the company, Nella is initially hopeful that she has an ally, especially when Hazel commiserates with her over the racist representation of a character in the latest novel from one of Wagner’s top-selling authors. However, when Hazel throws Nella under the bus to impress her white bosses, Nella grows rapidly more suspicious. As Nella’s story unfolds in the present, we get occasional snippets from other narrators who are both entwined in Wagner’s past and involved in something much more sinister.

There’s a great novel somewhere inside The Other Black Girl, but for me the pacing was too radically uneven for it to reach its full potential. The first 75% or so focuses too squarely on office politics, and the creepy speculative thread is introduced too late, making the ending feel rushed. If only it had had longer to rev up, the climax could have been brilliantly twisted, but Harris spent too long on office microaggressions (which of course could form the basis of a great novel in their own right) to fully lean into the weirdness. I can see why this has made a big splash, but I hope Harris goes more full out with the horror in her next novel.

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

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Will Maclean’s debut novel, The Apparition Phase, is that very rare thing – a novel-length ghost story that actually works. I don’t really like straight ghost stories unless they’re liberally crossed over with horror, and this is up there with Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, delivering a truly chilling entity from an author who is smart enough not to tell us everything. The Apparition Phase begins with teenage twins Tim and Abi, growing up in 70s English suburbia, who have allied together over a shared interest in anything spooky or unexplained. (They have a list of their top three favourite ghost photographs, and collaborate to write phrases on the pages of a book that describe what the afterlife is like – swearing an oath that whichever of them dies first will use these phrases to communicate with the surviving twin). But when they fake a ghost photograph to scare a gullible classmate, they fear they have summoned up more than they’ve bargained for.

The Apparition Phase feels a little like two stories in one – after an awkward bridging section which is the only point when the pace of the book really falters, we’re plunged into another plot. Tim joins a group of teenagers led by an academic who is investigating ghostly phenomena in a haunted house in Suffolk. This, however, eventually loops around to link back to the beginning of the novel in a terrifying climatic scene where Tim is pursued by a mysterious figure through the pitch-black countryside in pelting rain. Despite the bridging section, I thought that this unusual structure worked, making sure the novel didn’t run out of steam halfway through. The Apparition Phase reminded me most strongly of Nina Allen’s brilliant work of speculative fiction, The Riftas it explores the edges of our world and what we can know, telling a fragmentary tale that doesn’t tie up neatly but is all the more haunting for it. One of my favourite books of the year so far.