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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyday Horror: The Other Black Girl & The Apparition Phase

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming Beach Reads (or Stay-At-Home Reads) 2021

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Malibu Rising follows the four Riva siblings through the course of a single day and night in August 1983 as they hold their annual party at their clifftop mansion. The novel centres on the oldest of the four, Nina Riva, who has always held the family together after their rock star father Mick left them when they were small children and their mother June descended into alcoholism. Even now her siblings are grown up, Nina continues to put others first, pursuing a modelling career that she doesn’t want for the sake of financial security as she grieves the end of her marriage. However, this year’s party will throw everything up in the air for the Rivas, with both unexpected guests and unexpected secrets emerging as the night goes on.

Malibu Rising shares a focus on historic glamour and fame with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s two previous novels, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones and the Six, but in terms of style, it’s closer to her earlier, fluffier books like Maybe In Another Life and Forever, Interrupted, which were much more standard chick lit. (You could make the case that Evelyn Hugo is pretty fluffy, but I think Reid actually adopts a stylised mode of storytelling for that book that gave it both its humour and its edge.) It starts promisingly but quickly fades out in its second half, with none of the Riva siblings fully realised as characters except Nina – and even then, Reid has an unfortunate tendency to spell out all of the revelations Nina has about her life and exactly how they connect back to her difficult childhood. Given the lack of page-space for the other three siblings, it’s even odder that Reid chooses to jump between the heads of multiple unrelated party-goers in the second half of the novel, even though we learn nothing about them except who they are in love or lust with at the time, and they have no effect on the story.

Reid still has the gift of making us care about her characters, and I was invested in Nina and her relationship with her parents – I thought the sub-plot with her father was actually resolved quite well, even if it was a bit heavy-handed, as Nina refuses to accept glib rationalisations for why he treated the family so badly. However, this was a real disappointment after the two previous novels, and felt like it had been written in a rush. Given how well Reid handled stories that are meant to be a composition of different accounts (Daisy Jones) or a single account from one potentially unreliable narrator (Evelyn Hugo), I wonder if this mode of storytelling simply suits her better than the more straightforward multi-perspective third-person she uses in this novel, which didn’t do her writing any favours. A fun beach book, but I expect more from Reid.

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

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I’ve been reading Lauren Weisberger’s books since The Devil Wears Prada, even though they frequently make me quite cross, because she seems to be so against women pursuing their own ambitions – The Devil Wears Prada itself is the best example of this, but it’s also a pretty clear sub-theme in The Singles Game and Last Night in Chateau Marmont. In her previous novel, The Wives, she softened this message slightly to portray the importance of balancing family and career, and interestingly introduced a relatively older female character (by which I mean a character in her late thirties, nobody is ever actually old in this world) who regrets having completely sacrificed her own life for her children. This theme continues in her latest offering, Where The Grass Is Green*, which focuses on two sisters whose lives have taken unexpectedly different paths: Peyton, the high school dropout, is now an incredibly successful TV anchor, while Skye, the academic high-flier, is now totally focused on her daughter Aurora.

As I’ve said, Weisberger is often out to punish her protagonists when they start getting ideas, so I found this novel surprisingly sweet compared to most of her other work. It’s all set in the completely ridiculous world of the super-wealthy, so bears little resemblance to actual life, but the relationship between the two sisters is portrayed as supportive and loving. Neither is glorified at the expense of the other, although Weisberger does default a little back to her ‘family over career’ agenda by the end of the novel. I also found the portrayal of Peyton’s teenage daughter, Max, refreshingly positive compared to the usual ways that teenagers come across in light women’s fiction. The book is marketed as being about a college admissions scandal, but that’s more of a plot device than anything else (if you want a beach read about college admissions, go for Tracy Dobmeier and Wendy Katzman’s Girls With Bright Futures). Instead, the focus is the relationships between these three women, which makes this book much more fun and less depressing.

*Titled Where The Grass Is Green And The Girls Are Pretty for the US market, which is a Guns n’Roses lyric and a much better title. I’m not sure why the publishers truncated it for the UK – I wouldn’t have got the reference either way, but the UK title doesn’t make any sense. Maybe a copyright issue?

