Three Things… March 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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The Language of Kindness is Christie Watson’s memoir of her twenty years as a nurse, working across a range of specialisms that included resuscitation, paediatrics and mental health. I totally agree with Watson’s emphasis on the importance of nursing care, and how, as a female-dominated profession, it is systematically overlooked and undervalued. A number of my close family members are nurses and the work they do is so important. So why did this memoir irritate me consistently? Partly, I think, it’s Watson’s voice – there’s a lack of the kind of soul-searching and self-doubt that I’ve encountered in junior doctors’ memoirs such as Rachel Clarke’s Your Life in My Hands, or in other professional memoirs such as barrister Sarah Langford’s In Your Defence (both highly recommended!) and so Watson comes across as far too complacent.

It’s difficult for me to review this fairly, I think, because once you lose trust in the narrator of a memoir like this, that’s it – you keep on finding fault. For me, this happened pretty early on. I’ve encountered a recent spate of horror stories about the way parents are treated by nurses in PICU, Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, and SCBU, Special Care Baby Unit (search ‘Mumsnet SCBU/NNU/PICU’ for some of these). Watson has nothing but praise for the nurses in these units, and I’m sure many of them are doing a very good job under extremely tough circumstances. However, the judgmental and misogynistic expectations placed on mothers in these units come through even in Watson’s positive account:  ‘The nurses do everything they can to treat mother and baby as one unit… In maternity units in some private hospitals, babies are taken from the mum directly after birth to be cared for in the nursery’. But what about the mother’s needs, which are separate from those of her infant? The fact that it’s relatively new practice to refuse to part mothers and babies after birth, even if the mother is recovering from an emergency C-section and can’t safely take care of her baby? Accounts from mothers also indicate that they were judged harshly for not being by their baby’s side night and day in PICU/SCBU – even if they had other children to care for at home.

This section is typical of the book as a whole. Apart from a brief paragraph that admits that a few nurses are not very good at their jobs, Watson permits no criticism – and most doctors get short shrift, dropping in from on high to deliver a diagnosis then leaving the nurses with the real work. While I’m in no doubt this is how some consultants behave, it’s evident from the accounts of junior doctors that this is a misrepresentation of their work. This interesting review on Goodreads also points out that Watson is in the habit of minimising the significance of other professions as well – in this case, translators. She also has little to say about other hospital workers who are not part of a ‘profession’ but are nonetheless vital, such as healthcare assistants and porters. Ultimately, this came off as a rather sugar-coated account of life as a nurse.

Watching

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I went to see Rafiki at the Tyneside Cinema last night, directed by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiru. Rafiki (Swahili for ‘friend’) is currently banned in Kenya, where homosexuality is illegal, because it depicts a lesbian relationship too positively. Kahiru was asked by the Kenya Film Classification Board to change the hopeful ending, but she refused. From my perspective, Rafiki is more of a significant political statement about LGBT rights in Kenya than a groundbreaking piece of art. The story it tells, about two girls who discover their sexuality together and then are brutally torn apart, is very familiar. The evocation of Nairobi is colourful and vivid, and both protagonists give great performances. However, it made me think about how incredibly limited the stories we tell about bisexual and lesbian women are, and how lesbianism tends to be shallowly explored, if it features at all, in Western fiction and film as well (compare the recent Disobedience, which deletes the novel’s complexity, and both versions of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which are uplifting, but have little interesting to say). However, this is not to criticise Rafiki, which is doing a very important job. You can watch the trailer for Rafiki here.

Thinking

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Not the novel discussed below, which many people liked more than I did!

A while back, I wrote a fairly negative review of a writer’s second novel. I was especially cross about this particular book because it felt lazy and rushed. I posted the review on my blog and on Goodreads, but didn’t tag the author anywhere. Despite this, the writer in question took the time to seek me out on Twitter and block me – even though this was a platform where we’d had no interaction at all. So, this led me to think about why I write critical book reviews.

