Nuns In Novel(la)s

This year, despite not being religious myself, I’ve become slightly obsessed with fictional nuns. I thought I’d think a little about why nuns offer such interesting possibilities for novelists, in anticipation of Lauren Groff’s forthcoming MatrixHere, I’ll be discussing three very different books about three very different kinds of nuns: Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts (2008), which depicts a convent in sixteenth-century Italy; Lina Rather’s Sisters of the Vast Black (2019), which follows an unspecified order of nuns on board a living spaceship; and Rumer Godden’s In This House Of Brede (1969), which is set in an English Benedictine community in the 1960s. However, although these nuns are far apart in space and time, they all sit within the Catholic tradition; this post will therefore focus on Catholic nuns, while recognising that these aren’t the only nuns that exist, even in the Christian faith – and recommendations for books that deal with non-Christian nuns would be very welcome!

Catholic nuns tend to be the butt of jokes, either portrayed as incredibly prudish or sex-obsessed; because nuns are supposed to be angelic, any hint of misbehaviour from a nun is somehow funnier than if it came from a ‘normal’ person. (One of my favourite jokes as a child – no idea why – was ‘What goes black white black white?’/’A nun rolling down a hill.’/’What’s black and white and goes ha ha?’/’The nun who pushed her!’) The radical potential in stories about Catholic nuns, therefore, lies in asking what it’s really like to be a nun and whether this popular stereotype of repressed, unhappy, usually elderly women holds true. If you take out references to nuns or convents from the blurbs of Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede, they suddenly sound a lot more subversive: 

Sixteen-year-old Serafina is ripped by her family from an illicit love affair and forced into the women’s community of Santa Caterina, renowned for its superb music. 

Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman, leaves her life among the London elite to join a women’s community.

This is not to say that you can simply ‘take out’ the religion from these kinds of communities and reimagine them as proto-feminist communes, but that there’s obvious potential in telling stories about groups of women who live together and rely on each other, and are often able to do things they could not do in the outside world, while recognising that this kind of life comes with its own set of restrictions. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Matrix sparks a new trend for this kind of novel, as it speaks to a lot of twenty-first century concerns: women who are not defined as wives or mothers; female separatism; loneliness vs chosen solitude; the un/importance of sex.

However, if nun novels were just about women both embracing and escaping the confines of their times, Sisters of the Vast Black would be pointless. Why write about nuns in space when you can invent a future where women can do anything they want? Here, I think we see the appeal of writing about a community of people who are simply trying to do the right thing, aside from feminist concerns. The first two-thirds of Sisters of the Vast Black have a moral seriousness that isn’t preachy or theoretical but very much connected to the world the sisters are dealing with. Even more interestingly, both Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede depict closed orders, where the nuns’ job is not to do ‘good works’ but to create a community of prayer, cut off from most contact with the world around them. The purpose of this can be hard to understand; what good are the nuns doing by removing themselves from the world? However, in both novels, the power of the convent, of this way of living, is evident, although both Godden and Dunant recognise that this life is right for some women and hellish for others.

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Diana Rigg starred in a film adaptation of In This House Of Brede (1975)

Why read about Catholic nuns if you are not yourself Catholic or Christian? One great thing that these novels open up is the opportunity to write about women who are not primarily driven by one emotional tie, whether that’s to a man, a child or another family member. As I wrote in my review of Lissa Evans’s Old Baggagethese kind of novels are very rare. And while I wouldn’t want to read a nun novel that was simplistic or dogmatic about religion, none of these books are like that. Dunant vividly conveys the importance of faith to some women in her sixteenth-century convent while others suffer under its strictures. Godden has a harder task, convincing us that a twentieth-century character like Philippa would enter a convent in the first place, or thrive there as she does. But while few of us have a vocation to be a nun, I could identify with how Philippa struggles with herself, the fight to be the best version of herself she can be – I don’t need to share her beliefs to understand that.

Finally, there’s a thoughtfulness about these kind of novels, a deliberately reflective pace that I find hugely refreshing in fiction. Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede tell a big story about lots of women and the lives they lead, and they aren’t tempted to hurry us along to hit the dramatic highpoints. Sisters of the Vast Black, in my opinion, suffers in its final third because it suddenly speeds up, losing much of what made it special earlier on. These books eschew standard plots with a single, ‘active’ protagonist to think about how even the most self-reliant of nuns are part of something bigger. Along the way, they break many ‘rules’ of fiction, and they’re all the better for it.

Have you read any of these novels, or any other novels about nuns? Do you have any recommendations? (I’ve already spotted that Rumer Godden wrote two other novels about nuns, and am eagerly seeking them out!)

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Detransition, Baby

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Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby flips between present and past to tell the story of Reese, a trans woman; her ex Ames, who once lived as a trans woman called Amy but has now detransitioned; and Katrina, who is pregnant by Ames and shocked to discover his trans past. Ames proposes that they form a child-rearing triad, giving Katrina the support she needs with the baby and fulfilling Reese’s lifelong dream of being a mother. But will their different takes on parenting, relationships and what it means to be a woman torpedo this arrangement before it even gets going?

I had to read Detransition, Baby very slowly, not because it’s an inherently slow read (each chapter zips past) but because I felt like Peters was throwing so much at me that I needed time to digest it before moving on. Therefore, this review will take the form of a series of observations rather than the straightforward kind of review I usually write. It also occurs to me that this is the kind of book I’m going to rethink as time goes on, so these thoughts are also very provisional.

