More Nuns in Novels: Matrix by Lauren Groff

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Lauren Groff’s Matrix was my most anticipated book of 2021. I was captivated by the synopsis: ‘seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey… at first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions.’ I was also intrigued as to how a writer like Groff, who has only written very contemporary fiction before, would handle the distant twelfth-century past; I hoped this would avoid the ponderousness that drags down a lot of historical fiction, and lead to more freedom and inventiveness with the subject-matter. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m also obsessed with novels about nuns at the moment: current favourites include Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede (modern) and Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts (early modern). Could Matrix possibly live up to all these expectations?

The answer is: yes, almost! Groff’s novel returns to a lot of the themes that novels about women’s religious communities are well-placed to explore: female solidarity, solitude, duty, sexuality. Unlike Godden’s and Dunant’s novels – which have protagonists, but which are very much ensemble stories – Groff focuses completely on the dominant figure of Marie herself, and how she transforms the abbey in her own image. (Marie has at least one historical counterpart; I knew nothing about this when I read the novel, so it didn’t affect my experience of it, but these Goodreads reviews – one negative and one positive! – give good background if you’re interested: Review 1; Review 2). Marie is both this novel’s strength and its weakness. Groff, refreshingly, isn’t interested in depicting women who get their comeuppance for exercising power, and while there are twists and turns in Marie’s life, she remains fiercely defiant. There’s more than a trace of Nicola Griffith’s Hild in her exceptional stature and intelligence. However, by exalting Marie, Groff misses the opportunity to more fully explore the lives of the other nuns and novices – and so presents a less interesting and less complex version of the convent as social community than do Godden and Dunant. She also goes full throttle on lesbian nuns, which – while I’m never going to complain there are too many lesbians in a book – focuses very much on sex between women rather than other aspects of close romantic attachment, and feels a bit like it was dropped in to be daring.

This also emerges in the way that Matrix is written. Groff skips across great swathes of years very quickly, relating the progress of the abbey to Marie’s own life, and particularly to her own biological ageing, as she suffers with painful periods and then with an early menopause. Even dramatic incidents don’t hold the pace back for too long; we are always moving forward. I thought that this worked beautifully in telling Marie’s own story, but again, less well in capturing the everyday texture of life at the abbey. There are also odd lacunae; I wanted to know more about how Marie initially resigned herself to the convent, and her turn to her Marian faith. All in all, this is not the best novel about nuns I’ve read, but it’s certainly one to add to reading lists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.”

“And would you want him to?”

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

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

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

“Someone else had to do all of that.”

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

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

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

Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: Survivors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Late Spring Reading, 2021

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Mehar, Harbans and Gurleen are three recently married young women living in rural Punjab in 1929. They are the brides of three brothers, but none of the three women know which brother it is that they have married. They spend most of their nights in the ‘china room’, where they share a pair of charpoys, string beds, and whisper together under the display of their mother-in-law’s wedding china that came as part of her dowry. However, every so often, one of the women is called to sleep with her husband in a ‘windowless chamber at the back of the farm.’ In the blackness, each struggles to identify her bridegroom, but at first, none of them are able to. With this compelling set-up, Sunjeev Sahota’s third novel, China Room, immediately has something of the folkloric about it. This is countered or perhaps enhanced by the modernity of Sahota’s language and his refusal to slip into distancing, archaic prose. This usually works very well, although there were a couple of phrases that made me pause: it does feel jarring for these isolated characters to say things like ‘Ants in your pants?’, although I get that Sahota is already ‘translating’ their words into English and so we’re already only getting a version of what they say. On the other hand, this decision definitely gives China Room the immediacy that a lot of historical novels lack.

Alongside the story of Mehar and her sisters-in-law, we follow an unnamed eighteen-year-old male narrator in 1999, who is detoxing from heroin addiction on his family’s farm in the Punjab, having grown up in England. Our narrator becomes slightly interested in his family history – we discover that Mehar is his great-grandmother – but Sahota doesn’t draw the connections tightly between these two threads, preferring instead that the stories mirror each other thematically through their depiction of social exclusion and agency. This makes the modern narrator feel a little unnecessary at times, as Mehar’s section of the narrative has much greater tension and direction. However, I did like the perspective that his experiences brought, as he reflects upon the vicious racism he suffered as a teenager, confounding some of our assumptions about the relevant privilege of a young man raised in modern Britain as opposed to a young woman in an arranged marriage in 1920s India. China Room didn’t have quite the same kind of impact on me as Sahota’s previous book, The Year of the Runawaysbut it’s a beautifully quiet and moving novel.

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

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Dantiel W. Moniz’s debut collection of short stories, Milk Blood Heat, plays on some familiar themes: quite a few of the stories are about a pair of girls on the cusp of adolescence, knotted together by their own closeness but already sensing the encroachment of the outside world, where class, race and sexual attractiveness will start to define them. I am quite tired of fiction that stresses the strangeness of girlhood – why can’t we write about teenagers like they’re people, like everybody else? – but to be fair, Moniz only occasionally uses this register. Two things stood out to me from this collection, which I otherwise found a bit forgettable. One, most of the stories continue a couple of pages past where I expected where they were going to end, which was refreshing, as Moniz pulled a bit more out of each situation than I thought it could hold. Two, what will stay with me from Milk Blood Heat is not the plots of its stories but a series of arresting, brutal images. A woman grieving for a lost baby is fascinated by an octopus in an aquarium consuming its own tentacles. A girl hangs onto her non-swimmer friend to save herself when their raft drifts too far out to sea. A sister confronts her younger brother’s school bully in a closet and terrifies him. Tying into what I’ve already said, it’s not surprising that all these scenes came near the end of their respective stories. It’s almost as if Moniz had to write through the mundane before reaching the surprising. I’ve just read too many collections like this for Milk Blood Heat to stand out, I’m afraid, but Moniz definitely has promise.

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

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The unnamed narrator of Natasha Brown’s debut, Assembly, is a black woman working in finance, and its ostensible focus is a visit to her boyfriend’s family estate. However, the story takes place almost entirely inside the narrator’s head. This stream-of-consciousness novella sometimes strays closer to being a polemic essay than a piece of fiction, which in this instance, isn’t a bad thing at all. We find out early on that the narrator has been diagnosed with some kind of life-threatening condition and is refusing treatment, but doesn’t seem too concerned with her physical future. Instead, she consistently bashes against the walls of her own mind as she muses on the impossibilities of truly existing as a black woman in Britain. The central theme is how black lives have been monetised, from the compensation paid to slaveowners after Britain abolished slavery early in the nineteenth century, to the way she is exploited and tokenised by capitalism today.

The narrator’s voice becomes increasingly desperate as she considers how futile it is to make people see white supremacy when they don’t believe it’s there: ‘Explain air… Prove what can’t be seen. A breezy brutality cuts you each day.’ To survive, she feels she is being asked to ‘become the air’ and so considers opting out, letting her own body kill her. Her younger sister is on the same ‘successful’ life trajectory, and she believes that by dying she can help her out: ‘I have amassed a new opportunity, something to pass on. Forwards. To my sister.’ However, the claustrophobic twist in this tale is that the narrator herself still can’t think past money, giving her sister a stake in the system that has ground her down: ‘I have the flat, savings and some investments, pensions, plus a substantial life-insurance policy.’ While I admired what Brown was doing with this book, for me it did suffer a bit from the typical curse of the novella; I felt it could have been tightened into an incredible short story or expanded into a wonderful novel. But although it didn’t quite hit as hard as it might have done, it’s still a haunting piece of writing.

I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 3rd June.

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.