Belated April ARCs

I feel very sorry for these three April ARCs. Not only have these three authors had to deal with being published in the middle of a global pandemic, they’ve also been personally neglected by me because I was so busy with my Women’s Prize reading. Nevertheless, I’ve finally got round to them, and I have to say that all three are worthwhile – so I hope that they get at least some of the attention that they deserve!

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You People, Nikita Lalwani’s third novel, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2020, though I wish it hadn’t been burdened with such a hideous cover. It’s set in 2003 in an Italian restaurant in London that’s run by Tuli, who enjoys the reputation of being a benefactor to the undocumented migrants and other recent arrivals who work there, many of whom are Tamils from Sri Lanka fleeing civil war. It has two narrators: first, Nia, a nineteen-year-old Welsh waitress who passes for white and privileged and is happy to reap the advantages of that, but whose father was Bengali and who’s refusing to return home so she won’t have to deal with her alcoholic mother. Second, Shan, one of the Sri Lankan refugees, who is desperately seeking to reunite with his wife and child. Lalwani carefully draws the reader into the net that Tuli is weaving, causing us to continuously reassess what we think we know about the situation that Nia and Shan find themselves in. As ever, Lalwani writes so well about complicated moral choices and inhabits each of her characters with sharp empathy, although I didn’t find this novel to be quite as clever or memorable as her brilliant The VillageNevertheless, she creates a complex community of word-of-mouth bargains and secrets, and she’s still streets ahead of many of her contemporaries. I’ll be interested to see how this compares to Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty, which – although it’s set in Sydney – also deals with an undocumented immigrant from Sri Lanka who has to make a difficult ethical decision!

You People was released in the UK on April 2nd. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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C. Pam Zhang’s debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, is set in California at the end  of the Gold Rush of the 1850s. It explores the lives and histories of two young Chinese siblings, Lucy and Sam, as they struggle to survive after the deaths of both their parents. In this, it joins novels like Téa Obreht’s Inland and Philipp Meyer’s The Son in seeking to reimagine white, male myths of the American nineteenth-century ‘pioneer spirit’. The novel starts with the siblings fleeing their home with their Ba’s body packed into a trunk on the back of their mule; it then flashes back so that Ba can relate the last generation of their family’s history; and finally flashes forward five years to a time when Lucy, now seventeen, is trying to become a respectable young woman in town while an absent Sam lives feral.

Unlike some reviewers, I didn’t find this structure especially awkward – for me, the siblings’ futures and pasts were more interesting than their present, so I was glad that Zhang decided to deftly shake it up a bit – but still, this novel doesn’t quite fulfil its ambitions. Both Lucy and Sam are vividly imagined, and yet they’re never given enough space to become totally captivating. Sam’s contested relationship with gender is handled cleverly by Zhang – it can be difficult to position this kind of narrative in a historical setting, but I thought Zhang managed to create a space for Sam that felt like a kind of  queer space that might have existed at the time, even though readers may continue to wonder what modern labels fit the character. However, as Elle points out in her review, Zhang’s refusal to commit to pronouns for Sam makes the writing clunky. Initially, I wondered if this represented Lucy’s own confusion about how to refer to Sam, but as we get sentences like ‘Sam’s hair… reaches just under Sam’s ears’ at the same time as Lucy continually refers to Sam as ‘her’, I didn’t understand why Zhang didn’t choose a set of pronouns, even if these changed later on in the book. The present tense also felt too much like a creative-writing class default setting rather than a deliberate choice. In short, How Much of These Hills Is Gold suffers, like many debut novels, from trying to pack too much into one story, but I’d much rather read something like this than a bland, competent book, and I’ll look out for more from Zhang.

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold was released in the UK on April 9th. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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How To Pronounce Knife, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut collection of short stories, was also one of my most anticipated 2020 titles. All the stories are set in a city that is deliberately unnamed, left sketchy around the edges, although I had the sense from a couple of references that we are somewhere in Canada. All, also, deal with the lives of Lao immigrants and their children, although not all of the stories are primarily about immigration or ethnicity. What I found so impressive about these quiet stories, in fact, is the way that they don’t cluster around one specific theme; Thammavongsa is sharply insightful on a number of registers. Childhood is one of these, and Thammavongsa’s thoughts on writing in the voice of a child are worth reading. The title story, which deals with a small girl trying to navigate between her family’s culture and the world of school, completely gets how frustrating it is for children not to be heard, and how adults continually fail to understand how, when young children are angry about one thing, it’s often something much bigger than just that thing.

