Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2018 #WomensPrize

Today the short list was announced for the woman’s prize for fiction. From the longlist of 13 books, six books have been chosen.

The Chair of Judges Sarah Sands had this to say:

“The shortlist was chosen without fear or favour. We lost some big names, with regret, but narrowed down the list to the books which spoke most directly and truthfully to the judges. The themes of the shortlist have both contemporary and lasting resonance encompassing the birth of the internet, race, sexual violence, grief, oh and mermaids. Some of the authors are young, half by Brits and all are blazingly good and brave writers.”

I’ve actually read and reviewed three of the six chosen titles, all of which I really enjoyed, and I would like to read Sight and The Mermaid, so overall I think it’s an impressive list, even though the prize completely ignored the outstanding novel Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

The shortlist is as follows, beginning with the three I’ve read, then the two I’d like to, all six revealed here in biscuit form, made by @BiscuiteersLtd :

Meena KandasamyWhen I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife  – my review here

  • a literary artwork, a portrait of a writer suffering in a four-month marriage, surviving through writing, her imagination and now looking back and turning what could have destroyed her into a blazing, unforgettable novel.

Kamila ShamsieHome Fire my review here

  • a heartbreaking tragic work, a modern retelling of Sophocles’ 5th century BC play Antigone, an exploration of the conflict between those who affirm the individual’s human rights and those who protect the state’s security, set in London, told through an immigrant family struggling to distance themselves from the patterns of their ancestral past.

Jesmyn WardSing, Unburied, Sing – my review here

  • narrated from three points of view, 13-year-old Jojo, his mother Leonie and the spectre of a young man Richie, it’s a coming-of-age story about surviving a dysfunctional family, haunted by the past, and spirits that won’t rest.

Imogen Hermes Gowar, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

  • Historical fiction with a splash of magic realism, a merchant and a celebrity courtesan brought together by the arrival of a mermaid in Georgian London, 1785 – a debut novel inspired by a “real mermaid” in the British Museum.

 

Jessie GreengrassSight

  • a woman recounts her progress to motherhood, remembering the death of her mother, and the childhood summers she spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother – alongside events in medical history – emerging into a realisation. 

Elif BatumanThe Idiot

  • a campus novel, reflecting on how culture and language shape who we are, how difficult it is to be a writer, and how baffling love is.

 

***

Of the three I’ve read, I think Meena Kandasamy’s stood out the most for me, in particular because I initially avoided it, and then was blown away by how the subject was so uniquely and adeptly handled. It’s a form of autobiographical fiction, some debating whether it is indeed a novel, being based in part on the author’s life.

So what do you think of the list, do you have a favourite, or one you really want to read?

Buy any of the books on the shortlist via Bookdepository

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When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

I began seeing reviews about When I Hit You, Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife late in 2017,  most were stunned by this novel, obviously by the subject, a woman writing about the experience of domestic violence and abuse, herself a victim of it within marriage; but also the analysis of her response to what was happening. This was a highly educated, intelligent and articulate young woman writing. It nudged preconceived ideas about victims of domestic abuse.

The reviews made me wish to read it, but the subject prevented me from picking it up sooner.  And then it made the long list of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018. I relented.

While it genuinely deserves to be on the list for its literary uniqueness and merit, it’s also relevant given we are in an era where the silencing, harassment and abuse of women is reaching a tipping point, in the West at least. The author now lives in London, however this story takes place in contemporary India, where she grew up.

The statistics on domestic violence in India are appalling, violence by husbands against wives is widespread, nearly two in five* (37 %) married women have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their husband, and while the statistics vary according to the number of years of education men or women have acquired, 12%  of married women with 12 or more years of education have experienced spousal violence, compared with 21 percent of married women whose husbands have 12 or more years of education.

This is one aspect that surprises some Western readers, that highly educated women, married to highly educated men (the husband in this book is a university professor) while less likely to suffer, are not immune. No one is.

The title is a reference to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man his debut novel about a young man growing up, (essentially, his alter-ego). In the same way we see the character of this novel traverse the early months of a new marriage, as a young wife.

Meena Kandasamy

Meena Kandasamy has created an artwork, carefully sculpted, observed and understood from different angles, a work that endures over four months, like acts in a play, before the master stroke, a line she drew, that when her husband crossed, would signal to her the moment to leave. It is written by an unnamed narrator in a first person voice that moves from reflective to urgent, from a place of detached distance to a disturbing sense of present danger.

