Booker Prize 2021: Bewilderment and Great Circle

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.”

“And would you want him to?”

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

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

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

“Someone else had to do all of that.”

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

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

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

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Unsettled Ground

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Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different from other people. At 51 years old, they still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Inside the walls of their old cottage they make music, and in the garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance.

But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. Jeanie and Julius would do anything to preserve their small sanctuary against the perils of the outside world, even as their mother’s secrets begin to unravel, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.

The first thing to say is: I have rarely read a blurb that makes me less keen to read a novel than the blurb of Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground. I’m not sure exactly what it is about it that makes it so uninteresting to me (the twee names? Twins? Still living with their mother at 51?) but I knew that I wouldn’t want to read this book as soon as I found out what it was about. Obviously I have now read it (this isn’t some weird sort of anti-review) but I certainly wouldn’t have done so had it not been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. All this is to say that you should probably take my views with a pinch of salt, and if you are more attracted to this blurb than I am, you’ll probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.

Because the second thing to say is: Fuller can definitely write. I haven’t had the best luck with her books in the past (the only one I’ve enjoyed so far is Our Endless Numbered Days, which I thought was excellent, partly because it wasn’t so focused on the mundane), but I have never had a problem with her writing. Unfortunately, for me, even her  clear, clever prose couldn’t lift this story out of its doldrums. I recognised the social importance of the issues that she is tackling here and the suffering that results from being outside the system, unable to engage with the bureaucracy of claiming benefits or even paying in a cheque, especially when isolated in the countryside away from the kind of informal support networks that might be easier to access in a town or city. I could also see that the twins’ mother had deliberately forced them to become dependent on her, giving them little chance to learn these life skills.

However, I found both Jeanie and Julius so frustratingly helpless that it was impossible to sympathise with them. It makes sense that they don’t know how to engage with the welfare system, but why does Julius also have to get carsick whenever he gets in a vehicle, making it impossible for him to get much casual work? And while I understood Jeanie’s illiteracy and her fears of dealing with a bank, why could she not ask her casual employer to pay her in cash rather than giving her a cheque when she is desperate for money? I know the answer to this lies in the twins’ psychological state, but I wished Fuller hadn’t made them quite so trapped and hopeless.

My overall impression of this novel was of a powerful writer inexplicably deciding to concern themselves with an incredibly dull story; I’m not sure how Fuller managed to keep her own attention while writing this, and it definitely didn’t keep mine. 

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

This is also #3 of my 10 Books of Summer.

10 Books of Summer, #1 and #2: True Story and Holding Her Breath

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Kate Reed Petty’s debut True Story, like many other contemporary novels over the past few years, tackles the topic of sexual violence – but with a twist. Alice is a teenager at high school when she passes out in the backseat of a car and wakes up to find out that boys have been boasting about what they did with her when she was asleep. However, rather than telling Alice’s story straight, Petty relates it through a mix of documents, memories and a more traditional first-person narrator, Nick, who was not involved in the alleged assault but also fails to challenge his friends when they start spreading the rumours. As the trying-too-hard cover suggests, this book is about who gets to be in charge of the story and what kind of story it turns out to be. In my favourite fragments, Alice and her best friend Hayley write gleefully violent horror movie scripts together. On the other hand, in a section that I thought was much too thematically obvious, Alice tries to write about her experience for a college application essay before giving up and inventing an standard ‘inspirational’ story instead to win the praise of her adviser. 

Overall, although I raced through True Story, I felt that it suffered from trying to be too clever and too meta. There’s a central twist in this narrative that would have been enough by itself, and definitely brings something new to the table in fiction about sexual violence [highlight for spoilers]. Alice eventually finds out that she wasn’t assaulted that night – the boys were just spreading rumours about her to big up their own reputations. Some reviewers have found this distasteful, suggesting that this makes the novel about a false allegation, but I don’t agree with that point of view at all. Petty vividly shows the impact that ‘just words’ have had on Alice and how devastating it is for her to feel like she no longer fits into the standard victim narrative – in no way does she minimise the impact of these boys’ actions. Indeed, I’d argue that she actually challenges some problematic assumptions about sexual violence by foregrounding its emotional rather than physical impact. [end spoilers]. However, rather than being content with that twist, Petty takes it a step further, and while I understood her thematic point about rewriting the story, I ended up feeling unsatisfied. Ironically, I found the most convincing and original sections of this novel belonged to Nick rather than Alice.