However, Thammavongsa takes us into the head of an older woman who has just begun a sexy affair with a much younger man with equal conviction (‘Slingshot’), upturning our received ideas about age, sex, and the way that these attributes structure power dynamics in a relationship. She writes beautifully about how chicken plant worker Red (‘Paris’) only knows one kind of love: ‘that simple, uncomplicated, lonely love one feels for oneself on the quiet moments of the day. It was there, steady and solid in the laughter and talk of the television and with her in the grocery aisles on the weekends’. She vividly details the different work worlds of a man working in a nail salon (‘Mani Pedi’) and a woman picking worms in a field (‘Picking Worms’). Occasionally, a story seems to draw away from its climax rather than landing with the conviction of the others in this collection, and Thammavongsa sometimes goes for an easy emotional beat rather than pressing for something more interesting (‘Her sense of taste comes and goes now’, muses an older woman after having a stroke in ‘You Are So Embarrassing’. ‘Most of the time it all tastes bitter. And all that bitterness in her mouth is hard to swallow.’) However, these are rare missteps in a collection that is otherwise consistently good.

How to Pronounce Knife was released in the UK on April 16th. I received a free copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

If any of these books appeal, and if you’re able to do so, please consider ordering from Hive, from Waterstones, or from your local independent bookshop to support authors and bookshops at this time.

‘You are in the house and the house is in the woods’: Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

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It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of boarding-school and campus novels. I love fiction set in any kind of institution of education anyway, and these settings combine that with another of my favourite tropes, the set-piece where all the action is confined to one building or location. 2019 and early 2020 have seen a flurry of these kind of novels, but so far, I’ve found them all disappointing. Neither Rory Power’s Wilder GirlsClare Beams’s The Illness Lesson nor Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing worked for me. So, I was thrilled, as I ventured deeper into the world of Elisabeth Thomas’s debut, Catherine House, to realise that I’d finally found exactly what I’m looking for, while realising that the kind of resonances Thomas picks up on might not chime quite so perfectly with all readers.

Catherine House is set in the mid-1990s, in that convenient period for writers where a lot of the trappings still feel reasonably contemporary but you don’t have to deal with the problems introduced by widespread access to the internet and mobile devices. It has a intriguing premise: Catherine House is a rural Pennsylvanian institution of higher education that educates all its students for free, with free room and board, for all three years of their degree. The catch: during that time, you can’t leave Catherine House and its grounds, and only very limited contact with the outside world is allowed. Even in a time before the student debt crisis in America had hit its current peak, you can see why this might be a tempting offer, and, even better, Catherine graduates are known for forging illustrious careers. It’s certainly a godsend for our narrator, Ines, who is running from her previous life. At first, the rumours of the school’s mysterious scientific experiments with ‘plasm’ don’t really impinge on Ines’s life, but then she’s gradually drawn in…

The novel’s blurb pins it as a cross between Sarah Waters and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but – while there’s a hint of Hailsham in the way that Catherine students relate to the institution – I thought what the book did most brilliantly was reinvent the kind of YA supernatural thrillers that I devoured in the 1990s and early 2000s. For example, Lois Duncan’s Down A Dark Hall and L.J. Smith’s Dark Visions trilogy also depict students at an exclusive institution that wants to explore and perhaps exploit their uncanny abilities. Thomas captures the tense, immersive atmosphere of these novels while using the greater space afforded by contemporary adult fiction to build her world. I loved the fact that she also inverts a number of familiar tropes from this kind of fiction. Most satisfyingly, Ines is not a reluctant outsider to the Catherine community, but, after some initial doubts, settles in with a close group of friends. This allows Thomas to say much more interesting things about our desire to belong and work communally than if she had made Ines the typical rebellious heroine.