I disagree with much of what is said in this provocative article on book reviews in Harper’s, ‘Like This Or Die’, not least its eager dismissal of anything that doesn’t fall into the category of ‘literary fiction’ and its weird hostility to television. However, I think it has a point about the relentless push towards solely positive coverage of books in the mainstream media and on social media. This is (perhaps unsurprisingly) promoted by authors themselves, whom I often see tweeting things like this:

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[I love James Smythe’s work so feel bad picking on him here – it’s just the latest example of the trend I could find!]

This kind of statement is often extended to book bloggers and reviewers as well, or, more threateningly, to aspiring writers, who are told that if they want to get published themselves, they should spread positivity at all times [again, this link is to a blog that I generally like!]

I find this stance both repressive and bizarre. Firstly, there’s the suggestion that critical reviews (I think the terms ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ reviews are too loaded) are permissible, as long as they don’t come from other writers. Why? Secondly, there’s the hidden implication that actually nobody should be writing critical reviews at all – that if you don’t like a book, you shouldn’t say anything about it. I find this absurd for a number of reasons:

  • First and foremost, I don’t review books for the sake of their writers. I review them for other readers, as a reader. I don’t tag writers in critical book reviews, even if the criticism is very minor, so if they seek them out, that’s on them.
  • The idea that published writers are so fragile that they can’t deal with criticism from bloggers is a little strange to me. I tend to think that if you’ve demanded a reader’s time and attention by publishing a book, you need to be able to take polite feedback if you have sought it out (again, I don’t advocate sending bad reviews to writers, or being rude, and I assume here that writers with mental health conditions or specific personal circumstances will be able to avoid critical reviews).
  • I find this PARTICULARLY weird because all unpublished writers are essentially told to ‘just suck it up and get better’ when it comes to dealing with criticism of their work, whereas for published writers, there’s suddenly an attitude of ‘I don’t want to criticise something that someone’s put so much work into’ – so, in short, there’s a double standard in play that implies that unpublished writers’ work is less valuable and has required less labour.
  • Moreover, I think critical reviews can actually be helpful for other writers (i.e. the ones that didn’t write the book in question!) I’ve learnt a lot more about writing from reading intelligent, critical reviews than totally positive reviews.
  • It can also be impossible in practice, if you’re an honest reviewer, to avoid negative reviews if you are on a shadow panel, a blog tour, or have proof copies to review. If I really find a book unreadable I won’t review it, but this has only happened once or twice.
  • Finally, all this is off the table if a book is problematic and offensive, when suddenly everybody seems to agree that it needs to be ‘called out’, even if this jars with their usual stance on critical reviews.

My feeling is, that if I ever publish a novel, I may not seek out criticism from readers; but in the abstract, I could only be grateful to those who engage thoughtfully and critically with my work, especially if they aren’t paid to do so.

What are other people’s thoughts on writing critical reviews?

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Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #1: Lost Children Archive

Having already read five of the sixteen books on this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist before it was announced, I’m now working my way through the others.

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Valeria Luiselli’s long essay, Tell Me How It Ends, recounted her period working as a translator for the unaccompanied child refugees who arrive at the US-Mexico border from the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Her first novel written in English, Lost Children Archive, picks up on these themes though an unnamed female narrator who is driving with her husband, daughter and stepson from New York to Arizona. Our narrator wants to document the Mexican migrant ‘crisis’, which has been brought to her attention via a friend who is trying to find her two lost daughters. Her husband is more interested in the soundscape of the ‘vanished’ Apaches who once lived in Apacheria, retelling the stories of their decline to his children, which the girl gleefully repeats as ‘when Geronimo fell off his horse, he died’. Her narrative is interspersed with descriptions of the contents of various boxes the couple have brought with them for their two projects, which, as Luiselli explains at the end of the novel, is one way of citing her sources within the text itself, rather than confining them to footnotes. There’s also an emotional tension on this long road trip; our narrator and her husband are considering divorce, which means that the two children, who are ‘only’ step-siblings, will be separated.

