Review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

41081373._sy475_Verdict: Really quite brilliant.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Hamish Hamilton, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Teeming with life and crackling with energy — a love song to modern Britain and black womanhood

Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.

Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible.

I am late to the party with this one – and I am so glad I can finally rave with the rest of the world. I thought this book was all kinds of wonderful. Told in four trios of what some have called short stories (though I would not necessarily agree with that assessment), Evaristo has written a snapshot of Britain in a way that I have not read before. She focusses on the interlinked lives of eleven black women and one black non-binary person in a way that worked exceedingly well for me. The book is much more a character study of these brilliantly drawn people than it is plot-driven, but I loved spending time with all of these women.

The first trio of stories remained my favourite until the end, particularly the very first story focussing Amma – I found her endlessly fascinating and her relationships to her daughter (second story) and best friend (third story) painfully realistic. Painfully realistic is in general how I would describe this book – it is in parts hard to read but it does remain a thread of hope without being sentimental. Most of that is down to how flawed and real Evaristo lets her characters be. She does not shy away from depicting these women behaving atrociously, often without realising. I do have to admit that the really flawed parental relationships became harder to stomach for me as time went on.

The language is another big draw here. I listened to the audiobook which gave the book a more non-fictiony type of feeling – but the way Evaristo’s language just flows is impressive nonetheless. Looking at quotes it seems like the language looks a lot more experimental when seen written on a page – I will have to reread this book eventually in print to see how different the experience is.

I loved this book a whole lot – everything about it just ticked a lot of my boxes. I was sad to be done with it and to not be able to spend time with this incredible cast of women. If this does not make the Women’s Prize longlist, I will be very sad.

Content warning: miscarriage, still birth, child death, sexism, homophobia, racism, spousal abuse, rape, gang rape, forced adoption, post-partum depression

Review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

39689872._sx318_Verdict: Gutting, viscerally upsetting, stunningly written.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Faber & Faber, 2014

Find it on Goodreads.

Eimear McBride’s debut tells, with astonishing insight and in brutal detail, the story of a young woman’s relationship with her brother, and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. Not so much a stream of consciousness, as an unconscious railing against a life that makes little sense, and a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a vulnerable and isolated protagonist. To read A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is to plunge inside its narrator’s head, experiencing her world first-hand. This isn’t always comfortable – but it is always a revelation.

Touching on everything from family violence to sexuality and the personal struggle to remain intact in times of intense trauma, McBride writes with singular intensity, acute sensitivity and mordant wit. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is moving, funny – and alarming. It is a book you will never forget.

I don’t know what to say about this book. We have been buddy reading this with my Women’s Prize group (Rachel (5 stars), Callum (4 stars), Naty (currently reading), Emily (5 stars), and Sarah (in a reading slump)) and I have been periodically telling them that the book is killing me. And killing me it did. I do not know that I have ever read a book that I found this viscerally upsetting. It’s brilliant, mind, but so raw and so upsetting that I am glad to be done with it – while simultaneously wanting to read eveything Eimear McBride has ever written.

Told in fragmented sentences that are not so much stream-of-consciousness (although they are this too) but rather a stumbling, breathless kind of impressionistic language, the prose is the first and obvious draw here. It took me about three chapters of my audiobook to find my bearing (I listened to each of those first three chapters at least twice, frequently skipping back to relisten) but once I did, I found it mesmerizing. The rhythm to the language is stunning and McBride’s audio narration was just brilliant. I am a huge fan of books told in second person singular – and this rambling, raw narrative, addressed to the unnamed narrator’s older brother hit very many sweet spots for me.

This is a story about grief and trauma and I could not ever listen to more than half an hour before needing a break. The main character is traumatized: first by her brother’s brain tumor and her parent’s abuse, then again when, at 13, her uncle brutally rapes her. After this, she never finds her bearing again, getting lost in toxic behaviour and self-harm spirals. I found this book endlessly bleak – so much that by the end I could only listen to minutes before becoming overwhelmed. I also wish the people in the narrator’s life weren’t all this horrible – the horribleness of the uncle nearly eclipsed what an awful person her mother was as well. I thought the prose worked best in moments of immediate trauma but there were moments when I found it more vague than impactful. Still, what a brilliant, brilliant book.