Catherine House depicts a group of people who are isolated but still connected, wrapped up in a hallucinatory world of deep winter snows and hazy hot summers, with enough creepily oblique references to the plasm experiments (‘I read everything I could about Catherine… Even the mean [articles] – the ones after Shiner’) to keep the plot taut. In short, I found it a perfect read for right now, and I’m just sorry that it’s over!

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 12th May. If you’re interested and able to do so, please consider pre-ordering from Hive, from Waterstones, or from your local independent bookshop to support authors and bookshops at this time.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Actress and Weather

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In Anne Enright’s seventh novel, Actress, Norah narrates the story of her relationship with her mother, Katherine O’Dell, an English-Irish star of stage and screen who became notorious in her later years after shooting a filmmaker in the foot. Actress possesses all the gifts that I encountered in the one previous Enright novel I’ve read, The Gathering. On a sentence-by-sentence level, Enright’s prose is always impeccable and frequently, startlingly good. Two particular examples that stood out for me were both about motherhood. Trying to conceive a child, Norah muses, ‘secretly, I did not think I was capable of having a baby. I could not align my wanting. If I could just want the right thing, I thought, and at the right time, then my body would give in and want it too’. Finding her real father would be ‘the rope I needed to haul my baby out of the universe and into my body.’ Later in the novel, when her daughter, Pamela, is grown, Norah stands in her childhood room and reflects, ‘I like to think of her growing up in here, with infinite slowness, filling the length of the bed.’ However, you could probably open Actress on any page and find a gem. Enright will never resort to lazy shorthand; the world and the characters she evokes in this novel are utterly distinctive.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t warm to Actress any more than I could warm to The Gathering. It feels like a massive critical failure to say that a novel is ‘too grim’, but that’s what keeps coming back to me with Enright’s work. I can’t really warm to her literary projects, because there’s something about her view of the world that I just don’t like. With Actress, this is partly because of a mismatch between my expectations and the novel she actually chose to write – we’re told Katherine was a star, but any actual success she had in her career is blink and you’ll miss it. I can see how this may have been absolutely deliberate; Norah certainly lingers on the more unpleasant aspects of her mother’s character. But Katherine’s stardom was the bit I most wanted to read about! Ultimately, the unleavened misery of these characters was just too much for me, so while I have to admire Enright’s skill (and the memorable front cover), this wasn’t a book I enjoyed reading or will return to.

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It was the same after 9/11, there was that hum in the air. Everyone everywhere talking about the same thing. In stores, in restaurants, on the subway. My friend met me at the diner for coffee. His family fled Iran one week before the Shah fell. He didn’t want to talk about the hum. I pressed him though. Your people have finally fallen into history, he said. The rest of us are already here.

Jenny Offill’s Weather was already a timely novel, but since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s become almost unbearably prescient. The New York narrator’s disconnected musings were, when this was published way back at the beginning of February, knitted together by the fear of catastrophic climate change; however, Lizzie is more afraid for her son and her niece than for herself. ‘If climate departure happens in New York when predicted, Eli and Iris could – “Do you really think you can protect them? In 2047?”‘ Now, of course, a kind of disaster seems to have arrived much faster than even the fearful Lizzie could have predicted, and this book feels weirdly, brilliantly, both pre- and post-pandemic. Offill could never have anticipated this timing, but I believe that one of the reasons this holds up so well is the strength and truth of her writing. At times, I felt like she was rummaging around in my brain.

I can see how some might feel that Weather reads like a series of isolated observations, all very profound and quotable but not adding up to anything meaningful as a whole. However, that wasn’t how I experienced it. I felt as if I was following Lizzie’s thought patterns, understanding instinctively why she flips from one set of concerns to another, because I could see how they were tied together. A novel that deals with human extinction should theoretically struggle to get the reader to care about the other mundane details of its protagonist’s life, but Offill shows us how nobody can shed these kinds of concerns even when they’re trying to face up to the end of days. Lizzie’s touch of osteoarthritis reminds her as vividly of her own mortality as the ‘prepper’ literature she’s absorbing: ‘Later, when I tell Ben the gout story, my voice is less jaunty than I intend. I make a little joke and the room steadies. But I saw his eyes. I know what he’s remembering. That time the dog’s muzzle went grey.’ Profoundly disturbing but also very funny, Weather is the surprise hit for me from the Women’s Prize longlist.

