March Paperback Releases: Fledgling, Theatre of Marvels, What My Bones Know
I’m catching up on three 2022 books I was sent for review and didn’t read at their initial publication. Today I have a memoir of living between Ghana and England and hand-raising two birds, a Victorian pastiche starring a mixed-race actress in London, and an account of being diagnosed with complex PTSD and working towards healing of childhood trauma.
Fledgling by Hannah Bourne-Taylor
Nature-lover Hannah Bourne-Taylor lived in Ghana for eight years for her husband’s job. As a dependent spouse, she was not permitted to work and, in their rural setting, she felt cut off from any expatriate community. From childhood she’d been an obsessive animal rescuer – fishing ants out of swimming pools, for instance – and when she found a swift that had been displaced from its nest, her protective instincts went into overdrive. Collecting hundreds of termites, she fed the bird to a demanding schedule for two weeks before releasing it. This went as disastrously as it could, but she soon got another chance when she found a grounded bronze-winged mannikin finch fledgling after a storm. Their bond was even closer: the bird climbed her body and nested in her hair (she wrote a Guardian article about the experience), and they developed a mutual language of chirps. The care routine sounds like it was not so different from having an infant. She even calls the finch her daemon.
There is something very insular about this narrative, such that I had trouble gauging the passage of time. Raising the two birds, adopting street dogs, going on a pangolin patrol with a conservation charity – was this a matter of a couple of months, or were events separated by years? Ghana is an intriguing setting, yet because there is no attempt to integrate, she can only give a white outsider’s perspective on the culture, and indigenous people barely feature. I was sympathetic to the author’s feelings of loneliness and being trapped between countries, not belonging in either, but she overstates the lessons of compassion and freedom the finch taught. The writing, while informed and passionate about nature, needs a good polish (many misplaced modifiers, wrong prepositions, errors in epigraph quotes, homonym slips – “sight” instead of “site”; “balled” in place of “bawled”; “base” where it should be “bass,” twice – and so on). Still, it’s a promising debut from a valuable nature advocate, and I share her annual delight in welcoming England’s swifts, as in the scenes that open and close the book.
With thanks to Aurum for the free copy for review. Fledgling came out in paperback on 9 March.
Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth
Lianne Dillsworth is a Black British author with MAs in creative writing and Victorian studies, interests she combines in this debut novel set in Victorian London. Zillah’s mother, a slave from Barbados, was forced to abandon her seven-year-old daughter. Zillah is mixed-race and grew up in St Giles slum. Too light-skinned to convince as a “savage” when she headlines Crillick’s Variety Theatre show as “Amazonia,” she has to coat herself with greasepaint and soot. As mistress to a viscount, she has access to a life of luxury, but instead chooses to try to free her fellow Black performers, including the “Leopard Lady,” who is exhibited for her skin condition and confined in conditions little better than slavery.
Through secondary characters, we glimpse other options for people of colour: one, Lucien Winters, is a shopkeeper (reminding me of the title character of The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho, a historical figure) but intends to move to Sierra Leone via a colonisation project; another passes as white to have a higher position in the theatre world. It felt odd, though, how different heritages were conflated, such that Zillah, of Caribbean descent, learns a few words of “Zulu” to speak to the Leopard Lady, and Lucien explains Africanness to her as if it is one culture. Perhaps this was an attempt to demonstrate solidarity among oppressed peoples.
There are rivalries with fellow actresses, and well-meaning Quakers who work toward a better society. Much of the characterisation is tissue-thin, however, and a few turns of phrase felt not of the time period (describing someone as being in a “pissy mood”; “If he was in this much of a funk there’d be no getting through to him. I might as well go to bed before he killed my mood completely.”). All told, this never lived up to its first paragraph –
Go to the theatre much? No, nor me. At least not before I became an actress. I know what you’re thinking. Actress, eh? But you can keep your dirty-minded thoughts to yourself. I trod the boards and no more. Doesn’t mean I don’t have a story or two to tell, mind. Would you be kind enough to indulge me if I talked about the old days? Hard as it was back then, I can’t say that if I had my time again I’d change it.
– which promised a much more original voice than we ever get from Zillah. It’s only worth writing in the first person if the narration is remarkable in some way, so this could easily have been in third person limited instead. This was a nicely undemanding selection to start on the ferry ride back from Spain last year, but took much effort to finish because of the 400+ page count and despite the jejune prose (some have labelled this YA for that reason). Fans of Stacey Halls may enjoy it. It’s certainly what I’d call an easy read.
Hutchinson Heinemann sent a proof copy. Theatre of Marvels came out in paperback on 2 March.
What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma by Stephanie Foo
It’s okay to have some things you never get over.
