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.

10 Books of Summer, #1 and #2: True Story and Holding Her Breath

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Kate Reed Petty’s debut True Story, like many other contemporary novels over the past few years, tackles the topic of sexual violence – but with a twist. Alice is a teenager at high school when she passes out in the backseat of a car and wakes up to find out that boys have been boasting about what they did with her when she was asleep. However, rather than telling Alice’s story straight, Petty relates it through a mix of documents, memories and a more traditional first-person narrator, Nick, who was not involved in the alleged assault but also fails to challenge his friends when they start spreading the rumours. As the trying-too-hard cover suggests, this book is about who gets to be in charge of the story and what kind of story it turns out to be. In my favourite fragments, Alice and her best friend Hayley write gleefully violent horror movie scripts together. On the other hand, in a section that I thought was much too thematically obvious, Alice tries to write about her experience for a college application essay before giving up and inventing an standard ‘inspirational’ story instead to win the praise of her adviser. 

Overall, although I raced through True Story, I felt that it suffered from trying to be too clever and too meta. There’s a central twist in this narrative that would have been enough by itself, and definitely brings something new to the table in fiction about sexual violence [highlight for spoilers]. Alice eventually finds out that she wasn’t assaulted that night – the boys were just spreading rumours about her to big up their own reputations. Some reviewers have found this distasteful, suggesting that this makes the novel about a false allegation, but I don’t agree with that point of view at all. Petty vividly shows the impact that ‘just words’ have had on Alice and how devastating it is for her to feel like she no longer fits into the standard victim narrative – in no way does she minimise the impact of these boys’ actions. Indeed, I’d argue that she actually challenges some problematic assumptions about sexual violence by foregrounding its emotional rather than physical impact. [end spoilers]. However, rather than being content with that twist, Petty takes it a step further, and while I understood her thematic point about rewriting the story, I ended up feeling unsatisfied. Ironically, I found the most convincing and original sections of this novel belonged to Nick rather than Alice.

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Beth was a champion swimmer before she had a mental health crisis in her final year of school and dropped out of active competition. Now she’s starting university a little late, tentatively swimming again, although not at the elite level where she once participated, and trying to work out who she is without the sport. She turns to another label that she’s had all her life: she’s the granddaughter of Benjamin Crowe, a famous poet who drowned himself in the sea before she was born. Her grandmother Lydia is reluctant to talk about the past, but Beth sets off to discover what lay behind Benjamin’s most famous poem, Roslyn, completed just before he died. Holding Her Breath, Eimear Ryan’s debut, reminded me strongly of Danielle McLaughlin’s recent novel, The Art of Falling, which also intertwines an artistic mystery from the past with a finding-yourself plot in contemporary Ireland. Both McLaughlin and Ryan write the same kind of effortless, matter-of-fact prose, as well. However, Holding Her Breath is the stronger novel; Beth is much more of a person than the somewhat blank protagonist of The Art of Falling, and the secondary characters are much more people in their own right as well, especially Lydia and Beth’s flatmate Sadie.

In the hands of a different writer, this might have been yet another book about Dysfunctional Women Being Dysfunctional, following in the footsteps of Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan and Ottessa Moshfegh, amongst others. Beth certainly ticks a lot of the boxes with her mental health issues, her sudden decision to abandon her swimming career, and a few sexual partners. However, Ryan is definitely not writing that sort of character, and I liked Beth the better for it. Surprisingly, it turns out that you can have sex with different people without being bent on self-destruction! And quitting your ‘job’ doesn’t mean you are doomed to spiral into isolation! It’s a much more positive way to write about young women, and gives Beth more agency. Sadly, though, despite these strengths, I don’t think Holding Her Breath will stay with me for long. Despite its nuanced protagonist, it has nothing really to say, and its watery imagery feels too schematic. I’ll be looking out for more from Ryan, though.

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

Upcoming Beach Reads (or Stay-At-Home Reads) 2021

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Malibu Rising follows the four Riva siblings through the course of a single day and night in August 1983 as they hold their annual party at their clifftop mansion. The novel centres on the oldest of the four, Nina Riva, who has always held the family together after their rock star father Mick left them when they were small children and their mother June descended into alcoholism. Even now her siblings are grown up, Nina continues to put others first, pursuing a modelling career that she doesn’t want for the sake of financial security as she grieves the end of her marriage. However, this year’s party will throw everything up in the air for the Rivas, with both unexpected guests and unexpected secrets emerging as the night goes on.

