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.

 

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Science fiction for the spring, May 2019

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Having now read Nina Allan’s second novel, The Rift, shortly after finishing her third novel, The DollmakerI feel like I’m getting a better grasp of her overarching literary project. Allan’s novels explore the line between fantasy and reality, presenting a relatively realistic version of the present while making our own world persistently sinister. She’s especially interested in parallel stories – both The Rift and The Dollmaker include sections from fictional texts, whether those are fairy tales, newspaper cuttings, lists, alien histories or alien novels. Because of this, both these novels are ‘speculative’ in the broadest sense; neither absolutely rests on the existence of any SF or fantasy element. However, The Rift opens up a much bigger space for reader speculation than The Dollmaker, and perhaps that was one of the reasons I liked it so much better.

The premise is simple. Selena’s sister Julie goes missing at the age of seventeen and turns up twenty years later, claiming to have been mysteriously transported to another planet, which she calls Tristane. Selena wonders if Julie is deliberately deceiving her, or if she is mentally ill, or if she’s really her sister at all. However, Julie’s own narrative is remarkably coherent, and she knows things that only she could know about the sisters’ past. On one reading, The Rift, like The Dollmaker, uses this set-up to explore the experience of loss and change on a metaphorical level. Allan doesn’t make the connections for us, but lets us draw our own conclusions. Selena watches a documentary about a woman in the States, Sharon, who was kidnapped and held prisoner for seven years: ‘Selena gained the impression that Sharon Wade no longer cared if people believed her or not. They could believe her or think she was lying, that was their choice.’ Julie hears an apocryphal story about Tristane’s twin planet, Dea, and a monster called the creef that invades human bodies and hollows them out from the inside, gradually eroding their identity.

However, what worked better about The Rift for me is that there’s also space for the reader to believe Julie’s story, if they want to. The novel is infused with eeriness; nothing overtly scary happens, but it’s still a very unsettling reading experience, uncanny in the most specific sense. As Julie’s teacher recalls in a newspaper article after her disappearance: ‘You know the strangest thing about her? Julie was terrified of black holes. She told me they gave her nightmares. When I asked her why, she said that black holes proved there were a lot of things we didn’t know about the universe, and most of them were terrifying.’ Allan explores the line between what we know to be true and what we know to be false, and suggests that the state of that knowledge is fragmentary at best. This incredible novel has to be a contender for one of my favourite books of 2019. Thanks to Victoria at Eve’s Alexandria for the recommendation!

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Unlike The Rift, Children of Time, which won the Arthur C. Clarke award for best novel in 2016, is proper, hard-core science fiction. The remains of the human race are sleeping in stasis on a cargo ship called the Gilgamesh having fled from an uninhabitable Earth. Far in the past, their space-faring ancestors terraformed distant planets as homes for new life, and the Gilgamesh happens upon one of these planets, which looks like the last hope for humanity. Unfortunately, it’s guarded by an aggressive and hostile AI, and populated by giant spiders. Children of Time spans centuries through the eyes of its principal protagonist, the classicist Holsten, who is continually awoken at times of crisis and then sent back to stasis.This incredibly clever device allows Tchaikovsy to tell a massive story about the human race’s interactions with this new planet while giving the reader an anchor.

This is necessary, because Children of Time, like a number of epic SF novels I’ve read, suffers from a certain coldness. Tchaikovsy is clearly most interested in exploring big questions about evolution, co-operation and society, and I love cerebral science fiction, but the individual element sometimes gets a little lost. While the characterisation isn’t bad, we only ever see these people when they’re doing important things; there’s no sense of what they do when they need to take a break, or be with other people. Arguably, this is because the key characters are only awake for short periods of time, but if so, I’d have liked to have seen the psychological impact of this more deeply explored (although Tchaikovsy, to be fair, does make a stab at this through a running theme about Holsten being ‘the oldest man in the universe’, a statement that’s both true and not true at different points).