  • Peters is not interested in writing trans characters that are straightforwardly likeable or who deliberately challenge trans stereotypes, which is a good thing. When I’ve read trans women or girls written by writers who don’t identify as trans, I’ve found that these depictions tend to be so respectful as to be smothering. Peters seems to have looked at this kind of writing and gone, fuck this. Reese has very little time for what she frames as trans victimhood but at the same time recognises that she plays into it when it suits her. This tactic backfires when she tries to tell Katrina, who is Chinese-American, that Katrina, as a cis woman, can’t understand how it feels to want a baby and yet to be seen as unfit to parent. Katrina isn’t having any of this: ‘I don’t know, Reese. It doesn’t sound like you’re talking about all women, it just sounds like a certain kind of woman. Like women now, here in this country – white women… When my grandma arrived here from China, she wasn’t encouraged to have kids.’ Reese is also unable to understand how cis women might perceive pregnancy as a biological burden, because she so desperately wants to get pregnant herself.
  • The book portrays a trans culture that, in Reese’s words, is ‘morbid and highly skeptical’. Peters presents this as a coping mechanism for living in a transphobic world. In one particularly memorable chapter, Reese attends yet another funeral for a trans woman who took her own life, but although she’s angry and sad, she deals with her feelings by employing black humour: ‘What no-one wants to admit about funerals, because you’re supposed to be crushed by the melancholy of being a trans girl among the prematurely dead trans girls, is that funerals for dead trans girls number among the notable social events of a season.’
  • It has really interesting things to say about age and generation. One of Reese’s favourite narratives is that trans women don’t have any ‘elders’, and so she has to be a ‘mother’ to ‘baby trans’ women. She also points out that trans women have often gone through a second puberty, and so experience a kind of second adolescence. In short, Peters takes a lot of ideas from impenetrable academic books I’ve read about queer temporality and makes them accessible ūüôā 
  •  The book isn’t afraid to tackle taboos such as autogynephilia. Ames/Amy wrestles with his/her sexuality, and whether he/she really is a woman or is simply turned on by dressing up and being treated like one. (I’m using both sets of pronouns here because Ames/Amy uses both during the course of the novel). However, Peters is too smart a writer not to pursue this question to its furthest extent; Ames/Amy reflects that cis women may also be turned on by performing gender, and so this isn’t something that’s unique to trans women. I didn’t agree with all the assumptions that Ames/Amy and Reese make about cis women, but that’s fine; Peters isn’t writing a manifesto here, she’s writing a novel about characters that relate to gender in a certain way and move within a particular kind of subculture.
  • Because of all this Detransition, Baby calls into question our pre-conceived ideas about who authors are writing for and what they need to explain. I often felt incredibly uncomfortable while I was reading this novel. Some of this was because the book messed with some of my ideas about womanhood and gender, which didn’t always fit with the ideas that Ames/Amy and Reese express (not in the sense that I thought the ideas they expressed were wrong, but in the sense that there wasn’t much space for me in this world, which again, is OK, there doesn’t have to be, I’m not trans). However, I realised that some of this was because I was worrying about the reaction of an imagined reader who is not me; an imagined straight cis reader who doesn’t know much about trans issues and is inclined to be unsympathetic. (These Goodreads reviewers call this reaction ‘not in front of the cis‘ or ‘not in front of the straights‘, which is perfect). Peters clearly decided that she was going to write without worrying about whether she was leaving the reader behind or presenting an unsympathetic image of trans women. And ultimately, I think this is great: how can you create good art, or talk honestly about identity, if you are constantly worrying about a person who doesn’t understand the basics of what you want to say?
  • Having said all this, Detransition, Baby does have problems on a craft level. This book is so clever and so interesting that I often skimmed past a lot of this, but there’s no denying that it feels rather hastily put together; the tenses often go wonky and some of the dialogue doesn’t work. Given the subject-matter, I think Peters can be forgiven for a lot of the ‘telling’ she does; if you’re writing about things that haven’t been spoken about before, how do you convey those things to the reader other than by telling? However, sometimes I felt that she was just dumping too much in, and failed to connect to her characters’ emotions. You could also see the joins in the unsteady jumps between past and present. Some of the sex was thematically necessary, but some felt gratuitous. So, this feels very much like a debut, but WHAT a debut; I’d definitely rather read a book like this than a book from someone who has totally mastered their craft, but has nothing to say. 

I’d also like to recommend this Goodreads review from a non-binary reviewer who I think really nails why this book works, especially the complexity of the three main characters.

I‚Äôm not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women‚Äôs Prize longlist this year, but I‚Äôve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number seven. I‚Äôve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times and Small Pleasures.

Now I’ve read all seven books, I’ll be back soon with my overall ranking and shortlist predictions!

#AllSystemsRead SF Readathon

#AllSystemsRead was a science fiction readathon hosted by Imyril @ There’s Always Room For One More and Lisa @ Dear Geek Place. It ran over the long Easter weekend, 2nd to 5th April, and the aim was just to catch up on some SF reading! Here’s what I read (NB you did not have to read All Systems Red, I wanted to read it anyway!):

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Martha Wells’s¬†Murderbot Diaries¬†series is pretty famous for its Murderbot narrator, which starts by telling us: ‘I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.’¬†The first novella in the series, All Systems Red,¬†follows Murderbot after it’s been deployed as a security bot to protect a team of scientists conducting a research expedition on a largely unexplored planet. It was a solid and fun read, but I admit I wasn’t quite as wowed by it as I’d expected to be after all the hype surrounding Murderbot. I think I’d been expecting something more subversive – Murderbot is the classic snarky-exterior-with-a-heart-of-gold character rather than anything more ethically experimental. I liked that, in this set-up, the AI resists the humanity that the human characters project onto it rather than trying to prove its humanity, but as Murderbot clearly thinks very much like a human, this is played for laughs rather than to seriously suggest that there’s anything fundamentally different about bots in this universe. I’m not compelled to pick up the next novella in the series unless the price significantly drops, but I enjoyed the time I spent with this one. (Interestingly, Murderbot very clearly describes itself, and is described, as an ‘it’, but about half the Goodreads reviews that ascribe it a gender say they thought of it as he and half as she. I felt happier thinking of it as an it, though I imagined its human face as generic male.)

