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 Arctic. 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.

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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?

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.

Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: Survivors

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize for the third year running. The Prize celebrates historical writing which ‘combines excellence in research with readability’ and you can see the full 2021 shortlist here.

The winner of the Prize will be announced on 9th June 2021.

Today, I’m reviewing one of the shortlisted titles: Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors: Children’s Lives After The Holocaust. Clifford is an Associate Professor in History at Swansea University and specialises in twentieth-century European history, oral history, Holocaust history, and memory studies. You can see her full academic profile here.

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Felice Z., alongside her parents and older sister, was deported from Baden to the internment camp of Gurs in the south of France in October 1940, when she was just one year old. In early 1941, she and her sister were rescued from Gurs by the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), and Felice was hidden with a French Catholic family until the Liberation. Her parents were killed in Auschwitz. Despite these wartime experiences, Felice remembered being criticised and belittled by adult survivors of the Holocaust when she attended the first American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in 1983, saying:

I questioned whether I should go because I’d never been in a camp… I used to want to have a number [tattooed on my arm] so I could show people the pain… They used to say ‘You were a child, what do you know? You don’t remember.’

This reflected earlier ideas of who counted as a ‘Holocaust survivor’ – originally, ‘survivors’ were considered to be concentration camp survivors – but also the general exclusion of child survivors of the Holocaust from the category, even if they had been in a camp. In the immediate post-war period, child survivors were called ‘unaccompanied children’ or ‘Jewish war orphans’ instead. Recently, Clifford writes, child survivors have taken on more of the familiar public roles we might associate with a ‘Holocaust survivor’ – giving talks, speaking to school students, and volunteering at Holocaust museums – but ‘there is a clear rationale behind the shift: they are the only ones left’.

Survivors focuses on child survivors of the Holocaust who were born between 1935 and 1944, making them ten years old or younger at liberation in 1945. This deliberate choice by Clifford shows how things we think we know about the experience of Holocaust survivors changes when young children are placed at the centre of the story. For example, she argues, for child survivors, who experienced a certain amount of stability during wartime, the end of the war could often be a more difficult period. Maurits C., who spent the war in hiding in the Netherlands, recalled that ‘My war began in 1945… When I learned that my father and mother would not come back, and my brothers, then the war started.’ Counter-claims on Jewish child survivors after the end of the war added to this uncertainty. Jewish organisations were determined to reclaim children whom they thought had been taken by Christian families, while countries such as America, Canada, Australia and Britain were keen to care for ‘Jewish war orphans’ – but only if they were very young, ideally female, and full orphans, which many child survivors were not. Child survivors did not always want to be reunited with families they could not remember. Felice was forced to leave the Catholic family who had cared for her during wartime, which she remembered as traumatic: ‘I think they [the OSE] might have said… “you have to start being Jewish.” But I couldn’t understand what being Jewish meant’. 

Their limited memories of the war hampered child survivors throughout their adult lives, calling the validity of their ‘testimony’ into question, especially after the rise of Holocaust denialism, when there was a greater emphasis on survivors’ accounts being fixed and factually accurate. This was often impossible for child survivors. They were marked out in other ways: the West Germany Federal Indemnification Law of 1953 was meant to allow financial compensation for survivors from West Germany, but it was difficult for even adult survivors, let alone children, to supply the kind of ‘proof’ that was required. They could also be further severed from the Jewish community. Esther T. was in Auschwitz as a child, but as an adult, she found she needed her parents’ birth certificate to marry in an Orthodox synagogue: ‘you have to prove you’re Jewish to get married in a shul, and I couldn’t prove it!’

As a historian of childhood, what I found most brilliant about this book was the way in which it integrates histories of childhood into the kind of bigger historical narrative where children are usually absent or only included in a tokenistic or stereotyped way. Clifford shows how changing ideas of childhood and trauma immediately following the Second World War conditioned reactions to child survivors and forced them into unhelpful binaries: either they were seen as unaffected by the trauma they had endured because they would not remember it, or the separation from their mothers they had endured at an early age was believed to have left them permanently damaged. Neither of these narratives were helpful for child survivors, whom, in retrospective interviews, often felt they had to ‘prove’ they weren’t forever ‘maladjusted’: Denny M., who was interviewed in 1977, said ‘compared with so many messed-up adults that I’ve seen, I think I’m reasonably normal’. 

Even at the time, child survivors could be pathologised for being either ‘too bad’ or ‘too good’. The Buchenwald boys were a group of boys, ranging in age from 8 to 18, who were liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945 and sent to an OSE-run reception centre in Normandy. On the way there, ‘they destroyed property, stole and assaulted civilians; there is some evidence that they raped German girls as an act of revenge’. Rather than seeing this behaviour as relating to what they had been through, the OSE’s chief psychiatrist suggested that they had survived precisely because of their ‘insensitivity and indifference‘. However – reflecting new psychological post-war ideas about middle childhood as an innately gregarious and energetic period – a welfare officer in the Jewish DP camps located in the US zone of occupation in Germany worried in 1948 that the children in these camps were too obedient and not ‘mischievous, high-spirited and imaginative’ enough.

Children themselves were aware of adult expectations about trauma and played into these; as Clifford puts it, these ‘wary children’ had good reason to distrust adults in authority and so ‘fabricated suitable pasts’. Two children who were placed in a children’s home in Surrey, Weir Courtney, learnt how to exhibit the correct emotions and tell the right stories. Fritz F. was bullied in the home, and was found crying by the matron who tucked him in at night: ‘I told her I was thinking about my mother. I wasn’t’. Unlike some post-war settings, Weir Courtney prided itself on being a place where children could be open about the past, but children may have been forced to talk about things they would rather not have discussed to play into the psychoanalytical narrative that disclosure was cathartic. We can speculate that this might have led to some false stories. Mina R. told the matron that she had seen her mother shot through the head in front of her, and the matron was pleased with the subsequent change in the girl, who had, she wrote, been ‘much quieter and clearer since‘. However, it was later discovered that Mina’s mother was still alive.

This is a really excellent book, intelligent, thoughtful and empathetic; I would be delighted to see it win the Wolfson History Prize.

Make sure to check out the other stops on the first week of the Wolfson History Prize blog tour:

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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.

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!)

Feminisms: A Global History by Lucy Delap

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finishing Up With February ARCs

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

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

While the characters sometimes become hard to keep track of, I really felt that Layden had thought this all through; there’s something solid about the connections between her cast that makes me believe that if I re-read this novel, all sorts of things would start coming to light that I hadn’t noticed first time round. In this way, I thought her decision to use multiple narrators was much more illuminating than if we’d had to keep to a single person’s perspective (both the strength and weakness of Curtis Sittenfeld’s 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.