Alongside the story of the Gilgamesh, a second, equally dominant narrative thread in Children of Time covers the evolution of a race of giant, sentient spiders on the terraformed planet, and how they too begin to reach out to the stars. Again, this is imaginatively handled; while generations of spiders are born and die, Tchaikovsy uses the same set of names for his central characters in each generation (‘Portia’, ‘Bianca’, ‘Viola’, ‘Fabian’), so we feel like we have something to hang onto. However, I found this strand of this story much less compelling than the alternate half of the novel. Part of this is personal preference: I’m not especially interested in reading about primitive societies. By the end of the novel, the spiders have become an interesting, sophisticated civilisation, but this is really only in play for the last few chapters. There are good plot reasons for this, but sometimes I couldn’t shake the sense that this was 600 pages of set-up for the next novel in the series, Children of Ruin. The inevitable conflict between human and spider is solved rather neatly, and while I don’t think the solution is a cop-out, as such, I’d have bought into it more if it had been the beginning of a novel rather than the end. Nevertheless, I have to admire Tchaikovsy’s ambition and imagination, and I’d be up for reading the sequel.

I have also recently read one relatively poor speculative novel, Luiza Sauma’s Everything You Ever Wantedand one really awful science fiction novel, SK Vaughn’s Across the VoidLinks are to my Goodreads reviews! Finally, I’ve just started reading Annalee Newitz’s Autonomouswhich is about space pirates.

The year of the doll

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If 2018 was the year of the mermaid, with Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks, Kirsty Logan’s The GloamingMelissa Broder’s The Pisces, and Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancockit looks like 2019 might be the year of the doll, with Elizabeth Macneal’s debut, The Doll Factoryfollowing hard on the heels of Nina Allan’s The DollmakerHowever, like The Dollmaker, The Doll Factory uses dolls more figuratively than it does literally. Iris and her sister Rose paint porcelain dolls and sew their clothing for a living, able only to dream of having their own shop some day. However, when Iris catches the attention of an (invented) Pre-Raphaelite artist, Louis Frost, she becomes not only his model but also his pupil. As Iris’s world begins to open out, however, she is also watched by Silas, a resentful taxidermist, who wants to claim her as his own. With its emphasis on how women are treated as beautiful objects, and Iris’s quest for freedom, The Doll Factory recalls Mary de Morgan’s 1877 short story ‘The Toy Princess’, where a spirited princess is replaced by an identical clockwork doll after her people find the real woman too wilful. (This should also forestall any criticism that Macneal’s representation of women is too modern).

While Macneal’s writing is not as distinctive as Hermes Gowar’s in Mermaid or as Sarah Perry’s in The Essex Serpent, the two most obvious comparators for this novel, I found The Doll Factory totally absorbing and surprisingly moving, which puts it head and shoulders above most recent eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century-set historical fiction. There’s an upsetting moment about three-quarters of the way through which knocked me totally off balance; it’s not a twist as such, but I hadn’t expected it, and it reminded me of similar moments in Mermaid and in Francis Spufford’s Golden HillAnd while much of this story treads familiar ground, Macneal somehow manages to bring a sense of hope to it that makes it very refreshing to read. I particularly enjoyed the development of the relationship between the two sisters. While they were close as children, Rose’s teenage disfigurement through smallpox scars has left her jealous of her sister, and has led to their estrangement – or at least, so Iris believes. Rather than focusing on female rivalry, Macneal has the two sisters become sources of strength for each other.

However, although Silas’s obsession with Iris technically forms the key source of tension in The Doll Factory, I could have done without it. I have read too many books about stalking, dangerous men, and Silas himself is pretty two-dimensional, so I found myself dreading the chapters when he would simply rehearse his grievances against the world. There’s possibly a more complex story about class privilege lurking here, but Macneal doesn’t explore it. While this would make The Doll Factory a less traditionally ‘gripping’ novel, I would honestly have preferred to have no Silas – the social obstacles that Iris has to face are large enough on their own. And if this led to more on the art of oil painting, and less on taxidermy, I’d be all for that as well. The Doll Factory kept my attention not because I was afraid for Iris’s safety, but because the strength of Macneal’s story carries itself forward. I hope she has the courage to break further away from familiar plots in her next novel.

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

Wellcome Book Prize 2019: Shortlist Events and Award Ceremony

I’m off to the Wellcome Book Prize award ceremony tonight to find out which of these books has won the prize!

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I went to the Wellcome 5×15 event with a friend yesterday evening at Wilton’s Music Hall, where five of the six shortlisted authors had fifteen minutes each to discuss their work. This was great, as always – if I lived in London, I’d try to go to some non-Wellcome-related 5×15 events, as the format really works for me. Here are some brief thoughts.

