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 ūüôā 
  •  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‚Äôm not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women‚Äôs Prize longlist this year, but I‚Äôve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number seven. I‚Äôve 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!

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:¬†‚Äėwe need to wake up to the challenge of understanding across difference rather than keep on dreaming about common dreams‚Äô.¬†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 nann√ľ¬†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‚Äôarawi organised women in the 1919 protests against British rule; her decision to unveil in public in 1923 was celebrated by Europeans, but Sha‚Äôarawi 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¬†Oy√®r√≥nk√©¬†Oyńõw√Ļm√≠. 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‚Äôs wife Domitila Barrios de Ch√ļngara confronted the US feminist Betty Friedan at a meeting in Mexico City, which revealed the perceived gulf between their ideas of feminism: Barrios de Ch√ļngara 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.

Getting Ahead With February ARCs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are you doing with your February ARCs?

Durham Book Festival Online: John Murray Proof Party

Yesterday, I went to my first online event at the Durham Book Festival! This is the third year in a row I’ve been to the John Murray Proof Party, and while it was a little sad having to attend online rather than in person, it was still a lovely event. (My report from last year is here.) We were all relieved to know that we still get copies of the three books discussed – they just get posted to us rather than handed out.

This year, the three books were:

  • Hot Stew¬†by Fiona Mozley
  • The Rules of Revelation¬†by Lisa McInerney
  • The Art of Falling¬†by Danielle McLaughlin

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No cover image is available for McInerney’s book yet.

I was SUPER excited – I loved Mozley’s debut,¬†Elmet,¬†and McInerney’s debut,¬†The Glorious Heresies¬†(even if I found the follow-up,¬†The Blood Miracles,¬†a little disappointing). I hadn’t heard of McLaughlin’s work before, but I was super excited about her as well once I found out she had also written a collection of short stories called¬†Dinosaurs on Other Planets.

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Clockwise from top left: the host, Grace; Lisa McInerney; Fiona Mozley; Danielle McLaughlin. I apologise to all concerned for this screenshot!

Mozley’s second novel,¬†Hot Stew,¬†focuses on the closure of an old brothel in Soho and the impact on the women who work there. The extract she read focused on the landlady – the daughter of an old Soho gangster – who is trying to force them out. Mozley spoke about how she doesn’t want to glamorise the sex industry, but how she wanted to present a group of women who are in a relatively good situation as they’re in control of their own work, and how the external threat of gentrification affects this. As you might expect, there was a lot of discussion about how different this all was from¬†the rural¬†Elmet,¬†and whether Mozley found it difficult to write her second novel after the success of her first. She enormously impressed me by saying that ‘I started [Hot Stew] the day after I finished Elmet’¬†–¬†apparently it was a book she’d always wanted to write, but promised herself that she’d finish¬†Elmet¬†first. While saying that this new novel is more lighthearted and joyful than¬†Elmet,¬†she also drew out some unexpected similarities between them – noting that at heart both novels are about a dispute over a piece of land. And although¬†Hot Stew¬†is set in modern, urban Soho, she said that she had the Middle Ages in mind when she was writing – Soho would have been grazing land and its roads follow the old paths of animal tracks.

McInerney’s third novel,¬†The Rules of Revelation,¬†is the third in the loose trilogy that started with¬†The Glorious Heresies.¬†She said that the books deal in turn with ‘sex, drugs and rock & roll‘, and so this book is concerned with an Irish band releasing a debut album, and the impact it has on her four protagonists. In a departure from her earlier writing, all four of her protagonists are female – she hesitated to refer to them all as ‘women’ as one is questioning her gender, though still using she/her pronouns. Two of the others, Maureen and Karine, will be familiar to those who have read her previous work: Maureen is a woman in her late sixties dealing with how Ireland is changing around her, and Karine is a young mother ‘who keeps failing at feminism – she’s just not very good at it.’¬†The final protagonist is Georgie, a retired sex worker. It sounds like one of the concerns of this novel might be how feminism speaks to working-class women and working-class non-binary people, which I love. McInerney also spoke so interestingly about Cork, which has been the setting of all three of her novels; she joked ‘I can write other settings!’¬†but also pointed out how Cork itself has changed since she published¬†The Glorious Heresies¬†in 2015, and how she has enjoyed charting the emergence of a ‘new glossy Instagram Cork’¬†against the background of massive social change across Ireland, such as the legalisation of gay marriage and abortion.

