20 Books of Summer, #6 and #7: Starling Days and The Island of Sea Women

20 Books of Summer Housekeeping Note: I’ve managed to get hold of e-copies of both Tea Obrecht’s Inland and Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, two books I’d wanted to put on 20 Books of Summer but wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get hold of in time. Therefore, I’m officially swapping them in for Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker and Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing. Apologies to those books – I will still be reading them at a later date as they’re on my 2019 Reading List.

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I loved Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel, Harmless Like You, which focused on art dealer Jay and his estranged Japanese mother Yuki, flashing between Yuki’s youth in 1960s New York and Jay’s contemporary journey. What I found particularly fascinating about the way that Buchanan portrayed Yuki, who is determined to pursue a career as a visual artist, is that she hurts others so much precisely because she believes it’s impossible for her to have much impact on others’ lives; she believes nobody can really care about her. There’s something of that in Mina, the Chinese-American protagonist of Buchanan’s second novel, Starling Days; but unlike Yuki, I felt that we never really got to know Mina.

 Starling Days is a novel about clinical depression, self-harm, and suicide, and it felt right that I was reading it when I went to an exhibition about these themes by a female Chinese artist, Chen Ze, in the White Rabbit gallery in Sydney [content note for self-harm]. However, I found it very difficult to engage with Mina’s state of mind for the majority of the text, especially because the narrative is split between her point of view and that of her husband Oscar; I wasn’t sure what Oscar’s sections added. Moreover, the novel starts with Mina thinking about her dual heritage (plus the Japanese last name she’s inherited from her husband, who is desperately trying to learn kanji through playing children’s games on the computer) and her bisexuality, but has very little to say about either. Instead, she feels so self-focused, which is unsurprising due to her illness but which doesn’t induce empathy in the reader.

The writing also felt off-kilter for much of Starling Days, which surprised me, because Harmless Like You was so on point. It often feels a bit try-hard; ‘a breeze ran through the tree, and the leaves applauded’… a body in scrubs the colour of the swimming pool where she’d made her first tentative laps as a pre-schooler’,  while sometimes hitting the right note; ‘The river was as dark as poured tarmac’. Buchanan’s prose was really what carried Harmless Like You, so I was disappointed by the frequent clunkiness here.

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

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Lisa See is known for novels that focus on intense and often harmful female friendships, though in perhaps her best-known work, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, it seems obvious to me that the protagonist is romantically and sexually in love with her closest friend, so calling it a novel about female friendship is a bit of a stretch. The Island of Sea Women, her latest, is more straightforwardly platonic: it follows a very similar plot-line to Snow Flower, with our two protagonists, Young-sook and Mi-ja, growing up together on the Korean island of Jeju and becoming extremely close despite coming from very different backgrounds. Young-sook’s family is respected among the all-female community of haenyeo, freedivers who collect octopuses, abalone and sea urchins for sale, because her mother is the leader of the collective. Meanwhile, Mi-ja is initially shunned in the village as her father collaborated with the Japanese when they occupied Korea during the Second World War. As with Snow Flower, it’s clear from the start of the novel that something horrific has come between these two women; we first meet Young-sook as an elderly woman in 2008, refusing to talk about Mi-ja.

What makes this my favourite novel I’ve read by See so far, despite its familiar plot-line, is both the subject-matter and the way that See deploys historical detail. She effortlessly conveys the particular community of the haenyeo without getting bogged down, from the way that the women learn to dive, to ‘leaving-home-water-work’ in freezing Russian seas, to the later experiments of scientists fascinated by the divers’ ability to operate while hypothermic. Moreover, this felt incredibly refreshing compared to much ostensibly feminist historical fiction, because Young-sook is neither an atypical rebel nor a downtrodden victim. See is clear that her characters do not live in a matriarchal society, but rather one that is ‘women-centred’: women earn money and exert power in the household because of their autonomous working life, while men do the bulk of the childcare, but formal education is still sought for boys rather than girls, and the men are the ones who are expected to think ‘big thoughts’. Many of the haenyo complain at how hard their lives are compared to those of their fathers, husbands and brothers, despite the fact that they reject the Confucian traditions of mainland Korea that explicitly subordinate women to men. It’s an anthropological study of a complicated culture, and this material is as gripping as its characters’ lives. This was one of the novels I was most looking forward to in 2019, and it didn’t disappoint.