Malibu Rising shares a focus on historic glamour and fame with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s two previous novels, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones and the Six, but in terms of style, it’s closer to her earlier, fluffier books like Maybe In Another Life and Forever, Interrupted, which were much more standard chick lit. (You could make the case that Evelyn Hugo is pretty fluffy, but I think Reid actually adopts a stylised mode of storytelling for that book that gave it both its humour and its edge.) It starts promisingly but quickly fades out in its second half, with none of the Riva siblings fully realised as characters except Nina – and even then, Reid has an unfortunate tendency to spell out all of the revelations Nina has about her life and exactly how they connect back to her difficult childhood. Given the lack of page-space for the other three siblings, it’s even odder that Reid chooses to jump between the heads of multiple unrelated party-goers in the second half of the novel, even though we learn nothing about them except who they are in love or lust with at the time, and they have no effect on the story.

Reid still has the gift of making us care about her characters, and I was invested in Nina and her relationship with her parents – I thought the sub-plot with her father was actually resolved quite well, even if it was a bit heavy-handed, as Nina refuses to accept glib rationalisations for why he treated the family so badly. However, this was a real disappointment after the two previous novels, and felt like it had been written in a rush. Given how well Reid handled stories that are meant to be a composition of different accounts (Daisy Jones) or a single account from one potentially unreliable narrator (Evelyn Hugo), I wonder if this mode of storytelling simply suits her better than the more straightforward multi-perspective third-person she uses in this novel, which didn’t do her writing any favours. A fun beach book, but I expect more from Reid.

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

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I’ve been reading Lauren Weisberger’s books since The Devil Wears Prada, even though they frequently make me quite cross, because she seems to be so against women pursuing their own ambitions – The Devil Wears Prada itself is the best example of this, but it’s also a pretty clear sub-theme in The Singles Game and Last Night in Chateau Marmont. In her previous novel, The Wives, she softened this message slightly to portray the importance of balancing family and career, and interestingly introduced a relatively older female character (by which I mean a character in her late thirties, nobody is ever actually old in this world) who regrets having completely sacrificed her own life for her children. This theme continues in her latest offering, Where The Grass Is Green*, which focuses on two sisters whose lives have taken unexpectedly different paths: Peyton, the high school dropout, is now an incredibly successful TV anchor, while Skye, the academic high-flier, is now totally focused on her daughter Aurora.

As I’ve said, Weisberger is often out to punish her protagonists when they start getting ideas, so I found this novel surprisingly sweet compared to most of her other work. It’s all set in the completely ridiculous world of the super-wealthy, so bears little resemblance to actual life, but the relationship between the two sisters is portrayed as supportive and loving. Neither is glorified at the expense of the other, although Weisberger does default a little back to her ‘family over career’ agenda by the end of the novel. I also found the portrayal of Peyton’s teenage daughter, Max, refreshingly positive compared to the usual ways that teenagers come across in light women’s fiction. The book is marketed as being about a college admissions scandal, but that’s more of a plot device than anything else (if you want a beach read about college admissions, go for Tracy Dobmeier and Wendy Katzman’s Girls With Bright Futures). Instead, the focus is the relationships between these three women, which makes this book much more fun and less depressing.

*Titled Where The Grass Is Green And The Girls Are Pretty for the US market, which is a Guns n’Roses lyric and a much better title. I’m not sure why the publishers truncated it for the UK – I wouldn’t have got the reference either way, but the UK title doesn’t make any sense. Maybe a copyright issue?

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

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Yours Cheerfully, the sequel to AJ Pearce’s delightful Dear Mrs Bird, brings the reader more of the same jollity and ‘Blitz spirit’ – which is probably even more welcome now during the Covid-19 pandemic than it was when the first book was published. Emmy and her best friend Bunty are still bearing up as well as they can on the home front in London during the Second World War. Emmy is still working at Women’s Friend magazine, trying to shore up readers’ morale and offer them good advice, but after being invited to a Ministry of Information briefing for writers on women’s magazines, she is gripped by the idea of trying to encourage more women to sign up for war work. However, as she starts to meet women who are actually working in factories, she realises that a shortage of government nurseries is both preventing them Doing Their Bit and putting many into financial hardship. Can Emmy balance her ‘patriotic’ duty to give a positive account of factory work with her new awareness of the real needs of workers?