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Sarah Krasnostein: ‘Trauma cleaning for Sandra’

Krasnostein gave a very emotive talk on The Trauma Cleanerher biography of Sandra Pankhurst, a trans woman who has suffered her own personal horrors and now cleans the houses of hoarders, agoraphobics and those who have died and been left undiscovered. It’s clear how much this matters to her. She described how, when she first began the research for this book, her doctor asked her ‘Who would ever want to read that?’ and how this made her more determined to show how we are all connected despite our outward differences. To emphasise this, she used the metaphor of a forest of 40,000 quaking aspens in Utah, which are all linked by the same root system even though they look like individual trunks above the surface (this really is fashionable at the moment!) Krasnostein sees her book as a kind of trauma cleaning for Sandra, doing for her subject what she has done for others. The Trauma Cleaner was our shadow panel winner, and I think it has a good chance of taking the actual prize.

Sandeep Jauhar: ‘Taking away the sudden death option’

In my favourite talk of the evening, Jauhar, a cardiologist, spoke about how his family history of malignant heart disease led him to write his popular medical book, Heart: A History. Like Krasnostein, he encountered some initial resistance to his topic: his eleven-year-old son told him ‘Don’t write a book about the heart. No-one will buy it, because the heart is boring.’ Jauhar told us how the sudden deaths of both of his grandfathers gave him a ‘fear of the heart’, which he saw as both powerful and vulnerable, and how he became obsessed with the organ as a child, adjusting the speed of the ceiling fan so it synchronised with his heartbeat. (He also discovered that if you hooked up an average adult human heart to a swimming pool, it would empty it in a week.) Overall, though, he has come to the conclusion that a swift death from heart disease can be merciful, leaving him with difficult decisions to make about whether to suggest that his patients are fitted with internal defibrillators, which ‘take away the sudden death option’.

Arnold Thomas Fanning: ‘Walking down corridors endlessly’

For those of us who have read Mind on FireFanning’s account of living with bipolar disorder, this talk perhaps had less to offer, as Fanning essentially recounted what he tells us in his memoir. However, he illustrated the talk with a series of pictures of himself from childhood to the present day, which were really interesting to see, and vividly recounted his time in a mental hospital, where he ‘walked down corridors endlessly’ because of his restless energy, and at one point was prescribed sixty different medications over a six-month period. Fanning’s emotional honesty is admirable, and it was lovely to see the delighted reaction from the audience when he announced at the end of the talk that he’s getting married the month after next.

Will Eaves: ‘Understanding the gap between your experiences and someone else’s’

I’m afraid I had many of the same problems with Eaves’s talk as I did with his novel, Murmurwhich chronicles the inner life of a fictional Alan Turing undergoing forced chemical castration after being convicted of gross indecency for having sex with another man. It swung between being profound and pretentious as he meditated on the idea that we can never really understand somebody else’s internal state, and that’s what true sympathy is, offering an interesting counterpart to Krasnostein’s tree metaphor. I was particularly frustrated by the section on time, where Eaves claimed that there is no scientific reason why an equation can’t go backwards rather than forwards;  I wrote ‘ENTROPY’ on my programme and my friend added ‘TWADDLE’. However, Eaves did give us a great potted history of Turing’s life, which will help those approaching Murmur with little knowledge of the subject.

Ottessa Moshfegh: ‘People are vulnerable in having feelings’

Moshfegh spent quite a lot of time talking about what her novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxationis (in her words) not about: namely, how easy it is to get psychiatric drugs in the US, and why that’s a problem. Psychiatrists play on this to get customers, she argued, because ‘people are vulnerable in having feelings.’ Underlining this point, she read the section from the novel where our protagonist first meets Dr Tuttle. However, she stated that, for her, My Year is actually about a woman who ‘does not want to live in this plane of consciousness’ and believes that if she sleeps long enough, all her cells will have forgotten their cellular trauma. Moshfegh presents her protagonist more sympathetically than I had expected from the way she writes about her in the novel, and the talk really made me think again about how to interpret My Year.