Content warning: sexual assault, rape, pedophilia, cancer, familial death, religious bigotry, self-harm, alcoholism, abuse.

 

 

Review: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

36332136Verdict: Breathtakingly beautiful.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, Retelling, Fantasy(ish)

Published by Macmillan Audio, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Two mothers—a suburban housewife and a battle-hardened veteran—struggle to protect those they love in this modern retelling of Beowulf

From the perspective of those who live in Herot Hall, the suburb is a paradise. Picket fences divide buildings—high and gabled—and the community is entirely self-sustaining. Each house has its own fireplace, each fireplace is fitted with a container of lighter fluid, and outside—in lawns and on playgrounds—wildflowers seed themselves in neat rows. But for those who live surreptitiously along Herot Hall’s periphery, the subdivision is a fortress guarded by an intense network of gates, surveillance cameras, and motion-activated lights.

For Willa, the wife of Roger Herot (heir of Herot Hall), life moves at a charmingly slow pace. She flits between mommy groups, playdates, cocktail hour, and dinner parties, always with her son, Dylan, in tow. Meanwhile, in a cave in the mountains just beyond the limits of Herot Hall lives Gren, short for Grendel, as well as his mother, Dana, a former soldier who gave birth as if by chance. Dana didn’t want Gren, didn’t plan Gren, and doesn’t know how she got Gren, but when she returned from war, there he was. When Gren, unaware of the borders erected to keep him at bay, ventures into Herot Hall and runs off with Dylan, Dana’s and Willa’s worlds collide.

A retelling of Beowulf set in the suburbs, Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife turns the epic on its head, recasting the classic tale of monstrosity and loss from the perspective of those presumed to be on the attack.

This was absolutely breathtaking. Again I am finding myself in the situation that a book is so very custom-made for me that my review will definitely not be objective in the least. There was very little chance of me not loving this – and I knew this after the first chapter. Maria Dahvana Headley had me hooked. This was incredible, so as usual in such cases, this will be a review filled with superlatives.

Maria Dahvana Headley loosely retells Beowolf but in the best possible way: setting it in today’s suburbia against the backdrop of an unnamed war abroad; I found it worked brilliantly but as I haven’t read Beowolf (although I did read the wikipedia summary in preparation for this book) I cannot speak to its success as a retelling. The fantastical elements are rendered in a way which makes in unclear what is real and what isn’t. I found the reading experience disorienting and claustrophobic (I mean this as an absolute positive).

The book mainly focuses on two women: Dana, a traumatized ex-soldier living off the grid with her son Gren, and Willa who is aiming to be the perfect suburban wife to her plastic surgeon husband and her son Dylan. These two women are one of the high points of this altogether impressive book. They are both flawed but compelling in the best possible way. They rage against the unfairness of their lives while simultaneously inflicting unfairness onto their sons. Willa especially was just my favourite kind of character: she is awful but has her reasons, she is believable while still being interesting, and her voice was impeccably done.

The way in which the Maria Dahvana Headley plays with voices and perspectives was another part that worked as if it had been written with me in mind. She mixes first person (for Dana) with close third person (for Willa) and passages rendered in a we-perspective (the mothers), always making careful use of repetition and imagery. Her sentences are breathtaking and the way her language flows just made my heart hurt while never sacrificing the emotional core of her work. I might have found a new favourite author.

Content warning: PTSD, war, loss of limbs and eyes, death (of children and spouses), animal hunting, miscarriage, abortion; (I am more unsure than usual if I mentioned everything, so if you have a specific trigger, please let me know so I can tell you)

This was the first book I read for my five star predictions.

Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

37134404Verdict: Beautifully written, but dull.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: fiction, myth retelling

Published by Bloomsbury, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and Perse, a beautiful naiad. Yet from the moment of her birth, she is an outsider in her father’s halls, where the laughter of gossiping gods resounds. Named after a hawk for her yellow eyes and strange voice, she is mocked by her siblings – until her beloved brother Aeëtes is born.

Yet after her sister Pasiphae marries King Midas of Crete, Aeëtes is whisked away to rule his own island. More isolated than ever, Circe, who has never been divine enough for her family, becomes increasingly drawn to mortals – and when she meets Glaucus, a handsome young fisherman, she is captivated. Yet gods mingle with humans, and meddle with fate, at their peril.