As she did in Dear Mrs Bird, Pearce deliberately adopts a kind of spoof pastiche of how we think people sounded in the 1940s, without any attempt at historical realism. This worked a little less well for me in this sequel, however, perhaps because of the integration of more serious questions about women’s war work and childcare. It also felt more twee than its predecessor – while Dear Mrs Bird was centred on some genuinely tragic events, nothing nearly as dark happens in Yours Cheerfully, so the balance doesn’t feel quite right. Emmy’s life is indeed so cheery that I found myself becoming more interested in Bunty’s quiet struggles instead. All in all, this is a fun read, but it feels very much like the middle book in a trilogy – and I suspect a third will be along soon. 

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on June 24th.

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!)

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Detransition, Baby

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Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby flips between present and past to tell the story of Reese, a trans woman; her ex Ames, who once lived as a trans woman called Amy but has now detransitioned; and Katrina, who is pregnant by Ames and shocked to discover his trans past. Ames proposes that they form a child-rearing triad, giving Katrina the support she needs with the baby and fulfilling Reese’s lifelong dream of being a mother. But will their different takes on parenting, relationships and what it means to be a woman torpedo this arrangement before it even gets going?

I had to read Detransition, Baby very slowly, not because it’s an inherently slow read (each chapter zips past) but because I felt like Peters was throwing so much at me that I needed time to digest it before moving on. Therefore, this review will take the form of a series of observations rather than the straightforward kind of review I usually write. It also occurs to me that this is the kind of book I’m going to rethink as time goes on, so these thoughts are also very provisional.

  • Peters is not interested in writing trans characters that are straightforwardly likeable or who deliberately challenge trans stereotypes, which is a good thing. When I’ve read trans women or girls written by writers who don’t identify as trans, I’ve found that these depictions tend to be so respectful as to be smothering. Peters seems to have looked at this kind of writing and gone, fuck this. Reese has very little time for what she frames as trans victimhood but at the same time recognises that she plays into it when it suits her. This tactic backfires when she tries to tell Katrina, who is Chinese-American, that Katrina, as a cis woman, can’t understand how it feels to want a baby and yet to be seen as unfit to parent. Katrina isn’t having any of this: ‘I don’t know, Reese. It doesn’t sound like you’re talking about all women, it just sounds like a certain kind of woman. Like women now, here in this country – white women… When my grandma arrived here from China, she wasn’t encouraged to have kids.’ Reese is also unable to understand how cis women might perceive pregnancy as a biological burden, because she so desperately wants to get pregnant herself.
  • The book portrays a trans culture that, in Reese’s words, is ‘morbid and highly skeptical’. Peters presents this as a coping mechanism for living in a transphobic world. In one particularly memorable chapter, Reese attends yet another funeral for a trans woman who took her own life, but although she’s angry and sad, she deals with her feelings by employing black humour: ‘What no-one wants to admit about funerals, because you’re supposed to be crushed by the melancholy of being a trans girl among the prematurely dead trans girls, is that funerals for dead trans girls number among the notable social events of a season.’
  • It has really interesting things to say about age and generation. One of Reese’s favourite narratives is that trans women don’t have any ‘elders’, and so she has to be a ‘mother’ to ‘baby trans’ women. She also points out that trans women have often gone through a second puberty, and so experience a kind of second adolescence. In short, Peters takes a lot of ideas from impenetrable academic books I’ve read about queer temporality and makes them accessible 🙂 
  •  The book isn’t afraid to tackle taboos such as autogynephilia. Ames/Amy wrestles with his/her sexuality, and whether he/she really is a woman or is simply turned on by dressing up and being treated like one. (I’m using both sets of pronouns here because Ames/Amy uses both during the course of the novel). However, Peters is too smart a writer not to pursue this question to its furthest extent; Ames/Amy reflects that cis women may also be turned on by performing gender, and so this isn’t something that’s unique to trans women. I didn’t agree with all the assumptions that Ames/Amy and Reese make about cis women, but that’s fine; Peters isn’t writing a manifesto here, she’s writing a novel about characters that relate to gender in a certain way and move within a particular kind of subculture.
  • Because of all this Detransition, Baby calls into question our pre-conceived ideas about who authors are writing for and what they need to explain. I often felt incredibly uncomfortable while I was reading this novel. Some of this was because the book messed with some of my ideas about womanhood and gender, which didn’t always fit with the ideas that Ames/Amy and Reese express (not in the sense that I thought the ideas they expressed were wrong, but in the sense that there wasn’t much space for me in this world, which again, is OK, there doesn’t have to be, I’m not trans). However, I realised that some of this was because I was worrying about the reaction of an imagined reader who is not me; an imagined straight cis reader who doesn’t know much about trans issues and is inclined to be unsympathetic. (These Goodreads reviewers call this reaction ‘not in front of the cis‘ or ‘not in front of the straights‘, which is perfect). Peters clearly decided that she was going to write without worrying about whether she was leaving the reader behind or presenting an unsympathetic image of trans women. And ultimately, I think this is great: how can you create good art, or talk honestly about identity, if you are constantly worrying about a person who doesn’t understand the basics of what you want to say?
  • Having said all this, Detransition, Baby does have problems on a craft level. This book is so clever and so interesting that I often skimmed past a lot of this, but there’s no denying that it feels rather hastily put together; the tenses often go wonky and some of the dialogue doesn’t work. Given the subject-matter, I think Peters can be forgiven for a lot of the ‘telling’ she does; if you’re writing about things that haven’t been spoken about before, how do you convey those things to the reader other than by telling? However, sometimes I felt that she was just dumping too much in, and failed to connect to her characters’ emotions. You could also see the joins in the unsteady jumps between past and present. Some of the sex was thematically necessary, but some felt gratuitous. So, this feels very much like a debut, but WHAT a debut; I’d definitely rather read a book like this than a book from someone who has totally mastered their craft, but has nothing to say. 

