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.

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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

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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

Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveira

I read My Name is Mary Sutter when it first came out and was utterly entranced by Robin Oliveira’s depiction of the character of Mary, a midwife intent on becoming a surgeon in an era where women were totally blocked from pursuing such a thing. She was unable to achieve her ideal through formal channels, so she went to war, the American civil war, and there had the kind of experience few would wish her, unless, like Mary, you were being excluded from pursuing your desired profession and were driven to break through irrational barriers by equally irrational means.

In her research, the author learned that 17 young women became physicians after their nursing experiences in the civil war. While Mary Sutter is fictional, she is a truly inspired character about whom Robin Oliveira had this is say:

“And through it all there was Mary Sutter, whose story I needed to tell as a celebration of women who seize the courage to live on, to thrive, to strive, even, when men conspire to war. Mary, flawed and intelligent, careening between desire and remorse, stumbling forward out of courage and stubbornness, hiding a broken heart, but hoping to redeem something beautiful from a life humbled by regret.”

Her second novel, set in Paris was the excellent I Always Loved You, reviewed here, is about the American painter Mary Cassatt, her life in Paris, struggling to make a name while remaining true to her art, and enduring a life-long fractious relationship with impressionist painter and sculptor Edgar Degas.

When asked what made her return, in this her third historical novel, to the character of Mary Sutter, Robin Oliveira said:

Over the last few years, readers have often asked me to include Mary Sutter in a new book, but I could not think of a single circumstance that would challenge her as much as the obstacles she had faced in the Civil War. Then I learned about the age of consent. I simply couldn’t leave Mary Sutter out of it, for I had finally discovered something of equal importance for her to battle.

So now it is 1869 in Albany, New York, Mary Sutter is now Dr Mary Sutter Stipps, living in Albany, New York, where she practices in a local hospital, despite most of her male colleagues despising her (because she is a woman), she also runs a home practice with her husband William Stipp and a lesser known clinic, where a lantern is illuminated on Thursdays when she opens for ladies of the night, those who are refused treatment elsewhere.

These are the conservative years after the civil war, a period of tumultuous struggle and the emergence of women’s suffrage, meaning any freedoms women attempted to gain were often fiercely opposed and ridiculed. Mary faces opposition at every turn, but refuses to be cowered and will stand up for and insist on justice for what she believes is right and good.

On the evening this story begins, a severe winter blizzard disrupts the city, children are locked in schools for two days, businesses close, the Doctors house their patients overnight, and accidents occur – two days later as people begin to reappear, Mary learns of the deaths of close family friends, the hatmaker Bonnie and her labourer husband David and the unexplained disappearance of their daughters, Emma(10) and Claire(7).

Mary and William search for the girls everywhere, implore the police and their wider networks to help and eventually must accept they’ve gone.

At the graveside, they become acquainted with lumberlord Gerritt Van der Veer, his wife Viola, and their son Jakob. From that day on the lives of the two families become intertwined, as Mary continues her relentless pursuit of the lost girls, leading her to become exposed to the deep manipulations throughout the city and its powerful, by those out to benefit themselves who will do anything to stop those like her, trying to help and heal, without discrimination or judgement.

Book One sets up the story, introducing us to Elisabeth, Mary’s niece, a violin protegé who has been studying in Paris in the company of her grandmother Amelia, who swiftly return on hearing the terrible news, though laden with their own mysterious troubles.

Mary seeks the help of the women she’s met through the clinic, women who hear and see things she and Will would never come across, suspicions begin to arise, as they become aware of a man in hiding, injured on the night the ice cracks on the Hudson River, causing flash flooding across the city.

“I trust her Mother. She’s no opportunist. If she’d wanted money, she would have asked for it then, wouldn’t she have, if she intended to lie? And besides, none of that matters, does it, if we go looking ourselves. The brothels are the single place we haven’t looked. What harm can come from looking? I can’t understand why Captain Mantel refused. Oh damn him.The police know exactly where the brothels are. it would be easy for them.”

By Book Two the story has become riveting, complex, there are elements of the mystery to resolve, a pending court case, perceived betrayals, all set against the legal and societal background of the times they lived in, there are aspects of the law that will shock the reader, we read about the 1800’s and we are reminded of the similar treatment of victims today with regard to police procedure, questioning victims and the law that appears designed to protect the accused more than the victim.