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

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Yours Cheerfully, the sequel to AJ Pearce’s delightful Dear Mrs Bird, brings the reader more of the same jollity and ‘Blitz spirit’ – which is probably even more welcome now during the Covid-19 pandemic than it was when the first book was published. Emmy and her best friend Bunty are still bearing up as well as they can on the home front in London during the Second World War. Emmy is still working at Women’s Friend magazine, trying to shore up readers’ morale and offer them good advice, but after being invited to a Ministry of Information briefing for writers on women’s magazines, she is gripped by the idea of trying to encourage more women to sign up for war work. However, as she starts to meet women who are actually working in factories, she realises that a shortage of government nurseries is both preventing them Doing Their Bit and putting many into financial hardship. Can Emmy balance her ‘patriotic’ duty to give a positive account of factory work with her new awareness of the real needs of workers?

As she did in Dear Mrs Bird, Pearce deliberately adopts a kind of spoof pastiche of how we think people sounded in the 1940s, without any attempt at historical realism. This worked a little less well for me in this sequel, however, perhaps because of the integration of more serious questions about women’s war work and childcare. It also felt more twee than its predecessor – while Dear Mrs Bird was centred on some genuinely tragic events, nothing nearly as dark happens in Yours Cheerfully, so the balance doesn’t feel quite right. Emmy’s life is indeed so cheery that I found myself becoming more interested in Bunty’s quiet struggles instead. All in all, this is a fun read, but it feels very much like the middle book in a trilogy – and I suspect a third will be along soon. 

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on June 24th.

Late Spring Reading, 2021

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Mehar, Harbans and Gurleen are three recently married young women living in rural Punjab in 1929. They are the brides of three brothers, but none of the three women know which brother it is that they have married. They spend most of their nights in the ‘china room’, where they share a pair of charpoys, string beds, and whisper together under the display of their mother-in-law’s wedding china that came as part of her dowry. However, every so often, one of the women is called to sleep with her husband in a ‘windowless chamber at the back of the farm.’ In the blackness, each struggles to identify her bridegroom, but at first, none of them are able to. With this compelling set-up, Sunjeev Sahota’s third novel, China Room, immediately has something of the folkloric about it. This is countered or perhaps enhanced by the modernity of Sahota’s language and his refusal to slip into distancing, archaic prose. This usually works very well, although there were a couple of phrases that made me pause: it does feel jarring for these isolated characters to say things like ‘Ants in your pants?’, although I get that Sahota is already ‘translating’ their words into English and so we’re already only getting a version of what they say. On the other hand, this decision definitely gives China Room the immediacy that a lot of historical novels lack.

Alongside the story of Mehar and her sisters-in-law, we follow an unnamed eighteen-year-old male narrator in 1999, who is detoxing from heroin addiction on his family’s farm in the Punjab, having grown up in England. Our narrator becomes slightly interested in his family history – we discover that Mehar is his great-grandmother – but Sahota doesn’t draw the connections tightly between these two threads, preferring instead that the stories mirror each other thematically through their depiction of social exclusion and agency. This makes the modern narrator feel a little unnecessary at times, as Mehar’s section of the narrative has much greater tension and direction. However, I did like the perspective that his experiences brought, as he reflects upon the vicious racism he suffered as a teenager, confounding some of our assumptions about the relevant privilege of a young man raised in modern Britain as opposed to a young woman in an arranged marriage in 1920s India. China Room didn’t have quite the same kind of impact on me as Sahota’s previous book, The Year of the Runawaysbut it’s a beautifully quiet and moving novel.

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

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Dantiel W. Moniz’s debut collection of short stories, Milk Blood Heat, plays on some familiar themes: quite a few of the stories are about a pair of girls on the cusp of adolescence, knotted together by their own closeness but already sensing the encroachment of the outside world, where class, race and sexual attractiveness will start to define them. I am quite tired of fiction that stresses the strangeness of girlhood – why can’t we write about teenagers like they’re people, like everybody else? – but to be fair, Moniz only occasionally uses this register. Two things stood out to me from this collection, which I otherwise found a bit forgettable. One, most of the stories continue a couple of pages past where I expected where they were going to end, which was refreshing, as Moniz pulled a bit more out of each situation than I thought it could hold. Two, what will stay with me from Milk Blood Heat is not the plots of its stories but a series of arresting, brutal images. A woman grieving for a lost baby is fascinated by an octopus in an aquarium consuming its own tentacles. A girl hangs onto her non-swimmer friend to save herself when their raft drifts too far out to sea. A sister confronts her younger brother’s school bully in a closet and terrifies him. Tying into what I’ve already said, it’s not surprising that all these scenes came near the end of their respective stories. It’s almost as if Moniz had to write through the mundane before reaching the surprising. I’ve just read too many collections like this for Milk Blood Heat to stand out, I’m afraid, but Moniz definitely has promise.

