Just Like February by Deborah Batterman

What is February? A wonderful metaphor for the unpredictable, of opposites, a reminder to live without expectation while also appreciating ritual and traditional when it is gifted.

“It was the only way I could make sense of something that seemed so arbitrary to me. I soon began noticing things I’d never noticed in February. A sudden whiff of early spring one day, followed by a snowstorm the next. A certain restlessness in the air.”

Just Like February by Deborah Batterman is a novel that is immersed in nostalgia for the past, for the innocence of childhood and the reluctant awakening of the adolescent, of the fragility of love, the need for forgiveness, the pain of judgement.

When it opens Rachel is 5 years old, remembering the on again, off again nature of her parents commitment to getting married. She finds solace in her Uncle Jake, when he is around and through his postcards and letters, as he voyages around.

There is a longing in her that only Jake can appease, however there is mystery around him that is slow to be revealed though often hinted at throughout the text, a reminder in the way of it being written of traditional attitudes of skirting subjects, keeping up appearances, of that lurker, denial.

Once it becomes clear to the reader what’s happening to Jake, I couldn’t help but think of similar decisions that were made by the producers in consultation with band members of the rock group Queen (amid plenty of controversy), in the extraordinary film Bohemian Rhapsody a wonderful tribute to their creative music making and to their lost lead singer Freddie Mercury.

They highlighted family tension as well as tenderness, an unrequited love that endured despite all the pain, creativity born out of frustration and conflict. It was not necessary to over indulge the audience with the misery of the slippery slope, that temporary gratification, hedonism lured him into. It was hinted at, respectfully.

“I didn’t want to write an AIDS movie, to be honest with you. And then, I just looked the period – It’s sort of where he rejects [his bandmates] and comes back to them. It’s sort of like a family movie. It’s sort of like ‘I hate my family, I want to be independent, and then I come back’.” Screenwriter, Peter Morgan

And so too I wonder about the stories behind the story, what would this story be if Jake had been the protagonist, or if Rachel had been more forthcoming earlier on. In a way the novel experiences that secrecy of the eighties, for despite what it says in the blurb, it doesn’t confront the issue of AIDS, it waits until nearly the end before revealing it, thereby creating in the reading experience that same feeling of something being held back, not addressed.

John Boyne also does this exceptionally well through his character Cyril Avery in The Heart’s Invisible Furies. And ultimately though it took years in the making, with a change of cast and direction, Rami Malek, the Egyptian-American actor that took on the role of Freddie, gets to the truth of his character when he reflects:

“I think if you don’t celebrate his life, and his struggles, and how complicated he was, and how transformative he was – and wallow instead in the sadness of what he endured and his ultimate death – then that could be a disservice to the profound, vibrant, radiant nature of such an indelible human being.”

It’s a novel that makes you want to peel back the layers and find out why, the reason perhaps he avoided those family gatherings that are known to get to the heart of issues, when families can no longer keep up appearances and combust. I could feel myself wanting to leave that table. Just like February.

Marie Antoinette silk slippers

Knowing others is intelligence;

knowing yourself is true wisdom.

Mastering others is strength;

mastering yourself is true power.

Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way

I have also read and reviewed Deborah Batterman’s excellent collection of short stories Shoes Hair Nails which the author sent me after I forwarded her a picture of a pair of Marie Antoinette silk slippers that were put up for auction on the 100 anniversary of her execution.

Further Reading

Independent Article: Bohemian Rhapsody: How the new Queen biopic almost never happened

N.B. This book was provided to me kindly by the publisher.

Farewell, My Orange by Iwaki Kei, tr. Meredith McKinney

Farewell, My Orange is an immigrant story set in Australia, centering around the new life of a young African migrant, now a single mother.  Alternative chapters are in the form of letters written by her friend, a young married Asian mother, to her English teacher, and in both narratives we encounter an older European woman whom the younger women  come to know.