More than half of this long novel is narrated by this female narrator, and this section fits squarely into the emerging genre of autofiction, tracing the themes of Luiselli’s own life very closely. However, it lumbers under the weight of its own intertextuality. Everything that the family encounter has to be fitted into the theme of lost or vanished children in some way, from the haunting voices in ‘Echo Canyon’ to the fading images in Polaroids. Moreover, as Luiselli suggests in her note on sources, this is not just autofiction, but a kind of creative non-fiction; she deliberately wants to weave her workings through the text to tell the horrific story of the journeys of child migrants. This is compounded by the introduction of an imaginary text into this section, Elegies for Lost Children, which effectively and brutally narrates the experiences of these children. While this text would work well on its own, the way Luiselli scatters it throughout an already complicated and thematically-burdened narrative dilutes its force. It’s only when we finally get to read it in full that it really hits us.

Luiselli pushes at the boundaries of the novel form, but in doing so, loses much of what makes novels work. It’s in the shorter second section, narrated by the stepson, where Lost Children Archive really comes alive, making it one of the very few novels that I’ve ever read that manages to win back some ground after the halfway point. Unlike his stepmother’s narrative, the stepson’s voice is compelling, and it foregrounds one of the most successful aspects of the novel; the depiction of his relationship with his stepsister, which perfectly shows how children create little worlds of their own. Indeed, when Luiselli is writing about real rather than figurative children, she’s incredibly good on the physicality, word-play, and belief systems of childhood. Once the two children step into a kind of alternate reality formed from reading Elegies for Lost Children, the novel reaches another level; suddenly, it works as it should, free from references and footnotes. You can almost feel the pages speeding up.

The first section, however, is not only inferior because it’s so dense; I just wasn’t convinced that all the different kinds of loss Luiselli explores worked very well together. Most obviously, the novel plays into the ‘vanishing Indian’ narrative, assuming that Native Americans are now totally absent from America, which is recognised as an untruthful and harmful trope that ignores the persistence of these peoples. It’s a shame to see this perpetuated in a book that is otherwise so good at highlighting the displacement caused by American power politics, tracing this back (for example) to the division of Texas from Mexico and its annexation by the United States. Moreover, the divorce plotline never felt emotionally credible; I couldn’t understand what had come between this couple, and the impact on the two children was implied rather than shown. When the kids strike out on their own, it feels totally unmotivated, and while this was my favourite bit of the novel, I suspect that they do this not because their own motivations have taken them to this point but because Luiselli wants to manoeuvre them into a final symbolic journey.

While you have to admire Luiselli’s ambition, Lost Children Archive doesn’t really work as a whole. I like it better than some of the Women’s Prize longlistees I’ve read because of its sheer inventiveness, but I’d be surprised to see this make it to the shortlist.

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

Thoughts on the Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist, 2019

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The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist is out!

I’m delighted to see Thomas Page McBee’s Amateur there, which was by far my favourite of the longlisted titles I’ve read so far, although I’m disappointed that Jessie Greengrass’s Sight and Jean Hannah Edelstein’s This Really Isn’t About You didn’t make the cut.

I had mixed feelings about both Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner and Sandeep Jauhar’s HeartThe Trauma Cleaner had chapters of brilliance but seemed to me to lack perspective on its subject, whereas Heart was readable, but forgettable. I suspect the latter has been included to make sure there’s at least one ‘serious medical book’ considering physical illness on the shortlist, as the rest skew strongly towards mental illness and questions about gender identity and transition.

I’ve not yet read Will Eaves’s Murmur, Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, or Arnold Thomas Fanning’s Mind on Fire. I’m looking forward to the first two – Annabel rated Murmur very highly, and Rebecca’s review of My Year… has persuaded me that it’s something I might enjoy. However, I’m still pretty certain that I won’t like Mind on Fire.

After last year’s female-dominated shortlist and an evenly split longlist, this year the men outnumber the women, with four books by men (including one trans man) and only two by women. Writers of colour get slightly more of a look-in than last year, with two advancing to the shortlist. Themes of sexuality (Murmur) and trans identity (Amateur, The Trauma Cleaner) are really prominent.