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Beth was a champion swimmer before she had a mental health crisis in her final year of school and dropped out of active competition. Now she’s starting university a little late, tentatively swimming again, although not at the elite level where she once participated, and trying to work out who she is without the sport. She turns to another label that she’s had all her life: she’s the granddaughter of Benjamin Crowe, a famous poet who drowned himself in the sea before she was born. Her grandmother Lydia is reluctant to talk about the past, but Beth sets off to discover what lay behind Benjamin’s most famous poem, Roslyn, completed just before he died. Holding Her Breath, Eimear Ryan’s debut, reminded me strongly of Danielle McLaughlin’s recent novel, The Art of Falling, which also intertwines an artistic mystery from the past with a finding-yourself plot in contemporary Ireland. Both McLaughlin and Ryan write the same kind of effortless, matter-of-fact prose, as well. However, Holding Her Breath is the stronger novel; Beth is much more of a person than the somewhat blank protagonist of The Art of Falling, and the secondary characters are much more people in their own right as well, especially Lydia and Beth’s flatmate Sadie.

In the hands of a different writer, this might have been yet another book about Dysfunctional Women Being Dysfunctional, following in the footsteps of Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan and Ottessa Moshfegh, amongst others. Beth certainly ticks a lot of the boxes with her mental health issues, her sudden decision to abandon her swimming career, and a few sexual partners. However, Ryan is definitely not writing that sort of character, and I liked Beth the better for it. Surprisingly, it turns out that you can have sex with different people without being bent on self-destruction! And quitting your ‘job’ doesn’t mean you are doomed to spiral into isolation! It’s a much more positive way to write about young women, and gives Beth more agency. Sadly, though, despite these strengths, I don’t think Holding Her Breath will stay with me for long. Despite its nuanced protagonist, it has nothing really to say, and its watery imagery feels too schematic. I’ll be looking out for more from Ryan, though.

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

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: No One Is Talking About This

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Patricia Lockwood’s uber-contemporary No One Is Talking About This has been described as a novel of two halves. In the first half, our unnamed protagonist is completely absorbed by what she calls ‘the portal’ and what we would call Twitter: ‘Why did the portal feel so private,’ she reflects, ‘when you only entered it when you needed to be everywhere?’ In the second half, she is consumed by something else: the short life of her baby niece, who is born with the rare condition Proteus Syndrome. Again, it’s technology – the babycam at the hospital – that allows her to fully enter her obsession: ‘There was a channel that played the baby in fuzzy black and white… and this is what she used to think the angels did, watch the channel that played her.’ I’ve read a number of reviews of this novel that suggest that Lockwood is intending to juxtapose the unreality of the protagonist’s existence of Twitter to the hard reality of her niece’s illness. However, while I think that is one of the things Lockwood is trying to do – and that the title of the novel indicates this – I didn’t find that No One Is Talking About This split that neatly into two halves.

I am very weary of fiction that tells us that the Internet is Bad and is Wrecking Our Minds, and I did feel that Lockwood fell into that trap, although she writes with greater subtlety than many others who have tackled the topic. When I think of popular Twitter memes, like feral hogs, Bernie at the inauguration, or the distracted boyfriend, they honestly make me feel more positive about humanity, not less. I like seeing people have fun, be clever, and be inventive, especially in the face of a lot of difficult things. The kind of ‘humorous’ Twitter that our protagonist is steeped in isn’t a kind that I recognise; it’s not funny and not cheering. I’m sure this was a deliberate choice on Lockwood’s part, but I don’t have much time for this one-sided view of technology. And while Lockwood sometimes hits on a clever turn of phrase, I found much of this novel grimly unreadable.

