Summery Reads from Holly Hopkins, Sarah McCoy, Phil Stamper and Edith Wharton
Every season, I try to choose a few books that feel appropriate for their settings or titles. A few of these I’ve already mentioned briefly, as part of my heat wave reading suggestions. Much as I love autumn, the end of summer tends to coincide with gloomy musings for me. However, it’s farewell to August with four reasonably cheerful books: a poetry collection about England then and now, city and country; an escapist novel set on the Caribbean island of Mustique in the 1970s; the story of four gay friends going their separate ways for a high school summer of adventure; and a less-tragic-than-expected American classic.
The English Summer by Holly Hopkins (2022)
Colour, geology and history are major sources of imagery in this debut full-length collection. Churches and cemeteries, museums and manor houses, versus hospitals and rental flats: this is the stuff of a country that has swapped its illustrious past for the dismal reality of the everyday. The collection closes with “England, Where Did You Go?” which ends, “should I get out in search of you, … / I’d be left wandering down dual carriageways, / looking across bean fields and filthy ditches.” Hopkins imagines a government that decides to address climate change by assigning weekly community service hours – nearly twice as many for women, who always bear the greater burden for domestic work.
It’s mostly alliteration, repetition, and internal or slant rhymes here. I particularly liked the pair “Rows of Differently Coloured Houses,” which contrasts bright seaside facades with the “Lakes of postwar pebbledash / grey on grey on grey on grey” seen from a Megabus, and “Stratigraphy,” about the archaeologist’s work. Not many standouts otherwise, but it was still worth a try. (New purchase – the publisher, Penned in the Margins, lured me with a sale)
Mustique Island by Sarah McCoy (2022)
Mustique is a private island in the St. Vincent archipelago that became a playground of the rich and famous in the 1970s, with Princess Margaret and Mick Jagger regular visitors. In McCoy’s novel – inspired by real events and people, and featuring cameos from the aforementioned celebrities as well as the island’s owners at the time, the baron Colin Tennant and his wife, Lady Anne Glenconner (who, I was amused to spot at the library the other day, has written her own fictional tribute to the island, Murder on Mustique) – Willy May, a Texan with a small fortune at her disposal thanks to her divorce from an English brewing magnate, sails in on a private boat and decides to build her own villa on Mustique. She’s uncomfortable with the way locals, who only have service jobs, are sometimes paraded out for colonial displays of pomp. Her two young adult daughters, Hilly and Joanne, later join her. The one has been a model in Paris, where she became addicted to amphetamines.
Love is on the cards for all three main female characters, but there’s heartache along the way as well. Closer to women’s fiction than I generally choose, this was a frothy indulgence that was fun to read but could be shorter and needn’t have tried so hard to make serious points about motherhood and to evoke the time period, e.g., with a list of what’s on the radio. I have also reviewed McCoy’s Marilla of Green Gables. (Offered by publicist via NetGalley)
Golden Boys by Phil Stamper (2022)
Four gay high schoolers in small-town Ohio look forward to a summer of separate travels for jobs and internships and hope their friendships will stay the course. We have Gabriel, a nature lover off to volunteer for a Boston save-the-trees non-profit; Sal, his friend with benefits, who dreams of bypassing college for a career in politics so interns at his local senator’s office in Washington, DC; Reese, headed to Paris for a fashion design course; and Heath, escaping his parents’ divorce and moving chaos to stay with an aunt and cousin in Florida and work at their beach café. With alternating first-person passages from all four characters, plus transcriptions of their conversation threads, this moves quickly.
Reese has been secretly infatuated with Heath for ages, but three of the four will consider new dating opportunities this summer (the fourth just becomes a workaholic). Secondary characters are pansexual and nonbinary – it’s a whole new world from when I was in high school! Initially, I found the inner monologues too one-note, but I think Stamper’s aim was to recreate the teenage struggle for self-confidence and individuality and has captured that life stage’s inherent anxiety. I also would have trimmed the preparatory stuff; nearly 100 pages before the first of them leaves Ohio is a bit much. This YA novel was a sweet, fun page turner and the perfect replacement to the Heartstopper series as my summer crush. However, I don’t think I was taken enough with the characters to read next year’s projected sequel. (Public library)
Summer by Edith Wharton (1917)
Charity Royall was born into poverty but brought down the mountain and adopted by a kindly couple into respectable North Dormer society. Mrs. Royall has died before the action starts, but as a young woman Charity still lives with Lawyer Royall, her guardian, and works at the library. When a stranger, Mr. Harney, arrives in their New England town to survey the local architecture, it’s clear right away that he’ll be a romantic prospect for her. “She had always thought of love as something confused and furtive, and he made it as bright and open as the summer air.” However, shame over her lowly origins – she is so snobbish every time she comes into contact with someone from the mountain – continues to plague her.