The novel begins in the period after she has escaped her marriage, in recounting the things her mother says to people, it is five years since her daughter left the marriage and the story has mutated and transformed into something the mother can more easily digest as she narrates.

So, when she begins to talk about the time that I ran away from my marriage because I was being routinely beaten and it had become unbearable and untenable for me to keep playing the good Indian wife, she does not talk about the monster who was my husband, she does not talk about the violence, she does not even talk about the actual chain of events that led to my running away. That is not the kind of story you will be getting out of my mother, because my mother is a teacher, and a teacher knows that there is no reason to state the obvious. As a teacher, she also knows that to state the obvious is , in fact, a sure sign of stupidity.

When she tells the story of my escape, she talks of my feet.

The way the story begins, hearing her mother’s voice with hindsight, introduces the subject with a dose of irony. It is a lead up to the author introducing herself as the writer that she is, and sharing the lessons she has acquired through this writing project.

Much as I love my mother, authorship is a trait that I have come to take very seriously. It gets on my nerves when she steals the story of my life and builds her anecdotes around it. It’s plain plagiarism. It also takes a lot of balls to do something like that – she’s stealing from a writer’s life – how often is that sort of atrocity even allowed to happen? The number one lesson I have learnt as a writer: Don’t let people remove you from your own story. Be ruthless, even if it is your own mother.

She continues with narrating the story, and seeing it as if she is playing a role in a drama.

And in some ways, that is how I think of it: it is easier to imagine this life in which I’m trapped as a film;  it is easier when I imagine myself as a character. It makes everything around me seem less frightening; my experiences at a remove. Less painful, less permanent. Here, long before I ever faced a camera, I became an actress.

The husband, a Marxist who considered himself a revolutionary, a comrade, using communist intellectual ideas and his activities to elevate his self aggrandisement, detests the idea of his wife’s being a writer, an attitude that pushes her to want to antagonise him. The more he wishes to silence her, the stronger is her will to write, to imagine, to create, to express herself.

Being a writer is now a matter of self-respect. It is the job title that I give myself…

But it’s not just about antagonizing him. There is a distasteful air of the outlaw that accompanies the idea of a writer in my husband’s mind. A self-centredness about writing that doesn’t fit with his image of a revolutionary. It has the one-word job description: defiance. I’ve never felt such a dangerous attraction towards anything else in my life.

Given how prevalent it is, it is a brave and courageous feat for the author to have penned this work and for it to be recognised and appreciated in this way, deservedly so. In an interview with The Wire, (linked below) Meena Kandasamy said:

“I will write in the same way in which I lived through all of this: carrying myself with enormous, infinite grace.”

It is an incredible work of creativity, working through the post-trauma of domestic violence.

Meena Kandasamy has taken charge of her story, she retells it in exactly the form(s) that she desires, and I am sure she will move on and create more great works of art, in literary form.

This is not a work to shy away from, especially not now, in these times where women are being supported when they choose to express these narratives, in order to move on from the trauma, because no one wants these stories to define their lives or to be who they are. Healing might come slowly, but I hope it does indeed come, that people like Meena Kandasamy can share their version of resilience and acts of moving forward and on, for the sake of themselves and others like them, albeit never forgetting.

I finish with one more of the many quotes I highlighted from reading:

I remind myself of the fundamental notion of what it means to be a writer. A writer is the one who controls the narrative.

I have put myself in a dangerous situation with this marriage, but even in this complicated position, I’m finding plot points. This is the occupational hazard of being a writer-wife.

Further Reading:

Interview: Meena Kandasamy on Writing About Marital Violence

* Statistics on Domestic Violence in India

Buy a copy of this book via Book Depository

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Elsie is Florence’s (Flo) best friend. The book is all about Flo and begins with her lying on the floor having had a fall, she’s waiting for someone to arrive, she lives in a self-contained apartment within a retirement village. She imagines who might come first, what they might say, the ambulance ride to the hospital.

Every few chapters are interspersed with a chapter that is labelled with the time, the first chapter is 4.48pm and the last chapter is 11.12pm. The chapters in between narrate the story of both the present and the past, about her time at Cherry Tree with Jack and Elsie, about staff members Miss Ambrose and Handy Simon, a few outings they take together, both the trio of Jack, Elsie and Flo and a group outing for a couple of days to Whitby.