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. These are numbers eleven and twelve. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We DisappearedA Thousand Ships; and Hamnet.

For anyone who took part in my Twitter poll and is concerned that I seem to have forgotten to read Fleishman Is In Trouble; I started it first but it has been leapfrogged by a couple of shorter longlistees! I am enjoying it, but am reading it very slowly 🙂

Quotidian horrors: The Bass Rock

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Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock was probably my most eagerly anticipated title of the last couple of years. Her second novel, All The Birds, Singingwith its insanely clever backwards structure, was one of my top ten books of the decade; I put The Bass Rock on my4.5 star challenge before it even had a cover because I was so sure I was going to love it. So, perhaps it could never have lived up to such high expectations, and yet I do feel a little disappointed. Before I go any further, I should say that The Bass Rock is absolutely a good novel, and it was utterly cheated by not making the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist (especially given the dubious quality of many of the titles that were longlisted). Wyld is an incredible writer, and, line-by-line, there is nothing about this book that is a letdown. However, it’s made me reflect on what I want from a novel that is really going to blow me away: and I guess I’ve concluded that I put a higher premium on originality – both in terms of structure, and content – than perhaps other readers do. Quite apart from the brilliant structural tricks that Wyld played in All The Birds, I loved its unusual setting – the protagonist, a woman called Jake, spends a good chunk of the novel as a sheep-shearer in the Australian outback – and the way that Wyld experiments with horror tropes. Nevertheless, The Bass Rock totally succeeds in everything that it sets out to do, and it is a bit unfair to be cross at it simply because it isn’t All The Birds.

The Bass Rock, like its predecessor, also takes a slightly experimental structure; the vast majority of the novel is divided between three narratives, linked by place rather than by person. Viv, in the present day, is house-sitting in the shadow of the Bass Rock, a looming presence off the Scottish coast. Ruth, in the 1950s, has just moved into the same house, navigating her relationship with Peter and his two teenage sons, who are having a turbulent time at boarding school. Finally, in the early 1700s, a woman flees for her life into the surrounding woods after she is accused of being a witch. Usually, novels that use dual or triple narratives tie them together tightly – a common trope (much disliked by me) is the person researching their family history – but, although certain links emerge, Wyld is brave enough to let these three strands stand in parallel. While I thought this aspect of the novel worked, I still found that I was constantly wishing to return to Ruth’s story, which felt by far the strongest of the three. I hate to say it, but aimless millennial narrators like Viv are starting to irritate me; she’s an old millennial, but she still fits into a groove that I feel has become increasingly worn. Meanwhile, the early modern witch-hunt felt flat and familiar.

It’s when we’re spending time with Ruth that the book really shines; the way that it traces the quotidian trauma of male violence, and how easily it can become an everyday experience. While all three stories are, of course, concerned with patriarchal power, its threads are seen most clearly in the mundane horrors of Ruth’s world; the predatory local vicar, the boys’ abusive boarding school, how Ruth’s own husband quietly oppresses her, the silencings and smothering of other girls and women. Somehow, Wyld manages to nail not just how violence works but how we come to take it for granted. She doesn’t allow us to judge these characters from outside (of course he’s an abuser; of course that’s rape) but forces us to enter into their heads and understand how difficult it is for them to see things clearly. Her take on this theme is one of the best that I’ve ever seen in fiction, and that alone makes The Bass Rock worth reading.

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

What I Read During My First Two Weeks On Lockdown

Apart from my Women’s Prize longlist reading, which is swallowing up most of my time, I managed to pick three very different gripping reads that have helped me get through my first two weeks on lockdown.