I’d also like to recommend this Goodreads review from a non-binary reviewer who I think really nails why this book works, especially the complexity of the three main characters.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number seven. I’ve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times and Small Pleasures.

Now I’ve read all seven books, I’ll be back soon with my overall ranking and shortlist predictions!

#AllSystemsRead SF Readathon

#AllSystemsRead was a science fiction readathon hosted by Imyril @ There’s Always Room For One More and Lisa @ Dear Geek Place. It ran over the long Easter weekend, 2nd to 5th April, and the aim was just to catch up on some SF reading! Here’s what I read (NB you did not have to read All Systems Red, I wanted to read it anyway!):

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Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries series is pretty famous for its Murderbot narrator, which starts by telling us: ‘I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.’ The first novella in the series, All Systems Red, follows Murderbot after it’s been deployed as a security bot to protect a team of scientists conducting a research expedition on a largely unexplored planet. It was a solid and fun read, but I admit I wasn’t quite as wowed by it as I’d expected to be after all the hype surrounding Murderbot. I think I’d been expecting something more subversive – Murderbot is the classic snarky-exterior-with-a-heart-of-gold character rather than anything more ethically experimental. I liked that, in this set-up, the AI resists the humanity that the human characters project onto it rather than trying to prove its humanity, but as Murderbot clearly thinks very much like a human, this is played for laughs rather than to seriously suggest that there’s anything fundamentally different about bots in this universe. I’m not compelled to pick up the next novella in the series unless the price significantly drops, but I enjoyed the time I spent with this one. (Interestingly, Murderbot very clearly describes itself, and is described, as an ‘it’, but about half the Goodreads reviews that ascribe it a gender say they thought of it as he and half as she. I felt happier thinking of it as an it, though I imagined its human face as generic male.)

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Octavia E. Butler’s short story ‘Bloodchild’ has only convinced me that I must read more Butler as soon as possible – I’ve already read Kindredso next up will be Parable of the Sower. ‘Bloodchild’ has an interesting colonised/coloniser dynamic; a group of humans have left Earth for another planet already inhabited by the Tlic, a race of giant insectoids. We find out that humans were originally forced to live on special preserves, but that recently the two species have developed a more symbiotic relationship that seems to rest on one child of each family rendering a particular kind of service to the Tlic. I don’t want to say much more as this is only thirty pages, but this is a brilliantly disturbing story that raises both obvious and less obvious questions.

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Next up, I read Lina Rather’s novella Sisters of the Vast Black, which focuses on an order of nuns travelling through space in a living ship. The novella opens with them arguing over whether the ship has a soul, which made me think this was going to be a rather more cerebral story than it actually is – this thread is soon dropped and seems only to have served to introduce the central characters. Nevertheless, I thought the first two-thirds of the novella were fantastic. In its last third, Rather abruptly introduces a more standard-issue science fiction plot and draws much tidier moral lines, which was a disappointment. I’m not going to say anything more about this one because I want to include it in a round-up of novels about nuns that I’m working on for later.