Updated 1/5/19: The winner of the Wellcome Book Prize is…

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I’m not surprised by this result, but I am disappointed. Murmur was my least favourite book on the shortlist and on the longlist. I found it pretentious and unreadable, and Eaves’s discussion of the book has only cemented my opinions. More broadly speaking, I felt it would have been the right moment for a book on trans issues to have taken the prize, which would have pointed to a win for either Amateur or The Trauma Cleaner. Winning this prize will probably garner Eaves a wider readership, but it seems unlikely that many readers will be engaged by Murmur.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2019

I have now read eleven of the sixteen titles longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019, which is pretty much what I planned (I’m definitely going to read Normal People whatever happens, but I won’t be reading Praise Song for the Butterflies, Swan Song, Number One Chinese Restaurant or The Pisces unless they’re shortlisted, based on a combination of other bloggers’ reviews and personal taste). First, I’ll present my own personal wish list. WHICH IS:

I’ve made the executive decision to put Normal People on here without actually reading it, as I’m so annoyed by how I’ve been continually thwarted by my local libraries in my efforts to read this novel, but in case I hate it, I have an runner-up option:

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I have to say that, for me, this longlist isn’t nearly as strong as the 2018 longlist, which explains the inclusion of titles such as An American Marriage and Bottled Goods on my personal wish list, even if neither of these novels blew me away. However, here’s why I chose each of these titles, with links to my reviews. In no particular order:

  • Normal People by Sally Rooney. While, as admitted above, I haven’t read this story of schoolfriends Connell and Marianne growing up in rural Ireland and heading to Dublin for university, I’m pretty sure I’m going to like it. My review of Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friendsis here.
  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. This debut novel, which memorably declares ‘One does not challenge their chi to a wrestling match’, considers Ada’s struggle with her various selves, understood through the lens of Igbo belief rather than Western psychological categories. Original and thought-provoking.
  • The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. For me, this was probably the most emotionally engaging of the longlisted titles; I was riveted by Barker’s brutal account of the enslaving of Briseis by the Greek army and her life among the other women of the camp. Yes, it treads familiar ground, but with enough authenticity to put it head and shoulders over other recent classical retellings.
  • Milkman by Anna Burns. This account of a young woman’s negotiation of the power politics of her Northern Irish neighbourhood was a worthy winner of the Booker Prize. Burns’s elliptic writing is both infuriating and illuminating; I can’t stop thinking about the way in which she conjures up paranoia.
  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. I don’t seem to have been as blown away by this novella as other bloggers were; I think Moss has written better, notably The Tidal Zone and Signs for Lost Children. Nevertheless, this first-person narrative from teenage Silvie, who’s been taken by her controlling father to a recreated Iron Age camp in Northumbria, displays Moss’s characteristic intelligence and observational skill. It deserves to be on the shortlist.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. While this is not an technically brilliant novel in the same way as others on my wishlist (Jones’s debut, Leaving Atlantawas a lot better), Jones’s incredibly readable prose belies the skill of her writing. This novel focuses on an African-American couple, Celestial and Roy, who are torn apart after Roy is falsely accused of rape and sent to prison. What I really liked about An American Marriage was the even-handedness with which Jones dealt with her main characters, and its thoughtful exploration of genuine moral dilemmas.
  • BONUS INSURANCE CHOICE! Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn. This little novella has been niggling at me since I finished it. While I initially found this series of flash fiction pieces set in communist Romania somewhat underwhelming, its final image – and the reason for its title – won’t leave me. The way in which van Llewyn weaves in the magical realism/folktale element here is very well done, and  reminiscent of Tea Obreht’s wonderful The Tiger’s Wife. I’d be happy to see this on the shortlist.

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:

  • I think one of the Greek retellings will make it, and Circe seems to be getting more traction than The Silence of the Girls, even though it’s far inferior.
  • There’s so much buzz around Valeria Luiselli, and it would be nice for the Prize to shortlist someone from a Latin American background, so I think Lost Children Archive will make it through, despite my personal misgivings.
  • It seems like it might finally be Sarah Moss’s moment, so I think Ghost Wall will be shortlisted.
  • Freshwater has the dual advantages of being written by the Prize’s first non-binary longlistee, and drawing expertly on Igbo belief.
  • My sense is that one of the longlisted novels that deal with black oppression in the US will also make it through, and I can only hope that the Prize has the sense to make it An American Marriage.
  • Finally, I was torn between two Irish novelsNormal People and Milkman, for the final slot, but felt that Burns’ examination of cold civil war might edge it.