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Kiley Reid’s debut, Such A Fun Age, was both totally addictive and consistently entertaining – exactly what I needed last week – even if by the end I felt like it was shallower than it had seemed at the start. The book has a killer inciting incident. Emira, a twenty-five year old black woman, regularly babysits for two-year-old Briar, the child of a wealthy white woman, Alix, an influencer and blogger who lives in Philadelphia. When Emira is called out late one night to take Briar to the grocery store while Alix and her husband sort out some trouble at home, she is confronted by a security guard, who believes she must have kidnapped Briar. Horrified by this incident, Alix resolves to take Emira under her wing, and becomes increasingly fascinated by the nuts and bolts of Emira’s life. But when the two women discover that they have an unexpected connection, their usual defences begin to unravel. While the pace of this novel never falters, its writing is uneven; it feels unusual and original when Reid imagines the three-way relationship between Emira, Alix and Briar, fun but trashy when she skewers Alix’s corporate world, and awkward when Emira is hanging out with her group of black and Hispanic friends, who feel uncomfortably stereotypical.

This Goodreads review summed up my uneasiness by saying that ‘I most definitely felt like I was reading a book written about black struggles by a white woman’ even though Reid is black, and while, as a white woman, I wouldn’t have vocalised my discomfort in that way, I think there’s something in that criticism. Such A Fun Age is sometimes too concerned with didactically explaining microaggressions, rather than trusting the reader to understand. I also wondered if my problems with the depiction of Emira’s friends were due to age as well as race; Reid was about ten years older than these characters at the time this novel is set, and the evocation of what sociologists might call their ‘peer culture’ feels a bit try-hard. There’s also an unnecessary twist at the end concerning Alix that robs the novel of some of its complexity. Having said that, though, the good bits of this are really good, and it’s STILL better than much of the Women’s Prize longlist, so I fully stand by putting it on my wishlist.

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My friend Eleni Kyriacou has just published her debut novel, She Came To Stay, and I managed to attend her book launch in London just before everything went wrong. This evocative historical thriller stars Dina Demetriou, who arrives in London from Cyprus in the early 1950s. Although she’s forced to share a tiny, damp flat with her brother Peter, things look up when she gets a job repairing costumes at a theatre and meets the glamorous Bebba. However, Dina could never have predicted how completely Bebba will turn her life and her brother’s life upside down. She Came To Stay brings the fog and grime of postwar Soho vividly to life, evoking the glitter of the costumes Dina sews and the bars in which she drinks martinis. It has a light touch that’s lacking in a lot of historical fiction, perfectly conveying the feel of the era without overloading the reader with detail. It’s also a real pageturner, becoming more and more gripping as tensions tighten between Dina, Peter and Bebba. The Greek Cypriot background of the three central characters makes this story feel fresher and more original than much fiction set in the 1950s, and I particularly loved the way the writing conveys the insidious ‘Great Smog’ of 1952. Honestly, it was the perfect distraction!

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Ruth Gilligan’s fifth novel, The Butchers, is set in rural Ireland in the summer of 1996, as the BSE crisis kicks off and Irish farmers initially benefit from the collapse in British beef. It moves between four third-person narrators plus a series of interludes set in New York in 2018, where a photographer is about to exhibit a photograph of a dead man that was taken in an Irish slaughterhouse decades before. Grá is the wife of one of the eight Butchers, a group of men who move around the country slaughtering cattle in accordance with their own particular rites. Úna, her twelve-year-old daughter, dreams of becoming a Butcher herself someday, despite the fact that the order is closed to girls. In another county, Fionn, desperate to raise money for experimental cancer treatment for his dying wife, becomes involved in smuggling cows over the Irish border. Meanwhile, his son, Davey, is focusing on his Leaving Cert exams, determined to depart for the bright lights of Dublin, when he falls unexpectedly in love with somebody he’s just met.

I seem to have been looking for a farming novel that uses Celtic folklore this adeptly for some time; I was disappointed by Owen Sheers’ uneven novella White Ravenswhich is Welsh rather than Irish, but which echoes The Butchers in its depiction of a woman who watches her brothers get involved in sheep-stealing after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease leads to the shooting of their own flock. However, despite the thematic echoes, the robustness of Gilligan’s prose is closer to writers like Fiona Mozley and Cynan Jones. All four of her narrators are completely convincing, but I was especially captivated by Fionn’s descriptions of swapping tags on cattle and printing new stamps on packets of beef in the depths of night. Gilligan treads a fine line with his characterisation, making him admit to ‘raising a fist’ to his wife and son just once, many years ago, but knowing he can never make things right; giving him a history of alcoholism but showing how religiously he now sticks to pints of coke; making him want to impress his fellow smugglers to demonstrate his masculinity but also emphasising that he is motivated by the thin prospect of saving his wife’s life.