For the first fifty pages, I was unsure who was really in the story, I found the blurb a little disconcerting (and still do) because it didn’t seem to tie up with the names in the story I was reading, which distracted from the read. The two women use different names to refer to the same characters and one of the names in the blurb is never mentioned at all in the novel. I couldn’t figure out what the author was doing by this and actually read most of the novel thinking it was a mistake, albeit a consistent one. Of course, being a prize-winning novella, it isn’t a mistake but it was mildly annoying. The book almost needs a message to tell the reader to forget about what appear to be inconsistencies, all shall be revealed, two pages from the end.

The novella introduces Salimah, who found herself a job in the supermarket after her husband left her and her two sons as soon as they arrived in this foreign country. She attends an English class for learners of a second language where she meets a Japanese woman named Echnida who brings her small baby to class, an older Italian woman Olive, a group of young Swedish ‘nymphs’ and her teacher. She makes observations about her classmates and her own life, as she learns the language that is her entry into this foreign place.

The letters her friend writes to her English teacher reflect on details of her new life, with what seem to be the same people, except the names are different.

The woman, whose letters are signed ‘S’ has sent her manuscript entitled ‘Francesca‘ to the teacher, she thanks her for her input and updates her on her life. Following her academic husband around has meant suspending her own university studies, something the teacher encourages her to continue with. In the first letter, she expresses hope to find a teacher like her in this new town and reflects on learning a foreign language:

“While one lives in a foreign country, language’s main function is as a means of self-protection and a weapon in one’s fight with the world. You can’t fight without a weapon. But perhaps its human instinct that makes it even more imperative to somehow express oneself, convey meaning, connect with others.”

In the next letter she has found the ESL class and mentions the older woman with three grown up children itching to look after her baby and a woman she thinks might be a refugee from Sudan or Somalia, who works in a supermarket and is a single mother. Then there is her neighbour, the illiterate truckie, she reads Charlotte’s Web to him on the communal stairs while he holds the baby, an arrangement they have come to, related to the unwanted noise of another neighbour whose incessant drumming has turned them into unlikely allies.

Salimah is asked by the teacher at her son’s primary school to give a presentation on growing up in ‘her African village’, it becomes a significant project for her, that the ESL teacher and Echidna help her with. She reads to the children about her life, narrating it with the simplicity of a children’s story, an oratory that enraptures the younsters, if not the teacher.

When Salimah finished reading, the children sat in silence. The teacher frankly thought that the story was too personal to be much use for the children’s projects. But it was certainly ‘an Africa you could never learn about from the class material.’ What’s more, after hearing the story the children were extremely quiet, and young though she was, she had learned from experience that when children are truly surprised or moved they forget how to express themselves and say nothing, so she waited for them to slowly begin to talk again.

As time passes, new developments replace old situations, opportunities arise, Salimah’s son begins to be invited to play with a school friend, a pregnancy brings the three women together and it is as if they begin to create a community or family between them.

Suddenly everyone in the room was laughing. With her own bright laughter, Salimah felt a great gust of air that had long been caught in her throat come bursting forth, and was aware of something new approaching within her as she drew fresh breath.

It is a unique insight into the intersection of lives that are so foreign to each other and to the culture within which they now live, the old familiar references of little help or comfort, how new connections are slowly born without expectation and can ultimately delight. It is about the common thread of humanity that can be found, when we let go of the familiar and are open to new experiences, helping each other without judgement.

Ultimately, apart from the confusion of names that interfered with my initial reading experience, I loved this novella. After page 50 I highlighted so many pertinent passages and felt the story grow and expand as the lives of these three women did too on the page.

It gave a unique insight into the lives of women from three different cultures and countries and their experience of living in a foreign country where they didn’t have a complete handle on the language, their struggles, their independence, their initial reluctance and inability to engage.

It isn’t a novel about the new culture or interacting with its people, it’s more about their own subtle transformation and the incremental support they eventually find in other foreigners, sharing their experiences, helping each other in small ways that grow their tentative friendship and hint at a hope that perhaps they might find happiness in this place after all.

Over the period they know each other, something changes in their lives, they have the opportunity to grow a little closer and develop something of a new friendship, connection. We see how this human contact and care helps them overcome the adversity of their individual situations. It’s farewell to one shade of orange and its shadow, only to welcome another brighter one they are becoming used to.

