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.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Red at the Bone and The Most Fun We Ever Had

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I’m not really sure what to say about Red at the Bone, Jacqueline Woodson’s second novel for adults. Its prose is competent and I enjoyed the warmth that Woodson brings to her characters, but I have rarely read anything that felt so pointless. This pocket-sized family saga ostensibly centres on sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming of age ceremony at her affluent African-American grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone in 2001, but is really focused on the previous generations, flicking between point-of-view chapters from Melody’s immediate relatives. Melody’s mother, Iris, became pregnant with her when she was only fifteen, and in a satisfying reversal of the usual teen pregnancy plot (I’ll give Woodson points for this), found it difficult to deal with her unwanted responsibilities, leaving her ex-boyfriend, Aubrey, to step up to fatherhood. While Iris escapes to college at Oberlin, Aubrey and Melody form a deep and loving bond. We also hear from the two different sides of the family, discovering that Sabe’s mother and grandparents fled from the 1921 Tulsa massacre, and that Aubrey’s own mother died shortly after Melody’s birth. And that’s pretty much it, except for the introduction of an unexpected external event at the end of the novel which felt not only melodramatic but downright peculiar; as if it had accidentally escaped from a different kind of book altogether. If you ignore its final few pages, there’s nothing terribly wrong with Red at the Bone, but as a number of other reviewers have commented, it’s infinitely forgettable.

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The Most Fun We Ever Had, Claire Lombardo’s debut novel, is also a family saga that features teenage pregnancy, but it’s almost three times as long as Red At The Bone and nearly as pointless. Set in Chicago, this novel follows Marilyn and David Sorenson and their four adult daughters through a turbulent year as their second oldest daughter reveals that she once had a baby, Jonah, that she gave up for adoption, and that he’s now a homeless teenager who’s been unceremoniously dumped back into their lives. I’d been told that Fleishman Is In Trouble was about a group of unlikeable people, but the Sorensons easily win that contest; none of them appear to have any redeeming features whatsoever except perhaps the two youngest daughters, Lisa and Grace, and even then, I had problems with both characters. The parents project an image of a close, romantic couple who care deeply for their children, but their family is blinkered by privilege, horrible to anybody who doesn’t fit their precise standards of what is acceptable, and almost as nasty to each other. A cleverer novelist like Lionel Shriver would have torn this apart, but Lombardo’s writing just bobs along. I believe she’s aware of how unpleasant her characters are – indeed, Jonah’s presence in the novel seems to have been engineered to give us an outside perspective on these people – but she never does anything with it. I actually found this quite a fun, trashy read (I enjoyed reading it much more than Red At The Bone) so I guess in that sense, it does have a point, but it’s not a novel that should be anywhere near prize lists.

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. These are numbers fourteen and fifteen. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We DisappearedA Thousand ShipsHamnet; Actress; Weather; and Fleishman Is In Trouble.

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.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Dominicana

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It’s 1965, and Ana Canción is fifteen years old when she enters into an arranged marriage that will transport her from the Dominican Republic to New York, and offers the chance that her family will be able to follow her there. Ana does not love her new and much older husband, Juan; he beats her, rapes her, and resists letting her leave their apartment, even to access free English classes. Nevertheless, Ana reaches out to her new world as far as she can, befriending one of Juan’s female debtors, Marisela, and talking to the pigeons who live outside her window. When political unrest in the Dominican Republic forces Juan to return to protect his assets, the radius of Ana’s world dramatically expands; suddenly, alongside Juan’s attractive younger brother César, she is dreaming of starting her own food business and selling pastelitos at the World’s Fair. However, what will happen when Juan comes back?

Angie Cruz writes in the afterword to Dominicana that ‘This novel was inspired by my mother’s story… When I told my mother back in 2005 I would write a novel inspired by her, she said, Who would be interested in a story about a woman like me? It’s so typical. And yet, stories like my mother’s, although common, are rarely represented in the mainstream narratives available to us. I am grateful for the opportunity to publish this singular story, knowing very well that so many writers who are women of color do not have this privilege and access.’ Cruz is, in one sense, absolutely right. I’ve read nothing about the Dominican Republic before and knew nothing about the community of Dominicanas that formed in New York City from the 1950s onwards and which is beautifully documented here.

Cruz writes vividly about Ana’s life and language, and although her prose can be a little cringeworthy while describing Ana’s experience of sexual desire (Rachel picks out some good examples in her review), this didn’t dominate my experience of reading the novel as a whole (I wondered if this purple prose reflected the telenovelas that Ana consumes). In general, I felt that Cruz did a good job of communicating the inner world of this very young woman, and her ability to continue exploring and hoping, as in her friendship with Marisela, who exploits her naivety but also gives her a different way to frame her relationship with Juan. After Marisela jokes with her about men, she scripts a different kind of imaginary conversation with her husband: ‘I fall to the sofa, feet in the air. Ana, go get me a drink! Hurry! Where’s my dinner? What’s taking you so long? Ana! Ana! Ana! Oh Juan, get your own stupid drink! I say to the hat on the table, then laugh.’ Ana can’t easily escape her abuse, but Cruz conveys how she builds up an inner resilience that enables her later (if limited) rebellion.