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Reading on My Travels, Sydney 2019: Mini-Reviews

I headed onwards from Tokyo to Sydney for the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth conference at Australian Catholic University. Sydney wasn’t as high on my personal wish list as Tokyo, but it was still amazing to get the chance to spend time there (and in the Blue Mountains):

I read two books not from my 20 Books of Summer list in Sydney (and started The Nix and Atlantic Winds as well):

Never Far From Nowhere, one of Andrea Levy’s earlier novels, actually felt much more original to me than her later, more well-known works The Long Song or Small Island. Perhaps this is simply my aversion to much historical fiction, or perhaps Levy herself wrote better about more contemporary times and places. Technically, Never Far From Nowhere, published in 1996, is historical fiction: set on a council estate in the 1970s, it revels in the details of teenage life in that decade, from bovver boots to tights with carefully-positioned rows of holes to hippie hair to Ben Sherman checked shirts. However, Levy is clearly drawing on her own experiences growing up in Islington (although the book is set in Finsbury Park) and so this deluge of detail feels properly authentic.

Never Far From Nowhere follows two sisters, Olive and Vivian. Neither of them is traditionally likeable. Olive, darker-skinned and both much more acutely aware of her blackness and more willing to adopt it as an identity, leaves school with no qualifications and struggles in a series of short-term jobs. She rows constantly with her mother, but her younger sister, Vivian, is jealous of how Olive always seems to be the centre of attention, the one that their mother really cares about. This is despite the fact that Vivian makes every effort to meet their mother’s expectations: she works hard at grammar school and has ambitions to go to art college. Levy carefully balances the family dynamics, not allowing her story to become a simple binary between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sister.

The plot also plays with ideas of a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ working-class immigrant – Olive and Vivian were both born in England, but their parents emigrated from Jamaica. ‘Mouthy’ Olive ends up on benefits and doggedly chases up a council flat; Vivian aspires to be socially mobile and keeps her mouth shut when her friends toss around racial slurs. Olive’s recalcitrance seems deliberate; why should we only have sympathy for those who are doing all the right things? And despite Vivian’s academic intelligence, it’s Olive who is clearest about the structural oppression the sisters face in England, although she can be strikingly naïve in certain situations. Never Far From Nowhere lacks deliberate structure; it’s a slice of these sisters’ lives, and ends at a point that feels largely arbitary. It’s also a pretty grim read. Nevertheless, Levy’s portrayal of 1970s north London through the eyes of these two sisters stands out.

Because I work on young people’s writing in post-war Britain, I was excited to read Rife: Twenty-One Stories From Britain’s Youth, a collection of essays by young people aged sixteen to twenty-four, edited by Nikesh Shukla and Sammy Jones. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in most of these essays on a number of counts. Firstly, it has to be said: most of the writing here isn’t very good. I know from reading blogs, short stories and novels written by young/er people, as well as from reading the writing of my own undergraduate students, that writers in their late teens and early twenties are as capable of producing wonderful and insightful prose as any other group of writers. However, I worry that others reading this collection will lazily assume that nothing better can be expected from young people.

The problem possibly lies in the way many of these essays were produced: rather than seeking out twenty-one independent contributions, a lot of these essays emerged from a single project at Watershed in Bristol, which produced Rife magazine. Whatever the process was, it seems to have encouraged many of these writers towards a ponderous and formal style; individual voice is smothered and a lot of the essays sound the same. Rather than drawing on personal experience, many of the essays pontificate on very familiar topics: the rental crisis, poor funding for mental health and university fees. (One essay on the university experience was particularly enraging; the writer rightly criticises high fees but seems to blame lecturers for not providing ‘value for money’ e.g. for going on strike over staff pensions, rather than government policies. I know from talking to my own students about these issues that many undergraduates are not this short-sighted).