I’m looking forward to reading the remaining books and discussing with the rest of the Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel!

Inside Voices: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

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Greer is an idealistic college student when she first encounters eminent feminist Faith Frank (her name, like Greer’s, is rather too pointed) in 2006. Nevertheless, Greer manages to make an impression on Faith, and after graduation, she ends up working for Faith’s new women’s foundation, Loci, which publicly promotes wealthy, corporate feminism but promises to do small-scale good for disadvantaged groups as well through its ‘special projects’. Greer is initially won over by Faith’s vision, but as she learns more about Loci, disillusionment begins to set in. The Female Persuasion sells itself as being about this encounter between two generations of feminism, but its energy seems to be elsewhere, following the stories of Greer’s high school Portuguese boyfriend, Cory, and her college best friend, Zee, who initially identifies as a lesbian but later decides that it’s ‘gone the way of the cassette tape… Queer felt stronger, queerer, its difference front and center’. Ironically, given that Greer will go on to publish a popular feminist book called Outside Voices, her perspective is that of an insider’s; despite straitened financial circumstances, her family are middle-class hippies fallen on hard times, and they’re there for her when she really needs them. For this reason, both she and Faith quickly become rather tiresome, and I wished that Cory and, especially, Zee, could have been more central.

Unlike Wolitzer’s The Interestingswhich I found a bit of a slog, The Female Persuasion is incredibly readable in the same way as Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot or Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding are readable; I gulped it down. Nevertheless, its central plotline doesn’t have much to say about the politics of feminism, and what it does have to say is rather misleading. Most obviously, it suggests that second-wave feminism was for wealthy white straight women, and that third-wave feminism is primarily differentiated from the earlier movement by being more intersectional, concerned with the rights of women of colour, of sex workers and LBTQ women. This is a myth that I am continually trying to challenge when I teach courses on the history of feminism, a myth that erases the work of lesbian and bisexual women, working-class women, and women of colour, and also the attempts (though often misguided and patronising) of more privileged women to engage with these critiques. If you want to learn more, the resources on Deborah Cameron’s website, Re-reading The Second Wave, are a good place to start. It might be argued that Faith is not meant to represent all second-wave feminists, just a particular type, and this is fair enough; BUT, given dominant beliefs about feminist history in both Britain and the USA, this leaves too much space for misunderstanding, and the book’s Goodreads reviews make dismaying reading.

Moreover, even if you buy the idea that third-wave feminism is genuinely more intersectional, rather than being as ridden with racism and homophobia as earlier incarnations of the movement, it’s hard to get away from the fact that this isn’t a very intersectional book. Greer herself is definitely not a representative of a younger and more radical feminism; she confronts Faith because she’s wrestling over questions of personal morality, not because they have vast political differences. While The Female Persuasion does foreground a character of colour and a queer woman in Cory and Zee, both characters are tangential to the political plot; Wolitzer seems to be using them to highlight a more interpersonal dimension to feminism, the idea of leading a feminist life rather than simply grandstanding on a stage. And yet I felt this view itself was somewhat outdated. I’d love to see women disagreeing over matters of political principle, as second-wave feminists often did, rather than over broken friendships. While I applaud Wolitzer’s emphasis on feminism as a practice that obviously takes place outside the organised feminist movement, among people who may not even call themselves feminists, this doesn’t address the question of how feminists who do devote their life to feminist campaigning ought to organise. In The Female Persuasion, the personal is certainly political; but I guess, for me, the political was also a little too personal.

Early Spring Reading

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As a free school meals student at a comprehensive school in the deprived Suffolk town of Nusstead, Marianne is determined to pursue her dream of studying art history at university. But things have become even worse for her family since the closure of the local mental hospital, Nazareth, during the move towards community care, which robbed Nusstead of around four hundred jobs. Exploring Nazareth’s crumbling Victorian buildings with her boyfriend, Jesse, she comes across something that might be a solution to her problems. More than thirty years later, a successfully socially mobile Marianne is abruptly brought back into contact with her past – and she’s terrified that if her long-held secret comes out, her mentally fragile daughter will suffer.