Although Harney returns her affections and they set up a little love nest in an abandoned house in the woods, uncertainty lingers as to whether he’ll consider marriage to Charity beneath him. This skirts Tess of the d’Urbervilles territory but doesn’t turn nearly as tragic as Ethan Frome (apparently, Wharton called this a favourite among her works, and referred to it as “the Hot Ethan”). Charity isn’t as vain as another Hardy heroine, Bathsheba Everdene; she’s an endearing blend of innocent and worldly, and her realistic reaction to what fate seems to decree feels like about the best one can expect for her time. Melodrama aside, I truly enjoyed the descriptions of a quintessential American summer with picnics and Fourth of July fireworks. Ethan fan or not, you should definitely read this one. (University library)
Introducing the Barbellion Prize & A Review of Sanatorium by Abi Palmer
New this year, the Barbellion Prize will be awarded annually “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.” It’s named after W.N.P. Barbellion (the pen name of Bruce Frederick Cummings), the English author of The Journal of a Disappointed Man, which he started writing at 13. A self-taught naturalist, he specialized in lice when he worked for the British Museum’s department of natural history in London. He was rejected for war service in 1915 after a doctor found him to have multiple sclerosis. At that time, the diagnosis was like a death sentence; indeed, Cummings died at age 30 in 1919, though by then he had managed to produce two volumes of memoirs as well as a daughter.
Here’s some more information on the prize criteria from the website: “Eligibility for the prize is predicated on the author’s presentation of life with a long-term chronic illness or disability, whether that be in the form of blindness, MS, cystic fibrosis, dwarfism, or another comparable condition that may substantially define one’s life. Authors – such as those in a carer’s capacity – who themselves are not ill may be considered for the prize if their work is truly exceptional as an articulation of life with illness, but authors who themselves deal personally with illness or disability will take priority in any selection for the prize.”
Especially in the absence of the Wellcome Book Prize, which has been on hiatus since the announcement of the 2019 winner, I’m delighted that there is a new prize with a health slant, particularly one that will lead to greater visibility for disabled writers and their stories. From a longlist of eight, in January the Barbellion Prize judges chose a shortlist of four titles: three memoirs and a work of autofiction. The publishers kindly agreed to send me the shortlist for review. Two have arrived so far (there have been postal delays in the UK, as in many places).
I have already read one of the nominees and will do my best to review the rest before the £1000 prize is awarded on the 12th. The others are:
- Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer – An illustrated memoir by a visual artist born with spina bifida.
- The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills – A memoir of being a carer for her father, who has paranoid schizophrenia; also includes musings on Leonard Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who cared for mentally ill wives. I’m currently reading this one.
- Kika & Me by Amit Patel – Patel was a trauma doctor and lost his sight within 36 hours due to a rare condition. He was paired with his guide dog, Kika, in 2015.
Sanatorium by Abi Palmer (2020)
Water is a source of comfort and delight for Abi, the narrator of Sanatorium (whose experiences may or may not be those of the author; always tricky to tell with autofiction). Floating is like dreaming for her – an intermediate state between the solid world where she’s in pain and the prospect of vanishing into the air. In 2017 she spends a few weeks at a sanatorium in Budapest for water therapy; when she returns to London she buys a big inflatable plastic bathtub to keep up the exercises as she tries to wean herself off of opiates.
Abi feels fragile due to a whole host of body issues, some in her past but most continuing into the present: an autoimmune connective tissue disorder, psoriatic arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and sexual assaults. Her knee is most immediately problematic, leading her to use a mobility scooter. As her health waxes and wanes, other people – unable to appreciate any internal or incremental changes – judge her by whether or not she is able to walk well.
The book is in snippets, often of just a paragraph or even one sentence, and cycles through its several strands: Abi’s time in Budapest and how she captures it in an audio diary; ongoing therapy at her London flat, custom-designed for disabled tenants (except “I was the only cripple who could afford it”); the haunted house she grew up in in Surrey; and notes on plus prayers to St. Teresa of Ávila, accompanied by diagrams of a female figure in yoga poses.
Locations are given in small letters in the top corner of the page, apart from for the more dreamlike segments that can’t be pinned down to any one place. For instance, I was reminded of a George Saunders story by the surreal interlude in which Abi imagines Van Gogh’s Starry Night reproduced in the hair on a detached pair of legs mounted on a wall as a work of art.
The different formats and short chunks of prose generally keep the voice from becoming monotonous, though I did wonder if occasional use of the third person (and some more second person) could have been effective, too. Far from a straightforward memoir, the book incorporates passages that are closer to fantasy and poetry, and the visual elements and fertile imagery attest to Palmer’s background as a mixed-media artist.
Sanatorium is a fascinating work – matter-of-fact, playful and sensual – that vividly conveys the reality of life with a chronic illness. It was already on my wish list, but I’m so glad that this shortlisting gave me a chance to read it. Though I haven’t read the other nominees yet, the passages below are proof that this would be a deserving Barbellion Prize winner.
You go through life as a chronically ill person with so many different people who have so many different opinions about how your treatment should be. They’re not always useful or right. You have to build your own narrative and your own sense of what feels appropriate. You have to learn to trust your body to tell you what’s working. But that’s hard too, when your body keeps changing the rules.