I looked across the lounge, and into the past. It was more useful than the present. There were times when the present felt so unimportant, so unnecessary. Just somewhere I had to dip into from time to time, out of politeness.

Flo has plenty of complaints about what she is expected to participate in at Cherry Tree, but she’s also worried about being sent to Greenbank, she feels as though she’s under probation. Her observations about the names of these places and the names of many things, is insightful and adds a lightness to the narrative.

Another problem with Cherry Tree is there are no cherry trees. I’ve had this out with Miss Bissell on more than one occasion, but she won’t be told. ‘One of them must be,’ is all she can come up with, but none of them is. It’s the kind of name you give to these places though. Woodlands, Oak Court, Pine Lodge. They’re often named after trees for some reason. It’s the same with mental health units. Forests full of forgotten people, waiting to be found again…
It’s like the day room. It’s isn’t a day room, it’s an All The Bloody Time Room. Everybody will be in there now and it isn’t daytime.

And then there is the new resident who looks uncannily familiar to Flo, and makes her fearful and paranoid about events that occurred back in the 1950’s, only no one seems to be taking her seriously about her concerns, so she Jack and Elsie decide to take matters into their own hands.

Memory is like a character in the book, it’s is something that is sometimes there in abundance, stretching far back into the past and at other times, beyond reach.

‘You need to think about things for longer before you give up, Florence.
I didn’t answer, and we were stuck in a wordless argument for a while.
‘Do you remember taking sandwiches on holiday, when we were children? she said eventually. ‘Do you remember going to Whitby?’
I said I remembered but I wasn’t sure. She could tell straight away, because nothing much gets past Elsie.
‘Think, Florence,’ she said. ‘Think.’
I tried. Sometimes, you feel a memory before you see it. Even though your eyes can’t quite find it, you can smell it and taste it, and hear it shouting to you from the back of your mind.
‘Ham and tomato’ I said. ‘With boiled eggs!’

Three Things About Elsie is a delightful read, a book written with tremendous empathy and compassion by a writer who has been close to the elderly and listened, and seen them for who they are and have always been, that the bodily exterior and instances of confusion aren’t what defines them.

She portrays these characters with integrity and humour, I had the feeling often as I read that I was watching these scenes happen, so vividly are they drawn, so clear the voices and intentions of the characters. She creates a mystery that intrigues the reader, making me not want to put the book down, desperate to know what was going to happen next and always with that air of doubt, about what is real and what might be the confusion of an elderly woman. But never mind that, for as we read, we are right there with Flo, Jack and Elsie, moving on from one clue to the next, following them in their devilish escapades and hoping that all will be well in the end.

I’m not surprised this book is being adored and appreciated by so many readers, Joanna Cannon captures the soul of Flo and we recognise the vulnerability of ageing and only been seen for the deteriorating body and mind that isn’t who we are at all.

Three Things About Elsie has been long listed for the Women’s Prize For Fiction 2018. Click on the link to read about the 16 novels nominated.

Click Here to Buy Three Things About Elsie via BookDepository

Women’s Prize for Fiction long list 2018 #WomensPrize

The annual Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced at midnight last night, on International Women’s Day.

No longer the Baileys Prize, this year there are three sponsors, including Bailey’s and the prize will simply be referred to as the Women’s Prize for fiction. The wider sponsorship aims to ‘build on the successes of the past and will also see the commercial possibilities to connect with a global audience’ while championing women’s creativity, celebrating excellence and keeping women’s voices centre stage.

“What is striking about the list, apart from the wealth of talent, is that women writers refuse to be pigeon-holed. We have searing social realism, adventure, comedy, poetic truths, ingenious plots and unforgettable characters. Women of the world are a literary force to be reckoned with.” Sarah Sands, Chair of Judges.

This year, I have already read three from the list, I’ll link to my reviews at the end. The long listed books follow, with extracts via the Women’s Prize:

 

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker – a post – post apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland, of “daring narrative ingenuity”

Imagine a perfect world where everything is known, where everything is open, where there can be no doubt, no hatred, no poverty, no greed. Imagine a System which both nurtures and protects. A Community which nourishes and sustains. An infinite world. A world without sickness, without death. A world without God. A world without fear. Could you…might you be happy there?