McLaughlin’s debut novel,¬†The Art of Falling,¬†is about a woman, Nessa, dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s affair while organising a retrospective art exhibition for the work of a famous Irish sculptor, Robert Locke. Unsurprisingly, these two threads start to intertwine in unexpected ways. McLaughlin, who has been a short story writer for years, said that she originally thought that this novel would be a short story as well, and had to figure out how to handle a bigger piece of work. She naturally gravitated towards writing strong relationships between women, such as that between Nessa and her teenage daughter, and said that as someone who suffers from social anxiety, one of the joys of being a writer is that you can play out a scene again and again on the page to work it out.

I’m looking forward to all of these novels, and also to the other events I’ve booked at the Durham Book Festival: a talk with Laura Bates, founder of Everyday Feminism, next Friday, and a Dialogue Books Proof Party next Sunday (yep I booked all the events with the free books). I’ll definitely report back on the latter, if not both!

Have you attended any virtual book festivals during lockdown?

20 Books of Summer, #1 and #2: Brixton Hill and The Vanishing Half

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I enjoyed Lottie Moggach’s two previous social-issue literary thrillers,¬†Kiss Me First¬†and¬†Under the Sun,¬†and¬†Brixton Hill¬†is very much in the same vein. Rob is nearing the end of a seven-year sentence for manslaughter in an open prison in Brixton; he’s now allowed out on day release to volunteer in a charity shop. Rob knows that all he has to do now is keep his head down and be on his best behaviour to secure his freedom, but an accidental encounter with Steph, an attractive, well-dressed woman, on Brixton Hill, threatens to risk all of that. Structurally, this novel, which switches between the first-person perspectives of both Rob and Steph, hits all its thriller beats. We’re kept guessing as to what Steph really wants from Rob, and how much he’s worked out about her motives, and Moggach weaves in the small clues very effectively. However, Rob’s narrative, in particular, delivers something even more interesting. Despite his many certificates from prison courses proving that he’s learnt to feel remorse and manage anger, he is uncertain about the possibility of true rehabilitation. He self-presents as a genuinely guilty perpetrator, but we are also left to judge how far his story is reliable, especially as Moggach deliberately limits how much we know about his crime. On the other hand, the novel’s depiction of life even in an open prison highlights how damaging and ineffective imprisonment is, and how difficult it is for released prisoners to aspire to anything in the world outside; the nature of Rob’s conviction means that it will never expire, and so even something like getting credit on a mobile phone purchase will always be hard for him.¬†Brixton Hill¬†kept me gripped, but it also left me with plenty to think about.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on July 2nd.

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I wanted to read Brit Bennett’s second novel,¬†The Vanishing Half,¬†despite being underwhelmed by her debut, The Mothers,¬†because I found the synopsis so intriguing.¬†The Vanishing Half¬†is about identical twin sisters Desiree and Stella, born into Mallard, a Louisiana town so small that it doesn’t feature on maps, and is distinguished by having an all-black population who pride themselves on having extremely light skin. Both sisters flee Mallard in adolescence for a more promising life in New Orleans, but Desiree returns in early adulthood with her small and ‘dark’ daughter, Jude, in tow, while Stella disappears into an entirely different life, passing as white, marrying a white man, and having her own daughter, Kennedy. Bennett arguably spends too much time setting this all up in the first quarter of the novel, which is pretty slow, but once it takes off,¬†The Vanishing Half¬†has some very interesting things to say about race. This is brought home most vividly in the chapters written from Stella’s point of view where she negotiates a friendship with a new black neighbour in her all-white neighbourhood; having accepted the social and economic privileges bestowed upon her by adopting a white identity, she now realises painfully how this excludes her from the friendship and trust of black women.