This would also leave us with a nicely balanced shortlist that reflects the racial diversity of the longlist. I would actually be quite happy with this shortlist, though it isn’t my ideal, so hopefully I’ll be proved right!

EDIT 29/4/19: The actual shortlist is here!

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Overall, I’m pretty pleased with this. Three that I predicted, three that I wanted, six that I’ve read (!), and my two frontrunners, Milkman and The Silence of the Girls, still in play! While I wasn’t sure there was much depth to My Sister, The Serial Killer, it’s definitely a memorable read, and while Circe didn’t convince me as a whole, Miller’s prose is wonderful, and there are some very strong chapters and scenes. The only title I can’t really get behind is Ordinary People, which I thought was middle-brow and mediocre. However, there were certainly much weaker titles on the longlist, and Evans is not a bad writer by any means. Poor Sarah Moss has been slighted once again, and I’m still going to seek out Sally Rooney’s latest. But I’m looking forward to see who wins the Prize when the result is announced on the 5th June, though I’m finding the winner very hard to predict – Circe? Silence of the Girls? An American Marriage?

What are your thoughts on my shortlist predictions and wishlist, and the official shortlist itself? Who do you think will win the Prize this year?

 

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #4: Remembered & Bottled Goods

Onwards! This is the last pair of Women’s Prize reviews I’ll be able to fit in before the shortlist is announced on 29th April (I still haven’t been able to read Normal People, so it had BETTER be shortlisted just saying). I’ll be posting my own wishlist before then, probably this weekend.

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Yvonne Battle Felton’s debut, Remembered, operates a dual timeline. In Philadelphia in 1910, Spring is sitting by the bedside of her injured son, Edward, who has been charged with deliberately driving a streetcar into a department store. As Spring tells him the story of his grandmothers and mothers, we jump back in time to antebellum America and the experience of being enslaved. There’s also a familiar ghostly element to the story, as Spring’s dead sister, Tempe, sits beside her and comments on the tale she’s telling, occasionally summoning visions to give us glimpses of scenes Spring wasn’t privy to, such as the plan that led up to Edward’s protest (I’m afraid this device felt less magical to me and more a rather clumsy way of adding an additional point of view). In this, Remembered most obviously recalls Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Singwhich was shortlisted for last year’s Women’s Prize and also dealt with the legacy of slavery, as well as Toni Morrison’s classic Beloved.

I’ve been having an interesting discussion on Elle’s blog about the recent popularity of novels that explore the experiences of enslaved people, whether that’s in a C19th/C20th American context, as with the examples above, or focusing on the C18th/C19th transatlantic slave trade, such as Esi Eduygan’s Washington BlackAndrea Levy’s The Long Song, Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming, and Jane Harris’s Sugar Money (the latter is also the only recent example I can think of written by a white person). Most obviously, this trend is well overdue, and it also makes perfect sense that in the wake of movements such as Black Lives Matter, black writers are being drawn to explore the structural roots of modern racism. I also recognise that while Battle-Felton was writing this novel, the willingness of publishers to suddenly foreground narratives of slavery was hardly something she could have predicted. Yet, having said all this, it’s still the case that Remembered addresses a story that’s becoming familiar, and I’m not sure what it brings to the table. As I commented in my review of Rachel Seiffert’s The Boy in Winterlonglisted for last year’s Women’s Prize, which deals with the round-up of Jews in the Ukraine in 1941 by the SS; there has to be a compelling reason to rehearse these traumatic histories, especially when black writers and readers have emphasised that they don’t just want to see stories about slavery and black suffering.

And sadly, I didn’t feel that Battle-Felton’s writing was up to this task. There are two compelling ideas at the heart of Remembered. First, the streetcar incident as a deliberate act of resistance to racial discrimination, and second, the plantation where Spring and Tempe grow up, which is said to be cursed; no live babies can be born there, and it turns out that the enslaved women are deliberately taking contraceptive measures. Both these plots foreground the agency of black people long before the inception of the civil rights movement. However, both are strangely under-explored. This, I think, comes down to the nuts and bolts of Battle-Felton’s prose; point-of-view switches are not handled well, it’s really difficult to get a sense of time passing, and some key incidents in the novel are just confusing. This becomes particularly problematic in an especially brutal scene near the beginning of the narrative; this scene is, deliberately, horrific, but because of the weak writing, it tips over into what feels like exploitative melodrama. While I admire Battle-Felton’s intentions, this is not a strong entry on the Women’s Prize longlist.