In Circe, Madeline Miller breathes life once more into the ancient world, with the story of an outcast who overcomes scorn and banishment to transform herself into a formidable witch. Unfolding on Circe’s wild, abundant island of Aiaia, where the hillsides are aromatic with herbs, this is a magical, intoxicating epic of family rivalry, power struggles, love and loss – and a celebration of female strength in a man’s world.

This book is, when considering the writing on a sentence-by-sentence perspective, incredibly beautiful. The language is wonderfully evocative and the imagery is stunning. But for me at least, beautiful writing is not enough to distract me from the fact that I found it dull. I am also having problems divorcing my experience of this book from the way it has been discussed in the book community and while this is not the book’s fault, it did influence my enjoyment. This book has been praised left and right as a feminist retelling of Circe’s life – a life that in mythology is at the periphery (both literally as she is living on her own, exiled on an island and figuratively as she is an antagonist without much agency). I am having trouble seeing that supposed feminist angle and it made me pretty cross while reading. I thought the book was much more the story of the men in Circe’s life than her own story. And I am fairly certain this was on purpose (something something role of women, something something limitation of expression) but for the life of me I cannot find a reason that makes this narrative choice palatable for me. To be clear: I am not blaming the book for this, I am sure this has more to do with who I am as a reader with pretty distinct tastes and preferences, but I struggled.

On the opposite spectrum of this, I found Circe most compelling when she was facing off with another woman (her sister or her grandmother or Medea or Penelope) – I wish the book had been populated with more women and less men, I would have enjoyed it more for it. As it stands, the ending did go a long way towards redeeming this book for me. If the middle hadn’t been as rambling and bland this could have worked better for me. Circe was not always an exciting narrator even if I have to grudgingly agree that her characterization makes sense but I wished for her to have more edges and to be allowed to be more unpleasant; she was the first witch after all. Her blandness was in the end my biggest problem with a book that took me ages to finish and left me wanting something else entirely.

Content warning: Rape, Caesarian sections (brutal ones!)

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (review)
  4. Normal People by Sally Rooney (review)
  5. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  6. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (review)
  7. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  8. Circe by Madeline Miller
  9. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (review)
  10. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
  11. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (review)
  12. Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li (review)
  13. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)

DNF:

  • Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
  • Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Review: Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn

38720267Verdict: Weirdly not for me.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Short Stories

Published by Fairlight Books, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

When Alina’s brother-in-law defects to the West, she and her husband become persons of interest to the secret services, causing both of their careers to come grinding to a halt.

As the strain takes its toll on their marriage, Alina turns to her aunt for help – the wife of a communist leader and a secret practitioner of the old folk ways.

Set in 1970s communist Romania, this novella-in-flash draws upon magic realism to weave a tale of everyday troubles, that can’t be put down.

This book was really not for me – and this is weird because I really thought it would be. I love novels told in short stories and I love books inspired by Eastern European fairy tales. But I really failed to connect to this book. Part of this has to do with the fact that I read so many similar books that this felt derivative in a way that feels mean to communicate (drawing on real life atrocities as it is).

Told in short, flash fiction like chapters, this is Alina’s story, as she is navigating an increasingly cold marriage while living in a dictatorship that threatens everything about her life. It is similar in themes to the (much better) Milkman and maybe the closeness in which I read these books were to its detriment. Alina is incapable of communicating effectively with those closest to her and van Llewyn shows how the climate of the time suffocates any possible feeling between Alina and the others. The insidiousness of her dealings with the secret police is explored, but it mostly stayed on the surface. Scenes were strikingly similar to other books in a way that seems like it might have been intentional (the obvious comparison for me was The Zsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, a book also told in short stories and dealing with atrocities but also a book I adore beyond measure). I guess what I am trying to communicate is that I found this book lacking in comparison to other novels, a critique that is not particularly helpful, I know.