Similarly, when the two cousins eventually and inevitably meet, they have their own understandings of what race is and means: Kennedy declares that she isn’t black, while Jude insists that Kennedy is. Both cousins’ interpretations seem rational: Kennedy has been brought up as a white woman, with access to everything that would have been denied to her were she racialised as black, but at the same time, her grandfather was still lynched by white racists, and her mother’s decision has left her estranged from her own family history. Bennett’s aim is not to adjudicate this argument, but to draw attention to how constructed and yet how real the category of race is. Jude’s long-term relationship with a trans man, Reese, seems to be designed to explore this theme further, but here I felt the novel fell short: Bennett doesn’t say enough about Reese’s life or how he understands his identity for this thread to take off. Nevertheless, this is a strong second novel that takes Bennett’s highly readable writing to the next level.

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

Belated April ARCs

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

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

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

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C. Pam Zhang’s debut,¬†How Much of These Hills Is Gold,¬†is set in California at the end ¬†of the Gold Rush of the 1850s. It explores the lives and histories of two young Chinese siblings, Lucy and Sam, as they struggle to survive after the deaths of both their parents. In this, it joins novels like T√©a Obreht’s¬†Inland¬†and Philipp Meyer’s¬†The Son¬†in seeking to reimagine white, male myths of the American nineteenth-century ‘pioneer spirit’. The novel starts with the siblings fleeing their home with their Ba’s body packed into a trunk on the back of their mule; it then flashes back so that Ba can relate the last generation of their family’s history; and finally flashes forward five years to a time when Lucy, now seventeen, is trying to become a respectable young woman in town while an absent Sam lives feral.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leap Year Science Fiction, 2020*

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I adored The Calculating Stars,¬†the first novel in Mary Robinette Kowal’s ¬†Lady Astronaut series. (If you want to get a taste of the style of this series, there are a number of short stories available online – I’d suggest starting with¬†‘Articulated Restraint’, which indeed I would advise everyone to read before getting too deep into the series). The series is reminiscent of Michael Grant’s YA alternate WWII trilogy¬†Front Lines, in that it takes a big event in modern American history and writes women back into the story not only by uncovering the hidden contributions of women at the time but by explicitly changing the facts so that women were equal participants.¬†In¬†The Calculating Stars,¬†we’re offered an alternative version of the development of space exploration in the US; after a huge meteorite hits the earth in 1952, the space programme is accelerated to find new places for humans to live in the universe, and some women become serious contenders for astronaut training due to their flying experience in the Second World War. The novel is narrated by Elma Yorke, a brilliant mathematician who is keen to be one of the first women into space, and her voice is light, funny and so incredibly readable. I wrote on Twitter that I’d never read a post-apocalyptic novel that’s so comforting, and I stand by those comments.

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The Fated Sky,¬†the sequel to¬†The Calculating Stars,¬†was in some ways more of the same, but didn’t quite work as well for me, although I still very much enjoyed reading it.¬†The Fated Sky¬†jumps forward into the 1960s, and rightly makes issues of race much more prominent than they were in the first novel; however, I felt that Kowal struggled to know how to handle Elma’s interactions with her fellow astronauts of colour within the stylistic parameters she set for herself in the first novel. Kowal wants to show us that Elma, as a white woman in the post-war US, would likely be ignorant and insensitive on matters of race despite her good intentions, and in that she succeeds, but only through a series of repetitive scenes where Elma gets things wrong and black characters put her right (the novel also features significant Hispanic and Taiwanese characters, but it tends to be the African-American characters doing the heavy lifting in these conversations, especially the one prominent black woman, which is worrying in itself). The overall effect is that of a tick-box take on ‘diversity’ that makes Elma difficult to like – maybe we shouldn’t like her, but if we don’t, the books don’t work!

