Nuns In Novel(la)s

This year, despite not being religious myself, I’ve become slightly obsessed with fictional nuns. I thought I’d think a little about why nuns offer such interesting possibilities for novelists, in anticipation of Lauren Groff’s forthcoming MatrixHere, I’ll be discussing three very different books about three very different kinds of nuns: Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts (2008), which depicts a convent in sixteenth-century Italy; Lina Rather’s Sisters of the Vast Black (2019), which follows an unspecified order of nuns on board a living spaceship; and Rumer Godden’s In This House Of Brede (1969), which is set in an English Benedictine community in the 1960s. However, although these nuns are far apart in space and time, they all sit within the Catholic tradition; this post will therefore focus on Catholic nuns, while recognising that these aren’t the only nuns that exist, even in the Christian faith – and recommendations for books that deal with non-Christian nuns would be very welcome!

Catholic nuns tend to be the butt of jokes, either portrayed as incredibly prudish or sex-obsessed; because nuns are supposed to be angelic, any hint of misbehaviour from a nun is somehow funnier than if it came from a ‘normal’ person. (One of my favourite jokes as a child – no idea why – was ‘What goes black white black white?’/’A nun rolling down a hill.’/’What’s black and white and goes ha ha?’/’The nun who pushed her!’) The radical potential in stories about Catholic nuns, therefore, lies in asking what it’s really like to be a nun and whether this popular stereotype of repressed, unhappy, usually elderly women holds true. If you take out references to nuns or convents from the blurbs of Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede, they suddenly sound a lot more subversive: 

Sixteen-year-old Serafina is ripped by her family from an illicit love affair and forced into the women’s community of Santa Caterina, renowned for its superb music. 

Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman, leaves her life among the London elite to join a women’s community.

This is not to say that you can simply ‘take out’ the religion from these kinds of communities and reimagine them as proto-feminist communes, but that there’s obvious potential in telling stories about groups of women who live together and rely on each other, and are often able to do things they could not do in the outside world, while recognising that this kind of life comes with its own set of restrictions. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Matrix sparks a new trend for this kind of novel, as it speaks to a lot of twenty-first century concerns: women who are not defined as wives or mothers; female separatism; loneliness vs chosen solitude; the un/importance of sex.

However, if nun novels were just about women both embracing and escaping the confines of their times, Sisters of the Vast Black would be pointless. Why write about nuns in space when you can invent a future where women can do anything they want? Here, I think we see the appeal of writing about a community of people who are simply trying to do the right thing, aside from feminist concerns. The first two-thirds of Sisters of the Vast Black have a moral seriousness that isn’t preachy or theoretical but very much connected to the world the sisters are dealing with. Even more interestingly, both Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede depict closed orders, where the nuns’ job is not to do ‘good works’ but to create a community of prayer, cut off from most contact with the world around them. The purpose of this can be hard to understand; what good are the nuns doing by removing themselves from the world? However, in both novels, the power of the convent, of this way of living, is evident, although both Godden and Dunant recognise that this life is right for some women and hellish for others.

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Diana Rigg starred in a film adaptation of In This House Of Brede (1975)

Why read about Catholic nuns if you are not yourself Catholic or Christian? One great thing that these novels open up is the opportunity to write about women who are not primarily driven by one emotional tie, whether that’s to a man, a child or another family member. As I wrote in my review of Lissa Evans’s Old Baggagethese kind of novels are very rare. And while I wouldn’t want to read a nun novel that was simplistic or dogmatic about religion, none of these books are like that. Dunant vividly conveys the importance of faith to some women in her sixteenth-century convent while others suffer under its strictures. Godden has a harder task, convincing us that a twentieth-century character like Philippa would enter a convent in the first place, or thrive there as she does. But while few of us have a vocation to be a nun, I could identify with how Philippa struggles with herself, the fight to be the best version of herself she can be – I don’t need to share her beliefs to understand that.