I absolutely loved it and was reminded a little of my the experience of sitting in the French language class for immigrants, next to women from Russia, Uzbekistan, Cuba and Vietnam, women with whom it was only possible to converse in our limited French, supported by a teacher who spoke French (or Italian). So many stories, so many challenges each woman had to overcome to contend with life here, most of it unknown to any other, worn on their faces, mysteries the local population were unconcerned with.

Iwaki Kei was born in Osaka. After graduating from college, she went to Australia to study English and ended up staying on, working as a Japanese tutor, an office clerk, and a translator. The country has now been her home for 20 years. Farewell, My Orange, her debut novel, won both the Dazai Osamu Prize (a Japanese literary award awarded annually to an outstanding, previously unpublished short story by an unrecognized author) and the Kenzaburō Ōe Prize (another literary award, the winning work selected solely by Ōe.).

Buy Farewell, My Orange

via Book Depository (free shipping)

N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for sending me a copy of this book.

Milkman by Anna Burns

As you may know, Milkman by the Northern Irish author Anna Burns was the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2018

Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2018 Chair of judges, had this to say:

‘None of us has ever read anything like this before. Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose. It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance, threaded with mordant humour. Set in a society divided against itself, Milkman explores the insidious forms oppression can take in everyday life.’

On finishing it I was left with a similar feeling as when I completed another Booker prize-winning novel, Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, that is, a feeling of exhaustion and of wonder, how could an author sustain this kind of writing, stay with this voice, day after day for as long as it took to write this? And what must it be like to live in or imagine living in a community as stifling as this. Just astounding.

I am in awe. It is no easy read, for it is written in a kind of double, triple speak, depicting a life and set of circumstances that is constantly in check, a circumventing of self. It describes from the inside how one young woman navigates daily life in a community that has drawn so many convoluted, coded lines of behaviour, that lives by so many unspoken, rigidly enforced violent rules, that has morphed into something so far from authenticity, that only the very ‘different’, appear able to, or indeed risk, living life true unto themselves, except those who left the country forever, their tale not told here, those that got away.

All this is told through the stream of consciousness narrative of an 18-year-old girl, as she observes her community and family insinuate a dramatic story onto her about a 40 something married man they call ‘Milkman’ (not to be confused with “the milkman”), a narrative trussed up by rumour, assumption, gossip, anything uttered or speculated on, except what the young woman has to say.

It doesn’t help that the one time she comes out of her silence and decides to share the boring truth, that there is and has never been anything going on between her and this man, she tells this to her pious mother, the one place she might find support.

During this ma looked at me without interruption but when I finished, and without hesitation she called me a liar, saying this deceit was nothing but a further mockery of herself. She spoke of other meetings then, between me and the milkman, besides the two to which I admitted. The community was keeping her abreast, she said, which meant she knew I met him for immoral trysts and assignations, knew too, of what we got up to in places too indecent even to give the ‘dot dot dot’ to. ‘You’re some sort of mob-woman,’ she said. ‘Out of the pale. Lost your intrinsic rights and wrongs. You make it hard, wee girl, to love you and if your poor father was alive, certainly he’d have something to say about this.’ she said. I doubted it.

‘Middle sister’ as she is referred to, thinks in a kind of coded language full of uttered phrases that substitute for a more succinct opinion, so that even the reader must enter into this “insinuating” talk to understand her thoughts, for nothing is stated plainly, just as nothing is observed or clarified as it really is. And we get good at it, at this revealing what is really being said, even beginning to see the humor in it, when none of it really is funny, there’s too much death, tragedy, sadness, ridiculousness. It’s not a life, it’s a trap.

It is a kind of prison that she manages temporarily to escape from or live with by going running with third brother-in-law, taking French lessons and ‘reading while walking’ literature from other, older centuries. But trying to remain separate and invisible to all the categories, has put her in the worst possible position, ‘beyond the pale’, her longest friend since primary school informs her.