I am one of the more privileged ones and still I’m screaming. God, it would be so nice just to dissolve into nothing and wash up onto a lonely beach.
I wonder if what I’ve learned about chronic illness, more than anything, is that it’s a constant cycle. You fall apart, then you try your best to rebuild again. I wonder what would happen if I stopped trying.
Readalikes I have also reviewed:
- Heal Me by Julia Buckley
- Bodies of Water by V. H. Leslie
- My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
With thanks to Penned in the Margins for the free copy for review.
Rathbones Folio Prize Shortlist: The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus
The Rathbones Folio Prize is unique in that nominations come from The Folio Academy, an international group of writers and critics, and any book written in English is eligible, so there’s nonfiction and poetry as well as fiction on this year’s varied shortlist of eight titles:
- Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young [essays]
- The Crossway by Guy Stagg [travel memoir]
- Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly [historical fiction]
- Milkman by Anna Burns [literary fiction]
- Ordinary People by Diana Evans [literary fiction]
- The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus [poetry]
- There There by Tommy Orange [literary fiction]
- West by Carys Davies [historical fiction]
I’m helping to kick off the Prize’s social media tour by championing the debut poetry collection The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (winner of the 2018 Geoffrey Dearmer Award from the Poetry Society), issued by the London publisher Penned in the Margins last year. Antrobus is a British-Jamaican poet with an MA in Spoken Word Education who has held multiple residencies in London schools and works as a freelance teacher and poet. His poems dwell on the uneasiness of bearing a hybrid identity – he’s biracial and deaf but functional in the hearing world – and reflect on the loss of his father and the intricacies of Deaf history.
I was previously unaware of the difference between “deaf” and “Deaf,” but it’s explained in the book’s endnotes: Deaf refers to those who are born deaf and learn sign before any spoken language, so they tend to consider deafness part of their cultural identity; deaf means that the deafness was acquired later in life and is a medical consequence rather than a defining trait.
The opening poem, “Echo,” recalls how Antrobus’s childhood diagnosis came as a surprise because hearing problems didn’t run in the family.
I sat in saintly silence
during my grandfather’s sermons when he preached
The Good News I only heard
as Babylon’s babbling echoes.
Nowadays he uses hearing aids and lip reading, but still frets about how much he might be missing, as expressed in the prose poem “I Move through London like a Hotep” (his mishearing when a friend said, “I’m used to London life with no sales tax”). But if he had the choice, would Antrobus reverse his deafness? As he asks himself in one stanza of “Echo,” “Is paradise / a world where / I hear everything?”
Learning how to live between two worlds is a major theme of the collection, applying not just to the Deaf and hearing communities but also to the balancing act of a Black British identity. I first encountered Antrobus through the recent Black British poetry anthology Filigree (I assess it as part of a review essay in an upcoming issue of Wasafiri literary magazine), which reprints his poem “My Mother Remembers.” A major thread in that volume is art as a means of coming to terms with racism and constructing an individual as well as a group identity. The ghazal “Jamaican British” is the clearest articulation of that fight for selfhood, reinforced by later poems on being called a foreigner and harassment by security staff at Miami airport.
The title comes from the name of the pub where Antrobus’s father drank while his son waited outside. The title poem is an elegant sestina in which “perseverance” is the end word of one line per stanza. The relationship with his father is a connecting thread in the book, culminating in the several tender poems that close the book. Here he remembers caring for his father, who had dementia, in the final two years of his life, and devotes a final pantoum to the childhood joy of reading aloud with him.
A number of poems broaden the perspective beyond the personal to give a picture of early Deaf history. Several mention Alexander Graham Bell, whose wife and mother were both deaf, while in one the ghost of Laura Bridgeman (the subject of Kimberly Elkins’s excellent novel What Is Visible) warns Helen Keller about the unwanted fame that comes with being a poster child for disability. The poet advocates a complete erasure of Ted Hughes’s offensive “Deaf School” (sample lines: “Their faces were alert and simple / Like faces of little animals”; somewhat ironically, Antrobus went on to win the Ted Hughes Award last month!) and bases the multi-part “Samantha” on interviews with a Deaf Jamaican woman who moved to England in the 1980s. The text also includes a few sign language illustrations, including numbers that mark off section divisions.
The Perseverance is an issues book that doesn’t resort to polemic; a bereavement memoir that never turns overly sentimental; and a bold statement of identity that doesn’t ignore complexities. Its mixture of classical forms and free verse, the historical and the personal, makes it ideal for those relatively new to poetry, while those who enjoy the sorts of poets he quotes and tips the hat to (like Kei Miller, Danez Smith and Derek Walcott) will find a resonant postcolonial perspective.
A favorite passage from “Echo” (I’m a sucker for alliteration):
the ravelled knot of tongues,
of blaring birds, consonant crumbs
of dull doorbells, sounds swamped
in my misty hearing aid tubes.
The winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize will be announced on May 20th.
My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.