Finally, there’s a thoughtfulness about these kind of novels, a deliberately reflective pace that I find hugely refreshing in fiction. Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede tell a big story about lots of women and the lives they lead, and they aren’t tempted to hurry us along to hit the dramatic highpoints. Sisters of the Vast Black, in my opinion, suffers in its final third because it suddenly speeds up, losing much of what made it special earlier on. These books eschew standard plots with a single, ‘active’ protagonist to think about how even the most self-reliant of nuns are part of something bigger. Along the way, they break many ‘rules’ of fiction, and they’re all the better for it.

Have you read any of these novels, or any other novels about nuns? Do you have any recommendations? (I’ve already spotted that Rumer Godden wrote two other novels about nuns, and am eagerly seeking them out!)

Early Spring Reading, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh no!” my mother said.

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

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

“Mmm,” she said, bravely.

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

“Aargh!” said my mother.

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

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

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

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

‘In the beginning there was an idea’: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

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Gifty, the protagonist of Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, is both a neuroscience PhD student at Stanford who sought rigour in all things from an early age, and a grieving woman who is still deeply connected to her Ghanaian family’s Pentecostalism. As a child, she struggled with the command to ceaselessly praise God, soon discovering that she found it difficult to keep her mind on prayer for more than a few minutes; her teenage imagination was caught by the idea that ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God’ might actually be translated differently: ‘“Word” was translated from the Greek word Logos, which didn’t really mean “word” at all, but rather something closer to “plea” or even premise… In the beginning there was an idea, a premise; there was a question.’ Gifty’s research on reward-seeking behaviour in mice has obvious connections with the death of her older brother Nana from opioid addiction, but the novel avoids giving her this one simple motivation for her project; she explains that she was drawn to neuroscience because it seemed so hard and so pure, and is now grappling with the conflict between religious and scientific ideas of the brain, the mind and the soul.

From a white British perspective, fiction on the perceived conflict between religion and science has often tended to focus on the theory of evolution, and explored either the gentle accord that nineteenth-century men of science found between their faith and the evidence that the natural history of the world was much longer than they’d expected, or the later clashes with creationism. Transcendent Kingdom stands out in its depiction of Gifty’s Pentecostal faith, which, unlike Anglicanism/ Episcopalianism, focuses on personal divine revelation and speaking in tongues, and how she integrates her childhood beliefs with her neuroscientific work. (Creationism only comes up once, as an irritating question that non-believers ask her; she dodges it by spouting something one of her schoolteachers once said, ‘I believe we’re made of stardust, and God made the stars.’) This novel is so wise and thoughtful that there are endless bits I could quote, but I was especially struck by how Gifty turns to both scientific articles and biblical passages, not necessarily as sources of authority, but as things that are both good to think with.

This book is so thematically resonant that a lot of the reviews I’ve read make it sound intellectually worthy, but a bit dry; this isn’t the case at all. Gifty is a completely captivating narrator, ironically funny about her younger self, complex, unashamedly ambitious and yet deeply caring. Gyasi does not have time for any of the usual binaries that afflict female characters, and doesn’t let us think for a second that because Gifty wants to be a scientific star and does not want marriage or children, this means that she is in any way emotionally deficient. The novel is also technically brilliant in a very unobtrusive way; the narrative melts between present and past every few paragraphs, but I never felt at all confused about where or when we were. Indeed, it’s this clever juxtaposition that allows Gyasi to say so much without spelling anything out to the reader.

I never managed to love Gyasi’s acclaimed debut, Homegoing, as much as I wanted to; I admired its premise and construction, and connected with some of the stories, but felt a little distanced from the project as a whole. Transcendent Kingdom was a very different experience; I was completely pulled into Gifty’s world and Gifty’s questions. This novel deserves to go straight onto the Women’s Prize longlist and indeed the shortlist, and I hope to see it there on the 10th March.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 4th March.

(An aside: what is going on with the UK cover for this book? It looks like the sort of shapes I used to doodle in class, and the pink and green cover scheme is – not good. It’s such a shame, because the US cover is perfect:

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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.