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

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The unnamed narrator of Natasha Brown’s debut, Assembly, is a black woman working in finance, and its ostensible focus is a visit to her boyfriend’s family estate. However, the story takes place almost entirely inside the narrator’s head. This stream-of-consciousness novella sometimes strays closer to being a polemic essay than a piece of fiction, which in this instance, isn’t a bad thing at all. We find out early on that the narrator has been diagnosed with some kind of life-threatening condition and is refusing treatment, but doesn’t seem too concerned with her physical future. Instead, she consistently bashes against the walls of her own mind as she muses on the impossibilities of truly existing as a black woman in Britain. The central theme is how black lives have been monetised, from the compensation paid to slaveowners after Britain abolished slavery early in the nineteenth century, to the way she is exploited and tokenised by capitalism today.

The narrator’s voice becomes increasingly desperate as she considers how futile it is to make people see white supremacy when they don’t believe it’s there: ‘Explain air… Prove what can’t be seen. A breezy brutality cuts you each day.’ To survive, she feels she is being asked to ‘become the air’ and so considers opting out, letting her own body kill her. Her younger sister is on the same ‘successful’ life trajectory, and she believes that by dying she can help her out: ‘I have amassed a new opportunity, something to pass on. Forwards. To my sister.’ However, the claustrophobic twist in this tale is that the narrator herself still can’t think past money, giving her sister a stake in the system that has ground her down: ‘I have the flat, savings and some investments, pensions, plus a substantial life-insurance policy.’ While I admired what Brown was doing with this book, for me it did suffer a bit from the typical curse of the novella; I felt it could have been tightened into an incredible short story or expanded into a wonderful novel. But although it didn’t quite hit as hard as it might have done, it’s still a haunting piece of writing.

I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 3rd June.

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: 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… every book on psychology I ever read… told me that it was immature and I should… 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’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number six. I’ve already read The Vanishing Half, Transcendent KingdomPiranesi, Consent and Exciting Times.

Interview With Natasha Pulley

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed the speculative historical fiction writer Natasha Pulley for Newcastle’s Centre for the Literary Arts (NCLA). The video of this interview is now up on YouTube:

Natasha has written four novels to date – The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, The Bedlam Stacks, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, and The Kingdoms – all of which I have read and loved. (Watch out for my review of The Kingdoms coming soon – it’s out in May!)

Early Spring Reading, 2021

As usual, I have been reading three completely different things!

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Alexandra Andrews’s debut thriller, Who Is Maud Dixon?, is so close to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley that it feels almost like a retelling, although there are also shades of Caroline Kepnes’s You in its cynical take on the literary world. Florence is an editorial assistant in New York who never seems to do or say the right thing; her less privileged upbringing leaves her feeling like an outsider. Like other young women of her generation, she’s fallen in love with the novel Mississippi Foxtrot, written under the pseudonym Maud Dixon. When Florence is invited to travel to Morocco to work as a personal assistant for the woman behind the pseudonym, Helen Wilcox, she believes she will learn the secret of how to be a successful novelist. However, she still feels stuck too fast in her old identity. When an unexpected opportunity to become Helen Wilcox – and through her, Maud Dixon – comes up, what will Florence do with it?

The first half of this thriller was really intelligently written; although the early chapters are not overtly eventful, I felt completely gripped by Florence’s voice and observations. In the second half, it comes off the rails a bit, with an identity-swapping plot that becomes too complicated and a little absurd. Highsmith’s decision to have Tom Ripley’s deception be initially so simple, but so audacious, felt even wiser after reading Who Is Maud Dixon? I would have been much more convinced if the novel had taken a quieter turn and focused more on literary deception. In particular, Andrews’s decision to make Mississippi Foxtrot loosely autobiographical felt unfortunate given that Elena Ferrante’s decision to write under a pseudonym seemed at least partly motivated by  the assumption that women writers can only write about their own lives. As she writes anonymously, Ferrante’s critics can’t draw neat lines between her life and that of her characters, which seems to be exactly what she wants. Instead, Andrews falls back on a really tiring trope – that all novels are simply veiled versions of autobiography – which doesn’t leave her any room to explain wider questions about writing. However, I would definitely read her next novel, as I thought Florence was such an interesting creation, and she carries the book even in its sillier moments.