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A shorter review for a very short novel. Bottled Goods, which is also a debut, has been described as a ‘novella-in-flash’; the novel is divided into very short sections that make big chronological jumps, and also plays with format; one section is a table, another is solely dialogue, some are in first person, others in third. Set in communist Romania in the 1970s, the novella focuses on primary school teacher Alina, who falls under suspicion after her brother-in-law defects to the west and she fails to report a pupil caught with a copy of a subversive magazine. There’s a touch of magical realism, but Sophie van Llewyn holds it in the right balance, making Bottled Goods intriguing but grounded. Nevertheless, despite the strength of van Llewyn’s writing, this isn’t one of my favoured contenders for the shortlist either, although I’m glad that I ultimately decided to read it. I’m not convinced that a series of interlinked flash fiction pieces works in the same way an interlinked collection of short stories can; the strength of flash is its ability to conjure a world in very few words, and as these stories don’t need to do that, because character and situation have already been established, they can feel needlessly short. A number of individual pieces are very arresting, but not all of the pieces attain this standard. Overall, I was left feeling that this novella was simply too slight to make enough of an impression. I hope van Llewyn writes something else soon, however, because she’s clearly an original and skilled writer.

Late Spring Reading

I’m still working my way through the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I’ve now read all of the titles I planned to read before the shortlist announcement except Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant – the library just isn’t coming through for me! So, I’ve decided to change my strategy, as I want to get as many of these read before the shortlist is announced on the 29th April. I’m going to buy myself a copy of Normal People, as I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it. Then, as I’ve read some pretty poor reviews of Number One Chinese Restaurant and some pretty good reviews of Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods (plus, I love the fact she’s written this tiny literary novella for a tiny press, and yet says her favourite book/s are A Song of Ice and Fire), I’m going to read Bottled Goods instead. Therefore, I won’t be reading Number One… (or The Pisces, Swan Song or Praise Song for the Butterflies) unless it’s shortlisted, which I doubt it will be.

In the meantime, a round-up of some non-Women’s Prize reading:

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In retrospect, everything else in The Dollmaker was overshadowed for me by the hauntingly brilliant long quotation that prefaces the novel, taken from an 1897 article called ‘A Study of Dolls’, co-authored by the famous American psychologist of adolescence, G. Stanley Hall. Here’s a little bit of it:

90 children mentioned burial, their average age being nine; 80 mentioned funerals, 73 imagined their dolls dead, 30 dug up dolls after burial to see if they had gone to heaven, or simply to get them back. Of these 11 dug them up the same day… 12 dolls came to death by accidental bumps and fractures, 1 burst, 1 died of a melted face, 2 were drowned (1 a paper doll)… 30 children had never imagined dolls dead. This parents often forbid… In 21 cases there was death but no burial; in 10, funerals but no burials; in 8, funerals but no death.

This is so ridiculous and beautiful, the kind of inadvertent poetry that you sometimes find in Victorian social studies, that The Dollmaker was never going to live up to it. Ultimately, I admired the craft and intelligence with which this novel was written, but it wasn’t really my thing.

Andrew Garvie, who has dwarfism, has spent his life collecting and making dolls. When he receives a letter from Bramber Winters, a woman living in an institution on Bodmin Moor, about his collection, this begins an enthusiastic correspondence between them. Andrew sets off on a journey across England to finally meet Bramber, and on the way, reads a book of Polish stories that she’s recommended to him by the fictional Ewa Chaplin. Chaplin’s stories are littered with characters that might be considered ‘freaks’ in nineteenth-century parlance, from a range of people who also have dwarfism to a woman whose fingers have been frozen by rheumatoid arthritis and a woman born without one of her eyes. This engages Andrew’s sympathies; recently, he has been restoring ‘monsters’, damaged dolls who don’t have perfect faces and bodies, because he sees no reason why dolls shouldn’t reflect reality.