I’m a fan of all of Erin Kelly’s psychological thrillers, but with Stone Mothers, she’s really surpassed herself. The novel effortlessly manages three timelines and three voices, moving from the 1950s to the 1980s to the present day, while establishing a distinct register for each. While the opening paragraphs are a little needlessly grabby, the novel as a whole refuses to follow a traditional thriller structure, and is the better for it. The characterisation is satisfyingly complex, and I particularly admired the way that Kelly writes about Marianne’s working-class adolescence, and her relationships with her sister and mother in both the present and the past.

Thematically, mental illness is woven subtly throughout the story, from the patients incarcerated in Nazareth in the 1950s to Marianne’s mother’s dementia and her daughter’s bipolar disorder in the present day. Kelly uses her research on changing attitudes to mental health care lightly, which makes it even more convincing. Without giving anything away, I’ve read a number of novels which foreground the story of somebody committed to an asylum for social transgressions, from Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture to Anna Hope’s The Ballroom and Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and, in my opinion, Kelly writes about it most vividly and convincingly; in particular, she’s careful to note the sufferings of those who are actually mentally ill as well as of those who are mentally ‘well’.

Stone Mothers is utterly gripping, but in a rather different way from the run-of-the-mill thriller; it doesn’t rely on plot twists (although there are some!) but on the strength of its characterisation to pull the reader along. I’d recommend this confidently to fans of Tana French, Ruth Ware and Sabine Durrant.

Disclaimer: Erin tutored me on the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course I took in 2015-16, and has been so supportive of my writing ever since. However, I genuinely thought this was wonderful. I also received a proof copy from the publisher for review (not via Erin). Stone Mothers is out in the UK on the 4th April.

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Eleven-year-old Chinese orphan, Ren, worked as a houseboy for a British doctor before his master’s death; his last request is that Ren find his severed finger and reunite it with his corpse so that his soul doesn’t end up roaming the earth for all eternity. But Ren only has forty-two days to carry out his master’s final wish, before the doctor’s soul departs forever. Meanwhile, Ji-Lin, working at a dance hall in Ipoh to pay off her mother’s mah-jong debts and to try and save some money for her own education, receives a preserved finger in a vial from one of her clients, who then abruptly passes away in his turn. As Ren searches for the finger, he acquires a new British master, Dr William Acton, and rumours begin of a sinister weretiger that is killing local women. How are Ren’s, Ji-Lin’s and William’s stories intertwined? Set in 1930s Malaya (now Malaysia), The Night Tiger is deliberately symbolic, drawing repeatedly on the five Confucian virtues and on the pairs of twins that reoccur in the central characters’ dreams to suggest that its cast is linked by a fate that has followed them since they were born.

Choo tries hard to maintain the atmosphere of her story, but it’s a long book (480 pages), and it feels long; the plot has little direction, with the quest for the finger resolved early and the tiger attacks barely impinging on the story. While both Ren and Ji-Lin are engaging characters, I found myself waiting for the short bits from William, as it was only in those sections that anything much seemed to happen. I also found the romantic element of Ji-Lin’s plot too YA-ish, and a bit patriarchal, for my liking. Furthermore, I’m a little impatient with the way that folklore is used in plots like this – despite the promise of the weretiger myths, The Night Tiger ends up focusing almost entirely on magic sets of numbers, and even those are largely used in repetitive dream sequences. (In fact, I’m not sure why it’s called The Night Tiger at all). Despite the promise of the setting, the novel also failed to give me much of a sense of colonial Malaya. Started well, but lost momentum.

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

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Growing up in 1970s Belfast, middle sister never wanted to be interesting, but now she is.   Even though she’s been dating maybe-boyfriend for some time, a rumour’s going round that she’s actually with the milkman, who isn’t really a milkman at all but is a renouncer of the state. She tries her best to avoid the milkman, not wanting to be tagged as one of the renouncers, but he keeps on turning up – at her French class, where they don’t often speak French, and when she’s out running with third brother-in-law. Meanwhile, maybe-boyfriend is suspected of receiving a car part from over the water, and the milkman threatens to kill him. Will this all be resolved if middle sister keeps on keeping her head down, putting on her ‘I don’t know‘, ‘her terminal face’ – or will she have to take some kind of action?