Kowal also missteps, quite badly, in her handling of gay and trans characters [highlight for spoiler] The book reproduces the Bury Your Gays trope, which is pretty unforgivable in 2019, especially as it also resorts to the cliched device of only having the other characters realise that the two men concerned were actually a couple after one of them is killed. It also technically features a trans man, but handles this in a very peculiar way. There is nothing to suggest the character is trans in the text – he is referred to as she throughout – but Kowal reveals in the author’s note that she has misgendered this character because Elma, our narrator, doesn’t know he is trans. To me, this is not really representation and is akin to JK Rowling proclaiming ‘Dumbledore is gay’ despite writing nothing about it in the actual texts. Also, I understand that Kowal was concerned about historical accuracy here, but this is an alternate history that is pretty light-touch – I didn’t think it would have felt jarring to have this character come out, even if he had used terms that are less familiar to a modern audience to describe his experience.[end spoiler] It all feels a bit like Kowal was trying and worrying about this too hard and didn’t have the courage of her convictions. However, I’m still a big fan of this series, and am looking forward to the third in the quartet,¬†The Relentless Moon.

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In a very different corner of the science fiction universe, I read Adrian Tchaikovsky’s hard SF sequel to¬†Children of Time,¬†Children of Ruin.¬†When I reviewed¬†Children of Time¬†last year, I wrote that ‘I couldn‚Äôt shake the sense that this was 600 pages of set-up for the next novel in the series’¬†and I’m pleased to say that I was right;¬†Children of Ruin¬†worked much better for me than¬†Children of Time, although I think this could have been accomplished with much less preamble.¬†To recap:¬†Children of Time¬†followed two plot threads. In the first, the remnants of humanity are using stasis machines to travel for centuries looking for habitable planets to terraform after the destruction of Earth; in the second, another group of now long-dead humans have introduced an evolutionary virus into a species of spider on a distant planet, which is now slowly developing towards sentience. I found the first novel frustrating because it seemed to take so long for the spider civilisation to get to a point where they could make contact with humanity on an equal level, and this inevitable confrontation only takes place at the very end of the novel. But because of this,¬†Children of Ruin¬†hits the ground running, showing us how humans and spiders have now allied in a search for new worlds. This book is also divided between two plotlines, one in the past and one in the present, but this time, I found both equally fascinating, and I loved how this sequel amped up the horror elements that were inchoate in the first book. Tchaikovsky returns to questions about inter-species communication by inventing a race of sentient octopuses, but evolutionary biology doesn’t dominate the book as it did in¬†Children of Time,¬†which means that the plot has a lot more direction and the ideas that Tchaikovsky is playing with have more immediate implications for his characters.

I also read the sixth book in James S.A. Corey’s¬†The Expanse series,¬†Babylon’s Ashes,¬†this month, but the last few books of this series have blended together for me – I’m HOPING this was the one where they finally solved the race for the Iron Throne interplanetary political conflict so they can get on with facing the much more horrific threat from the Others protomolecule.

Finally, this is not science fiction, but I loved Jean McNeil’s intricate and contemplative memoir¬†Ice Diaries, which recounts the four months she spent as a writer-in-residence in Antarctica,¬†and found that it echoed the themes of these novels in its consideration of how humans seek out empty places only to find either that those places don’t want us or that we are already there.

Have you read any science fiction or speculative fiction recently?

*I obviously didn’t read all of these from start to finish on the 29th February, but the leap year gave me extra reading time to finish several of them off!

2019 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won‚Äôt be posting my Top Ten Books of 2019 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten ‚Äď and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2019, not necessarily first published in 2019.

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I discovered two new favourite authors this year:¬†Nina Allan and Natasha Pulley. I’ve now read both of Pulley’s novels, and three of Allan’s. One novel from each writer has made my top ten books of 2019, but here are the others I read:¬†The Race, The Dollmaker¬†and¬†The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Both Allan and Pulley write speculative fiction, and I’ve found myself increasingly drawn towards speculative and science fiction this year, taking part in #SciFiMonth in November.