It’s too good a read to give away anything more that happens from Book Two onwards, suffice to say I could not put this down, I was up late finishing it and thought it brilliantly woven together. It’s commentary on the hardships of women and girls, of all ages and from all classes is insightful and outrageous. Women are blocked in so many directions, in particular when they possess talent, controlled, commented on, kept by men in positions of power. Fortunately, there are exceptions, and these characters provide the faint glimmer of hope that gets us through the tough parts.

“He wanted to say, It’s either hide forever or see forever. He wanted to say, You need to choose. He wanted to say, Follow me, I’ll show you…

Every inch toward courage was a decision. Every ten feet on her own would be a triumph. The line between coercion and choice for her was the line between darkness and light. He would never push her, but she needed to choose to climb this hill. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have the courage to climb onto the witness stand or perhaps even to walk down a street on her own.”

Mary Sutter oversteps the demarcated line of acceptable professions for women, she breaks the mould, though not without challenge and William and Jakob show themselves to be different kind of men, demonstrating the potential of working alongside women, not excluding them.

The price women pay when they overstep that societal and male control, is the story of the Gilded Age, and continues to play out one hundred and fifty years later. Indeed, the changing role of women in society, and what men will accept, remains one of the essential conflicts of our time.

Highly recommended, one of the best historical novels of the year.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

I had a feeling John Boyne may have put his heart and soul into this book, though I had little idea how so. The blurb is intentionally vague, we know Cyril has been adopted and that the book is about his struggle with coming to terms with his identity.

The last novel of his that I read was The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, a moving story set during WW2, seen through the innocent eyes of Bruno, the eight-year-old son of the commandant at a German concentration camp.

In The Heart’s Invisible Furies, a title taken from a quote by Hannah Arendt, the German-born American political theorist:

“A line came into my mind, something that Hannah Arendt once said about the poet Auden: that life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face.”

we meet 16-year-old Catherine Goggin, sitting quietly in church in a small Irish village of Goleen in County Cork, as she is about to be denounced and humiliated in front of the entire congregation, then thrown out of, not only the church, but her home and the village, for bringing shame on the community.

The story is narrated through the voice of her not-yet born son, the boy that we come to know as Cyril Avery; he will be adopted and raised by Charles and Maude Avery, after Catherine travels to Dublin and takes up employment in the tea room of the Dáil Éireann (House of Representatives), where she is given a chance by the manageress, and eventually becoming that herself.

The book is divided into different parts, each covering a significant chunk of Cyril’s life, initially in Ireland, then a period in Amsterdam, time in New York and finally coming back to Ireland.

Cyril finds it extremely difficult within his family, his school and his culture to be himself. Through his inability to be and express himself, we see how oppressive a culture can be against anything or anyone who dares to step outside the acceptable norm,  highlighting the extreme hypocrisy that therefore must exist, as humans by their very nature are not clones of each other, they are born and exist in more than just binary variations.

Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, Parish of Goleen, West Cork

In this first part, as Cyril is growing up, John Boyne makes something of a parody of his life, in particular in relation to his adoptive parents, who continually insist on reminding him that he is not a real Avery, and Cyril himself, so used to hearing this, will correct every person who uses the word mother or father, by inserting the word ‘adoptive’ to be sure they too understand.

“I always called them Charles and Maude, never ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’. This was on Charles’s insistence as I wasn’t a real Avery. It didn’t bother me particularly but I know it made other people uncomfortable and once, in school, when I referred to them thus, a priest punched me around the ears and told me off for being modern.”

The first time we read this, it seems sad, but the continual repetition makes it comic, and it is a tool that Boyne uses, perhaps to soften the effect of what must have been quite a soul-searching book to write, as he reaches deep into his own life experiences to create the life of Cyril.

At the age of seven, he meets Julian, the son of a lawyer who is helping his father stay out of prison for tax evasion, they will become best friends.

But for all that we had, for all the luxury to which we were accustomed, we were both denied love, and this deficiency would be scorched into our future lives like an ill-considered tattoo inscribed on the buttocks after a drunken night out, leading each of us inevitably towards isolation and disaster.

Leinster House, where Dáil Éireann Irish parliment sits

While the novel focuses on Cyril’s attempts to survive in a world hostile to his natural inclinations, his experiences highlight the struggle that so many people encounter, unable to live their lives openly and honestly without the fear of rejection and violence.