Radio producer Stephanie Foo was diagnosed with complex PTSD at age 30. Although she briefly delves into the parental abuse that accounts for her trauma, this is – thankfully – mostly about the four years she spent trying to get better. The Malaysian Chinese Foo family moved to San Francisco when she was two years old. Her mother nagged and beat her, and both parents made credible threats to kill her and/or themselves, such as by driving off the road. It’s hard to read this material, but by proportion it doesn’t take up much of the book. Foo’s mother left when she was 13; she later gave her father an ultimatum one day (while wielding an axe!) that also saw him move out. This left her, then a high school student, living alone and in squalor. Unsurprisingly, she engaged in disordered eating and self-harm.
A love of journalism kept Foo from committing suicide, got her into college and landed her podcast roles followed by her dream job with public radio programme This American Life in New York City. However, she struggled with a horrible, exacting boss and, when her therapist issued the diagnosis, she left to commit to the healing process, aided by her new partner, Joey. C-PTSD was named in the 1990s but is not recognised in the DSM; The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk is its alternative bible. Repeated childhood trauma, as opposed to a single event, rewires the brain to identify threats that might not seem rational, leading to self-destructive behaviour and difficulty maintaining healthy relationships.
All that Foo discovers in her research into C-PTSD feels damning, but she focuses on what she can control: sleep, diet, exercise, yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and seeing various therapists. She tries everything from hallucinogenic mushrooms and a gratitude journal to EMDR (like hypnosis but based on eye movement). Working with a therapist from the Center for Child Trauma and Resilience helped her to address the root cause rather than the symptoms. There came a point where I would have been okay with a condensed version of events instead of a blow-by-blow of every therapy attempted, but Foo writes with bravery and clarity, adroitly recreating scenes and dialogue and displaying impressive memory and self-knowledge. The detail and overall optimism should make this helpful to many.
With thanks to Allen & Unwin for the free copy for review. What My Bones Know came out in paperback on 3 March.
Reading the Rathbones Folio Prize Poetry Shortlist
I borrowed the whole of this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize poetry shortlist from my local library and have enjoyed reading through it to see what the judges felt was worthy of recognition from 2022’s releases. Of course, personal taste comes into the appreciation of poetry, perhaps more so than for fiction or nonfiction, so I liked some of these more than others and suspect the judges’ final decision may differ from mine. Still, it’s always a pleasure to discover new-to-me poets and/or debut authors.
Ephemeron by Fiona Benson
This is Benson’s third collection but my first time reading her. I was fully engaged with her exquisite poems about the ephemeral, whether that be insect lives, boarding school days, primal emotions or moments from her children’s early years. The book is in four discrete corresponding sections (“Insect Love Songs,” “Boarding-School Tales,” “Translations from the Pasiphaë” and “Daughter Mother”) but the themes and language bleed from one into another and the whole is shot through with astonishing corporeality and eroticism.
The form varies quite a lot – bitty lines, stanzas, blocky paragraph-like stories – and alliteration, slant rhymes and unexpected metaphors (a wasp’s nest as “a piñata of stings,” “this avant-garde chandelier” and an “electric hotel / of spit-balled papier mâché”) make each poem glisten. I’ll even let her off for the long section inspired by my pet hate, Greek mythology (so gruesome, so convoluted), because of how she uses these melodramatic situations to explore universal emotions. She does something interesting with the story of the Minotaur (Asterios), suggesting that instead of being born a literal bull he was born deformed or disabled and no one knew what to make of him, but even so he had a mother’s love.
Here’s one section of “Magicicadas” as an example:
summons them up
after seventeen years,
down their backs
like the wet head
of a baby,
of their tight old skin
like an orgasm,
like an ecstatic gymnast
on the high trapeze;
their damp wings lemon
before they stiffen
and straighten, lattice brown.
Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley
Protest doesn’t have to be loud; sometimes it can even be silent. In her debut, Bulley, a British-born Ghanaian poet, makes that especially clear with the pair “[ ] noise” (= white noise, inescapable) and “black noise” (an erasure poem). She models how language might be decolonized (particularly in “revision”) and how Black femininity might be reimagined (“fabula”). Along with her acknowledged debts to Lucille Clifton, bell hooks, Mary Oliver et al., I spotted echoes of Kei Miller (her “there is dark that moves” sounds like his “there is an anger that moves”) and Toni Morrison (Bulley includes the line “Quiet as it’s kept,” which is the opening of The Bluest Eye).
The collection is bold but never heavy-handed, and the seriousness of its topics (also including an early miscarriage) is lightened by poems about cats and snails. My two favourites were “not quiet as in quiet but,” which juxtaposes peacefulness and the comfortable life with the perils of not speaking out about injustice; and “Epigenetic,” about generations of traumatized bodies (“if your pain is alive in me / so too must be your joy.”).