The Butchers, by leaping from protagonist to protagonist, also deliberately elides or skips a number of climatic moments in its plot, such as the peak of a bar brawl or Davey’s first sexual encounter. This vignette-like approach worked for me, twisting this undoubtedly gripping story away from becoming a straightforward thriller and giving the more subtle scenes space to breathe. Gilligan also makes effective use of her setting, skilfully contextualising BSE for readers who are unfamiliar with it, and dropping references to Euro 96 and the Spice Girls while never slipping into gratuitous nostalgia. Having requested this on NetGalley some months ago, and noticing that its publication date was approaching, I started this novel out of a sense of duty; but it’s an unexpected, original and accomplished treat.

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

Have you read anything recently that has been an especially good distraction?

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Girl & How We Disappeared

Jing-Jing Lee’s debut novel, How We Disappeared, and Edna O’Brien’s eighteenth novel, Girl, share some striking thematic similarities, so much so that I wondered why both had been longlisted for the Women’s Prize. Lee’s multi-narrative book tells the story of Wang Di, or ‘to hope for a brother’, who is kidnapped by the Japanese from her home in Singapore in 1942 and forced into sex slavery in a military brothel. O’Brien’s sole first-person narrator, Maryam, is captured by Boko Haram in modern-day Nigeria and undergoes relentless physical and sexual violence in their camp. Both books explore the pernicious but persistent association of rape with defilement, and the myth that women who are subjected to these atrocities have somehow consented; both Wang Di and Maryam are shunned by their communities when they finally escape their captors, and treated as semi-collaborators in their own abuse. Both books are also concerned with motherhood, and the love and grief both women feel for children born through rape, even as their families refuse to recognise these babies.

Therefore, both novels raise questions about how writers write about abuse that they have not themselves experienced, even if O’Brien has faced more direct questioning about the appropriation of such narratives than has Lee. The concerns about O’Brien’s choice of subject make sense to me: unlike How We Disappeared, this didn’t happen very long ago, and while Lee is drawing from her own family history, O’Brien has no links to Nigeria, and troublingly assigned herself the role of telling these girls’ stories after reading an article in a newspaper. Nevertheless, I don’t think this lets Lee ‘off the hook’, as such. We still owe something to people in the past and the legacy of the ‘comfort women’ is a live issue today not only in Singapore, but in South Korea, China and the PhilippinesHow We Disappeared is not a better novel than Girl solely because its writer shares family history and an ethnic background with its narrator, although obviously her own lived experience will have informed her work; it’s a better novel than Girl because it works better as a novel.

Rachel argues in her review that Girl should have been an article or an essay rather than a novel, and I completely agree. I find it hard to get on with fiction that seems to have the sole purpose of telling us that something obviously wrong is wrong, and I don’t really buy arguments about ‘drawing attention’ to or inducing empathy with a particular situation. As Hannah Giorgis writes in the Atlantic, ’empathy can be a seductive, self-aggrandizing goal. It demands little of author and reader alike’. While I think that novels can do a great deal of general work around empathy, I don’t think that they are well suited to push particular polemical narratives. While reading Girl, I found myself thinking ‘what’s the point?’ not because I wasn’t affected by the brutality that O’Brien depicts, but because I wasn’t sure why this had to be a novel at all. Part of the problem was that Maryam never felt like a real person to me, but rather a mouthpiece for O’Brien to talk through. We don’t get any sense of her life before or outside her kidnapping by Boko Haram.