Getting Ahead With February ARCs

Like a lot of book bloggers, I seem to be completely swamped with February ARCs, so started reading them in January in order to try and get ahead of the upcoming tide. Here are my thoughts on some of next month’s releases:

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Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, came very highly hyped, but for me, it was one of those novels where the hype left me feeling baffled and concerned about the state of the literary world. Set in modern Kolkata, it alternates between the perspectives of three characters: Jivan, a young Muslim woman falsely accused of being involved in a terrorist attack; Lovely, a hijra who longs to be an actress and who has been learning English from Jivan; and PT Sir, Jivan’s former teacher, who is now becoming dangerously involved with a nationalist political party who want to use Jivan as a scapegoat. All three characters use, and are used, by social media. Jivan was originally ensnared by the police after posting an angry Facebook status criticising the government, PT Sir uses YouTube to spread the word about the party he works for, while Lovely is delighted when a video of her goes viral.

A Burning is emotionally moving, but I found it disappointingly thin. All three of the protagonists are relatively one-dimensional, with Jivan defined by her wronged innocence, Lovely by her sassy narration, and PT Sir as the typical social climber seduced by the opportunity of power. The quick switches between them make the novel a swift read but also reinforce the impression that it’s only skating over the surface of these political injustices. Majumdar also breaks away from her three central narrators at times – for example, there are brief snatches from the point of view of Jivan’s parents – which means that the novel ends up spelling out things that it doesn’t really need to, slipping into a mode of storytelling that is more common in YA than in adult fiction. Ultimately, I wished that Majumdar had had the confidence to leave more unsaid.

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

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I’ve been looking forward to the third book in James Smythe’s Anomaly Quartet since I read The Explorer and The Echo back in 2014 (having been further impressed by his I Still Dream in the interim). In The Edge, the Anomaly is up to its usual creepy tricks; it’s moved much closer to the Earth and our protagonist and first-person narrator, Ali, is part of a team who’ve been sent up in space to monitor the Anomaly’s progress and to try to find out more about it. Heading up the team is an ancient Tomas, the surviving twin brother from The Echo, who, it soon becomes clear, has his own questions to answer. But as strange things start to happen on the space station, Ali starts to wonder if she can trust anybody other than herself.

Smythe is brilliant at thinking logically through the consequences of a concept, and expanding his stories as his characters discover these consequences. The relatively simple time-loop story told in The Explorer became much more complex in The Echo, and The Edge builds further on what we already know about the Anomaly, further enhancing the terror of the threat it poses. However, despite the fact that the central story of this quartet advances in satisfying ways in this installment, I found it disappointing as a stand-alone read. Ali is in many ways more grounded than our two previous narrators, and more obviously relatable; perhaps this is why her paranoia feels more like the familiar gaslighting of a psychological thriller rather than the truly skewed stories told by Cormac and Mira. The originality of the first two novels was a little lacking here, and I found myself getting tired of Ali’s self-questioning, and of the backstory with her husband, which drew on too many usual tropes. However, it may be that this all seems a lot fresher to SF readers who haven’t read as many psychological thrillers as I have, and it is an interesting kind of genre-cross, which I always appreciate.

Despite my relative ambivalence about The Edge, I’m still very excited to read the final book in the Anomaly Quartet, and to find out how Smythe pulls together all the questions he’s posed over the course of this series, though I suspect the final meaning of the Anomaly may be more metaphorical than scientific.

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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The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the final title in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers quartet (although I hope she will return to this world, if not these characters, in future, as there still seems to be so much more to explore!) As ever, it’s gentle, character- and concept-driven sci fi, with a satellite accident merely providing the pretext for her four central characters to be stranded together on the ‘truck stop’ planet Gora. Ouloo and Tupo, a Laru mother and child, run the Five-Hop One-Stop, trying hard to provide appropriate food and facilities for all the different alien races they might encounter. Roveg is an exiled Quelin who builds immersive VR environments, and is keen to be on his way so he doesn’t miss an important appointment. Speaker is an Akarak, a race who seem to have drawn a galactic short straw, and is desperately trying to reunite with her twin sister in orbit. And Pei, who briefly appeared in The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, is an Aeluon who is initially relaxed about the extended stop-over, until something unexpected throws her off course.