The Idiot by Elif Batuman – portrait of the artist as a young woman, inventing herself, awakening

Selin, a tall, highly strung Turkish-American from New Jersey turns up at Harvard and finds herself dangerously overwhelmed by the challenges and possibilities of adulthood. She studies linguistics and literature, teaches ESL and spends a lot of time thinking about what language – and languages – can do.  Throughout her journeys, Selin ponders profound questions about how culture and language shape who we are, how difficult it is to be a writer, and how baffling love is.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon – a poignant perspective of community life &  the vulnerability of age

84-year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be rescued, Florence wonders if a terrible secret from her past is about to come to light; and, if the charming new resident is who he claims to be, why does he look exactly like a man who died sixty years ago whom she fears? Florence, Elsie and Jack set to and unravel the mystery, getting them out of the home and out of their minds, that linger in the past.

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig – a novel of love and war, colonialism and ethnicity, and the ties of blood

Based of the lives of the author’s mother and grandparents, Miss Burma tells the story of modern-day Burma through the eyes of one family struggling to find love, justice, and meaning during a time of war and political repression.

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan – historical novel with a hint of noir thriller, set in the Depression

Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. She is mesmerised by the sea beyond the house and by some charged mystery between the two men. Years later, her father has disappeared, the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that once belonged to men, now soldiers abroad. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing ships that will help America win the war. One evening at a nightclub, she meets Dexter Styles again and begins to unravel the complexity of her father’s life, and the reasons he might have vanished.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar – spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on….and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer their lives on a dangerous new course.

What will be the cost of their ambitions? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

Sight by Jessie Greengrass – existential reflections of a pregnant woman

In Sight, a woman recounts her progress to motherhood, while remembering the death of her own mother, and the childhood summers she spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother.

Woven among these personal recollections are significant events in medical history: Wilhelm Rontgen’s discovery of the X-ray and his production of an image of his wife’s hand; Sigmund Freud’s development of psychoanalysis and the work that he did with his daughter, Anna; John Hunter’s attempts to set surgery on a scientific footing and his work, as a collaborator with his brother William and the artist Jan van Rymsdyk, on the anatomy of pregnant bodies.

What emerges is the realisation that while the search for understanding might not lead us to an absolute truth, it is an end in itself.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – uplifting story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything. One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life. Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely anything is better than…fine?

 

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy – fierce and courageous dissection of what love meant, means and will come to mean when trust is undermined by violence

Seduced by politics, poetry and an enduring dream of building a better world together, a young woman falls in love with a university professor. Marrying him and moving to a rain-washed coastal town, she swiftly learns that what for her is a bond of love is for him a contract of ownership. As he sets about bullying her into his ideal of an obedient wife, and devouring her ambition of being a writer in the process, she begins to push back – a resistance he resolves to break with violence and rape.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley – a novel about family, and a beautiful meditation on landscape

Daniel is heading north. He is looking for someone. The simplicity of his early life with Daddy and Cathy has turned sour and fearful. They lived apart in the house that Daddy built for them with his bare hands. They foraged and hunted. When they were younger, Daniel and Cathy had gone to school. But they were not like the other children then, and they were even less like them now. Sometimes Daddy disappeared, and would return with a rage in his eyes. But when he was at home he was at peace. He told them that the little copse in Elmet was theirs alone. But that wasn’t true. Local men, greedy and watchful, began to circle like vultures. All the while, the terrible violence in Daddy grew.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy – an aching love story and a decisive remonstration

Over a journey of many years, the story spools outwards from the cramped neighbourhoods of Old Delhi to the burgeoning new metropolis and beyond, to the Valley of Kashmir and the forests of Central India, where war is peace and peace is war, and where, from time to time, ‘normalcy’ is declared.

Anjum, who used to be Aftab, unrolls a threadbare carpet in a city graveyard that she calls home. A baby appears quite suddenly on a pavement, a little after midnight, in a crib of litter. The enigmatic S. Tilottama is as much of a presence as she is an absence in the lives of the three men who loved her.

It is told in a whisper, in a shout, through tears and sometimes with a laugh. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, mended by love-and by hope. They are as steely as they are fragile, and they never surrender.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt – a murder, an intimate story of a volatile household, a family devoid of love

Just after 11am on 4th August 1892, the bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden are discovered. He’s found on the sitting room sofa, she upstairs on the bedroom floor, both murdered with an axe.