My second problem with this collection is more an issue of personal preference. Most of these writers talk about their experience as young people by invoking the language of generational inequality; making the usual arguments about the unfairness of rising house prices, unemployment and student debt in comparison to the experience of their parents’ generation. While I agree with these arguments, I was hoping that these writers might have more to say about the way that age itself acts as an oppressive category. This may in its turn result from the limited range of ages represented by the contributors. The majority are in their early twenties – already looking back on adolescence. The one essay that is obviously written by a teenager, ‘Sweet Sixteen: Kiss, Marry, Vote’, was one of my favourites. Amber Kirk-Ford effectively challenges the relevance of chronological age, arguing: ‘If some sixteen-year-olds are disengaged or badly behaved, that is equally true of apparent grown-ups… [not giving sixteen-year-olds the vote] is based on the myth that all young people are exactly the same, and are less mature than adults’. Other essays worked well for me despite the fact that they weren’t focused on questions of age because of the way they explored other intersectional identities; for example, Shona Cobb’s essay on her experiences of living with Marfan Syndrome, ‘Exclusion’, and Mariam Khan’s essay on being an hijabi, ‘My Body, My Choice’. On the whole, however, while I think projects of this kind are really important, I’ve read much better writing by teenagers and young adults elsewhere.

I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 11th July 2019.

Edit: I meant to add my (dissatisfied) thoughts about The Nix and Atlantic Winds to this post and forgot, so here are links to my Goodreads reviews:

The Nix (**1/2), DNF @ 35%

Atlantic Winds (**1/2), only finished because it was so short

Reading on My Travels, Tokyo 2019: Mini-Reviews

I’m back from my travels! Tokyo (and Kyoto, Nikko and Hakone) were everything I’d wanted them to be:

I’m posting my 20 Books of Summer reviews separately, but here’s some thoughts on the other reading I did while I was in Tokyo:

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was totally addictive – I tore through it in a single day, and I have to thank Rachel for persuading me that I’d like it despite my aversion to Old Hollywood settings. The plot draws on some classic chick-lit tropes: junior journalist Monique is stunned when she’s contacted out of the blue by Hollywood star Evelyn Hugo, now in her seventies, and asked to write her biography. Evelyn is famous for having been married seven times – but who was the true love of her life? And what other secrets is she hiding? So far, so predictable. However, Reid’s writing is a notch above similar novels like Harriet Evans’s Not Without You, and the novel is more diverse in terms of both sexuality and race than is usual for this genre; Monique is a biracial black woman, Evelyn is Cuban-American, and there’s also significant LGB representation. In considering the ‘it factor’ projected by true stars, and the emotional dynamics of close-knit groups, Reid picks up on some of the themes she explores further in her most recent novel, Daisy Jones and the Six, although I thought that novel’s innovative narrative structure and more restrained plot twists made it superior.

While I hugely enjoyed this novel, I did have some issues. Firstly, it’s cleverly organised into sections each named after one of Evelyn’s husbands, but this does mess with the pacing a little – some important segments of Evelyn’s life feel rushed, especially as she grows older (in contrast, Daisy Jones covers the band’s whole career but the bulk of it focuses on only a few years). Secondly, while it’s more mature in its approach to different kinds of love than the usual romance novel, I felt that the ending, which falls back on a traditional ‘love is more important than ambition’ platitude, was regressive compared to the more satisfying midpoint where Evelyn validates the importance of both love and career (if Reid was trying to say something clever here about how we value love at different points in our lives, she didn’t quite pull it off). Thirdly [highlight for spoilers] while I loved that Evelyn’s major relationship was with another woman, I felt there was a certain reliance on stereotypes; Evelyn is a bisexual, maritally promiscuous Cuban-American, which draws on unfortunate tropes about both bi people and Latin Americans, while her partner, Celia, is a ‘pure’, blonde, gold star lesbian. While there’s a bit of awkward dialogue where Evelyn argues that her multiple marriages have nothing to do with her bisexuality – which, to be fair, they don’t – this feels a bit pasted on to fix this problem, rather than integral to her character. [spoilers end] Nevertheless, I can forgive the novel a great deal for its last line; it’s just brilliant.