Cane, Corn & Gully by Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa
Kinshasa is also a dancer, and in her debut the British-born Barbadian intersperses poems with choreographed dances, transcribed via hand-drawn symbols explained in a key at the end. I confess I couldn’t picture them at all, though they make attractive patterns on the page – you can see one in purple on the cover. This and the Caribbean patois in which she voices narratives of historical atrocities and contemporary microaggressions against Black people (particularly women) are the collection’s claims to novelty and probably impressed the judges. Yet I found both strategies to be affected and looked forward to those poems in standard language. Some of the events are given specific dates and places in Barbados while others are more generic. Female victims of sexual oppression seek revenge, as in the gruesome “Miss Barbados Is No Longer Vegan.” This probably works best aloud, to allow one to appreciate the musicality of the voice and the alliterative lines.
Some lines I liked:
we gambled all our wishes on dandelions,
now we celebrate de little tings
every unburnt rice grain & regrown eyelash
vaulting between lemon vines and dog friendly cafés.
just because we do what needs to be done,
it doan mean we nah ready, we just aware
there are too many of us to be martyrs
(from “Sometimes Death Is a Child Who Plays With Rubber Bands”)
The work is dangerous; writing into history is like feeding unknown seeds while attempting to control the rate of their growth. Sometimes when I danced, I inhaled the language of my ancestors’ captors, and they became mine.
(from “Preface: And if by Some Miracle”)
if you want something to become extinct
doan give it attention.
(from “Choreography: She, My Nation”)
England’s Green by Zaffar Kunial
A collection in praise of the country’s natural and cultural heritage, with poems about hedgerows and butterflies; cricket and the writings of the Brontë sisters. There are autobiographical reminiscences as well, most notably “The Crucible,” which describes the meeting between his Kashmiri father and his English mother’s father, who had refused to acknowledge the relationship for its first three years.
Kunial clearly delights in language, with wordplay and differing pronunciations fuelling “Foregrounds” et al. I particularly liked “Foxgloves” (“Sometimes I like to hide in the word / foxgloves – in the middle of foxgloves. The xgl is hard to say”) and “The Wind in the Willows,” where he wonders if the book title appeals to him just for its sound. This wasn’t as immediately cohesive and impressive as his first book, Us, but still well worth reading.
Some favourite lines:
“Prayer is not the words / but having none and staying” (from “Empty Words”)
“Life // is wider than its page. And days are a cut field, clipped and made to run on” (from “The Groundsman”)
Manorism by Yomi Sode
Like Surge or Poor (or what little I read of Citizen), this is driven by outrage and a longing for justice for Black people. I suspect that, like those precursors, it is a book best heard in performance, given that Sode honed his skills on London’s open mic circuit.
The first third of the book is under the heading “Aneephya,” a word Sode coined and defines as “the stress toxin of inherited trauma” – from slave ships to police checks. My two favourites were from this section: “L’Appel du Vide,” in which he ponders microaggressions while cooking a traditional West African mackerel and okra stew; and “A Plate of Artichokes,” about the time a waiter made him pre-pay for his meal and he went along with it even though he suspected other customers weren’t being asked to do the same.
Nigerian culture, rap music, being a father, and Black brotherhood are other themes, with recurring allusions to the work of Caravaggio. I also liked the long section on the decline and death of his great-aunt (“Big Mummy”) from cancer.
This was a book that made me feel super-white, but that’s not a problem: I can recognize its importance and appeal while also accepting that it’s not necessarily supposed to be for me.
Which of these poetry collections interest you?
May Releases: Barrera, Cornwell, Jones, Ruhl
Greetings from the English Channel! I’m putting this quick post together on an outdoor deck as we leave Plymouth harbour on the ferry to Spain. I’ve taken a seasickness pill and am wearing acupressure bracelets, and so far I’m feeling pretty well here taking in a sea breeze; fingers crossed that it will continue to be a smooth voyage.
Have a look at all the lovely May releases above. How I wish that I’d had a chance to read some of them this month! Alas, things have been so busy with our move that I have only cracked one open so far (the Shipstead), but I’m looking forward to reading the rest soon after we get back. For now, I’ll give snippets of early reviews I’ve published elsewhere: two memoirs of pregnancy and early motherhood (the one focusing on postnatal depression), a varied short story collection, and an accessible volume of poetry written during Covid lockdowns.