‘Even you must appreciate, that as far as they’re concerned you’ve fallen into the difficult zone.’ She meant the ‘informer-type’ zone – not that I was an informer. It was that miscellany territory where, like the informer, you’re not accepted, you’re not admired, you’re not respected, not by one side, not by the other side, not by anybody, not even really by yourself. In my case though, seems I’d fallen into the difficult zone not only because I wouldn’t tell my life to others, or because of my numbance, or because of my suspiciousness of questions. What was also being held against me was that I wasn’t seen as the clean girlfriend, as in, he didn’t have other attachments. He did have other attachments. One was his wife. So I was the upstart, the little Frenchwoman, the arriviste, the hussy.

And then it is so much more as Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado shares in her brilliant essay in the Dublin Review of Books Gender in Conflict where she describes Anna Burns writing as exploring “the impact in Northern Ireland of a level of violence that has become ordinary and has turned into the cultural norm” in particular that gendered violence is everywhere and unacknowledged.

Burns’ use of surrealism is a highly effective method whereby the author defamiliarises dominant (and often misrepresentative) narratives of the conflict and its legacy that circulate within the media and popular culture. The surrealist mode allows her to represent the psychological effects of trauma – registering what she calls “the feeling reality, rather than necessarily what happened”

“In an unstoppable torrent of words, she gives voice to the women who endured unspeakable violence during the Troubles, making a powerful and necessary feminist intervention into the literary legacy of the conflict.”  Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado

It’s an original, thought-provoking, cathartic read that stays with you long after reading, it puts the reader in total sympathy with the character of middle sister and creates a feeling of there being no way out, seeing her almost as the anti-hero for succeeding at least in losing herself through literature and a foreign language, gone momentarily from this nightmare, despite never being safe from the ever-present unwanted attention.

Highly recommended, if you want a more literary read and insight into the difficulty of living within a fraught political community.

The Author

Anna Burns was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1962. She is the author of two novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, and of the novella, Mostly Hero. In 2001 she won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted
for the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in East Sussex, England.

Buy a Copy of Milkman

via BookDepository (affiliate link)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

A popular book in 2017, it won the Costa Book Award and has gone on to become a bestseller and will become a film starring Reese Witherspoon (who acquired the film rights), an incredible success for the debut novel of Gail Honeyman. To be honest, it hadn’t been on my radar, however when a friend lent me her copy, insisting I read it and a rainy day beckoned, I turned the page…

The book begins with an interesting quote from Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City:

“…loneliness is hallmarked by an intense desire to bring the experience to a close; something which cannot be achieved by getting out more, but only be developing intimate connections. This is far easier said than done, especially for people whose loneliness arises from a state of loss or exile or prejudice, who have reason to fear or mistrust as well as long for the society of others.”

Eleanor Oliphant has been in the same office job in Glasgow, Scotland for almost eight years, she’s in her late twenties, intelligent, observant and diligent, she likes and needs routine and copes fine with her lack of social engagement, lack of friends, lack of family – with the exception of a weekly conversation with her mother on Wednesdays – and seems not to feel anything even when she overhears her colleagues speaking unkindly behind her back.

So used to her self imposed isolation and predictable life is she, that she seems shocked when a new employee Raymond from IT, whom she calls when her computer freezes one morning, initiates conversation with her outside the office, speaking to her as if she might be just like the others.

In this introduction to Eleanor, we aren’t sure of her, though her obvious intelligence and comfort in routine, he slight air of superiority despite the comments of her colleagues, suggest some kind of cognitive difference and her lack of a filter or self-censoring ability make her abject honesty a cause of surprise to some. Her habit of consuming vast amounts of vodka at home alone at the weekend, suggest something more dire lurks in her past.

Over the course of the novel, more of her early life is revealed and we learn that she has been through some kind of childhood trauma, which might explain some of her behaviours. This really sets up what for me was the main question, was this a case of nature, nurture (lack of) or trauma or a combination of them all. Honeyman leaves it to the reader to decide, but regardless of what influences made Eleanor the way she is, she is ripe for transformation. And she seems to have realised it herself, albeit, lead by a new obsession.

For, at the same time, and from the opening pages, she believes she may have met the perfect man, or is about to meet him, she obsesses about this man and builds him into her image of perfection, as had been defined by her absent mother, and prepares to improve herself physically in preparation of meeting him.