I gave up on Alex White’s A Big Ship at the Edge of The Universe about 15% in – I’m theoretically up for the idea of crossing SF and fantasy, but this fell too much on the fantasy side for me, and also did that irritating fantasy thing of setting up some interesting world-building only to abandon it all after the plot kicks off (SF seems to be generally better at integrating its stories more closely with the worlds they’re set in, and makes better use of set-piece/enclosed settings, which is something I can’t get enough of).

Finally, Hanna Jameson’s The Last is a sub-Station Eleven novel about ‘the end of the world’, but then again, most speculative fiction is sub-Station Eleven, and The Last does well at what it sets out to do. Jon, a historian of modern America, is staying in an isolated hotel in Switzerland when the news breaks of nuclear attacks on countries across the world. No-one knows quite what has happened – the situation is realistically confusing, with phone and internet connections breaking down – and Jon and a handful of other people decide it’s safest to stay holed up at the hotel, rather than venture into an uncertain world. Unlike Station Eleven, therefore, The Last picks up directly after the initial catastrophe, and looks at the nuts and bolts of rebuilding a workable society, rather than considering ‘higher level’ goods like art. Nevertheless, it doesn’t neglect more complex human needs. Jon, desperate to be useful in some way, starts recording events, and when a small girl’s body is discovered in the water tank of the hotel, decides that he’s going to find out what happened to her.

The Last is billed as a murder mystery as well as an end-of-the-world thriller, but it really isn’t about murder – Jon’s search for the girl’s killer is more about his own psychological need to support his belief that human life still matters, that it hasn’t become meaningless in the face of such disaster. This thread, therefore, backs up one of The Last’s central themes: that humans have enough good in them to work together for a common goal. Refreshingly, this is not a nihilistic look at human nature, although Jameson portrays violence and desperation at times. Instead, it impresses us with humankind’s ability to strive towards civilisation, despite our imperfections. Jon himself acts as a microcosm here – he has a number of admirable qualities, but he’s also an unreliable narrator who has done things he’s ashamed of and hurt other people. Jameson bravely leaves the ending wide open, and the ‘resolution’ of Jon’s anxieties about the fate of his wife and children, who were in San Francisco at the time of the attacks, is especially haunting.

20 Books of Summer, #4 and #5: The Chalk Artist and Winter Sisters

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Allegra Goodman’s latest novel, The Chalk Artist, set in Cambridge and Boston, is written in deliberately hallucinatory prose, making every element of the story feel heightened. This could tip into overkill but worked for me because of the subject-matter. Teenage Aidan is academically bright, but spends all his free time playing an MMORPG created by the company Arkadia (think World of Warcraft, which weirdly also exists in this universe even though linked games EverWhen and UnderWorld are clearly intended to mimic it – for example, one incident in the book obviously mirrors WoW’s famous Corrupted Blood incident in 2005). Aidan’s sister, Diana, scrawls endless, intermittently relevant answers to her teacher’s questions in her English journal, writing, among other things, about how worried she is about her brother. Diana’s teacher, Nina, is determined to get through to her students and prove that she can do something useful in the world – not simply exist as the daughter of Arkadia’s boss. Finally, Nina’s boyfriend, Collin, is the ‘chalk artist’ of the title; he’s incredibly gifted at sketching but doesn’t mind wiping his creations away when he’s done. Collin is also pulled into UnderWorld’s web after becoming a concept artist on a new game – where, he realises, his art is just as transient as chalk, but he’s no longer the one who destroys it.

The Chalk Artist picks up on themes that appeared in the two other Goodman novels I’ve read, Intuition and The Cookbook Collector – both of which were tantalisingly intelligent but spread themselves much too thin. Most interestingly, it starts to explore what it means to be gifted, and what we owe to our gift. Collin is preternaturally talented at art, but precisely because of that, he’s not attracted by the things that draw lesser artists – he’s dropped out of art school and loves the fact that nothing he makes lasts. This recalls a secondary character in Intuition, who refuses to play lab politics and abandons his career even though he’s a scientific genius. Disappointingly, however, The Chalk Artist doesn’t quite follow through on this theme when it comes to Aiden. Perhaps because of his age, Goodman implicitly endorses the idea that UnderWorld is bad for him, and pursuing good grades in the ‘real world’ is better, especially once he begins to be inspired by Nina’s tutoring. This is undercut slightly by the suggestion that connecting deeply with poetry is a fantastic – in the literal sense of the word – experience in its own right, but I’d like to have seen this novel take gaming a bit more seriously.