Boyne peels back the layers of Irish inclinations and attitudes in the 20th century and shows how destructive this closed mindedness is on the lives of anyone who crosses an imaginary line of acceptable ‘being’. The contrast with how Cyril is able to live his life in the Netherlands, shown through the carefree Bastiaan, who has known no such bigotry in his life experience is revealing.

It’s hard to say too much about the novel without giving away spoilers, except to say that this astonishing novel is a courageous, honest attempt to show how the way we conform to society and culture’s expectations, against our own nature’s can be so harmful to so many and it makes us wonder how life might be, if we lived in a more utopian world, where tolerance reigned supreme.

Boyne admits the comic form isn’t one he’s indulged in before and he has deliberately avoided writing anything personal in his novels until now.

“Perhaps Cyril Avery is everyone I might have been, that I am, that I amn’t, and that I might be yet. The desire to fall in love and to share one’s life with someone is neither a homosexual nor a heterosexual conceit. It’s human. We’re all suckers for a pretty face or a kind heart. What else can we do but keep hoping that the right person will show up?” John Boyne

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Reservoir 13 was long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017 and won the Costa Book Award for Best Novel that year as well. It was also nominated for the Goldsmith Prize for experimental fiction, about which he had this to say:

“It felt like a very experimental book while I was writing it, but it’s not necessarily that experimental on the surface, although it demands quite a lot of the reader … a certain patience.”

In terms of the story, it is an impersonal narrative, a series of snapshots into the lives of people living in an English village, beginning in the year that a teenage girl goes missing, an event that in small ways touches the lives of most of the residents, an event that remains permanently associated with it.

The novel continues to zoom in on village life, each chapter equivalent to one year, each subsequent first sentence of the chapter referencing the local fireworks, each chapter resembling a kind of closely knitted pattern. As you would expect, over the years, young people grow up and leave, families are created and fall apart, seasons pass, work is done, animals tended, relationships formed, the past remembered. Likes waves breaking, there is a continuous monotony to life in just another ordinary village, where once upon a time a girl went missing.

“His sister wanted to know where the Tuckers had gone and who would move in next. He said he didn’t always have the answers. He asked her not to ask so many bloody questions, and when the tears came he said he was sorry. It went on like this. This was how it went on.”

I agree it is an accomplished novel, it has been well thought out, structured, it’s almost a piece of modern architecture, in its linear, logical, detached approach. However, I found it almost impossible to be swept into the narrative without the constant awareness of the author’s orchestration and presence, even in some of the voices. It felt very controlled.

There is much that is clever, and intellectually it is something to admire. I reread the comments made on the cover and thought, yes, all that is true, so what did it lack for me? It made me think of a review I read recently for Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar reminding me of that reading experience, which was the anti-thesis of this one. Of being drawn inside a story versus feeling completely outside of it, of the open air art installation versus the museum piece vitrine.

“The passive voice was really deliberate because it just feels very English to me,” McGregor says. “It’s a gossipy village, but they would never think of themselves as gossips. ‘Somebody was seen.’ They’re not going to say: ‘I saw so and so.’ Small communities can be very inclusive, but they can also be very claustrophobic.”

Some books you read and you yourself are far far away from what is happening, you are unable to empathise or relate, you see words on the page, that speak of things happening in and around people, but they are told in a way that keeps them on the page, they refuse to enter your imagination or evoke empathy.

And then there are books that by some kind of magic awaken the imagination, they affect the senses, they can make you feel hot, cold, dehydrated, in pain, terrified, joyous, curious, relieved, all manner of emotions and feelings, and you feel relieved almost that it’s only a story, you will recover. They are not always comfortable, in fact I love reading outside my comfort zone, about other cultures, other experiences, other everything than the familiar.

Reservoir 13 certainly provoked the analytical part of my brain, in fact everything it provoked was in that left hemisphere of the brain and that’s possibly why it was only an okay read for me, it was too far in one direction, admirable as that may be, it leaves me with little to say about it, and little of an impression.

So I’ll finish with a link to the author in an interview with Justine Jordan from The Guardian, which gives greater insight into what the author was attempting to do.

Further Reading:

The Guardian: Jon McGregor: ‘I’m allergic to trying to make points in fiction’ – The prizewinning novelist and short story writer on capturing daily rural life and the joy of a bad review

Have you read it? How was the reading experience for you?