Apologies in advance for the non-literariness of this review, but I found Anna Burns’s Milkman a uniquely frustrating read. Every day I would pick it up to read about fifteen pages (my daily limit), and every day I’d tell myself this was the last day, that I wouldn’t have to go back to this book ever again, that it was fine to leave it unfinished. But the bloody thing kept pulling me back in. Whenever I decided to give up on it, Burns would pull something so incredible out that I had to keep reading, however much of a slog it might be. Some of this was about the Troubles – Burns captures the experience of living in a community under threat from both outside and inside better than anything else I’d ever read – but some of it was just how well Burns writes about any subject at all. Here is middle sister on the arrival of second-wave feminism to the district:

This housewife’s notice said ‘ATTENTION ALL WOMEN OF THE DISTRICT: GREAT GOOD NEWS!!’ then followed information about some international women’s group that had been inaugurated unexpectedly into the world. It was seeking to set up sister branches in all the world’s countries, with no place… to be excluded from the remit, with no woman – again, any colour, any creed, any sexual preference, any disability, any mental illness or even general dislikeability, indeed, of any type of diversity – to be excluded from the venture… In her notice in the window, and in a daring modern fashion, she invited all women from the area to put their children out for their evening adventures as usual then, unencumbered, to make their way of a Wednesday evening to her house to hear her talk.

As this suggests, middle sister’s voice is often surprisingly, subtly funny – something you don’t often expect in experimental literary fiction. I particularly loved her interactions with ‘wee sisters’, her very bright, very contrary three younger sisters who all blend into one.

If I have one actual criticism of this book, it’s the lack of paragraphs. Seriously:

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[there are occasionally paragraph breaks, but not on every page!]

Everything else about the book that might be seen as ‘challenging’ – the run-on sentences, the lack of proper names, the quasi-nineteenth-century voice – was completely necessary and not actually that confusing, but I don’t think it would have made any difference if Burns had hit the ‘Enter’ key a lot more often. This may be peculiar to the way that I read – as far as I can tell, I think I tend to seek out the beginnings and ends of paragraphs, then somehow take in the whole thing in one go – but I found I kept on skipping bits accidentally and having to go back. So if this is a device to make people read more carefully, it didn’t work on me. Nevertheless, I’ve never before read a book that I literally couldn’t abandon even though I wanted to, and for that alone, I think Burns deserves her Booker win. (She’s also just been longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize).

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Finally, a random observation. I finished Milkman at the same time as I was reading Jeff VanderMeer’s dystopic sci-fi Annihilation, which follows four female scientists as they embark on an expedition into the mysterious Area X, and they kept on crossing over in odd ways in my head. Whether it was the lack of names, the endemic distrust within a small group of people, the formal first-person narrators, or the feeling of being trapped in an enclosed space where nothing quite makes sense, I don’t know!

Thoughts on the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, 2019

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The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has been announced! Here are my thoughts:

The Ones I’ve Read

  • Anna Burns, Milkman. I wrote more about Milkman here: in short, this Booker-winning novel, set in Belfast in the 1970s at the height of the Troubles, was intensely frustrating, but also refused to let go. It certainly deserves its place on this longlist.
  • Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, The Serial Killer. I’m a little bemused as to what this much-hyped, Nigerian-set novel is doing here. It has a great premise: Korede’s sister, Ayoola, has killed her last three boyfriends, forcing Korede to help her mop up the mess, and Ayoola has now set her sights on the man Korede fancies. However, as I wrote on Goodreads: even though they’re very different books, I had similar thoughts about this one as I had about Caroline Kepnes’s You. Is this really doing something edgy, or is it just more of the same from a flipped perspective?
  • Tayari Jones, An American Marriage. I thoroughly enjoyed this exploration of what happens to African-American couple Celestial and Roy’s relationship after Roy is falsely accused of raping a white woman and sent to jail for twelve years. Jones’s writing is effortlessly readable, and I’m now working my way through her backlist. I reviewed An American Marriage here.
  • Diana Evans, Ordinary People. I’m also baffled as to how this has managed to make the longlist. I found this story of two well-off London couples struggling with parenthood and career far too familiar, and although three out of the four protagonists are black, this fails to add enough to lift the novel; neither does the half-baked supernatural plotline. I reviewed Ordinary People here.
  • Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall. Moss’s latest, a creepy novella that follows teenage Silvie as her controlling father forces her to live out a facsimile of Iron Age life in Northumbria, is certainly a worthy contender for the Women’s Prize, although it wasn’t my favourite of her novels. I reviewed Ghost Wall for Shiny New Books here.

The Ones I Already Wanted to Read

  • Akwaeke Emezi, Freshwater. This came to my attention when it was longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2019. It deals with a young Igbo woman, Ada, who is ‘peopled with spirits’, and it’s narrated by the different selves within her. While I admire the premise of this novel, I think it’s very unlikely I’ll enjoy it, as I find it very difficult to engage with narrators whose perception of the world is fundamentally distorted. Nevertheless, I want to give it a go.
  • Sally Rooney, Normal People. I feel like I’m the last person in the world not yet to have read Rooney’s second novel, but somebody has had my local library copy checked out for months. I think it’s now time to pay the grand sum of 50p to request a copy through the central library system… upon which point it will almost certainly be returned to my branch.
  • Yvonne Battle-Felton, Remembered. I met Yvonne briefly at a Penguin WriteNow event in Manchester in 2016, when this book was on submission to agents. The premise, which traces an elderly woman’s memories back through the history of slavery in America, sounded fantastic then, and I’m not surprised to see this doing so well.
  • Madeline Miller, Circe. I loved Miller’s The Song of Achilleswhich won the Women’s Prize in 2012, and I’m keen to read this feminist retelling of the Greek goddess Circe’s story.
  • Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive. I just finished Luiselli’s moving long essay, Tell Me How it Ends, which recounts her work as a translator for the unaccompanied child refugees who arrive at the US-Mexico border from the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This novel picks up on similar themes about the ‘immigration crisis’, and sounds totally intriguing.

The Ones I Now Want To Read

  • Lillian Li, Number One Chinese Restaurant. I’d read about this novel, which centres around the owner and staff of a Chinese restaurant in Maryland, on Naomi’s blog, and thought it sounded fun, but wasn’t motivated enough to add it to a TBR list until now.
  • Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls. I’ve avoided Pat Barker since struggling with the first of the Regeneration trilogy back when I was a teenager, but I’ve already been convinced to try her again, and I like the sound of this feminist retelling of the Iliad.

The Ones I Just Don’t Want To Read

  • Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, Swan SongI’d already decided that, given my total lack of interest in Truman Capote, this novel about his life wasn’t going to be for me, and the opening pages convinced me further.
  • Bernice L. McFadden, Praise Song for the Butterflies. Claire wrote a great review of this novel, set in a fictional African nation, on her blog, but it doesn’t sound like my sort of thing.
  • Melissa Broder, The Pisces. I’ve heard a lot about this novel, and was initially attracted by a brief blurb claiming that it’s about a woman who falls in love with a merman. However, when I figured out it was a sexual satire, I lost interest.
  • Sophie van Llewyn, Bottled Goods. This is the only longlisted novel I hadn’t heard of, but I’m not drawn in by the blurb, which describes it as a magic realist novel set in 1970s communist Romania. Kudos to the Women’s Prize for longlisting something from such a tiny press (Fairlight Books), however.

The Ones That Should Have Been On The Longlist

I’m pretty cross about the omission of three of my favourite books from last year, Lissa Evans’s Old BaggageSamantha Harvey’s The Western Windand Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, especially given some of the titles that have been longlisted.