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Finally, I started Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu. After all this short fiction, I wanted something really long and immersive! I loved Hao’s short story ‘The New Year Train’ in Broken Stars, edited by Liu, and the premise of this novel sounded fantastic: ‘A century after the Martian war of independence, a group of kids are sent to Earth as delegates from Mars, but when they return home, they are caught between the two worlds, unable to reconcile the beauty and culture of Mars with their experiences on Earth’. I’m still reading this, so I’ll withhold judgment on it for now!

Have you read any science fiction recently, whether it was recently published, a classic text, or anything in between?

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Small Pleasures

There’s a lot to love in Clare Chambers’ absorbing Small Pleasures, set in late 1950s London – and a little that made me uncomfortable. Jean, the central character, is a journalist for the local paper and sole carer for her elderly mother. She apparently slots into a kind of literary type, but as I’ve never read any of the writers that Chambers has been compared to, like Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner, I found this to be quite a refreshing look at the unpaid and unappreciated care work done by ‘spinster’ women. Jean’s steady job is to write the ‘women’s sections’ of the paper, like ‘Pam’s Piece’ and domestic tips, but when she reads a letter from a woman who claims to have given birth ‘without the involvement of any man’, she is keen to pursue the story. This brings her into contact with Gretchen, now married to Howard, whose ‘miraculous’ daughter Margaret is now ten. Jean becomes increasingly drawn into this family, who offer her respite from her loneliness, but becoming too closely involved with their lives may turn out to have been a mistake.

As Small Pleasures unfolds, it becomes increasingly drawn away from the ‘virgin birth’ hook and more focused on the individual subjectivities of Jean, Howard and Gretchen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although I felt that the conclusion to the virgin birth thread was a bit deus ex machina, as if Chambers wanted to wrap it up quickly before getting onto the actual ending of the novel. The joy of this book lies partly in its quietness, its willingness to give time to characters that are often overlooked in fiction, with Jean musing extensively on her middle-aged dowdiness and how people assume that she no longer feels anything much. There’s a sensible kindness about interpersonal relationships throughout much of this novel, with neighbours offering help as well as judgment, and colleagues sympathy as well as pity. Even Jean’s querulous mother is allowed to have some redeeming qualities. However, this makes the moments when Chambers seems to run short on empathy even more telling. [Spoilers from now on, scroll to the bottom of the post to skip]

About halfway through Small Pleasures, we find out that Gretchen was in love with another woman, Martha, during the period she spent at a sanatorium as a teenager, when she also conceived Margaret. Martha was devastated because she believed Gretchen willingly slept with a man, and cut off contact with her. Gretchen explains that she was motivated to prove that Margaret was an immaculate conception so that Martha would trust her again. Having re-established contact with Martha via Jean, Gretchen leaves Howard. Howard tells Jean that he and Gretchen stopped having sex long ago, and he and Jean embark upon an affair. This, for me, was where Small Pleasures began to feel a little uncomfortable. The text focuses on Howard’s pain, emphasising that he wasn’t able to have ‘a full marriage’ with Gretchen and how important it is for him to have found true sexual love with Jean. We’re also invited to reflect on how important this is for Jean after years of self-denial. However, perhaps inadvertently, this minimises Gretchen’s (and Martha’s) suffering; it may be unpleasant to have to live a life of involuntary celibacy, but it’s another thing altogether to have the very fact that you experience desire demonised and suppressed.

I’ve noticed that when somebody writes in to a forum or problem page to say that their spouse has come out as gay or lesbian and has left them, this is often framed as deliberate deceit. While there may be some sympathy for the spouse, it’s always assumed that they ‘always knew’ they were homosexual and so always knew that they could never be a ‘proper’ husband or wife. Chambers very much plays into this kind of narrative, suggesting that Gretchen should have been ‘honest’ with Howard. However, being a lesbian in 1950s Britain was not just an identity that couldn’t be publicly claimed; it was an identity that barely existed. As Diana Chapman said, remembering her adolescence in the early 1950s, ‘Yes, I thought I was a lesbian. But… every book on psychology I ever read… told me that it was immature and I should… reconcile myself to my femininity and find myself a good man and have children.’ If your sexual desires have been validated all of your life, it might be hard to understand how queer people can both ‘know and not know’ what they really want, but this is still real for queer people – and perhaps especially queer women – today, let alone almost seventy years ago. The very fact that Gretchen waited so long to prove her story and seek out Martha suggested to me that, even if she’d once admitted her feelings for Martha to herself, she’d tried to bury them again after marrying Howard. I understand that we get all of this through Jean, who is not primed to be sympathetic to Gretchen; but I felt that Chambers could have done a lot more work, if she had been so inclined, to indicate that our sympathies should be more complicated.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number six. I’ve already read The Vanishing Half, Transcendent KingdomPiranesi, Consent and Exciting Times.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Consent and Exciting Times