I didn’t find that 2019 was a particularly strong year for memoir and non-fiction, but two books stood out for me – Thomas Page McBee’s¬†Amateur,¬†which was my pick to win the Wellcome Prize 2019, and Lisa Taddeo’s¬†Three Women.¬†Interestingly, both are essentially about the patriarchal constraints imposed by binary gender; McBee describes what it’s like to live as a trans man, while Taddeo interrogates how badly the world responds to genuine female desire. McBee’s subtitle is ‘a true story about what makes a man’,¬†while Taddeo’s could easily be ‘three true stories about what makes a woman’.

I’ve been surprised to see some prominent end-of-the-year lists¬†declare that 2019 was a poor year for fiction, as something that stood out for me this year was that¬†many big-name releases didn’t disappoint!¬†Jessie Burton and Tracy Chevalier produced arguably their strongest novels to date in¬†The Confession¬†and¬†A Single Thread.¬†Taylor Jenkins Reid’s much-hyped Daisy Jones and the Six¬†was totally absorbing, while Emma Donoghue’s¬†Akin¬†was a slow-burning triumph. Finally, Bernardine Evaristo’s¬†Girl,¬†Woman, Other¬†was a totally worthy Booker winner, even if I felt that she shortchanged her youngest narrators.

In fiction,¬†I also enjoyed three very different novels that don’t fit into any of the above categories: Lisa See’s story of Korean haenyeo free divers,¬†The Island of Sea Women,¬†which, pleasingly, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2019;¬†Aminatta Forna’s difficult-to-summarise but very moving¬†Happiness; and Naomi Booth’s eco-horror¬†Sealed.

I¬†re-read three novels¬†that made a big impression on me second time around (or in the case of¬†Enchantress,¬†probably fourth or fifth time around!): Sarah Moss’s¬†Night Waking,¬†Margaret Atwood’s¬†The Handmaid’s Tale,¬†and Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s¬†Enchantress From The Stars.

In crime and thriller,¬†I rediscovered Ruth Ware, and was¬†totally captivated by her two latest novels,¬†The Turn of the Key¬†and¬†The Death of Mrs Westaway,¬†both of which brilliantly mix classic Gothic tropes with a contemporary setting.¬†But frankly, I was spoilt for choice in this genre in 2019, as Erin Kelly released her best novel yet,¬†Stone Mothers,¬†and Jo Baker’s¬†The Body Lies¬†introduced a clever meta-level into the familiar story of a murdered woman.

Finally, I admired two adult fantasy novels infused with YA energy:¬†Leigh Bardugo’s¬†Ninth House,¬†about a Yale secretly run by supernatural societies, and Bridget Collins’s¬†The Binding,¬†which will please everyone who loves a gay teenage OTP. Both are also absolutely beautiful hardbacks.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‚Äėbiggest disappointments‚Äô I don‚Äôt necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I‚Äôd been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations.

I was disappointed¬†by three authors I had enjoyed in the past.¬†Uzodinma Iweala’s¬†Speak No Evil¬†was one of my top ten books of 2018, but his debut,¬†Beasts of No Nation,¬†was simplistic and pointless. Anna Hope’s¬†Expectation¬†was supposed to present three different women reassessing their lives in their thirties, but its characters ended up moving within such narrow bonds, all wanting the same things. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s¬†Starling Days¬†was muddled, aimless and – oddly, given how much I admired her debut,¬†Harmless Like You¬†– quite badly written.

Two debuts also disappointed me.¬†Jessica Andrews’s¬†Saltwater¬†promised a coming-of-age story set in Sunderland and London, but totally lacked a sense of place. Katy Mahood’s¬†Entanglement¬†was supposed to be inspired by quantum physics but ended up being a very conventional story¬†about two couples over several decades. Both novels were also written in a lilting, quasi-literary style that did nothing for me.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2019!

Ake Book Festival Blog Tour: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

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The Ake Book Festival is one of Africa’s leading international literary festivals, held this year in Lagos, Nigeria from 24th to 27th October. The festival describes itself as follows:

Now in its seventh year, Ake Festival brings together the biggest and brightest names in the world of books from across Africa and the African diaspora. Showcasing the best contemporary fiction, non-fiction, poetry and thinking from Africa, the festival also plays host to film screenings, theatre performances, poetry readings, art exhibitions and dance performances from Africa’s biggest names. Inspiring people to engage with the power of books to inform, enlighten and inspire, Ake Festival provides a platform for debates that challenge African norms, attitudes and traditions.