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Octavia E. Butler’s short story¬†‘Bloodchild’¬†has only convinced me that I must read more Butler as soon as possible – I’ve already read Kindred,¬†so next up will be¬†Parable of the Sower.¬†‘Bloodchild’ has an interesting colonised/coloniser dynamic; a group of humans have left Earth for another planet already inhabited by the Tlic, a race of giant insectoids. We find out that humans were originally forced to live on special preserves, but that recently the two species have developed a more symbiotic relationship that seems to rest on one child of each family rendering a particular kind of service to the Tlic. I don’t want to say much more as this is only thirty pages, but this is a brilliantly disturbing story that raises both obvious and less obvious questions.

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Next up, I read Lina Rather’s novella¬†Sisters of the Vast Black,¬†which focuses on an order of nuns travelling through space in a living ship. The novella opens with them arguing over whether the ship has a soul, which made me think this was going to be a rather more cerebral story than it actually is – this thread is soon dropped and seems only to have served to introduce the central characters. Nevertheless, I thought the first two-thirds of the novella were fantastic. In its last third, Rather abruptly introduces a more standard-issue science fiction plot and draws much tidier moral lines, which was a disappointment. I’m not going to say anything more about this one because I want to include it in a round-up of novels about nuns that I’m working on for later.

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Finally, I started¬†Vagabonds¬†by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu. After all this short fiction, I wanted something really long and immersive! I loved Hao’s short story ‘The New Year Train’ in¬†Broken Stars,¬†edited by Liu, and the premise of this novel sounded fantastic: ‘A century after the Martian war of independence, a group of kids are sent to Earth as delegates from Mars, but when they return home, they are caught between the two worlds, unable to reconcile the beauty and culture of Mars with their experiences on Earth’.¬†I’m still reading this, so I’ll withhold judgment on it for now!

Have you read any science fiction recently, whether it was recently published, a classic text, or anything in between?

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Small Pleasures

There’s a lot to love in Clare Chambers’ absorbing Small Pleasures, set in late 1950s London – and a little that made me uncomfortable. Jean, the central character, is a journalist for the local paper and sole carer for her elderly mother. She apparently slots into a kind of literary type, but as I’ve never read any of the writers that Chambers has been compared to, like Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner, I found this to be quite a refreshing look at the unpaid and unappreciated care work done by ‘spinster’ women. Jean’s steady job is to write the ‘women’s sections’ of the paper, like ‘Pam’s Piece’ and domestic tips, but when she reads a letter from a woman who claims to have given birth ‘without the involvement of any man’, she is keen to pursue the story. This brings her into contact with Gretchen, now married to Howard, whose ‘miraculous’ daughter Margaret is now ten. Jean becomes increasingly drawn into this family, who offer her respite from her loneliness, but becoming too closely involved with their lives may turn out to have been a mistake.

As Small Pleasures unfolds, it becomes increasingly drawn away from the ‘virgin birth’ hook and more focused on the individual subjectivities of Jean, Howard and Gretchen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although I felt that the conclusion to the virgin birth thread was a bit deus ex machina, as if Chambers wanted to wrap it up quickly before getting onto the actual ending of the novel. The joy of this book lies partly in its quietness, its willingness to give time to characters that are often overlooked in fiction, with Jean musing extensively on her middle-aged dowdiness and how people assume that she no longer feels anything much. There’s a sensible kindness about interpersonal relationships throughout much of this novel, with neighbours offering help as well as judgment, and colleagues sympathy as well as pity. Even Jean’s querulous mother is allowed to have some redeeming qualities. However, this makes the moments when Chambers seems to run short on empathy even more telling. [Spoilers from now on, scroll to the bottom of the post to skip]

About halfway through Small Pleasures, we find out that Gretchen was in love with another woman, Martha, during the period she spent at a sanatorium as a teenager, when she also conceived Margaret. Martha was devastated because she believed Gretchen willingly slept with a man, and cut off contact with her. Gretchen explains that she was motivated to prove that Margaret was an immaculate conception so that Martha would trust her again. Having re-established contact with Martha via Jean, Gretchen leaves Howard. Howard tells Jean that he and Gretchen stopped having sex long ago, and he and Jean embark upon an affair. This, for me, was where Small Pleasures began to feel a little uncomfortable. The text focuses on Howard’s pain, emphasising that he wasn’t able to have ‘a full marriage’ with Gretchen and how important it is for him to have found true sexual love with Jean. We’re also invited to reflect on how important this is for Jean after years of self-denial. However, perhaps inadvertently, this minimises Gretchen’s (and Martha’s) suffering; it may be unpleasant to have to live a life of involuntary celibacy, but it’s another thing altogether to have the very fact that you experience desire demonised and suppressed.

I’ve noticed that when somebody writes in to a forum or problem page to say that their spouse has come out as gay or lesbian and has left them, this is often framed as deliberate deceit. While there may be some sympathy for the spouse, it’s always assumed that they ‘always knew’ they were homosexual and so always knew that they could never be a ‘proper’ husband or wife. Chambers very much plays into this kind of narrative, suggesting that Gretchen should have been ‘honest’ with Howard. However, being a lesbian in 1950s Britain was not just an identity that couldn’t be publicly claimed; it was an identity that barely existed. As Diana Chapman said, remembering her adolescence in the early 1950s, ‘Yes, I thought I was a lesbian. But‚Ķ every book on psychology I ever read‚Ķ told me that it was immature and I should‚Ķ reconcile myself to my femininity and find myself a good man and have children.’ If your sexual desires have been validated all of your life, it might be hard to understand how queer people can both ‘know and not know’ what they really want, but this is still real for queer people – and perhaps especially queer women – today, let alone almost seventy years ago. The very fact that Gretchen waited so long to prove her story and seek out Martha suggested to me that, even if she’d once admitted her feelings for Martha to herself, she’d tried to bury them again after marrying Howard. I understand that we get all of this through Jean, who is not primed to be sympathetic to Gretchen; but I felt that Chambers could have done a lot more work, if she had been so inclined, to indicate that our sympathies should be more complicated.