Meanwhile, through Raymond, her actual social connections begin to widen and they awaken something familiar in her, feelings that go with being invited to be part of a community, small acts of kindness, of inclusiveness, and Raymond helps her navigate these interactions, as might a friend.

It is a well written, engaging and thought provoking read, partly because of what is not known and slowly revealed, but the dialogue gives the story pace and there are plenty of new activities and social interactions Eleanor participates in, providing the space for her to grow and develop within.

“I wondered how it would feel to perform such simple deeds for other people. I couldn’t remember. I had done such things in the past, tried to be kind, tried to take care, I knew I had, but that was before. I tried, and I had failed, and all was lost to me afterwards. I had no one to blame but myself.”

I did find the character of Eleanor a little difficult to believe in, the long years of solitude followed by a relatively sudden transformation seem to occur too easily and quickly, however if I were to suspend judgement on the authenticity of the character and the speed of her life change, which wasn’t hard to do, then it becomes a kind of coming-of-age novel about a young woman overcoming a traumatic past and demonstrates (a little too conveniently) the healing that can come from genuine friendship and being part of a family and community and a functional workplace (if there is such a thing).

The introduction of a therapist also allows for the conversations that explore the difference between the fulfillment of physical needs and emotional needs, neatly tying things up and rounding off Eleanor’s late education and self development.

And while it’s not exactly a romance, there are elements of the ambiguity of her friendship with Raymond that certainly are likely to make this a popular film.

An entertaining, light read, that leaves you with more than a few questions.

Buy a copy of this book via Book Depository

Little by Edward Carey

I read a sample of the first few pages of Little by Edward Carey (see the link below) and immediately wanted to read more.

Gallic Books usually translate and publish French novels under their Gallic imprint, however I could see exactly why this historical novel, written by the English novelist and playwright Edward Carey, set in the late 1700’s France, would be a worthy addition to their collection and so I requested a copy which to my delight was sent to me soon after. Even before reading it, I was recommending it to friends, some of whom have finished it, so it rose to the top of the pile and Voila, here are my thoughts on it!

It’s a wonderful read, following the extraordinary life of Anne Marie Grosholtz, born in 1761 in a small country village in Switzerland, who must move to the city of Berne with her fragile, easily frightened, recently widowed mother, to work for a young, reclusive, eccentric Doctor Curtius, a home-based medic obsessed with anatomy and the physiology of the body, who creates replica body parts copying those that the hospital delivers him, reproducing them in wax.

The mother too faint-hearted to cope with the thought of having to assist him, it is left to six-year-old Marie, to be the strong one, to learn the required skills so she becomes his servant, and his first model, for a complete head, a plaster mould filled with wax. When the wax heads are sought out by men who desire to see themselves on display, the hospital turns against him and they flee to Paris, where a journalist who had once visited them befriends them and finds lodgings with an overbearing tailor’s widow and her meek son Edmond.

At first their work has no connection, but the widow is an astute businesswoman and soon takes control of the Doctor’s affairs moving them to larger premises on a main boulevard where their business will become a leading attraction in Paris. They recreate both the noble and the demons of the city, the murderers, who they believe by putting on show might teach people what to avoid.

Marie is not liked by the widow and is banned from the workshop as the widow inserts herself into the life and work of the Doctor, but secretly she has been making a few mini wax models of her own and thus her fate will change once again, when the reigning King Louis XVI’s sister Elisabeth comes knocking unannounced and it is Marie who answers the door.

She will spend eleven years in the palace of Versailles as tutor (Maitresse de Cire) to her princess friend, until her confidence and boredom combine to get her in trouble and she is banished, back to the widow and her master. This transgression may well have saved her life, given what was to come with French royalty.

The novel tracks her life and beside it the growing unrest in Paris, as the people rebel against those who ‘have’, against those who ‘rule’, and a frenzy of imprisonments and executions pervade the city, where no one is safe from denunciation and possible death. These stories and the historical references bring the novel alive, in animated prose that explores the noble alongside the grim and ghoulish, for the public of the time desired to see and know it all.

Marie is a survivor, and through all kinds of circumstances, she not only survives, she adds to her skills and is destined to thrive, despite the inordinate amount of suffering and tragedy she witnesses and bears.