I was delighted to be asked to review Bernardine Evaristo’s novel¬†Girl, Woman, Other¬†as part of the blog tour for the Ake Festival. (It also feels fitting to be reviewing this novel during Black History Month and just before I’m due to teach my undergraduates at QMUL about post-war black British history!) Since the invitation, events have somewhat overtaken my plans and I’m sure that Evaristo needs no further praise from me, but nevertheless, I wanted to share some thoughts about this hugely deserving Booker winner.

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Girl, Woman, Other¬†tells the stories of twelve black* British women*. (*One of the narrators is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, and another passes as white and is unaware of her black heritage.) The book is divided into four parts and finishes with a triumphant epilogue in which all of the characters come together, whether in body or in spirit. Each part features three narrators who are interlinked: so for example, in the first section, we hear from Amma, her daughter Yazz, and Amma’s close friend Dominique. Not all the narrators in any given section are so neatly tied together, and often part of the fun is figuring out how they’re connected. The book also has an ambitious scope; most of its pages are devoted to Britain from the 1980s onwards, but its narrators’ stories stretch back to the beginning of the twentieth century, refuting any ahistorical assumptions that black British life began with the Windrush generation. As Peter Fryer famously opened his 1984 history,¬†Staying Power: ‚ÄėThere were Africans in Britain before the British came here‚Äô.

The best sections of¬†Girl, Woman, Other¬†are just wonderful, and the impact of the novel as a whole is exhilarating. The book is tied together at its beginning and end by the story of Amma, a lesbian socialist playwright who has Nigerian and Ghanaian parents and who was deeply involved in the black feminist movement of the 1980s; back then, she put on independent pop-up productions at pulled-together venues, but now one of her plays is being put on at the National for the first time, and some of her friends think she’s sold out. It’s a joy to see black second-wave feminism being discussed so seriously and yet so effortlessly in a fictional context through the stories of both Amma and Dominique, and the way in which Evaristo deals with the theoretical conflicts within the movement (‘womanism’, not feminism?; race not gender?; lesbian separatism?) Today, second-wave feminists are so often relegated to tired stereotypes – man-haters who were all elite white heterosexual women – and it was wonderful to see this side of the movement being brought so brilliantly to life.

For me, this novel did occasionally push up against its own limitations: this was most obvious in the voices of the two youngest protagonists, Yazz and Morgan, and in the narrative of Shirley, a conservative secondary school teacher who is apparently based on Evaristo’s mother. While Evaristo is so adept in other chapters at extending her sympathies to characters with contradictory views, I felt that she fell short with these three protagonists in particular. Both Yazz and Morgan slip into woke stereotypes, and Evaristo doesn’t really succeed in fully inhabiting their feelings as well as their thoughts; I wanted to understand their attachments to the ideas that they campaign for as vividly as I felt the emotions of Amma and Dominique. On the other side of the coin, Shirley feels like she’s come from a checklist composed from endless novels about teachers who teach in ‘difficult’ schools, and I think there was a missed opportunity to make her a more nuanced character. Her strategy of selecting certain pupils whom she thinks have the ability to succeed and mentoring them through school – a strategy that another of our narrators, Carol, has benefited from – is problematic in many ways, but I wanted to see Shirley’s side of it. Instead, I was left feeling that no space was left for the reader to sympathise with her, even if we should also want to criticise her assumption that the majority of pupils are hopeless cases.

This isn’t a perfect novel, but it’s still an essential and vital read. As she is the first black woman to win the Booker Prize, I wish that Evaristo had been allowed to win it alone. Nevertheless, I’m thrilled that her talent was recognised by the judges, and that sales of this novel have soared even though she had to share the spotlight.

Reading Slump! Some Books That Didn’t Work For Me

This blog has been a bit quiet recently. That’s partly due to term restarting, but also because I’ve been struggling with a lot of my recent reads, and I can’t decide whether it’s my fault or the books’ fault.¬†Here’s some short thoughts on some fiction and non-fiction that has disappointed me. Warning: long!