It is younger daughter Lizzie who is first on the scene, so it is Lizzie who the police first question, but there are others in the household with stories to tell: older sister Emma, Irish maid Bridget, the girls’ Uncle John, and a boy who knows more than anyone realises.

 

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert – portrait of the Nazis’ arrival in Ukraine as they move towards the final solution

Early on a grey November morning in 1941, only weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. Penned in with his fellow Jews, under threat of transportation, Ephraim anxiously awaits word of his two sons, missing since daybreak. Come in search of her lover to fetch him home again, away from the invaders, Yasia confronts new and harsh truths about those closest to her. Here to avoid a war he considers criminal, German engineer Otto Pohl is faced with an even greater crime unfolding behind the lines, and no one but himself to turn to. And in the midst of it all is Yankel, a boy who must throw his chances of surviving to strangers.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – a contemporary retelling of the classic Antigone, the idealism of youth in dangerous times

Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she resumes a dream long deferred – studying in America. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream – to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his own birthright to live up to – or defy. The fates of these two families are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal – a moving story of love and loss, overcoming grief

Mona is a young Irish girl in the big city, with the thrill of a new job and a room of her own in a busy boarding house. A dollmaker, she lovingly crafts handmade dolls that she sells to collectors around the world, and provides bereavement counselling for mothers who have suffered stillbirths, miscarriages and cot deaths. On her first night out in 1970s Birmingham, she meets William, a charming Irish boy with an easy smile and an open face. They embark upon a passionate affair, a whirlwind marriage – before a sudden tragedy tears them apart.

Decades later, Mona pieces together the memories of the years that separate them. But can she ever learn to love again?

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – a portrait of a family, of hope, struggle and ugly truths

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

***

It’s an interesting list, with lots of familiar names to me, and many titles that I’ve seen reviewed by Eric at Lonesome Reader, who keeps up with reading and reviewing most of the new fiction coming out in the UK. I’m surprised not to see Ali Smith’s Winter there, nor Elizabeth Strout and disappointed not to see Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu, which I’m going to write more about soon.

I’m in the middle of reading the excellent and humorous Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon, the writing and her poignant depictions of characters are excellent. There are many on here I want to read, Sight was picked by Eric as his book likely to win the Man Booker this year and he’s pretty accurate with predictions, so I’d better read that, I’ve seen much written about When I Hit You, it’s one of those books I know is a mini masterpiece, but such a heartbreaking, soul-destroying subject to read about – still, I may have to read it now.

So which from the list are you interested in reading? Or disappointed not to see there?

Further Reading:

My Review of Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

My Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesymn Ward

My review of Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

My review of When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

Click Here to Buy A Book Now via BookDepository

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

The inhabitants of Amgash appear to have invaded the imagination of Elizabeth Strout, not satisfied with being mere peripheral characters in her excellent novel My Name is Lucy Barton.

That book, which was a novel to us, is a memoir to them, one that a few of the characters we encounter in this set of stories will buy and read, one of them even attending a book signing near Chicago and meeting her again many, many years post their shared childhoods.

The characters vary in their kindnesses and quirks, in the opening story Pete, Lucy’s brother, resents his neighbour Tommy’s visits, carried out with heartfelt intention and yet perceived as a kind of torture, so much of what occurs between people is misunderstood due to the lack of communication or misreading of intentions.

In a voice without belligerence, even with a touch of apology to it, he said, “Look Tommy. I’d like it if you didn’t keep coming over here.” Pete’s lips were pale and cracked, and he wet them with his tongue, looking at the ground. For a moment Tommy was not sure  he heard right, but as he started to say “I only-” Pete looked at him fleetingly and said, “You do it to torture me, and I think enough time has gone by now.”

We find out what happened to the pretty Nicely girls, whose mother left the home after a brief affair that went wrong and lived a quiet life of regret nearby for years afterwards. Through Patty, we meet Lucy’s niece Lila, who has never met her Aunt but shares strong opinions of her with Patty, her school guidance counsellor.

Patty said, “That’s a nice name Lila Lane.” The girl said, I was supposed to be named for my aunt, but at the last minute my mom said, Fuck her.”