I‚Äôm not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women‚Äôs Prize longlist this year, but I‚Äôve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number six. I‚Äôve already read The Vanishing Half, Transcendent KingdomPiranesi, Consent and Exciting Times.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Consent and Exciting Times

(Perhaps someone should actually write a novel called Consent and Exciting Times, it sounds fun).

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Annabel Lyon’s latest novel, Consent, is almost impossible to summarise swiftly (which may explain why the British publisher has pretty much given up and written an inaccurate summary of the entire plot on the back cover, but publishers, this really isn’t a good idea – apart from anything else, it makes Consent sound like a thriller, which it is not). In short, it’s about two pairs of sisters. Sara’s sister Mattie is intellectually disabled, and Sara starts caring for her after the death of their mother. Saskia’s sister Jenny has been out of control since she was a teenager, and now she’s in a coma following a car accident. Lyon packs so much into this relatively slim novel that there are probably multiple ways of summarising what it’s really ‘about’, but I found myself particularly picking up on the theme of bodily autonomy – what we are allowed to do with our bodies, and how that’s related to both our intellectual capacity and our capacity to live independently from other people. We valorise independence, but we’re all dependent. We want freedom, but we often throw away the things that would allow us to seek it. Some of us, Lyon seems to be saying, are allowed to wreck our own lives; some of us are not.

I thought this novel was fantastic, but I’m struggling to say why. I imagine many readers will find it incredibly unsatisfying. Lyon’s writing is elliptical, deliberately looping round pieces of key information so we have to be constantly engaged to work things out for ourselves. Such intensity might have been too much in a longer novel, but in this short book it’s perfect, like one of the strong espressos Sara drinks or the expensive scents she wears. It also strays close to the ironic commentary of some ‘millennial novels’ I’ve read without giving into the temptation to say things that are too easy. (Sara, born in the 70s, is also too old to be a millennial, and I liked the juxtaposition between her inner monologue and that of the younger Saskia’s). I’d never heard of Lyon before she was longlisted for the Women’s Prize, but now I want to check out her entire backlist. Brilliant choice, judges.

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It’s a rare novel that draws praise from both Marian Keyes and Hilary Mantel, but both are quoted on the cover of my copy of Naoise Dolan’s debut, Exciting Times. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been steering clear of this for some time because I felt it would be yet another ‘dysfunctional women being dysfunctional novel’, but after some persuasion, mostly by Elle, I decided to give it a try. And I’m glad I did; this is much weirder and more interesting than your typical novel about a young woman messing her life up. Ava is working as a TEFL teacher in Hong Kong, partly because she doesn’t know what to do next with her life and partly to avoid living at home in Dublin. She finds herself hate-dating banker Julian, and stays in his flat when he leaves Hong Kong for months on business. But then she meets Edith, and finds herself building a relationship that’s much sweeter and more genuine – although, if that’s really the case, why is she still so drawn to Julian?

Ava’s narration makes this novel. She’s interested in language in a way that feels much more illuminating than the wordplay that writers like Ali Smith sometimes indulge in, musing on the differences between Irish English and the ‘correct’ form of English that she’s instructed to teach to her students, as well as the differences between English and the languages she encounters in Hong Kong. Her voice is also pitched very carefully between being relatable and alienating, which perhaps explains why both Keyes and Mantel enjoyed this. Bits of Exciting Times did take me right back to my early twenties, when being the least keen in a relationship was so important, and you get interested in people who seem to be the antithesis of everything you say you believe in, because they come from a world you’ve never encountered before. However, Ava isn’t an everywoman; she’s both terrible and brilliant at social interaction, and makes some very bizarre judgments about others. She comes off at first like the kind of astute narrator that we can laugh along with, but we gradually realise how off-kilter her ideas are. All this is really cleverly handled, and although I didn’t quite fall for Exciting Times, I definitely admired it.

I‚Äôm not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women‚Äôs Prize longlist this year, but I‚Äôve selected seven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers four and five. I‚Äôve already read The Vanishing Half ,Transcendent Kingdom and Piranesi.

Feminisms: A Global History by Lucy Delap

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Lucy Delap’s accessible and compelling¬†Feminisms: A Global History¬†does not attempt the impossible task of writing a complete global history of feminism, but instead, picks up on a series of themes in feminist history, ranging from ‘dreams’ to ‘dress’ to ‘actions’, and draws from modern feminist activists and movements to explore how feminist thought and action was shaped internationally. Delap deliberately uses the term ‘feminisms’ rather than feminism to emphasise the multiplicity of women’s movements across the globe, and also frames this as ‘mosaic feminism’ – women may have been using some of the same inherited pieces, but they formed different patterns. And indeed, the very first chapter emphasises that one big problem for contemporary feminism might be the inability to accommodate disagreement, citing feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young:¬†‚Äėwe need to wake up to the challenge of understanding across difference rather than keep on dreaming about common dreams‚Äô.¬†Not all the activists Delap writes about would even have called themselves feminists, but they still contributed to a wider history of political action that centred women’s needs.