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The premise of Matt Ruff’s¬†Lovecraft Country¬†sounded fantastic (and look at that cover!). Like all sensible people, I find H.P. Lovecraft’s visions of the ‘Old Ones’ genuinely frightening, but am equally disturbed by the racism and anti-semitism that’s pervasive in much of his work.¬†Lovecraft Country¬†promised to bring these two themes together in the story of Atticus, an African-American Weird Tales¬†fan¬†who embarks on a road trip to New England in 1954 to seek out his missing father. However, the horrors that Atticus encounters are not only supernatural but are fundamentally intertwined with the white supremacist violence that he faces as part of his everyday life as a black person in the post-war United States. I don’t think this was inevitable, but I feel a lot of the failures of¬†Lovecraft Country¬†lie in the fact that it wasn’t written by a person of colour. The exploration of violent racist acts committed by the police and other law officials feels weirdly gratuitous, partly due to the frequency and length of their occurrence, and partly due to the way that the black characters simply shrug their shoulders after being chased and shot at multiple times (and not in the sense that they expect this treatment, but in the sense that it seems to be experienced as somehow non-traumatic). The tone, in short, is totally off, and this feels more like a jaunty road trip. If institutional racism, in this novel, is not horrifying, neither are the otherworldly antics of the cult that Atticus and his friends encounter. I abandoned this novel about a quarter way through.

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When I was a teenager, I was absorbed by A.S. Byatt’s ‘The Stone Woman’, about a woman who is gradually turning into stone. Much more recently, Sarah Hall’s memorable ‘Mrs Fox’ told the story of a woman who turns into a fox, although from the point of view of her husband. Therefore, the premise of the first full-length story in Nudibranch, Irenosen Okojie’s new short story collection, ‘Kookaburra Sweet’ – which is about a woman who turns into liquorice – wasn’t in itself off-putting. I sometimes think that I don’t like ‘magical realism’, but, even putting aside the problematic ways in which that term has started to be used so broadly (I can’t find the original article I read about this, but here’s one that outlines the arguments!), I’m not sure that’s true; I do like magical realism when it’s done well. Unfortunately, this is a tremendously difficult thing to do, and I don’t think most of the stories that I read from this collection pull it off.

For me, ‘magical realism’ in its broad sense is distinguished from speculative or science fiction, or even from horror, by its lack of boundaries. So, in speculative fiction, strange things might happen but they tend to have a rational explanation, even if it’s impossible; even in horror or ghost stories, there are certain rules that govern the monster’s behaviour (‘don’t stay in the old house overnight’). Magical realism, it seems to me, doesn’t really deal in rules or explanations, because it’s trying to convey reality in a different way. However, for this to work for me, the stories need to feel psychologically real, and that was what was lacking throughout much of the first half of this collection. Byatt’s ‘The Stone Woman’ made such an impression on me because of the horror the central character feels when she realises she’s turning to stone. In contrast, Kara, the woman who turns to liquorice, doesn’t seem too bothered; after her fingers almost melt under the hot water from her taps, she just goes back to what she was thinking about before: ‘Sydney had been a disaster. She was broken by it. Almost.’ While I understand that the story isn’t meant to be read literally, this weird mix of realism and the magical didn’t work for me.

Part of this is due to Okojie’s writing. I read her first collection, Speak Gigantular, when it first came out and remember very little about it other than that it felt under-edited. Much of her writing here also has that first-draft feeling; there are wonderful sentences, but then others that just aren’t very good. Often the similes are just too complicated, as in the opening to ‘Grace Jones’: ‘

‘Once the stray parts of a singed scene had found their way into the bedroom, onyx edges gleaming and the figures without memories had lost their molten heads to the coming morning… the phone rang, shrill, invasive, demanding. Still on the floor, the wood cold against her skin, she crawled to the receiver tentatively, as if her limbs were tethered to a thread on the earth’s equator, the thread bending and collapsing into the different stages of her life.’