For me, the book worked best in the stories that were more magical in nature, here I thought van Llewyn really added something to the canon. Her exploration of fairy tales in dictatorships was lovely and interesting. It helped that my favourite character (the wonderful Aunt Theresa) was front and centre of these fairytalesque stories. This is not a bad book by any means but one that I found not quite exciting and not as well written as I would have hoped it would be.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  4. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  5. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn
  6. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)

Review: Doggerland by Ben Smith

42363317Verdict: Bleak, but beautiful.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, Speculative Fiction

Published by HarperCollins UK/ 4th Estate, April 4th 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Doggerland is brilliantly inventive, beautifully-crafted and superbly gripping debut novel about loneliness and hope, nature and survival – set on an off-shore windfarm in the not-so-distant future.
‘His father’s breath had been loud in the small room. It had smelled smoky, or maybe more like dust. ‘I’ll get out,’ he’d said. ‘I’ll come back for you, ok?’ The boy remembered that; had always remembered it. And, for a time, he’d believed it too.’
In the North Sea, far from what remains of the coastline, a wind farm stretches for thousands of acres.
The Boy, who is no longer really a boy, and the Old Man, whose age is unguessable, are charged with its maintenance. They carry out their never-ending work as the waves roll, dragging strange shoals of flotsam through the turbine fields. Land is only a memory.
So too is the Boy’s father, who worked on the turbines before him, and disappeared.
The boy has been sent by the Company to take his place, but the question of where he went and why is one for which the Old Man will give no answer.
As the Old Man dredges the sea for lost things, the Boy sifts for the truth of his missing father. Until one day, from the limitless water, a plan for escape emerges…
Doggerland is a haunting and beautifully compelling story of loneliness and hope, nature and survival.

This book is possibly a definite contender for the bleakest book I have read in years. Set in the future on a slowly breaking down wind farm maintained as much as possible by the Old Man and the Boy whose names remain a mystery for most of the book. To say that not much is happening would be unfair (there is actually a lot of action here) but everything crumbles in slow motion and there is not much either person can do against it. The comparisons to The Road are spot-on; this future is bleak and narrow in the way th world can be seen by the protagonists. The atmosphere is equally distressing and overwhelming while the language remains a sharp edge that can dazzle the reader.

That this book was written by an author who also writes poetry, is impossible to overlook – the sentences are beautiful and unusual and by far my favourite thing about this book. The way Ben Smith’s prose flows reminded me of the ocean – something that has to be intentional given that the North Sea is as much of a protagonist as the three other people in this novel.

But I don’t particularly like The Road and I feel a lot of the same feelings towards that book as I do towards this book: I can see how it is very well done, impressive even, but for me the bleakness became overwhelming and I had to force myself to keep reading. But this has everything to do with the kind of reader I am and nothing to do with this book. It is a book I can see many people loving and I hope many people will pick it up – because it is so very well done and so interestingly told.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and HarperCollins UK/ 4th Estate in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

36047860Verdict: Hard work.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Faber & Faber 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous.

Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

I did not always enjoy my reading (or rather listening) experience. This book combines many things I dislike in fiction: unfairness and characters that drove me up the walls being the most important factors here but also a fairly non-existent plot. But I cannot deny the genius of this book either. Anna Burns has a brilliant way with words and the atmosphere she created here is breathtaking in its claustrophobic intensity.

Told in conversational stream-of-consciousness, the language is the obvious draw here. Anna Burns has crafted sentences so wonderful, I was in awe. Listening to the audiobook worked exceedingly well for me because the conversational and circular narration could shine this way without me skipping whole sentences (as I would surely have done had I read this on paper). Burns works with thoughtful repetition here, making this a stylistically interesting book. Intellectually, I found this stimulating and I absolutely appreciate how she slowly but surely expands on her insular narrative in a way that felt highly rewarding, with themes flowing together and building a cohesive whole.

Ultimately, while I can admire the craft, I really did not enjoy myself. In the middle, I was very close to frustrated tears and wanted to shake the narrator. While I understand what Burns was doing, I would have prefered to follow a different narrator. She really drove me up the walls with her incapability of talking to anybody in any meaningful way. While nobody is ever referred to by their name but rather by descriptors such as “maybe-boyfriend” or “first brother-in-law”, some of these characters became more real than others and the narrator sadly remained a mystery to me until near the end. I might have enjoyed this more otherwise.

So, yes, it’s brilliant, yes, it probably deserves all the accolades it got, but it is very much not the book for me. Writing this review nearly changed my mind, because there really is so much to admire here, but fact is, if I hadn’t read this for the longlist, I would not finished it.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  4. Milkman by Anna Burns