Patty took the papers and bounced their edges against the desk.

The girl sat up straight, and spoke with suddenness. “She’s a bitch. She thinks she’s better than any of us. I never even met her.”

Dottie runs a Bed and Breakfast and the steady churn of customers keeps her busy and entertained with company. Sometimes she meets the wealthy who wish to confide in her, it turns out they can be lonely too.

The next morning at breakfast Shelley did not acknowledge Dottie. Not even a thank you for the whole wheat toast.  Dottie was very surprised;  her eyes watered with the  sudden sting of this. But then she understood. There was an old African proverb Dottie had read one day that said, “After a man eats, he becomes shy.” And Dottie thought of that now with Shelley. Shelley was like the man in the proverb, having satisfied her needs, she was ashamed.  She had confided more than she wanted to, and now Dottie was somehow to blame.

In a later story though we become aware of a change, often there’ll be just a passing reference to the character who inhabited the previous story, one that informs us of what followed on, and gives a kind of quiet closure, in this respect it reminds me a lot of Yoko Ogawa’s stories in her collection Revenge, there is that thread that connects the stories, it creates a little frisson of excitement when you spot it.

It is such a pleasure to spend time within the pages of Strout’s imaginary characters, who move from references into fully formed characters with such ease, this collection had me wondering if one of these characters might push in on her and demand a novel too. Tt wouldn’t surprise me – who is in control here, the characters or the author? I have a feeling her characters have a strong will of their own, and that this book was written to try to keep a few of them quiet, so she could move on to the next story that’s no doubt already brewing.

Anything is Possible recently won The Story Prize (for an outstanding work of short fiction) and a cash award of US$20,000. The judges praised the book for its “subtle power,” and described Strout as:

“a specialist in the reticence of people, and her characters are compelling because of the complexity of their internal lives, and the clarity with which that complexity is depicted.”

Today the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced (at midnight), it will be interesting to see if this collection will be nominated, I certainly hope that it will be.

Further Reading:

My Review: My Name is Lucy Barton

My Review: The Burgess Boys

Buy a copy of one of Elizabeth Strout’s books via BookDepository

Happiness by Aminatta Forna

Happiness opens with the tale of a wolf hunter in the US called in to track a wolf that is believed to have been killing sheep. He observes the surroundings, lies in wait, makes the kill, collects his bounty and then returns to lie in wait for the she-wolf he knows will come out after three days. Two species. Surviving.

London. A fox makes its way across Waterloo Bridge. The distraction causes two pedestrians to collide—Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist there to deliver a keynote speech.

Attila has just been to the theatre, he has arrived a few days early to indulge his passion for theatre and to look up his niece Ama, whom the family hasn’t heard from recently, he will also see an old friend and former colleague Rosie, who has premature Alzheimers.

While we follow Attila on his rounds of visiting his friends and family, all of whom are in need of his aide, we witness flashbacks into his working life, his brief encounters in numerous war zones, where he was sent on missions to negotiate with hardline individuals often operating outside the law. He remembers his wife Maryse, there is deep sense of remorse.

His niece Ama and her 10 year old son Tano have been forcibly evicted from their apartment in an immigration crackdown, she is unable to resolve the matter, hospitalised due to an unstable diabetic condition. Attila responds with the help of the doorman of his hotel, who alerts other hotel doormen, to be on the lookout for Tano who has disappeared amidst all the confusion.

And there is Jean, in London to study the behaviour of the urban fox, she has funding for a period of time to observe them, their numbers, how they have come to be living in the city and whether they expose a risk to the humans they live alongside. She recruited a local street-cleaner and through him others, to be her field study fox spotters, the few people likely to regularly see them.

‘Everything happens for a reason, that was Jean’s view, and part of her job was tracing those chains of cause and effect, mapping the interconnectedness of things.’

These networks of connected men, the doormen, the streetcleaners and others, come together to help Jean and Attila in their search for Tano. They’ve texted his picture to each other, they know who to look for. They demonstrate something important, in their resilience and ability to adapt to this new environment, creating new support circles, many having been through traumatic experiences before finding a semblance of new life in London.

‘Let me do the same for you,’ said the doorman. ‘The doormen and security people, they are my friends. Most of those boys who work in security are Nigerian. We Ghanaians, we prefer the hospitality industry. Many of the doormen at these hotels you see around here are our countrymen. The street-sweepers, the traffic wardens are mainly boys from Sierra Leone, they came here after their war so for them the work is okay.’