What I found so valuable about Delap’s approach to writing about global feminisms was that non-Western feminisms are not treated simply as an ‘add-on’ to more familiar Western histories – we aren’t simply told that there were also feminist activists and organisations elsewhere. Instead, Delap illuminates how African, Latin American and Asian feminists transformed feminist thought and challenged Western priorities. The Bengali writer¬†Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain published her utopian text¬†Sultana’s Dream¬†in 1905, which depicted ‘Ladyland’, a world where women and men could interact as equals through ‘sacred’ relations that had no sexual connotations; this envisaged women’s liberation through ‘the abandonment of sexual links to men’, a vision that we might more commonly associate with ‘political lesbianism’ in Britain and the USA in the 1970s. In the early twentieth century, there was also an active Chinese feminist movement, with women in some Chinese provinces gaining the vote by 1912, well ahead of many Western counterparts, and the word nann√ľ¬†starting to be used to indicate a ‘sexed system of social organisation’, or something like what we might call patriarchy. Meanwhile, the Egyptian activist¬†Huda Sha‚Äôarawi organised women in the 1919 protests against British rule; her decision to unveil in public in 1923 was celebrated by Europeans, but Sha‚Äôarawi herself did not see this as particularly important, and, in fact, mocked ‘the veil of ignorance’ that Western women wore, unable to see Egyptian women clearly because of orientalist stereotypes.

Delap also shows how ideas were exchanged, translated and repurposed in global contexts. The famous US second-wave feminist text¬†Our Bodies, Ourselves¬†(1970), which encouraged women to look after their health and celebrate their sexuality, was reproduced and reworked in different settings. In Bulgaria, it was retitled¬†Our Body, Ourselves,¬†to emphasise individualism after the fall of the communist state, whereas in Latin America the text was framed with more of a focus on traditional community settings. The phrase ‘the personal is political’, coined by US feminist Carol¬†Hanisch, was influenced both by the Black Power practice of ‘telling it like it is’ and Hanisch’s reading of French feminist Claudie Broyelle’s¬†Half the Sky¬†(1973), which stressed the autonomy of women in Communist China to voice and act on their emotions through the Maoist idea of ‘speaking bitterness’. (Broyelle wrote a follow-up to this work in 1980, admitting it had been a ‘day-dream’ as reports of the violent oppression of women in China continued to emerge.) However,¬†Feminisms¬†does not just trace the histories of familiar Western touchstones but introduces new ones, such as the memorable phrase used by Japanese activist¬†Kishida Toshiko in 1883, who publicly spoke of her anger at how women had to live their lives in close confinement, saying that raising daughters in such an environment was like ‘trying to grow flowers in salt’.

Feminisms¬†is primarily concerned with the intersections of gender, race and class rather than sexuality or gender identity, although it does touch on the issues faced by lesbians and trans women who tried to engage with second-wave feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. Delap writes briefly about how sex and gender might have been understood more fluidly in certain African countries before colonialist binaries were imposed, citing the work of Ifi Amadiume and¬†Oy√®r√≥nk√©¬†Oyńõw√Ļm√≠. Amadiume has argued that age hierarchies were more important than gender hierarchies in the organisation of some African societies, allowing women to adopt more powerful roles such as ‘female husband’. However, it is obviously impossible to cover everything in a single book, and I had the sense that Delap had been led by the priorities of many of the activists she considers, who, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were often focused on colonial or class oppression. In 1975,¬†Bolivian tin miner‚Äôs wife Domitila Barrios de Ch√ļngara confronted the US feminist Betty Friedan at a meeting in Mexico City, which revealed the perceived gulf between their ideas of feminism: Barrios de Ch√ļngara was an experienced union activist who worked alongside men, and thought gringa feminism was ‘a lesbian-dominated war against men’. (Friedan had actually been instrumental in banning lesbians from the US National Organisation for Women’s New York chapter in 1970, so likely shared this hostility).

Obviously, a book like this can never be more than a starting-point for the huge histories it touches upon, but this is an incredibly thought-provoking take on some of the questions we should be asking when we think about global histories of feminism.

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

Finishing Up With February ARCs

These three solid debut novels mark the end of my glut of February ARCs! My first post on February releases can be found here.

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I thoroughly enjoyed Emily Layden’s¬†All Girls,¬†although I recognised that the book has some issues which may be more of a turn-off for other readers.¬†All Girls¬†is set during the academic year 2015-16 at a New England prep school where a former student has recently accused one of the teachers of sexually assaulting her. However,¬†All Girls¬†is not really focused on the details of the accusation, but rather how it impacts the school’s current students, and their developing ideas of how to navigate in the world as young women who are never quite taken seriously. It’s narrated through nine different third-person perspectives (plus a bit of head-hopping in the final section), as we meet a range of girls from different grades, from awkward new freshman Lauren to jaded ex-ballet dancer Sloane to lesbian Emma, a senior whose long-term relationship with her mixed-race girlfriend Olivia has become iconic in the school.

While the characters sometimes become hard to keep track of, I really felt that Layden had thought this all through; there’s something solid about the connections between her cast that makes me believe that if I re-read this novel, all sorts of things would start coming to light that I hadn’t noticed first time round. In this way, I thought her decision to use multiple narrators was much more illuminating than if we’d had to keep to a single person’s perspective (both the strength and weakness of Curtis Sittenfeld’s¬†Prep,¬†which this novel obviously has a lot in common with, is that we’re totally trapped in Lee’s head, and Lee’s head is a very unreliable place to be trapped). And while there are so many novels about the inner worlds of teenage girls, there are very few that are so serious and insightful; like Sittenfeld, Layden really gets how some teenage girls approach the world, and how small but yet significant interactions can crush or uplift their sense of who they are. If there was one thing I found less convincing about All Girls, it was that all her narrators seem to share this sense of watchfulness; it would have been nice, and more realistic, to get inside the head of at least one student who was less compulsively analytic. It’s¬†also, frankly, too long. Nevertheless, it’s definitely well ahead of most books of this kind, and if you like campus novels, you’ll probably like this.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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Neema Shah’s¬†Kololo Hill¬†focuses on an episode in British colonial history that may not be familiar to many readers; the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972 by Idi Amin. Most Asians had to leave the country within ninety days, fleeing to the range of countries in which they had citizenship – with a majority ending up in Britain – although some were left stateless. As the novel makes clear, although Uganda had gained independence from Britain in 1962, this event was a direct result of its long history of colonisation. South Asians, mostly Gujaratis, had been originally brought to Uganda by the British, first to work on the construction of the Uganda Railway in the late nineteenth century (nearly a third of these Indian workers were killed or maimed during the project), and later to participate in commerce and administration under the Uganda Protectorate. However, the expulsion of Ugandan Asians was also intertwined with Britain’s future stance towards its former colonial subjects; the 1971 Immigration Act increased immigration controls and was primarily motivated by the influx of refugees from Uganda and from Kenya, which also expelled Asians in the late 1960s.