Never entirely safe, being a foreigner in a land where favour swings swiftly and justice had a penchant for heads, she eventually leaves Paris and an ill-chosen husband Tussaud, taking one of her sons, to live out her thriving middle and old age in London, creating there, what was no longer sustainable in Paris, a wax museum of the rich, famous and infamous. At the age of 81, eight years before her death, she created her own wax self-portrait, which continues to reside in the museum today.

Edward Carey was terrified by her wax museum as a child, worked there as an adult, and has now written a novel about Tussaud, who survived the bloody French Revolution and built her own myth in London. The Guardian

With so many changes occurring in their lives, and so many characters of varying class and esteem entering their premise and the inevitable difficulties of being the unwanted additional child in an already complex household, it’s no wonder the chapters and years fly by, full of intriguing accounts of the lives of all those who had cause to come within Marie’s purview.

A brilliant, absorbing read of an incredibly resilient child, who becomes a skillful, industrious, entrepreneurial woman, with the addition of many pencil drawings throughout, just as we imagine she might have done them. Highly recommended for those who enjoy excellent historical fiction about women raising themselves up despite immense challenges in their social status and background.

‘In an age in which historical female figures have gained more posthumous recognition, Little is a perfectly weaved story of a woman who has captured the imagination of many, but has been written about by few. From Marie’s perspective, the difficulties 18th Century women faced in order to achieve recognition or success are illuminated for the modern reader.’ — Culture Trip

Read a Sample from Little

Click Image to Read Sample

Buy a copy of Little from Book Depository here

Man Booker Prize 2018 winner Milkman by Anna Burns

The 2018 winner of the Man Booker Prize and the first time a woman writer from Northern Ireland had won the prize, is Anna Burns, with her third novel Milkman. The other short listed titles are mentioned below, with short summaries, should you be interested in reading them.

I watched the event on the BBC last night and before revealing the winner the announcer discussed the six titles with prominent blogger Simon of Savidge Reads.  He admitted having difficulty with Milkman initially, choosing to listen to it as an audio book, which he said allowed him to get into the rhythm of the narrative voice.

Although I haven’t read it (I’ve ordered it), it seems more of a ‘literary’ style novel than  plot driven, confirmed after reading the excellent essay Gender in Conflict by Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado, I’m convinced it’s definitely worthwhile reading and I’m glad it made it through such tough competition to win.

“She’s an extremely interesting voice, she’s witty and the way you hear her voice in your head, I think you’ve never heard a voice like it before.” Judge, Kwame Anthony Appiah

Having read the book three times, the judges highlighted the “distinctive and consistently realised voice of the funny, resilient, astute, plain-spoken, first-person protagonist”. ‘Voice‘ seems to be the most often quoted aspect of the book, one that takes a while to get used to, then hooks the reader.

Speaking about her writing process, the 56-year-old author said her job as a novelist was “to show up and be present and attend. It’s a waiting process.” She “just had to wait for my characters to tell me their stories”

Born in Belfast though now living in East Sussex, she drew on her own experiences growing up in what she called “a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia”.

Synopsis

Milkman is a novel of unnamed characters set in an anonymous city, much like Belfast in the unsettled 1990s. The story is told through the voice of a teenage girl known only as middle sister, who, trying to remain inconspicuous, becomes anything but, when a man nicknamed the Milkman begins to pursue her. The tight-knit community around her notice, talk and assume things that propel her into an unwanted situation. It is not a plot driven tale of the Troubles, but rather an insight into the behaviours, conditioning and expectations of a community and their impact on a young woman.  It is written in a meandering, stream of consciousness voice Anna Burns says insisted on being heard.

Burns earlier novel No Bones (2001) is set in similar times in “the tiny, old Catholic district” of Ardoyne during the Troubles, while Milkman occurs in 1979 though refers to events occurring in the 1980s and ’90s.

In her essay Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado notes:

Burns explains that her writing explores “the impact in Northern Ireland of a level of violence that has become ordinary and has turned into the cultural norm”. In particular, she indicates that gendered violence is everywhere, but it remains unacknowledged “in the context of the political problems, where huge things, physical, noisy things” happen “on a daily basis, on an hourly basis, on a television newsround-by-newsround basis”.