I haven’t truly adored any of the Wayfarers novels as much as I loved The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, and this held true for The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. However, it still delivers Chambers’s usual thoughtful inventiveness and optimistic take on the future of the universe. I continue to be frustrated that a writer who so flexibly rethinks gender, sexuality and race can’t break outside the idea of childhood and adolescence as a universal biological category, and Tupo fell into many of the same teenage stereotypes as Chambers’ human character Kip in Record of A Spaceborn Few. Nevertheless, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within still gives us plenty of interesting ideas to chew on. Most of the cast veered close to being a bit too idealised for me, but I loved Chambers’s complex portrayal of Pei, who is forced to wrestle with questions of just war, reproductive duty and non-conformity. Her narrative strand, for these reasons, was by far the most compelling. In short, though, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within won’t disappoint Wayfarers fans, and as ever, I’m excited to see what Chambers does next.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

February ARCs to come: Light Perpetual (Francis Spufford); All Girls (Emily Layden); Kololo Hill (Neema Shah); Little Gods (Meng Jin).

How are you doing with your February ARCs?

Two Recent Reading Recommendations

Two very different debut novels that I have just read and would recommend!

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Cara is a traverser, able to hop between particular parallel universes and bring back valuable data that will inform the development of her own world. The catch is that you can only travel into parallel universes where you are no longer alive, and Cara is especially valuable to the company she works for because she is dead in so many. This technological quirk reverses normal social hierarchies, making people like Cara who have always lived life on the outskirts suddenly significant to those in power. However, Cara’s knowledge of her many deaths also underlines the fragility of her current existence as a black bisexual woman with limited resources who lacks citizenship of Wiley City, hailing instead from the wastelands outside its walls. The Space Between Worlds, Micaiah Johnson’s debut, uses this device to resonate with what we know about how little the lives of men and women of colour are valued in many supposedly advanced countries today, and also explores how her own specific knowledge shapes Cara’s attitude to herself. Nursing a throat injury, she thinks ‘The worst part isn’t the pain: it’s the familiarity. It’s how many times I’ve felt this before and how many times I’ve sworn I would never feel it again.’

The Space Between Worlds also made me think about how knowing about the paths taken by your alternate selves would shape your own self-image. Some of Cara’s selves have done things that she considers morally wrong; does this mean that she has to rethink her sense of her own moral compass, or have they diverged so far from her that their actions mean nothing? Has Cara’s hard upbringing made her more vulnerable to having these kinds of selves, or would we all want to distance ourselves from some of our other versions if we knew about them? Johnson plots well, taking the reader down a twisty, complex path without losing them along the way, and she makes good emotional capital out of the ways in which Cara’s jumps between worlds fracture her relationship with Dell, a female co-worker whom she’s strongly attracted to but who seems to have written her off because of her background. There were certain elements of this novel – principally, the tidy split between Wiley City and the wastelands, and the psychopathic corporate villain – that felt a little YA-ish to me, but Johnson largely steers clear of simplistic narratives. Recommended for those who enjoyed Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel and Richard K Morgan’s Altered Carbon.

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Hazel Barkworth’s Heatstroke is billed as a thriller, but is probably better described as literary fiction; I found that there were a number of genuinely unexpected moments, but these can’t exactly be classified as the kind of twists that genre novels demand. Rachel’s relationship with her fifteen-year-old daughter Mia is already under strain when Mia’s best friend Lily goes missing. We soon discover that Lily has not been abducted, but has gone of her own accord, sending shockwaves through the school where Rachel teaches, and where she’s been closely involved in directing a production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, with Lily cast as the fragile Laura. Rachel finds her fears about her own daughter’s progress towards adulthood intensifying, but at the same time, she is pulled back irresistibly to her own adolescence, which was not marked by ‘sweet perfume… in a crystal star’ but black eyeliner and ripped tights. She becomes obsessed with how her own ageing body contrasts with her daughter’s effortless youth. (Cleverly, Barkworth only gives us one clue about what Rachel feels she’s missed out on; at a dinner party, as the guests talk about why they chose their teaching careers, Rachel admits ‘I thought I’d be something quite different’, then refuses to elaborate. ‘Don’t play it down, Rach’, her husband interjects. ‘Rachel was going to be a rock star, she was in a pretty successful band’. We know nothing else about what happened.)