Where I think things get more interesting with No One Is Talking About This is how the sub-plot with the protagonist’s niece relates to the rest of the novel. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I couldn’t help seeing thematic links between the baby’s condition and the protagonist’s existence as part of the collective consciousness of the portal. Because of the baby’s illness, her head grows out of proportion to the rest of her body, but her caregivers perceive her as having great abilities that she cannot exercise, defying her prognosis: ‘As the baby struggled to breathe, as it became clear that her airway was collapsing, as her head grew too heavy to even turn from side to side, it slowly dawned on them that she was experiencing an enlightenment, a golden age… Against all wisdom… she was learning, she could learn.’ There’s a sense that being part of the ‘Twitter hive mind’ has as much promise as the baby but is also weighing humans down in the same way as the baby struggles with her head, because we weren’t meant to be connected to so much as once; we too have an overgrowth of neural connections. If you buy into this reading, what the book is saying about the internet is much more thoughtful and equivocal. However, I guess I wasn’t convinced that I wasn’t just seeing things that weren’t there.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected ten titles that I do want to read. This is number eight. I’ve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times, Small Pleasures and Detransition, Baby.

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.

‘An act of furious defiance’: The High House by Jessie Greengrass

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I thought Jessie Greengrass’s debut novel, Sight, was fantastic; complex but incredibly readable, weaving together the narrator’s musings on motherhood with the lives of three historical figures, Wilhelm Röntgen, Anna Freud and John Hunter, via the theme of inner sight. The High House, her second novel, is deliberately different. Greengrass still writes beautiful prose, but here it is much simpler, and focuses on description and action rather than the close anatomisation of inner worlds. It’s narrated by three people – Caro, Sally and Pauly – but their voices are the same, which again, I felt was a purposeful choice, as Greengrass certainly has the literary skill to differentiate her narrators if she so chooses. Finally, The High House is focused on a static period of time, a drawn-out experience of waiting for catastrophe to unfold, which starts to get to the reader in the same way as it does to the characters. No diving away from your own experience to think about the history of X rays or psychoanalysis in this novel; Greengrass keeps us all suspended in the high house.

All this is to say that I think, technically, Greengrass does exactly what she wanted to do, but I still couldn’t quite embrace this novel. It tells a familiar, if still horrifying, story of a handful of English survivors clinging on after devastating floods sweep much of the globe as a result of climate change. Their refuge was prepared in advance, so they have the resources to survive – for now. But because they were already anticipating disaster before it happened, their before and after is not that different. If the ‘after’ is worse, it’s because Pauly, who was a small child when the floods struck, is now an adult, and so Caro and Sally no longer have somebody to care for in the same way. This picks up on interesting questions about the future generation. Pauly’s mother, Francesca, was a climate activist and was killed by a storm even as she continued to predict Armageddon; she couldn’t enjoy sunny weather because she sees it as a harbinger of doom. And yet, she chose to give birth to Pauly, which Caro thinks was ‘an act of furious defiance… a kind of pact with the world that, having increased her stake in it, she should try to protect what she had found to love’. 

But whether or not this was actually why Francesca had a child, it doesn’t sum up what Pauly comes to mean to Caro and Sally, and how bringing him up, putting his needs first, provides them with psychic defences against the horror they’re facing. Pauly, who is the only one of the trio who can’t remember the world as it used to be, also finds it easiest to adapt to their new reality. Greengrass raises a number of questions that don’t have answers: is it wrong to choose not to reproduce because you’re afraid of the future, because that means you’ve abandoned hope? On the other hand, is it wrong to create a child who has to live in this kind of world simply as a comfort for yourself? Or is this a disaster that humanity will ultimately live through, and the new generation are needed precisely because they’ll have the skills to do that? Nevertheless, the bleakness of this novel wore me down somewhat. It’s not as good as Jenny Offill’s Weatherwhich is similarly grim about future generations, but is also funny and bright and complicated. At times, The High House just feels like a warning, and I’m not sure anyone who reads this book will really need such a warning.

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