In contrast, I found that the several narrative strands that knot together to make up How We Disappeared brought a much greater richness to its telling. Wang Di narrates her story in first-person in the past and in third-person in ‘present’-day Singapore (these parts of the book are set in 2000), while we also get a contrapuntal present-day narrative from Kevin, a twelve-year-old boy whose dying grandmother confesses an explosive secret. While the past sections that focus on Wang Di’s experiences in the military brothel are the most immediately compelling, I found the ‘present’ sections, set in 2000, equally worthwhile, especially once you realise where the book is going. Some readers found Kevin’s narrative unnecessary, but I felt that it added something important to the novel, offsetting Wang Di’s relentless depictions of suffering and expanding its thematic weight by allowing us to consider questions of truth, family and storytelling across the longue durée, rather than focusing solely on the immediate aftermath of Wang Di’s ordeal. In short, unlike Girl, How We Disappeared is not just trying to get us to be shocked and horrified by its subject-matter; it has bigger things to accomplish.

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. These are numbers seven and eight. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; and Dominicana

#ReadingWomen: Past Women’s Prize for Fiction Winners, Part One

This post offers a break from my Women’s Prize 2020 longlist coverage with… more Women’s Prize content!

The Women’s Prize for Fiction is setting up a #ReadingWomen challenge this year, challenging readers to read all 24 of the previous prize winners. I’ve been desultorily pursuing this aim since 2015 and so have a head start – I only had 5 previous winners left to read when they announced the challenge!

A long time ago in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Women’s Prize for Fiction was still called the Orange Prize*, I was only a child and did not follow the Prize as obsessively as I do now. Because of this, most of the winners that I haven’t yet read are from this earlier period of the Prize’s history. In this post, I’m taking a look at two of these early winners; the remaining three will be covered in later posts. Eventually, I will try and rank all 24 (though this will be dubious as I read some of them a LONG time ago).

*although this name lasted until 2012 and is still my favourite iteration of the Women’s Prize’s various names. There’s something that feels so fitting about it, as if men are the standard apples of the literary world and women are the sharper, more innovative oranges, even though I know it’s the name of the sponsor!

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Anne Michaels’ debut novel Fugitive Pieces was the second ever winner of the Orange Prize, in 1997. The book is narrated by Jakob Beer, who fled the Holocaust as a young boy in Poland, hiding in a forest after his parents and older sister Bella were taken by the Nazis. Jakob is rescued by a Greek geologist Athos, who takes him first to Greece and then to Toronto. In the last third of the book, the narrative switches to Ben, a Canadian professor of weather patterns (classic literary fiction job) whose parents were also Holocaust survivors and who, it transpires, is their third but only living child. Ben becomes obsessed with Jakob’s poetry as a way of helping him understand the trauma his family has suffered, despite the fact that Jakob himself failed to process the horrors in his own past.

I anticipated that I would struggle with Fugitive Pieces because of the ubiquity of Holocaust narratives in contemporary literature; what I didn’t anticipate was the incredible pretentiousness of its prose. Elle has pretty much said everything I want to say about this novel’s writing in her brilliant review, so I won’t dwell on the subject, but as an example, this are the kind of musings our narrators go in for:

History is the poisoned well, seeping into the groundwater. It’s not the unknown past we’re doomed to repeat, but the past we know. Every recorded event is a brick of potential, of precedent, thrown into the future. Eventually the idea will hit someone in the back of the head. This is the duplicity of history: an idea recorded will become an idea resurrected. Out of fertile ground, the compost of history.

Lightning has restored a man’s sight and also his hair.

Ball lightning enters through a window, a door, a chimney. Silently it circles the room, browses the bookshelf and, as if unable to decide where to sit, disappears through the same air passage by which it entered.

A thousand accumulated moments come to fruition in a few seconds. Your cells are reassembled. Struck, your metal melted. Your burnt shape is branded into the chair, vacancy where once you inhabited society. Worst of all, she appears to you as everything you’ve ever lost.

It sometimes seems unfair to pluck paragraphs from a book and critique them, but in Fugitive Pieces, this is exactly how they read in the narrative. Michaels’ prose often feels like a series of strung-together sentences that have no obvious connection to each other, and often deliberately obscure meaning, as in the first passage, where past events move from being a poisoned well to a brick to compost. Occasionally she hits upon something that is strong out of context; I like the sentence ‘Eventually the idea will hit someone in the back of the head’ and the idea of ball lightning browsing the bookshelf. But none of this adds up to anything, because the prose isn’t doing any work. Incidentally, the first passage above comes from Jakob’s section of the book and the second from Ben’s; the two narrators are completely indistinguishable, which to my mind is a pretty unforgivable novelistic sin.