Kololo Hill¬†tells this story through a single family. Asha has recently married Pran, who runs a general store, or dukan, with his brother Vijay, and also lives with mother Jaya and father¬†Motichand. While the family are not wealthy, they become increasingly aware of how they are perceived as privileged ‘dukawallahs’ by African Ugandans, and try to protect their ‘house-boy’ December, who is one of the persecuted Acholi people. Each¬†step of the plot is pretty predictable, but¬†Kololo Hill¬†still flows easily and engagingly as we see how this family deal with their world suddenly being turned upside down. I wanted our three narrators – Asha, Vijay and Jaya – to stray a little further from archetype, but I appreciated the inter-generational perspective, and the consideration of how Vijay manages with a physical disability (he was born missing most of his left arm), especially when he comes into contact with the British welfare state. Shah depicts the ways in which her protagonists are both oppressed and fortunate skilfully, as they recognise the advantages they’ve had over African Ugandans due to British patronage and their relatively kinder welcome into Britain itself, and yet are obviously uprooted, robbed, and attacked in Uganda, and continue to face racism every day in Britain. While¬†Kololo Hill might be¬†competent rather than brilliant, it vividly conveys this significant moment in history.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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Way back in January 2020, before the UK publication date of Meng Jin’s¬†Little Gods¬†got pushed back, it was one of my most-anticipated books for that year. And, it turns out, it does use a narrative device that’s one of my favourites: telling the story of a single character solely through the perspectives of multiple other people, like Anna North does in¬†The Life and Death of Sophie Stark¬†or Kevin Nguyen does in¬†New Waves.¬†As a young woman, Su Lan is a brilliantly talented theoretical physicist. We meet her having just given birth to her daughter Liya in Beijing in the midst of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, where an exhausted nurse is struck by her unusual demeanour. The novel then moves between the perspectives of Su Lan’s former neighbour Zu Wen, her former classmate Li Yongzong, and Liya herself to put together the fractured pieces of Su Lan’s history. What emerges is that Su Lan was a master of self-fashioning, but this was driven by a desperate need to hide what she saw as her true self. Arguing with her, Yongzong reflects: ‘through the cracks I saw something terrible, it was dark and powerful¬†and churning, and I recognised with frightening clarity that everything I knew about Su Lan – her excellence, her beauty, her composure – was actually an attempt to control this thing.’¬†We hear about the poverty of Su Lan’s childhood in rural China, but we never get to the bottom of what she thinks is so wrong with her, and this novel is the stronger for it. Instead, we see how she uses theoretical physics and thermodynamics (in the form of Maxwell’s demon) to chase an impossible dream: can we forget the past and remember the future? There’s something here of Nell Freudenberger’s excellent¬†Lost and Wanted,¬†which also picks up on quantum mechanics to deal with grief and ghosts. For me,¬†Little Gods¬†was stronger in its first half than in its second, when the pieces of the puzzle come together a bit too neatly, but it’s still an impressive debut.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 25th February.

‘Let light perpetual shine upon them’

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In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, British researchers started undertaking series after series of cohort studies, following children born around the same time as they grew up and checking back in with them at different ages. Some of these studies were big and largely quantitative, like the MRC National Survey of Health and Development, which started in 1946 and initially included more than 5000 participants, and some were smaller and largely qualitative, like John and Elizabeth Newson’s study of around 700 children born around 1958 in Nottingham. However, the most fascinating, from my point of view as a researcher, were the studies that asked children and adolescents to imagine their future adult lives, like the sociological researcher Thelma Veness did in 1956, working with fourteen-year-olds. Most of these narratives mapped out the milestones you might expect – marriage, children, work – although there were a few unexpected findings. Veness was puzzled by the fact that almost a quarter of the girls in her sample ‘killed off’ their imaginary husbands before they reached their late thirties, with more than half of the husbands dying by middle age. She postulated that once men had fulfilled their role as father, these girls did not imagine themselves wanting or needing a partner in later life. [1]

The five protagonists of Francis Spufford’s latest novel,¬†Light Perpetual¬†Jo, Val, Vern, Alec and Ben –¬†are all born in London around 1940, making them only slightly older than some of the members of these post-war cohort studies. However, in 1944, these four-year-olds are looking at a new delivery of saucepans in Woolworths with their mothers when a German V2 bomb hits the store, incinerating them all immediately. Jo, Val, Vern, Alec and Ben are never going to hit or miss life ‘milestones’, or ‘transition’ into adolescence, adulthood or old age, because they are all dead. Here, Spufford steps in. He tells us what would have happened to these five people if they hadn’t been killed during the Second World War, jumping forwards in satisfyingly untidy intervals of time all the way up to 2009. For a while, I kept asking – and I think it’s a reasonable question – why did these people have to die in the first place? Spufford isn’t interested in playing with alternative timelines, at least not explicitly, so why not just trace their lives normally, without the interruption of a German bomb? However, by the end of the novel, I came to realise that its opening pages (slightly pretentious as their prose might be) are essential to Spufford’s project. None of the five protagonists change the course of history; the loss of these lives meant both nothing, and everything.