Given this, even though the subject-matter of this novel is very close to that of Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa (which I haven’t read), it reminded me most strongly of Zoe Heller’s Notes on A Scandal – indeed, there is a climatic dressing-up scene that feels like a deliberate homage, but is, if anything, even more powerful. Barkworth treats this difficult and controversial material delicately. This book explores the dual set of narratives we impose on teenagers – especially teenage girls but also teenage boys – and how our ‘cult of youth’ is only harmful to actual adolescents. Rachel, alongside some of the other adults in the novel, meditates on Lily’s vulnerability and childlikeness, allowing this to feed a righteous fury, while at the same time constantly thinking about how sexy and confident other girls Lily’s age are. She describes Mia’s boyfriend as ‘physically a man, even if not legally’ while at the same time framing him firmly as an adolescent with no self-awareness: ‘It seemed odd that her poised daughter was drawn in by this lumpen ox.’ The ending of the novel unsurprisingly emphasises how much Rachel doesn’t know about her daughter, but rather than the traditional twist that unveils how hedonistic, dangerous and thoughtless her daughter’s life really is, Mia is revealed to us as kinder, braver and more serious than Rachel expected. Totally gripping, but also very thought-provoking.

If either of these debuts appeal, you can buy The Space Between Worlds here and Heatstroke here. Heatstroke is also currently on a 99p ebook deal.

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

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.

The king of winter

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Miryem is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, viewed with suspicion by her tiny community because of her faith and her father’s profession, even though her father is so kind-hearted he rarely collects his debts. As her mother’s health worsens, Miryem takes matters into her own hands and starts running her father’s business. Her methods are so effective that she attracts the attention of the Staryk king, who rules the fairy kingdom of winter and is determined to take her as his wife because he believes she can turn silver into gold. At the same time, Irina, a duke’s daughter who has fairy heritage, is being forced into marriage to the tsar, who is possessed by a fire demon that draws him to the mysterious cold within her. Finally, our third female protagonist and narrator, Wanda, is relieved to be employed by Miryem’s family as a means of escaping her violent father, and hopes to store up enough money to flee with her two younger brothers – but what will happen to her when she too is drawn into the frozen Staryk kingdom?

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik’s second stand-alone novel, has been billed as a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin that addresses the anti-semitic material in the original folktale, and while it certainly is that, it’s also so much more. I was hesitant, at first, to pick up this novel, despite its appealing blurb, because I had serious reservations about Novik’s first loose fairytale retelling, Uprooted, even though I hugely admired her ability to echo some of the finest modern rewriters of folktales (for me, Robin McKinley is the go-to example). Despite its feminist trappings, I felt that Uprooted ultimately fell into very old patterns in recounting the story of Agnieszka, who is taken from her village to serve a powerful wizard. Agnieszka has her own magic, but it is presented as ‘natural’ and intuitive as opposed to the intellectual, masculine magic of her captor; she’s supposed to be strongly linked to her closest female friend, Kasia, but the relationship never came alive for me; worst of all, she’s drawn into a misogynistic and problematic romantic entanglement. The blurb for Spinning Silver sounded like it might cover similar ground. However, this is actually a very different kind of novel, and all the better for it.

While Uprooted was narrated solely through the rather tiresome lens of Agnieszka, Novik deftly jumps between five voices in Spinning Silver; she does this so skilfully that there’s no need for names to mark the breaks between sections. By foregrounding three female characters, she avoids the feminine stereotypes that marred the previous novel, emphasising Miryem’s, Irina’s and Wanda’s different strengths, and it’s also refreshing to see Judaism handled so explicitly in a fantasy setting, moving away from the usual dominance of either Christianity or a kind of pseudo-paganism in these kinds of retellings. However, for me, the biggest strength of Spinning Silver is how Novik maintains the beautiful structure of folktales without compromising on the complexity of her plot. While Uprooted’s pace often felt relentless, as Novik tried to match the inevitable onward march of events in folk stories, Spinning Silver is simply gripping, as jumping from one storyline to the other gives the reader a bit of a break from the repeated sequences of three tasks and three days. This is such a clever and magical book, and I can’t wait for Novik’s next.