Furthermore, the passage about the lightning prefigures Ben’s meeting with one of the few female characters in this novel, and it’s entirely typical. Women in this world always ‘appear’ to men when they need them, manifesting as a cluster of ideal traits, never as individuals in their own right. Jakob’s first wife, Alex, is a manic pixie dream girl before the term was fashionable; she seems to only have one character trait, which is making incredibly annoying puns: ‘I’m making a check list, is Liszt Czech?’ His second wife, Michaela, draws an even shorter straw, as her only defining characteristic is that she is so much younger than Jakob, a fact of which we are continually reminded: ‘I dream of Michaela – young, glistening smooth as marble, sugary wet with sunlight’. The women in Ben’s life are similarly attuned to what his narrative arc needs at any given point, and appear and disappear accordingly.

It’s hard for me to think of a novel that does so many of the things I hate most, and so, despite its occasional moments of emotional clarity – for example, Jakob’s memories and imaginings of his sister Bella – Fugitive Pieces was an outright failure for me.

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Valerie Martin’s seventh novel, Property, won the Orange Prize in 2003. Set in the 1820s, it’s narrated by Manon, the wife of a Louisiana slaveowner who hates her husband and longs to return to her native New Orleans; but even the hope of inheriting her mother’s property is tainted by her knowledge that it will be swallowed up by her husband’s debts. Manon’s frustration and rage is turned upon an enslaved woman, Sarah, who has been forced to have two children with Manon’s husband, and who now, in Manon’s eyes, haunts her house like a living reminder of this infidelity. As rumours of a slave rebellion move through the South, Manon herself becomes increasingly restless and abusive towards this woman who is in her power.

Recently, I’ve been concerned by certain literary furores that seem to suggest that novelists should not write in the voice of an oppressor. I’m working on a longer post on this issue at the moment, but in short, I think this arises from the misguided assumption that fiction has only one purpose – to ‘give voice’ to marginalised people whose stories we need to hear. If this were true, it would be obvious why we shouldn’t write from the perspective of those who hold power over others, as they already control the narrative in the real world. But while ‘giving voice’ to the oppressed can be a function of fiction, I don’t think it’s the most important thing fiction can do, and it definitely isn’t the only thing novels are for. This is demonstrated perfectly by Property. If we’re playing by ‘giving voice’ rules, then this is a terrible novel – we only hear from an abusive, privileged and selfish white woman, while all the black characters, both enslaved and free, are totally silenced. But imprisoning the reader in Manon’s head sheds light on the self-justifying logic of those who practiced slavery. Manon is acutely aware of the injustices that she faces – as a married woman, she is not able to hold property in her own right, for example. Nevertheless, she is completely unable to view enslaved people as anything but subhuman. While she dislikes her husband’s exceptionally cruel behaviour towards some enslaved boys, this seems to be more a matter of what she views as good estate management rather than morality.

Martin’s portrayal of Manon also plays with received wisdom about the function of a protagonist. Manon is not a traditional protagonist nor even an antagonist – she exercises very little agency and spends most of her time bemoaning her lot. Meanwhile, Sarah, who speaks only a handful of sentences over the novel’s pages, is the most active character in the novel, albeit largely off-screen. This doesn’t mean that Sarah is our protagonist either, but I think this helps us to understand the power of Martin’s authorial choices. Some reviewers have suggested that this would be a better novel if it gave Sarah a narrative voice as well, but I think this misses the point. It is precisely Sarah’s silence in the story, I would suggest, that brings home the totality of slavery as an institution. Sarah, as we know from hearsay, is an articulate and intelligent woman, but she will not speak to Manon because her voice is something that Manon cannot own. By refusing to relate her own story, Sarah makes herself unknowable, and hence, to Manon’s persistent frustration, forever beyond the complete domination that Manon craves. Seventeen years after it was first published, Property still has a great deal to say.