As with¬†Golden Hill,¬†Spufford’s research is impeccable (and here I’m in a much better position to judge than I was with¬†Golden Hill,¬†because I’m a historian of post-war Britain). He shows how all five protagonists are restrained by class and gender and yet how their lives take them to places we might not have expected when we first properly meet them in a run-down primary school in Halstead Road.¬†Musical, synaesthetic Jo becomes the temporary girlfriend of a rock star in America. Vern builds and loses several business empires. Val becomes mixed up with the fascist racism of the British Movement in the late 1970s. Ben and Alec’s lives seem most tied to their class destinies, in Alec’s case perhaps partly because of the way he sees class struggle; going into a ‘trade for life’ at the printworks, he faces his skills being made obsolete by digitisation. Meanwhile, Ben is also eventually phased out as a bus conductor but struggles terrifyingly in the meantime with schizophrenia, in a fragment that is one of the most immersive and horrific things I’ve ever read about mental illness.

Light Perpetual¬†is, notably, not that concerned with the dreams and promise of youth. More than three-quarters of the novel takes place after the protagonists are thirty-nine. This hugely refreshing choice pulls Spufford away both from the obsessions of the original cohort studies – what percentage get married? who is socially mobile? – and the concerns of most fiction of this kind, which, even if it follows the protagonists through their lives, tends to linger on the twenties and thirties and then race towards old age. It gives him space to explore how our lives still change, transform, explode or implode, even once we are seen as ‘middle-aged’. It feels like he’s telling us that we’re not always going to be defined by choices that felt so important when we were young. And as the characters get older, the book gets ever more beautiful and moving (yes, I cried a couple of times). I noted in my review of¬†Golden Hill¬†that Spufford seemed to have been influenced by George Eliot; here, it’s blatant. Eliot famously wrote in¬†Middlemarch¬†that ‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence’.¬†Here’s Spufford’s reinvention, through the eyes of Alec, who was possibly my favourite character:

You couldn’t walk up a¬†rush hour street, negotiate a bus queue, sit in a theatre, if you were constantly aware of the millionfold press of beings as entire and complicated as yourself… He’s still blundering among over-noticed faces when he boards his eastbound train, still ringed around as he sits down with his briefcase on his knee by eyes universally bright and significant because they are all of them the windows through which single souls are looking out.

Riffing off such a famous passage is a pretty hard thing to get away with, but Spufford pulls it off here because he earns it.¬†Golden Hill¬†was brilliantly clever and thoughtful, but¬†Light Perpetual¬†is even better. It tells us that we are all important – even when we’re actually horrible, like Vern, or believe we’re horrible, like Ben – and that we’re all worth something. And somehow it does this, unlike most novels which try it, without ever being sentimental or obvious. What a book.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on the 4th of February. So you know what to do.

[1] Thelma Veness, School Leavers: Their Aspirations and Expectations (London: Methuen and Co, 1962), 33.

My Dark Vanessa, Or Why I’m A Year Behind Everyone Else In Getting To This Book

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I wasn’t going to read¬†My Dark Vanessa.¬†Not even when I saw how many rave reviews it was getting from bloggers I trust. Based on this, I was sure that it was a good book; that it dealt thoughtfully with a sensitive subject. But I still wasn’t convinced that I needed to read another novel about a relationship between a schoolgirl and her teacher, no matter how well it was written. This is ground that’s been so thoroughly trodden, both in novels and in numerous comment pieces analysing real-life cases in both Britain and the US over the past few years. It’s also something I think about in my own historical research on children and young people in twentieth and twenty-first century Britain.¬†My Dark Vanessa¬†might be great, I decided, but it wasn’t going to say anything that I didn’t already know.

I changed my mind about trying¬†My Dark Vanessa¬†after attending an online¬†At Home With Four Indies event where Kate Elizabeth Russell was interviewed (very adeptly) by Louise O’Neill. What I found so fascinating about the way Russell wrote¬†My Dark Vanessa¬†was not just that the novel was drafted over the course of eighteen years, but that Russell essentially put it together in conversation with her teenage self. She talked about finding bits and pieces she had written as a teenager where she didn’t know if it was her writing as herself or as Vanessa, and also how certain sequences that had been present in early drafts of the novel dropped out as she redrafted then made it back in to the final version, as if they were always meant to be there. I found this especially interesting because I, too, have a novel that I’ve been working with, on and off, for about seventeen years, since I was in my late teens, and it, too, is traumatic, although not in an especially autobiographical way and not in quite the same way as¬†My Dark Vanessa.¬†Nevertheless, however captivated I was by Russell’s account of her process, I still needed to find out if the novel would work for me.

And unexpectedly, it did. Basically, this was because while¬†My Dark Vanessa¬†is absolutely a book about a schoolgirl who has a relationship with her teacher, and which has a lot to say on that specific subject, that also isn’t all it is. Russell clearly thought very deeply about tackling something so difficult, and Vanessa is presented as a character who has been fundamentally shaped by what has been happening to her since she was fifteen. As other reviewers have outlined, Vanessa is such a thought-provoking protagonist because she doesn’t fit into our idea of what the ‘ideal victim’ should be – she maintains that what happened between her and her teacher, Strane, was not abuse, and that her own psychology was somehow leading her towards something of this kind. Russell does not give Vanessa a simplistic moment of revelation in the wake of the #MeToo movement, but we see how she comes to reassess how she felt at the time.