(Perhaps someone should actually write a novel called Consent and Exciting Times, it sounds fun).

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Annabel Lyon’s latest novel, Consent, is almost impossible to summarise swiftly (which may explain why the British publisher has pretty much given up and written an inaccurate summary of the entire plot on the back cover, but publishers, this really isn’t a good idea – apart from anything else, it makes Consent sound like a thriller, which it is not). In short, it’s about two pairs of sisters. Sara’s sister Mattie is intellectually disabled, and Sara starts caring for her after the death of their mother. Saskia’s sister Jenny has been out of control since she was a teenager, and now she’s in a coma following a car accident. Lyon packs so much into this relatively slim novel that there are probably multiple ways of summarising what it’s really ‘about’, but I found myself particularly picking up on the theme of bodily autonomy – what we are allowed to do with our bodies, and how that’s related to both our intellectual capacity and our capacity to live independently from other people. We valorise independence, but we’re all dependent. We want freedom, but we often throw away the things that would allow us to seek it. Some of us, Lyon seems to be saying, are allowed to wreck our own lives; some of us are not.

I thought this novel was fantastic, but I’m struggling to say why. I imagine many readers will find it incredibly unsatisfying. Lyon’s writing is elliptical, deliberately looping round pieces of key information so we have to be constantly engaged to work things out for ourselves. Such intensity might have been too much in a longer novel, but in this short book it’s perfect, like one of the strong espressos Sara drinks or the expensive scents she wears. It also strays close to the ironic commentary of some ‘millennial novels’ I’ve read without giving into the temptation to say things that are too easy. (Sara, born in the 70s, is also too old to be a millennial, and I liked the juxtaposition between her inner monologue and that of the younger Saskia’s). I’d never heard of Lyon before she was longlisted for the Women’s Prize, but now I want to check out her entire backlist. Brilliant choice, judges.

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It’s a rare novel that draws praise from both Marian Keyes and Hilary Mantel, but both are quoted on the cover of my copy of Naoise Dolan’s debut, Exciting Times. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been steering clear of this for some time because I felt it would be yet another ‘dysfunctional women being dysfunctional novel’, but after some persuasion, mostly by Elle, I decided to give it a try. And I’m glad I did; this is much weirder and more interesting than your typical novel about a young woman messing her life up. Ava is working as a TEFL teacher in Hong Kong, partly because she doesn’t know what to do next with her life and partly to avoid living at home in Dublin. She finds herself hate-dating banker Julian, and stays in his flat when he leaves Hong Kong for months on business. But then she meets Edith, and finds herself building a relationship that’s much sweeter and more genuine – although, if that’s really the case, why is she still so drawn to Julian?

Ava’s narration makes this novel. She’s interested in language in a way that feels much more illuminating than the wordplay that writers like Ali Smith sometimes indulge in, musing on the differences between Irish English and the ‘correct’ form of English that she’s instructed to teach to her students, as well as the differences between English and the languages she encounters in Hong Kong. Her voice is also pitched very carefully between being relatable and alienating, which perhaps explains why both Keyes and Mantel enjoyed this. Bits of Exciting Times did take me right back to my early twenties, when being the least keen in a relationship was so important, and you get interested in people who seem to be the antithesis of everything you say you believe in, because they come from a world you’ve never encountered before. However, Ava isn’t an everywoman; she’s both terrible and brilliant at social interaction, and makes some very bizarre judgments about others. She comes off at first like the kind of astute narrator that we can laugh along with, but we gradually realise how off-kilter her ideas are. All this is really cleverly handled, and although I didn’t quite fall for Exciting Times, I definitely admired it.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers four and five. I’ve already read The Vanishing Half ,Transcendent Kingdom and Piranesi.

‘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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