On the other hand, Goodman writes brilliantly about the experience of being immersed in a VR world; EverWhen and UnderWorld are so compelling precisely because she avoids the temptation to get bogged down in technological detail. I haven’t seen virtual reality written this well since a few classic novels from my childhood (1990s children’s fiction was a little obsessed with virtual worlds): Gillian Cross’s New World, Stephen Bowkett’s Dreamcastle, Helen Dunmore’s Fatal Error. All of these, like The Chalk Artist, emphasise the dangers of getting lost in something that is not real; but the way they describe what draws people into such worlds makes them more than simple morality tales. I’d hoped The Chalk Artist would be a 4.5 star read for me, and it isn’t quite; but it’s definitely a solid four stars, and my favourite so far from Goodman.

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Robin Oliveira’s Winter Sisters, set in Albany in 1879, is a loose sequel to My Name Is Mary Sutterwhich followed the eponymous Mary, a midwife striving to train as a doctor during the American Civil War. When I reviewed the first novel, I wrote that it was almost classically tragic in the hardships visited upon its central character, and upon her mother and sister. However, I felt that this worked in the context of that story, emphasising Mary’s superhuman determination to pursue her chosen career in the face of institutional misogyny and the hazards of wartime. In contrast, Winter Sisters feels both melodramatic and a little exploitative in the way it explores its characters’ misery. The novel kicks off in the way it means to continue: two reasonably prominent secondary characters from My Name Is Mary Sutter are unceremoniously dispatched in a blizzard to set up the plot-line of this novel. Their deaths occupy a couple of sentences, almost as if Oliveira was keen to get this set-up out of the way so she can move on to the central suffering of the story. For after these characters are killed, it’s discovered that their two young daughters, Emma and Claire, are missing, believed dead in the snowdrifts that have buried Albany.

Mary, a close friend of Emma’s and Claire’s family, determines to seek out the girls, but what she discovers is horrifying. Spoilers [highlight to read]. Emma and Claire have been kidnapped by two men and kept imprisoned in a cellar for weeks – during this time, Emma has been regularly raped and beaten by one of the men. Claire has been spared similar treatment because she is under the age of consent – which at that time was just ten. Spoilers end. The rest of the novel is devoted to exploring the aftermath of the girls’ fates, including an extended courtroom sequence. While Winter Sisters is well-written and makes careful use of historical detail, I did find myself questioning the need to cover this story in such detail. Oliveira’s afterword notes explicitly that she was inspired by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, but by choosing such an unquestionable case, she fails to draw parallels between the past and the present and instead underlines the difference of the past. I also felt uncomfortable with the way she wrote her child characters, who are reduced to symbols of innocence and have little voice in the novel. If My Name Is Mary Sutter tipped towards tragedy, Winter Sisters wallows in it.

I’m now back in the UK but am still away from home travelling for work, and so may take longer to reply to comments than usual.

20 Books of Summer, #2 and #3: Queenie and Pulp

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Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams’s debut novel, has attracted comparisons to Bridget Jones for its funny and frank account of a young black woman working in the media, living in London, navigating bad one-night stands and on-off relationships with men, and relying on the support of her loyal group of female friends, or, as she renames their WhatsApp group, ‘The Corgis’. However, Queenie is more of a straight reinvention of the much-maligned and, in recent years, unpopular ‘chick lit’ genre than a successor to Bridget Jones. As I have said many times (and am going to keep saying until people stop saying the opposite!) Bridget Jones, at least in novel form, is not chick lit or a ‘romcom’ but social satire. Bridget is not meant to be a feminist icon and we aren’t necessarily meant to like her. In contrast, Queenie is hugely sympathetic, and realistically flawed. Her story is a satisfyingly different take on the chick lit plot. Rather than being relegated to the role of the ‘black best friend’, she takes centre stage, with both her white and black friends firmly positioned as her supporting cast; rather than personifying white liberal feminism at her media job, she vocally supports Black Lives Matter, despite resistance from her boss; and the ending is nicely unexpected.