But because Russell presents such an authentic portrait of both Vanessa’s teenage and adult selves, this novel also has resonance far beyond stories of sexual exploitation in the classroom or even abuse and rape more generally, and for me, that’s why it worked so well. It asks how we can square beliefs that our younger selves held so fervently with what we learn later on in life – and how we can do that without totally tossing our younger selves under a bus. It explores how we can cope with the knowledge that our life has been shaped by something outside our control, especially if we thought it was within our control when it was happening. And in this, I felt the strength of what all Russell’s different reworkings of this story have brought to it. I don’t know how she’s going to write her next book after something like this – I know how difficult it is starting a new project after working on one thing since you were a teenager, because your teenage self had so much to give – but I do feel confident that she can.

Getting Ahead With February ARCs

Like a lot of book bloggers, I seem to be completely swamped with February ARCs, so started reading them in January in order to try and get ahead of the upcoming tide. Here are my thoughts on some of next month’s releases:

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Megha Majumdar’s debut novel,¬†A Burning,¬†came very highly hyped, but for me, it was one of those novels where the hype left me feeling baffled and concerned about the state of the literary world. Set in modern Kolkata, it alternates between the perspectives of three characters: Jivan, a young Muslim woman falsely accused of being involved in a terrorist attack; Lovely, a hijra who longs to be an actress and who has been learning English from Jivan; and PT Sir, Jivan’s former teacher, who is now becoming dangerously involved with a nationalist political party who want to use Jivan as a scapegoat. All three characters use, and are used, by social media. Jivan was originally ensnared by the police after posting an angry Facebook status criticising the government, PT Sir uses YouTube to spread the word about the party he works for, while Lovely is delighted when a video of her goes viral.

A Burning is emotionally moving, but I found it disappointingly thin. All three of the protagonists are relatively one-dimensional, with Jivan defined by her wronged innocence, Lovely by her sassy narration, and PT Sir as the typical social climber seduced by the opportunity of power. The quick switches between them make the novel a swift read but also reinforce the impression that it’s only skating over the surface of these political injustices. Majumdar also breaks away from her three central narrators at times – for example, there are brief snatches from the point of view of Jivan’s parents – which means that the novel ends up spelling out things that it doesn’t really need to, slipping into a mode of storytelling that is more common in YA than in adult fiction. Ultimately, I wished that Majumdar had had the confidence to leave more unsaid.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 1st February.

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I’ve been looking forward to the third book in James Smythe’s Anomaly Quartet since I read The Explorer and The Echo back in 2014 (having been further impressed by his I Still Dream¬†in the interim). In The Edge, the Anomaly is up to its usual creepy tricks; it’s moved much closer to the Earth and our protagonist and first-person narrator, Ali, is part of a team who’ve been sent up in space to monitor the Anomaly’s progress and to try to find out more about it. Heading up the team is an ancient Tomas, the surviving twin brother from The Echo, who, it soon becomes clear, has his own questions to answer. But as strange things start to happen on the space station, Ali starts to wonder if she can trust anybody other than herself.

Smythe is brilliant at thinking logically through the consequences of a concept, and expanding his stories as his characters discover these consequences. The relatively simple time-loop story told in The Explorer became much more complex in The Echo, and The Edge builds further on what we already know about the Anomaly, further enhancing the terror of the threat it poses. However, despite the fact that the central story of this quartet advances in satisfying ways in this installment, I found it disappointing as a stand-alone read. Ali is in many ways more grounded than our two previous narrators, and more obviously relatable; perhaps this is why her paranoia feels more like the familiar gaslighting of a psychological thriller rather than the truly skewed stories told by Cormac and Mira. The originality of the first two novels was a little lacking here, and I found myself getting tired of Ali’s self-questioning, and of the backstory with her husband, which drew on too many usual tropes. However, it may be that this all seems a lot fresher to SF readers who haven’t read as many psychological thrillers as I have, and it is an interesting kind of genre-cross, which I always appreciate.

Despite my relative ambivalence about The Edge, I’m still very excited to read the final book in the Anomaly Quartet, and to find out how Smythe pulls together all the questions he’s posed over the course of this series, though I suspect the final meaning of the Anomaly may be more metaphorical than scientific.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the final title in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers quartet (although I hope she will return to this world, if not these characters, in future, as there still seems to be so much more to explore!) As ever, it’s gentle, character- and concept-driven sci fi, with a satellite accident merely providing the pretext for her four central characters to be stranded together on the ‘truck stop’ planet Gora. Ouloo and Tupo, a Laru mother and child, run the Five-Hop One-Stop, trying hard to provide appropriate food and facilities for all the different alien races they might encounter. Roveg is an exiled Quelin who builds immersive VR environments, and is keen to be on his way so he doesn’t miss an important appointment. Speaker is an Akarak, a race who seem to have drawn a galactic short straw, and is desperately trying to reunite with her twin sister in orbit. And Pei, who briefly appeared in The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, is an Aeluon who is initially relaxed about the extended stop-over, until something unexpected throws her off course.

I haven’t truly adored any of the Wayfarers novels as much as I loved The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, and this held true for The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. However, it still delivers Chambers’s usual thoughtful inventiveness and optimistic take on the future of the universe. I continue to be frustrated that a writer who so flexibly rethinks gender, sexuality and race can’t break outside the idea of childhood and adolescence as a universal biological category, and Tupo fell into many of the same teenage stereotypes as Chambers’ human character Kip in Record of A Spaceborn Few. Nevertheless, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within still gives us plenty of interesting ideas to chew on. Most of the cast veered close to being a bit too idealised for me, but I loved Chambers’s complex portrayal of Pei, who is forced to wrestle with questions of just war, reproductive duty and non-conformity. Her narrative strand, for these reasons, was by far the most compelling. In short, though, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within won’t disappoint Wayfarers fans, and as ever, I’m excited to see what Chambers does next.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

February ARCs to come: Light Perpetual (Francis Spufford); All Girls (Emily Layden); Kololo Hill (Neema Shah); Little Gods (Meng Jin).

How are you doing with your February ARCs?