A number of Chaplin’s stories are scattered throughout the novel, and most are riveting; subtly disturbing, they all suggest worlds that aren’t quite our own. In contrast, Andrew and Bramber’s plot-line is rooted more firmly in reality than I’d expected, and I longed for more than a hint of the speculative. The dolls themselves are more symbolically significant throughout the novel than anything else, and I wished there had been a lot more about Andrew’s work as a dollmaker, picking up on the hint of creepiness in the Stanley Hall quote. And while the Chaplin stories worked for me, they made the pace of the novel very erratic, as it took me a little while to get into each one, meaning I’d often put the novel aside for some time when a new story appeared. Without the stories, on the other hand, this is a familiar tale of two misfits finding love through letter, and Bramber never really came alive for me; I’d have preferred the whole thing to be about Andrew, his dolls, and Ewa Chaplin’s stories.

Writers often complain that reviewers review the book they wanted to read rather than the book the writer wanted to write, and that’s definitely at play for me here; I SO wanted this to be a more alternative-reality sort of novel that I kept on making up elaborate twists that didn’t come to pass (Andrew and Bramber are actually dolls in a complicated child’s game!). However, this is a very well-written novel that I’d recommend to those to whom the synopsis appeals, and as I hear Allan’s earlier novels lean more towards the SF, I’ll definitely be checking those out (The Rift is already on my 2019 reading list).

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

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College friends Jack and Wynn are canoeing the Maskwa River in Northern Canada. Wynn is the most experienced with whitewater, while Jack is an expert on wilderness survival and hunting; they don’t anticipate problems. However, when they find themselves in the path of a forest fire and overhear a couple arguing in the middle of the night, they are unwillingly plunged into a life-or-death journey down the river.

This novel, the first I’ve read by Peter Heller, sits somewhere between literary fiction and thriller; the UK cover is somewhat misleading in depicting it as a pure white-knuckle ride. Heller spends some time establishing the landscape and the relationship between the two men, so the plot doesn’t really kick in until we’re about a third of the way through. However, this is a relatively short novel, so I didn’t find this to be a problem; just don’t expect this to be thrills from page one. Once The River gets going, it’s properly gripping, and Heller’s knowledge of the wilderness is evident. It reminded me of Erica Ferencik’s equally engrossing The River at Night, with perhaps a greater touch of realism.

The ‘literariness’ of this novel is a little more questionable. Heller’s writing is somewhat reminiscent of Charles Frazier, but less deliberately meditative. However, The River doesn’t seem to have a great deal to say; the one enduring theme is the contrast between Wynn’s idealism and Jack’s cynicism, which is rather simplistically resolved. The novel also falls back on cliched gender roles; of the two women mentioned prominently in it, one, Jack’s dead mother, appears only in flashbacks as a motivation for Jack’s actions, while the other is a helpless victim of male violence. In short, I’d have liked this to either have gone full-on ‘thriller’, or to have had greater depth; although I enjoyed reading it, it sits a bit uneasily between the two.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on May 16th.

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Lucy grew up in a working-class family in Sunderland, attending a comprehensive school in nearby Washington, so when she heads to university at King’s College, London, in the mid-00s, she has to adjust to the new landscape around her, abandoning fake tan, sequins and Asti for cigarettes, leather jackets and leopard-print tights. Later, having received her degree, Lucy will flee to her grandfather’s home in Donegal, seeking out the silence of a very different world.

Saltwater, Jessica Andrews’s debut novel, is told in non-linear fragments, although the four parts of the book roughly divide up the phases of Lucy’s life, from childhood to adolescence to studenthood to the aftermath. However, I didn’t find anything especially original in either the prose or the structure. This kind of storytelling is commonplace in literary fiction – think early Maggie O’Farrell – as, increasingly, are the very short chapters. Saltwater is clearly based very closely on Andrews’s own experiences, and while I’m not against fashionable autofiction per se, it has to be really wonderful to convince me, e.g. Jessie Greengrass’s Sight.

As someone who’s recently moved to Newcastle and who has family on both sides who grew up in the north-east, I loved the idea of a novel that explored working-class experience outside London. However, Saltwater either gives us precise, repetitive litanies of sweets, toys, drinks and bands, or feels irritatingly vague. Some of the sections that explore Lucy’s adolescent experiences, such as hanging out in Exhibition Park, are a bit more satisfying, but these aren’t typical of the novel as a whole. Having read some of Andrews’s articles about being the first person in her family to go to university, I found these more illuminating than the fictional version represented here. Andrews’s writing is readable enough, but I hope she pushes herself further next time.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on May 19th.