Queenie is also far less ‘feelgood’ than most chick lit, and for all the right reasons; the misogynist and racist abuse Queenie receives, most often entwined in the form of ‘misogynoir‘, is incredibly distressing to read (and I’m speaking about this from the point of view of a white woman who has never had to receive this kind of abuse, so God knows how it must feel to read this if you’re a woman of colour). I found myself feeling angry on Queenie’s behalf almost all of the time, although I liked the way that Carty-Williams challenges the ‘strong black woman’ trope by allowing Queenie to be vulnerable and to seek help from a therapist. Queenie is the target of so much hate because her physical body is hyper-visible in the white-dominated places she’s forced to frequent; from a trendy lido, to her workplace, where only three ‘diverse’ colleagues could be found to appear in a ‘diversity’ poster (‘Zainab in Digital had refused to take part’), to the bars and clubs of Brixton that used to be dominated by her black Caribbean community. Her size, her hair, her skin colour and her shape (‘a bum like yours needs room for manoeuvre’) are all used to belittle and objectify her. In this way, she is a constantly ‘visible woman’, but not for the right reasons.

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Abby is a seventeen-year-old lesbian living in DC in the present day who’s decided to do her school project on post-war lesbian pulp fiction; Janet is an eighteen-year-old lesbian living in DC in the 1950s, trying to hide her sexuality as she finds herself falling in love with her best friend. Robin Talley’s Pulp alternates between these two girls’ stories, exploring the historical difficulties of being homosexual in an age of McCarthy and the ‘lavender menace’, while also dealing with Abby’s more mundane struggles with her family, her ex-girlfriend, and what being in love might mean.

Pulp has a great premise, but like much YA fiction, it suffers from being YA. Much as I wish writers wouldn’t write down to a teenage audience (though the majority of YA is actually read by adults) they continue to do so, and everything in Pulp is spelt out and ticked off far too neatly. Talley puts great effort into her diverse cast, featuring a range of characters of colour, a non-binary friend, and a number of bi and gay characters alongside her lesbian leads, but these feel like nothing more than lip-service, especially given that few of them play much of a role in the novel. Abby’s strand of the story is particularly slow, and Abby herself is really not an engaging character. The historical material is more interesting, but I didn’t feel as confident as I should have done with Talley’s handling of this period; some details, like Janet’s job at a drive-in, feel real, most feel too simplistic.

Pulp did, however, make me think about what a book about lesbians aimed at this kind of audience should be doing, if not for the right reasons. Abby rightfully condemns the kind of still-too-familiar queer narrative that sees its characters meet an unhappy ending, but she doesn’t seem to know what she wants to put in its place. As part of her project, she’s meant to be writing her own take on pulp fiction, but apart from ditching the ‘twilight realm’ and ‘in the shadows’ connotations and calling it Totally Normal Women in the Daylight, we never get a sense of what’s different about her plot. In fact, at one point, her teacher tells her that one of her characters, Henrietta, needs to grow and change throughout the course of the book, and Abby resists this – society was what was wrong, not Henrietta, she thinks. Of course, Abby sees this differently by the end of Pulp, but I didn’t get why – wouldn’t this actually be one way of challenging story conventions, by showing gay characters who don’t change, because they don’t need to, but also don’t have the protagonist’s traditional ‘agency’ because of the heteronormative world in which they live?

Pulp clearly wants to be something a bit more serious than Becky Albertalli’s delightful, feelgood LBGT YA novels (Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda, The Upside of Unexpected, Leah On the Offbeat) but, in aiming for this, it fails to deliver the subversive happiness of those stories, and doesn’t really deliver anything else. And it has nothing to say about LGBT identity, really, other than that oppression is bad. Overall – and so ironically for a book about pulp fiction – I just found it a bit worthy.