Nevertheless, while the raw materials of this story may be fresh, the literary model that Cruz has chosen is painfully familiar. Dominicana maps out the precise story beats of so many other novels about immigration to the United States that I’ve read, and so it becomes very predictable (not helped by the fact that the blurb summarises pretty much all of the plot!). While the narrative comes to life in a way that other versions of this narrative don’t (for example, Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers), I became frustrated by this very limited coming-of-age framing. The novel already cheats slightly by jumping out of Ana’s first-person voice to give us glimpses of Juan, and I felt that this story might have been much more thought-provoking had we not been confined to Ana’s head. I would have loved to have read more from Juan, who intricately justifies his treatment of Ana and his affair with another woman, and perhaps to explore the perspective of Ana’s mother, who pushes her daughter into this marriage to benefit her family. These perspectives would also have allowed us to see more of the Dominican Republic rather than the typical New York 60s setting. On reflection, I found my enthusiasm for this book waning as I read on.

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

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number six. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; and Nightingale Point.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Nightingale Point

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Every year, the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlists something that I find bafflingly bad, and this year, I’m pretty confident that prize goes to Luan Goldie’s Nightingale Point. This novel, set in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, is told principally from six different first-person perspectives, with a seventh tossed in at the very end for no good reason. Its narrators are linked by the run-down London block of flats where they live, Nightingale Point, and by the traumatic tragedy that occurs one hot summer’s afternoon when a cargo plane plows into the block. Mary is a Filipino nurse who is burdened with guilt about an affair; she is surrogate mother to two black teenage boys, Malachi and Tristan. Malachi is studious, asthmatic and heartbroken, while his younger brother Tristan is more concerned with keeping up his street cred and keeping their little flat spotless. Elvis, a white man with learning disabilities, has recently moved to the block through a care-in-the-community placement; he loves having his own place but is the target of harassment. Finally, Pamela, perhaps the most vivid, is a white teenage girl kept captive in her own flat by her controlling father; she remembers the days when she was at least let out to run in the frosty park for an hour, and wishes she could reunite with Malachi, with whom she had a brief love affair.

At almost four hundred pages, Nightingale Point, which treads slowly through a long preamble and postamble to its central incident, feels like a much shorter story stretched out to fill the space of a novel. It also has some fairly basic craft problems, which I found surprising, given that Goldie is a past Costa Short Story award winner. On a sentence-by-sentence level, it’s uninspiring but competent, although there are some occasional clangers (‘The woven burgundy throw falls from the back of the sofa to reveal the holes and poverty beneath it.’) However, the prose clumps together in uncomfortable ways, partly because the transitions between past and present, and between introspection and action, are often awkwardly handled. Here’s Pamela on the roof of the block of flats:

Her running shoes swing by her sides as she pads across the greyness in her socks. She steps over the glossy ripped pages of a magazine; a girl in a peephole leather catsuit stares back at her. The door bounces against its splintered frame as Pamela enters the building. Her world starts to shrink.

On a macro level, this novel didn’t work for me either. It’s not a sharp evocation of a London council estate along the lines of Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious Citybut seems more akin to plodding feelgood London community-based novels like Libby Page’s The Lidodespite the fact it’s not especially feelgood! It doesn’t have anything interesting to say about either solidarity or hierarchy in the wake of this disaster, and, for a novel that claims to mirror the Grenfell tragedy, it’s curiously apolitical. (While I obviously understand that Goldie wouldn’t have wanted to tackle Grenfell directly, I wondered why she chose to pluck a real-life incident from its original social context – this plane crash into a tower block actually took place in Amsterdam in 1992, and led to a government cover-up.) Because the novel chooses to eschew all these interesting power dynamics, it becomes a somewhat soapy and manipulative read, with an especially troubling through-line for one of its central characters.

Highlight for spoiler. As is achingly predictable, poor Pamela dies in the crash because she can’t escape from her locked flat. Her story then becomes the property of the men who are grieving her. Pamela left a note for Malachi before her death breaking the news of her pregnancy that, it seems to me, she would have wanted very much for him to read even if she was dead, but Tristan, who promised to deliver the note, decides it will be better for his brother if he tears it up, and Malachi never finds out he did this (which is terrible storytelling anyway!) Then for some reason, Pamela’s abusive father, Jay, gets a surprise point-of-view chapter near the end of the novel which seems principally concerned with eliciting sympathy for him and suggesting that he and Malachi can find common ground at a memorial service five years on: ‘So much happened back then, so many things that can’t be unsaid or changed. But today isn’t about that, it’s not about Jay or Malachi, it’s about acknowledging Pamela, the sixteen-year-old girl who loved laughing and milkshakes and running till she could no longer feel her legs. The girl they both loved. They share a look, which Jay feels is not filled with violence or regret, but with understanding of what they’ve both lost.’ BUT, the reason Pamela (and her baby!) is dead is because Jay LOCKED HER IN HER FLAT, and even when she was alive she never got to enjoy running and milkshakes because Jay KEPT HER LOCKED IN HER FLAT. I know this is from Jay’s point of view, but Goldie could easily have chosen to undercut this scene when she returned to Malachi’s perspective; instead, he doesn’t comment. End spoiler. In short: what were the judges thinking?

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number five. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; Queenie; and Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.