Review: Actress by Anne Enright

45993330Verdict: Incredible.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Jonathan Cape, 2020

Find it on Goodreads.

Katherine O’Dell is an Irish theater legend. As her daughter Norah retraces her mother’s celebrated career and bohemian life, she delves into long-kept secrets, both her mother’s and her own.

Katherine began her career on Ireland’s bus-and-truck circuit before making it to London’s West End, Broadway, and finally Hollywood. Every moment of her life is a star turn, with young Norah standing in the wings. But the mother-daughter romance cannot survive Katherine’s past or the world’s damage. With age, alcohol, and dimming stardom, her grip on reality grows fitful and, fueled by a proud and long-simmering rage, she commits a bizarre crime.

Her mother’s protector, Norah understands the destructive love that binds an actress to her audience, but also the strength that an actress takes from her art. Once the victim of a haunting crime herself, Norah eventually becomes a writer, wife, and mother, finding her way to her own hard-won joy. Actress is finally a book about the freedom we find in our work and in the love we make and keep.

I did not expect to love this as much as I did.  I often struggle with historical fiction and I have tried to read Enright before but found her endlessly bleak – this book is the opposite of that. I found it clever and funny and absolutely incredibly well-written. The latter was probably to be expected – there is a reason Enright is one of the Great Writers of our time. I listened to the audiobook which she reads herself and this was such a genius thing to do – her narration is pitchperfect and works exceedingly well for the stream-of-consciousness feel of the book.

This book is, at its core, about a mother and daughter relationship, but it is also so much more: it is an impeccably structured love letter to human connection, it is a reckoning with sexism, it is a warm and kind and still wildly biting commentary on the arts and literature and I loved it so very much. (As is sometimes the case when I feel like a book is custom-made for me, this is more gush than review, please do bear with me.)

The book is told from Norah’s perspective as a winding inner monologue about her mother – famous theatre and movie actress Katherine O’Dell, told in parts to the narrator’s husband, in parts to a PhD student interested in “finding the woman behind the myth”. Enright makes the narrative style seem effortless but it is so impeccably done that I was swept along and got hit in the feelings at just the right moments. The prose and the structure are the obvious draw here – but I also loved the way in which the characters, especially Katherine and her daughter Norah are drawn. I found them real and believable and wonderfully flawed. The other characters are not always quite as sharp, but in a way this works for a narrator whose very identity is influenced so very much by her relationship to her mother.

While there were some plot developments that I did not completely loved, the overall reading experience was just too wonderful. Norah is such a brilliantly flawed character and spending time in her head was a delight for me.

Content warning: Rape, mental illness, death of a loved one

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

  1. Actress by Anne Enright
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
  3. Weather by Jenny Offill (review)
  4. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review)

Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Review: Weather by Jenny Offill

37506228Verdict: My kind of catnip.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Knopf, 2020

Find it on Goodreads.

Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience–but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks . . . And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in–funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.

This is a very specific kind of navel-gazy book that works really well for me but might prove frustrating or even kind of empty for other readers. This is the kind of novel Sarah Manguso would write and I loved it.

The blurb makes this sound like a plot heavy book but it is very much the opposite. Offill has edited her book down to sparse scenes, short musings, and witty sentences. Much of the action happens off-page and only the ramifications are felt. I thought the easily readable prose actually hides how very thought-provoking this book is, and the brief scenes hide the emotional leg work she does with them. I found the sibling relationship at the heart of the novel impeccably drawn and highly emotional. People have talked about the anxiety-inducing spiral with regards to climate change the narrator is involved in, but I actually found the commentary on post partum depression a lot more difficult to read, for obvious reasons I guess. I thought the narrator’s voice imparted so much warmth towards her brother that I felt her helplessness in this situation acutely.

Content warning: Climate change, (emotional) cheating, post partum depression

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

  1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
  2. Weather by Jenny Offill
  3. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review)

Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Review: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

42595255._sy475_Verdict: Competent enough.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Myth Retelling

Published by Mantle Books, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

In A Thousand Ships, broadcaster and classicist Natalie Haynes retells the story of the Trojan War from an all-female perspective.

This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them…

In the middle of the night, Creusa wakes to find her beloved Troy engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of brutal conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans are over, and the Greeks are victorious. Over the next few hours, the only life she has ever known will turn to ash . . .

The devastating consequences of the fall of Troy stretch from Mount Olympus to Mount Ida, from the citadel of Troy to the distant Greek islands, and across oceans and sky in between. These are the stories of the women embroiled in that legendary war and its terrible aftermath, as well as the feud and the fatal decisions that started it all…

Powerfully told from an all-female perspective, A Thousand Ships gives voices to the women, girls and goddesses who, for so long, have been silent.

I am, in many ways, the perfect reader for this book: I have been interested in and reading books about the Trojan War for around 20 years, and thus have an emotional connection to these women already and general knowledge about what happened when in this sprawling story. But this also means that when Haynes makes character decisions I do not agree with, I super do not agree with them. My favourite book of all time is Kassandra – which should give you an indication how seriously I adore her. Also, as a side note, my favourite book from last year’s shortlist was The Silence of the Girls (which this book has been compared to without a break – something I will try to avoid in the interest of being fair to this book).

Haynes sets out to retell the story of the Trojan War from the perspectives of the women. She does so unchronologically – something I obviously enjoyed. She tells both from the perspectives of women close to the heart of the original myth and from those more at the periphery. For me personally, the perspectives by women who were allowed to be angry worked the best, while I thought some were less successful in their pettiness. The best parts, hands down were those narrated from the perspectives of goddesses. Haynes lets these creatures be exactly as otherworldly and still relatable as the orginal Greek myths describe them; especially Eris was just wonderfully rendered. I admit that those stories that I had the least fondness for, worked best for me – so maybe I was not the perfect reader after all.

My biggest problem, by far, was Haynes’ treatment of Helen though. I admit that I have a fondness for Helen, so this coloured my reaction, but I just did not enjoy the constant Helen-bashing the other characters indulged in – I found this detracted from what the author set out to do (based on her author’s note at the end). More than one character kept referring to her as “that whore” and this seems – I don’t know – petty and unneccessary at best, super lacking in nuance for sure, sexist at worst. Especially when Calliope (who for me at least reads like a direct author stand-in) admits to being interested in all the women’s stories, except for Helen’s, “who bores her”. I am trying to not blame the book for the marketing it received, but I am unsure whether marketing this as a feminist retelling did it any favours, at least for me.

I wavered between three and four stars for this, but in the end, my pre-existing fondness for the story and the wonderful way she handled the goddesses won out. This is not a book without its flaws but I am glad the longlist finally gave me the push I needed to read this book. I can also only recommend the audiobook, which the author narrates herself, something I always enjoy.

Content warning: It is a myth retelling, so many; the book is however not graphic in its descriptions. Rape (off page mostly), murder, death of loved ones, maiming, slavery.

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

  1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
  2. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

 

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