I’m still away travelling at the moment and so may take longer to reply to comments than usual.

Unhappy People: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jeanette Winterson) & Normal People (Sally Rooney)

Jeanette Winterson grew up in an English Pentecostal family. Her adoptive parents were shocked when she came out as a lesbian, and had their church conduct an exorcism. Winterson ended up leaving home at sixteen, and broke contact with her family shortly after. Famously, she published a fictionalised account of her childhood and adolescence, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, when she was only twenty-five, but this memoir addresses her experiences from her own point of view. The title has a simple origin. When Winterson told her mother that she had fallen in love with another woman, and that this relationship made her very happy, her mother said: ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’

While few people would put this question as bluntly as Mrs Winterson (Winterson refers to her mother in this way throughout Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?) I think that it’s a question that a lot of us grapple with. That’s certainly true for the protagonists of Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, Connell and Marianne, who meet at school in Carricklea and carry on an one-off relationship through their years at university in Dublin. While Marianne’s family are far better off than Connell’s – Connell’s mother cleans their house – Marianne’s class privilege does little to help her at school, where Connell possesses all the social cachet. When they start sleeping together, both simply assume that the relationship should be kept secret. Cleverly, Rooney reverses the power dynamics in Dublin, where it is Marianne who is striving for social success, whereas Connell takes the brunt of not only being working-class but rural. Both characters feel the pressures of being what Marianne calls ‘normal people’, a state that is both aspirational and stifling.

Like Connell, Winterson came from a working-class family in a relatively out-of-the-way location (in her case, Accrington) and went to a glamorous world-class university (in her case, Cambridge). She writes so well about both class and religion. Despite the oppressive nature of the Pentecostal church, she remembers how she valued the sense of community it brought and the simple fact of ‘having somewhere to go in the evening’ in a declining north-west England industrial town where communal facilities had been steadily stripped away. Not connecting this to the bigger picture at the time, Winterson, as a young woman, voted for Thatcher in 1979, valuing what she seemed to represent: a self-made woman in a world where left politics felt dominated by masculine trade unionism. In contrast, both class and (especially) religion are relatively slight in Normal People. While class differences feed into the consistent miscommunication between Connell and Marianne, Rooney seems more interested in analysing how they misunderstand each other word by word and sentence by sentence, rather than suggesting that there are macro factors that keep them apart. The sadness of their story is that it could so easily have been different. In terms of politics, Marianne talks vaguely about Marxism, but that’s as far as it goes.

Rooney is a wonderfully observational writer. This Goodreads review seems to me to miss the point of her prose; it accuses her of piling up irrelevant details, but actually the content of this quote is who is doing what:

Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing people’s plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of a bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others.

While I don’t think this is the strongest example of Rooney’s writing, there’s a certain power dynamic here that we can see through Connell’s eyes; Marianne bringing out more bottles; handing him a corkscrew while her current partner, Jamie, tries to get her attention; Peggy taking charge through clearing the plates.

Ordinary People is an addictive read, and I found it less limited than Conversations With Friends (the critics who have suggested that Rooney has somehow regressed because she’s writing about characters who are chronologically younger than her last set of protagonists need to think again). However, I have to confess that I’m baffled as to why it’s being hailed as ‘a future classic’. I feel like I’ve read quite a few novels like this, most notably Belinda McKeon’s beautiful TenderI’d still put it on my personal shortlist for this year’s Women’s Prize, but this is partly due to the weakness of the overall longlist rather than feeling blown away by this book.

What I wanted it to address, I suppose, is something that’s inchoate in the story but never quite comes to the surface: when we are teenagers, we often want more than anything to be ‘normal people’, but as we find out how easy it is to be normal, we strive to become exceptional again. This happens most obviously to Marianne when she’s accepted by a popular set at university, and is seduced into putting her own needs and interests to one side. In Winterson’s case, I get the sense that, after what her mother said to her, being ‘normal’ was never on the agenda; so her wonderful memoir is more about the cost of living on the other side of normality, which may be the right place to be, but is often a very painful space as well.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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