She goes on to give a more in-depth analysis of the categories and affiliations of genders and the expectations put upon men, women and children, to show who they belong to.

Thus Milkman explores how different, complicated categories of masculinity and femininity develop within a site of armed conflict involving both state and non-state forces. Via the male “renouncer-of-the-state” and “defender-of-the-state” characters, Burns examines what I will term “paramilitary masculinities” – gendered expressions of attributes, behaviours and agency associated with men, defined within the context of paramilitary struggle.

Furthermore, she also considers what I will call “paramilitary-adjacent femininities” through her characterisation of the “traditional women” and “paramilitary groupies” in the novel. These femininities are defined in accordance with the roles prescribed to them by paramilitary men. The “traditional women” in the novel run the household while the men are fighting or imprisoned. The “paramilitary groupies” and “renouncer-wives” support the men by looking good, keeping secrets, staying faithful and “making prison visits and tombstone visits”. The narrator does not want to belong to either subset; however, communal rules dictate that she must subscribe to one or the other group.

“In an unstoppable torrent of words, she gives voice to the women who endured unspeakable violence during the Troubles, making a powerful and necessary feminist intervention into the literary legacy of the conflict.”  Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado

The other shortlisted authors/novels were:

Esi Edugyan (Canada) Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail)

Escape is only the beginning. From the brutal cane plantations of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-filled streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black is the tale – inspired by a true story – of a world destroyed and the search to make it whole again. When two English brothers take the helm of a Barbados sugar plantation, Washington Black – an eleven year-old field slave – finds himself selected as personal servant to one of these men. The eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor and abolitionist, whose single-minded pursuit of the perfect aerial machine mystifies all around him. Titch’s idealistic plans are soon shattered and Washington finds himself in mortal danger. They escape the island together, but then Titch disappears and Washington must make his way alone, following the promise of freedom further than he ever dreamed possible.

Daisy Johnson (UK) Everything Under (Jonathan Cape)

Words are important to Gretel, always have been. As a child, she lived on a canal boat with her mother, and together they invented a language that was just their own. She hasn’t seen her mother since the age of sixteen, though — almost a lifetime ago — and those memories have faded. Now Gretel works as a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries, which suits her solitary nature. A phone call from the hospital interrupts Gretel’s isolation and throws up questions from long ago. She begins to remember the private vocabulary of her childhood. She remembers other things, too: the wild years spent on the river; the strange, lonely boy who came to stay on the boat one winter; and the creature in the water — a canal thief? — swimming upstream, getting ever closer. In the end there will be nothing for Gretel to do but go back.

Rachel Kushner (USA) The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape)

Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences, plus six years, at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Outside is the world from which she has been permanently severed: the San Francisco of her youth, changed almost beyond recognition. The Mars Room strip club where she once gave lap dances for a living. And her seven-year-old son, Jackson, now in the care of Romy’s estranged mother. Inside is a new reality to adapt to: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive. The deadpan absurdities of institutional living, daily acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike, allegiances formed over liquor brewed in socks and stories shared through sewage pipes. Romy sees the future stretch out ahead of her in a long, unwavering line — until news from outside brings a ferocious urgency to her existence, challenging her to escape her own destiny. The Mars Room presents not just a bold and unsentimental panorama of life on the margins of contemporary America, but an excoriating attack on the prison-industrial complex.

Richard Powers (USA) The Overstory (William Heinemann)

Nine strangers, each in different ways, become summoned by trees, brought together in a last stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fable, ranging from antebellum New York to the late-twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, revealing a world alongside our own — vast, slow, resourceful, magnificently inventive and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world, and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.

Robin Robertson (UK) The Long Take (Picador)

Walker is a D-Day veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder; he can’t return home to rural Nova Scotia, and looks instead to the city for freedom, anonymity and repair. As he moves from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco we witness a crucial period of fracture in American history, one that also allowed film noir to flourish. The Dream had gone sour but — as those dark, classic movies made clear — the country needed outsiders to study and dramatise its new anxieties. While Walker tries to piece his life together, America is beginning to come apart: deeply paranoid, doubting its own certainties, riven by social and racial division, spiralling corruption and the collapse of the inner cities. The Long Take is about a good man, brutalised by war, haunted by violence and apparently doomed to return to it — yet resolved to find kindness again, in the world and in himself.