The Ones I’m Glad Not To See On the Longlist

I didn’t get on with Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, despite having loved her short story collection, Fen, so I’m pleased not to see it here. Having tried and failed to get into Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, I’m also glad it didn’t make it. While I liked Esi Edugyan’s Washington Blackit didn’t impress me enough to make me feel it deserves to be here, and Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure has attracted too many poor reviews from bloggers I trust to make me want to try it.

What are your thoughts on the Women’s Prize longlist for 2019?

Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2019: Amateur

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Thomas Page McBee starts training as an amateur boxer after encountering an angry man on Orchard Street who accuses him of taking a photograph of his car. McBee abruptly finds himself caught up in an alpha-male showdown:

“I was taking a photo of the restaurant in front of your car,” I tried, softening my tone a bit, breaking the rules of the scene. “I want to take my girlfriend on a date there.” I remembered, at the last moment, not to add an upward lilt to the end of my thought.

I saw the flash!” he growled, beyond logic, a man committed to his part… “Give. Me. Your. Phone.”…

I marshalled the self-control to turn and walk away… “Hey!” he shouted… “Asshole!”…

I let an acidic rage bloom… colouring my tone such a ragged mess I didn’t recognise my own voice. “I. Did. Not. Take. A. Picture. Of. Your. Fucking. Car.”

He backed away with his hands up. “Okay, okay,” he mumbled. “Jesus.”

Since his transition, a subject he deals with in his first memoir, Man Alive, McBee has increasingly found himself caught up in situations like these, where he wants to break out of the pattern of toxic masculinity but finds himself instinctively conforming. He might have wanted to become a man, but what kind of man does he want to be? ‘I began this book,’ he writes, ‘because, though I could not articulate it then, I understood that I could not know why I wanted to break that man’s teeth on Orchard Street without understanding, in turn, why he wanted to break mine.’

As a trans man, McBee understands both what it means to be socialised as a woman (the ‘upward lilt’ he has to stop himself adding to the end of his sentences) and how things change once society sees you as male. Voice comes up again and again. At one point, McBee and his brother talk over his sister, Clare, with their ‘jocular camaraderie’ about boxing, even though Clare has been taking boxing classes for years. McBee doesn’t notice what has happened until his girlfriend, Jess, points it out, although to his credit, he later apologises and talks it through with Clare. He also, suddenly, gets listened to at work. ‘Six months into my transition… testosterone made my voice low. Really low. So low that I was almost impossible to hear in a loud bar… But when I did talk, people didn’t just listen; they leaned in. They kept their eyes focused on my mouth, or down at their hands, as if to rid themselves of any distraction beyond my powerful words. The first time I spoke up at a meeting… in my newly quiet baritone, I noticed that sudden, focused attention’.

It’s taken me a while to write about this book because I had such an emotional reaction to it. McBee breaks away from familiar narratives about sex and gender to tell a new kind of story about what it means to be trans, and about what it means to be a man or a woman. I’m obviously not trans, but I identified so strongly with McBee’s discomfort around gender, about his wish to be treated as a man without letting down women – and his conflict about what being ‘like a man’ really meant. It reminded me of a conversation my sister once had on Facebook, about being cat-called in the street. After recounting her unpleasant experience, she wrote about a different encounter in Bristol [shared with her permission]:

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That’s the thing, I always want to say when I read books like McBee’s. None of us want to be a ‘darling’. We all want to be a ‘mate’, or at least I do. I admire McBee’s strength in dealing with his abusive past, in coming out as trans, and in writing so eloquently about his experiences; but I couldn’t help feeling a little unfairly jealous of him, too, as he travelled towards a place where I can never go. And even though I’m not a man, even though I don’t agree with this sort of behaviour, I could see why he wanted to break the angry man’s teeth; how hard it is to let go of privilege that feels so powerful.

Amateur is incredibly thought-provoking, carefully and precisely written, and ultimately, very moving, and it had better end up on the Wellcome shortlist; in fact, I’d love to see it win.

Thanks very much to Midas PR for sending me a free copy of Amateur for review.