The fox lives beside the human but inhabits a different time zone, most humans are little aware of their presence as their nocturnal meanderings cease the minute humanity awakens and begins to disturb a territory that belongs more to them in the small hours of the night.

Jean too remembers what she has left, in America, where she tried to do a similar study on the coyote, an animal that due to the human impact on the environment had left the prairie and moved towards more urban environment.

Finding herself in conflict with locals, who campaigned against the coyote, believing it to be a danger to humans, her voice silenced by those who preferred to extend hunting licences, despite her warnings that culling the coyote would result in their population multiplying not decreasing.

‘If you remove a coyote from a territory, by whatever means, say even if one dies of natural causes a space opens up. Another will move in.’

‘What if you were to kill a number of them, ten per cent of the total population, say?’

‘They’d reproduce at a faster rate. We call it hyper-reproduction. Have larger litters of cubs. Begin to mate younger, at a year instead of at two years. All animals do it, not just coyote,’ said Jean. ‘Humans do it after a war. The last time it happened we called it the ‘baby boom”.’

Now a similar debate arises in London, where the Mayor wants to cull the animals and Jean’s message, based on scientific evidence is being ignored, worse it attracts the attention of internet trolls, flaming the unsubstantiated fears of residents.

 

UK Cover

Ultimately the novel is about how we all adapt, humans and wild animals alike, to changing circumstances, to trauma, to the environment; that we can overcome the trauma, however we need to be aware of those who have adapted long before us, who will resist the newcomer, the propaganda within a political message.

And to the possibility that the experience of trauma doesn’t have to equate to continual suffering, that our narrative does not have to be that which happened in the past, it is possible to change, to move on, to find community in another place, to rebuild, to have hope. And that is perhaps what happiness really is, a space where hope  can grow, might exist, not the fulfilment of, but the idea, the expression.

Hope. Humour. Survival.

Salman Rushdie alludes to this after the fatwa was issued against him when he said this:

“Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.”

Aminatta Forna

In an enlightening article in The Guardian, linked below, Forna describes reading Resilience, by renowned psychologist Boris Cyrulnik. Born in France in 1937, his parents were sent to concentration camps in WW2 and never returned. He survived, but his story often wasn’t believed, it didn’t fit the narrative of the time. He studied medicine and became a specialist in resilience.

“It’s not so much that I have new ideas,” he says, at pains to acknowledge his debt to other psychoanalytic thinkers, “but I do offer a new attitude. Resilience is about abandoning the imprint of the past.”

The most important thing to note about his work, he says, is that resilience is not a character trait: people are not born more, or less, resilient than others. As he writes: “Resilience is a mesh, not a substance. We are forced to knit ourselves, using the people and things we meet in our emotional and social environments.

Further Reading

My Review: The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

My Review: The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna

Article: Aminatta Forna: ‘We must take back our stories and reverse the gaze’, Writers of African heritage must resist the attempts of others to define us and our history, Feb 2017

Article: Escape from the past: Boris Cyrulnik lost his mother and father in the Holocaust. But childhood trauma needn’t be a burden, he argues – it can be the making of us. by Viv Groskop Apr 2009

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Note: This book was an ARC, kindly provided by the publisher (Grove Atlantic) via NetGalley. It is published March 6 in the US and 5 April in the UK.

Buy a copy of Happiness via BookDepository

 

Excellent Books About Unforgettable Women #WomensHistoryMonth on #WorldBookDay

Today I saw the twitter hashtags #WorldBookDay and #WomensHistoryMonth prompting some interesting references to notable women, so I decided to look back at books I have read and reviewed here at Word by Word and show you a selection that highlight a few important women in our recent history, some you may not have heard of, all of whom have made significant contributions to our world. Click on the headings to read the reviews and share your recommendations.

Unbowed, One Woman’s Story, Wangari Maathai

The first woman who came to mind and whose book I want to recommend is Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed, One Woman’s Story. Kenyan and one of a group of young African’s selected to be part of the ‘Kennedy Airlift’ , she and others were given the opportunity to gain higher education in the US and to use their education to contribute to progress in their home countries. Maathai was a scientist, an academic and an activist, passionate about sustainable development; she started the The Greenbelt Movement, a tree planting initiative, which not only helped save the land, but empowered local women to take charge of creating nurseries in their villages, thereby taking care of their own and their family’s well-being.