*******

So have you read any from the shortlist? Did you have a favourite? Will you read Milkman?

Buy a Copy of One of the Shortlisted books

via BookDepository (affiliate link)

A Voice of Her Own: Maryse Condé wins Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature

Due to an ugly scandal involving allegations of sexual harassment and corruption, there was no Nobel Prize for Literature awarded in 2018. Apparently it will resume next year, however to fill the gap, an alternative prize was awarded by The New Academy, a one-off to replace it. They describe themselves like this:

The New Academy was founded to warrant that an international literary prize will be awarded in 2018, but also as a reminder that literature should be associated with democracy, openness, empathy and respect. In a time when human values are increasingly being called into question, literature becomes the counterforce of oppression and a code of silence.

I didn’t know this was happening, but I can’t help but wish to celebrate it, given the winner of the prize for 2018, was Maryse Condé, one of my very favourite writers, whom I discovered in 2015, when her lifetimes work was nominated for the Man Booker International (MBI), in the old format, when that prize was held every two years and for a body of work, not a newly published title.

Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé didn’t win the MBI prize that year, but she was the writer I chose from the long list to read and following her advice in an interview about where one should start with her writing, I began with her extraordinarily beautiful essays Tales From the Heart, True Stories From My Childhood.

Maryse Condé is a Guadeloupean writer who was the eighth child in her family and as such, the one who knew her mother for the least amount of time and her grandmother she knew not at all. Her mother was a wilful, determined woman, who rose herself up through education, married a successful banker and made sure her own children were well-educated.

Her writer’s instinct and curiosity  had her wondering about what had gone before her, what had made her mother into the woman she knew and observed, one who many found too severe. Condé decided to find out all she could about her grandmother, researching by talking to everyone who knew them.

‘The story is, of course, about my grandmother but the real problem was my mother. I lost my mother when I was very young — fourteen and a half. And during the short time that I knew her I could never understand her. She was a very complex character. Some people — most people, the majority of people — disliked her. They believed she was too arrogant, too choleric. But we knew at home that she was the most sensitive person and I could not understand that contradiction between the way she looked and the way she actually was. So I tried to understand as I grew up and I discovered that it was because of a big problem with her own mother. She seems to have failed; she had the feeling that she was not a good, dutiful daughter. I had to understand the grandmother and the relationship between my mother, Jeanne, and her mother, Victoire, to understand who Jeanne was, why she was the way she was, and at the same time understand myself.’

Slowly she pieced together a picture of not just her grandmother, but the generations of women in her family, who’d followed a similar, tragic pattern in their lives of being used by men and left to raise children alone. Condé’s mother was determined to break the cycle, which she did, but by doing so, she also planted a seed of desire in this youngest daughter to want to know about her roots. It wasn’t just her immediate family she knew nothing about, but her own country, her descendants and the country and culture or their birth.

She set off, not just in search of grandmothers and great grandmothers, but in search of the Kingdom of Segu, about which write an incredible historical novel, Segu (see review) and it’s sequel The Children of Segu, which I have not read yet.

Though her books were all published in French, Condé had the fortune to be married to the translator Richard Philcox, so most of her novels were translated into English, although she is much less well-known in the English reading world, than here in France.

She visited Aix-en-Provence a few years ago, and I had the privilege of being in a packed audience listening to her speak animatedly on a variety of topics.

When asked which of her books was her favourite, she mentioned The Story of the Cannibal Woman, which I had on my bookshelf, so that became my next read, a story set in South Africa, which had similarities for me to Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door. Unfortunately she is almost blind, so I don’t know if she will be publishing many more books, I certainly hope so.

In 2011 Françoise Vergès a French political scientist, historian and feminist, wrote and collaborated with Maryse Condé, a documentary called ‘une voix singulière’ a journey into the life and mind of Condé through her particular voice and world view. It is in French but with subtitles.