Certain images reoccur in this collection – body parts turn up in unexpected places, things melt, people perform rituals – but there doesn’t seem to be much purpose to it. Some stories conjure up fascinating worlds but then don’t make much use of them, such as ‘Filamo’, set in an otherworldly monastery, and ‘Saudade Minus One (S – 1 = )’, which looks at a future in which children are malfunctioning. The one story of those I read which worked for me was ‘Point and Shrill’; Okojie’s writing is much more restrained, and it allows the eeriness of the story to take centre stage as it moves from naturalism into horror.

I read about half of these stories, but then concluded that this collection wasn’t for me. It reminds me most strongly of a less accomplished version of Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, so if that’s your sort of thing, this might work better for you.

I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 7th November.

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I 100% thought that I was going to love Maggie Nelson’s¬†The Argonauts,¬†which was billed as a memoir about two sets of parallel experiences of gendered bodies: while Nelson went through her first pregnancy, her trans partner Harry Dodge decided to start taking testosterone and to have ‘top surgery’. As Nelson writes: ‘2011, the summer of our changing bodies. Me, four months pregnant, you, six months on T.’¬†Nelson is a fiercely intelligent writer, and, to her credit, she writes very clearly and perceptively about issues of queer identity and discourse that can become very difficult to understand in the hands of the wrong person. To an extent, my reaction to¬†The Argonauts¬†is personal: this memoir simply didn’t speak to me and my own life experiences. Nelson is bent on breaking down certain ideas of what it means to be ‘queer’, writing of ‘the tired binary that places femininity, reproduction and¬†normativity on one side and masculinity, sexuality and queer resistance on the other.’¬†I can see Nelson’s point: there is nothing inherently conformist in getting pregnant and giving birth, and indeed, the ways in which women’s bodies are treated during pregnancy and birth shows how difficult it is for patriarchy to handle female experience. However, I guess I’m just not that interested in what is ‘queer’ and what is not.

Heteronormative society privileges a certain set of experiences that are rooted in material reality, not identity; it prefers (white) women who have relationships with men, who get pregnant and raise children within nuclear families and who conform to feminine norms of behaviour and presentation. Because of the double bind, this obviously doesn’t mean that women who conform to this way of life don’t suffer under patriarchy. But it seems to me that rather than worrying about how to ‘queer’ experiences like pregnancy, we should attend to the power relationships that are leveraged particularly violently against women who don’t conform; women who are of colour, who choose not to have children, who are single mothers or lesbians, who are butch or gender non-conforming, who don’t have relationships with anybody at all. I guess, in short, I’d rather have heard from Dodge than Nelson; his experience of trans and gender-fluid identity shifts throughout the book, and while he uses male pronouns, his take is a bit more complicated: ‘I do not want the female gender that has been assigned to me at birth. Neither do I want the male gender that transsexual medicine can furnish and¬†that the state will award me if I behave in the right way. I don’t want any of it.’¬† But Nelson’s take on this challenging statement is disappointingly woolly, and can be boiled down to: just listen to what other people tell you about their identity. Well,¬†yes,¬†but if society didn’t impose categories on us regardless of what we have to say about it, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place, and we need to say something about that.

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Finally, I read Anna Weiner’s¬†Uncanny Valley,¬†a memoir of working in Silicon Valley in her mid-twenties; I won’t say too much about this one as it isn’t out until next year, but I found that it felt like a good online article that had been stretched out into more than three hundred pages. Weiner has nothing especially insightful to say about tech, and rehearses familiar critiques: the dominance of young white men, the lack of concern for data security, the distance from the ‘real world’. I also found the way Weiner presents herself as totally unrelatable; she seems to think it’s a classic example of millennial drift, but there’s no solid core to anything about this version of her self, and she comes across as unbearably obtuse. You’re probably better off reading her online output; I stopped reading this around the halfway mark.

I received a free proof copy of this memoir from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 14th January 2020.

Is it me, or is it the books? What books have you struggled with recently? And do you have any recommendations to get me out of this reading slump?