“We worried about  their access to clean water,  and firewood,  how they would feed their children,  pay their school fees,  and afford clothing, and we wondered what we could do to ease their burdens. We had a choice: we could either sit in an ivory tower wondering how so many people could be so poor and not be working to change their situation, or we could  try to help them escape the vicious cycle they found themselves in. This was not a remote problem for us. The rural areas were where our mothers and sisters still lived. We owed it to them to do all we could.”

She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, which motivated this story to be written thanks to others who pushed her to share it, thankfully, for she was an extraordinary and inspirational woman, who sadly passed away from ovarian cancer in 2011.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks is perhaps one of the most famous women we’d never heard of, a woman who never knew or benefited from her incredible contribution to science and humanity. A young mother in her 30’s, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and despite being eligible for and receiving medical care at the John Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, a medical facility funded and founded to ensure equal access no matter their race, status, income or other discriminatory reason, she died soon after.

Before treatment, samples of her healthy and cancerous cells were taken, part of a research initiative in search of ‘immortal cells’ that could be continuously replicated. It had never been done before, until now – the newly named HeLa cells would become one of medicine’s significant advances.

Rebecca Skloot heard about the HeLa cells in biology class in 1988, became fascinated by them, she focused her research on finding out about the woman behind this important advance in medical science. This book tells her story and rightly attributes her a place in history.

Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain was a university student at Oxford when World War 1 began to decimate the lives of youth, family and friends around her. It suspended her education and resulted in her volunteering as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse. Initially based in a military hospital in London, events would propel her to volunteer for a foreign assignment, taking her to Malta and then close to the front line in France for the remaining years of the war.

Her memoir is created from fragments of her diaries, sharing the angst and idealism of youth, and later looking back from the wisdom of middle age, for she was 40 years old before her tome was published.

War changed her, she could no longer tolerate the classrooms of Oxford and the contempt of a new youth.

‘I could not throw off the War, nor the pride and the grief of it; rooted and immersed in memory, I had appeared self-absorbed, contemptuous and ‘stand-offish’ to my ruthless and critical juniors.’

She changed her focus from literature to history, in an effort to understand and participate in any action that might prevent humanity from making the same terrible mistakes that had caused the loss of so many lives. She became an international speaker for the League of Nations.

The book was made into a dramatic film of the same name in 2014.

Mom & Me & Mom, Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is best known for her incredible series of seven autobiographies, beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), narrating her life up to the age of 17. She became a writer after a number of varied occupations in her youth.

This book was her last memoir, not one in the series, but one that could only be written from afar, from the wisdom of 80 years, when she could look back at a torturous youth, at a neglectful mother and see her with love, compassion and forgiveness.

‘Love heals. Heals and liberates. I use the word love, not meaning sentimentality, but a condition so strong that it may be that which holds the stars in their heavenly positions and that which causes the blood to flow orderly in our veins.’

Stet, An Editors Life, Diana Athill

Diana Athill OBE (born 21 Dec 1917) is someone I think of as the ordinary made extraordinary. She was a fiction editor for most of her working life, forced into earning a living due to circumstance, for while her great-grandparents generation had made or married into money, her father’s generation lost it. She clearly remembers her father telling her ‘You will have to earn your living’ and that it was something almost unnatural at the time.

War removed her chance at marriage and she appeared to reject it after that, revelling in her freedom and independence, though others suggest she was scarred by the intensity and pain of her first relationship. While the first part of the book focuses on her life, the second half recalls some of the relationships she developed with writers over the years, Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester, V.S.Naipul and Molly Keane.

The more extraordinary era of her life was still to come, for in her 80’s she began to write memoir, and achieve notable success, her book Somewhere Towards The End won the Costa Prize for Biography in 2008. Now 100 years old, she hasn’t stopped writing yet.

Further Reading:

The Guardian: Diana Athill: ‘Enjoy yourself as much as you can without doing any damage to other people’
The former editor on regrets, the advantages of old age and why she’s still writing at 100

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Have you read any good books about notable women we might remember for #WomensHistoryMonth?

Buy a copy of one of these books via BookDepository