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

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Naomi Ishiguro’s debut novel, Common Ground, also starts in a very familiar place. It’s 2003, but it might as well be 1950; thirteen-year-old Stan is the school outcast, teased for his NHS glasses and old clothes, and struggling after his father’s death. When he meets cool sixteen-year-old Charlie, who doesn’t go to school but works at the local gym instead, an unlikely friendship results. Stan – who, speaking as someone who was also a pretty unworldly teenager in 2003, seems almost impossibly naive – is fascinated by Charlie’s Traveller* family and shocked at the abuse they receive. Almost ten years later, in 2012, Stan and Charlie meet again at a party in London. Both are now very different people, and struggle to connect across class, education and racial divides. Charlie’s life has been marked by the social exclusion and discrimination he’s experienced, while Stan seems to have lightly shrugged off his earlier suffering. Will their previous closeness be enough to bring them together?

Common Ground has very worthy intentions, and draws attention to a form of racism that is often forgotten, despite recent headlines about discrimination against Traveller communities in both Britain and Ireland. However, as a novel, I found it plodding and simplistic, and much too long. I was a little puzzled about what it was trying to do. A number of reviews describe it as ‘feelgood’ or ‘heartwarming’, but I found it rightly, relentlessly grim. If you’re looking for something that cheerfully explores community in the vein of Libby Page’s The Lido or Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsiethis is not the book for you. However, by itself, that isn’t a problem – there’s no reason why a book that explores this kind of entrenched racism should be uplifting. The trouble is that Common Ground doesn’t bring much more to the table. The prose is competent, but both Charlie and Stan remain within the boundaries of their respective archetypes. When they meet again in London in 2012, Charlie slips straight into the salt-of-the-earth working-class observer role, mocking middle-class students’ pretentious views on art (why is this always the way protagonists demonstrate emotional authenticity?) while Stan can’t speak without lapsing into journalistic jargon about austerity politics. People are more complicated than this.

I was sorry not to like Common Ground more, because I really admire its focus on the experiences of Traveller communities. I would actually be keen to try Ishiguro’s collection of short stories, Escape Routes, to see how her writing works in a very different form.

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

*There are a range of terms that these communities use to refer to themselves, as the linked article describes. I’m using ‘Traveller’ in this review because it’s the word Charlie seems to prefer.

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Gwendoline Riley has many gifts as a writer, but I think the most obvious – showcased both in her most recent book, My Phantoms, and her previous one, First Love – is the way she composes dialogue. I can’t think of another writer who nails so precisely how we actually speak, with all of its redundancies, embarrassing repetitions and pointless exclamations. The narrator of My Phantoms, Bridget, is also acutely aware of how even the most throwaway comment might be interpreted, at least when she’s talking to her mother, Hen, which adds an extra layer of self-reflection. Here she is talking to Hen about a drinks party:

I got stuck with a really boring woman for about ten minutes,” I said.

“Oh no!” my mother said.

“So typical,” I said, “in a room full of interesting people.”

That was a slip-up. I knew it as soon as I’d said it.

“Mmm,” she said, bravely.

I tried to get her back: “The dreadful thing is, I think she felt she’d got stuck with me, too! But neither of us had the wherewithal to break it off.”

“Aargh!” said my mother.

And encouraged, I went on, “I think it’s worse when you feel you’re the boring one!” I said. But there again, that was wrong; I’d given the impression now of such a party-rich life that I could make generalisations.

Bridget tells us almost nothing about herself; the focus of this novella is on character portraits of her parents, her unbearably awful father (whose constant badgering of her when she was a child gives us some idea of why she may have withdrawn so far into herself) and the much more complicated Hen, who is always striving for something brighter and better at the same time as she trips herself up. Hen’s life is the real centre of this story, and the final glimpse of her we get is unbearably sad.

Other reviewers have noted that Bridget’s effacement of herself from the narrative doesn’t mean that we should think of her as unselfish, pointing out that she outsources caring responsibilities to her sister Michelle as Hen gets older, and seems unreasonably opposed to Hen meeting her boyfriend. However, I think Riley leaves Bridget’s motivations deliberately open. She is far estranged not only from her parents but from Michelle, and there seems to be a great deal she doesn’t say about her childhood. And while she is capable of deliberately baiting and upsetting her mother (for example, subtly noting the inconvenience of having dinner with Hen on her actual birthday, because the weather’s always cold and wet) we also see how hard she tries to make pleasant conversation. This kind of watchfulness made me reflect back on what Bridget experienced while she was growing up, as it felt like the kind of learnt behaviour that emerges from an abusive environment. None of these characters are easy to read, but that’s why this novella is so good.

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

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 Prepwhich 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 WavesAs 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 Wantedwhich 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 HillSpufford’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.