Linea Nigra: An Essay on Pregnancy and Earthquakes by Jazmina Barrera
(Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney)
In a fragmentary work of autobiography and cultural commentary, the Mexican author investigates pregnancy as both physical reality and liminal state. The linea nigra is a stripe of dark hair down a pregnant woman’s belly. It’s a potent metaphor for the author’s matriarchal line: her grandmother was a doula; her mother is a painter. In short passages that dart between topics, Barrera muses on motherhood, monitors her health, and recounts her dreams. Her son, Silvestre, is born halfway through the book. She gives impressionistic memories of the delivery and chronicles her attempts to write while someone else watches the baby. This is both diary and philosophical appeal—for pregnancy and motherhood to become subjects for serious literature. (See my full review for Foreword.)
Birth Notes: A Memoir of Recovery by Jessica Cornwell
It so happens that May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month. Cornwell comes from a deeply literary family; the late John le Carré was her grandfather. Her memoir shimmers with visceral memories of delivering her twin sons in 2018 and the postnatal depression and infections that followed. The details, precise and haunting, twine around a historical collage of words from other writers on motherhood and mental illness, ranging from Margery Kempe to Natalia Ginzburg. Childbirth caused other traumatic experiences from her past to resurface. How to cope? For Cornwell, therapy and writing went hand in hand. This is vivid and resolute, and perfect for readers of Catherine Cho, Sinéad Gleeson and Maggie O’Farrell. (See my full review for Shiny New Books.)
With thanks to Virago for the proof copy for review.
Antipodes: Stories by Holly Goddard Jones
Jones’s fourth work of fiction contains 11 riveting stories of contemporary life in the American South and Midwest. Some have pandemic settings and others are gently magical; all are true to the anxieties of modern careers, marriage and parenthood. In the title story, the narrator, a harried mother and business school student in Kentucky, seeks to balance the opposing forces of her life and wonders what she might have to sacrifice. The ending elicits a gasp, as does the audacious inconclusiveness of “Exhaust,” a tense tale of a quarreling couple driving through a blizzard. Worry over environmental crises fuels “Ark,” about a pyramid scheme for doomsday preppers. Fans of Nickolas Butler and Lorrie Moore will find much to admire. (Read via Edelweiss. See my full review for Shelf Awareness.)
Love Poems in Quarantine by Sarah Ruhl
Having read Ruhl’s memoir Smile, I recognized the contours of her life and the members of her family. In early poems, cooking and laundry recur, everyday duties that mark time as she tries to write and supervises virtual learning for three children. “Let this all be poetry,” she incants. Part Two contains poems written after George Floyd’s murder, the structure mimicking how abrupt the change in focus was for a nation. Part Three moves into haiku and tanka, culminating in a series of poems reflecting on the seasons. Like Margaret Atwood’s Dearly, I would recommend this even to people who think they don’t like poetry. A welcome addition to the body of Covid-19 literature. (Read via Edelweiss. See my full review on Goodreads.)
Two favourite poems:
To love a house
not because it’s perfect but because it shelters you
To love a body
not because it’s perfect but because it shelters you
“Quarantine in August, the overripe month”
I’m tired of summer. I crave fall. Luckily fall comes after summer.
And if I get tired of it all, winter will come, then spring.
Have you read anything from my tempting stack?
What other May releases can you recommend?
March Reading Plans
It’s beginning to look a lot like spring, with daffodils a-blooming, so I have amassed a set of appropriate reads and aim to report on them in two installments between April and May. I was already partway through Davidson’s novel, I’m getting stuck into the Fitzgerald and Knausgaard, and I hope to start the Woolf soon. I also have a review copy of Ghosts of Spring by Luis Carrasco.
Much as I tried with #FinishItFebruary, I still have some set-aside titles I couldn’t get through before the end of last month. It’s a good thing that (as I’ll never forget Damian Barr commenting) books are patient. I’ll reintroduce these to my stacks in the weeks to come, but NO MORE BOOKS can join them. I’m going to be strict with myself: keep going with a book or DNF it; no more limbo.
One of my informal goals for the rest of the year is to have a buddy read on the go with my husband at all times. I’d noticed that I happened to have duplicate copies of a couple of books, and then started to look out for extra copies at the free mall bookshop and Little Free Library in 2019–21, so I’ve ended up with 11 books in total: three nature classics, four travel books, three novels to reread, and one to read for the first time. Nature/travel is where our taste most often overlaps, but John Irving is our mutual favourite author and English Passengers is a novel we both loved. We’ll work out a schedule for 1–2 per month. He reads faster than I do (but has much less time to read overall), so we’ll agree on a time frame and chat either as we go or when we’ve both finished a book. Let me know if you fancy joining in with any of these.
Of course, it’s also Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy of 746 Books, and I’ve earmarked these fiction options for the next few weeks. So far I’ve started Maggie O’Farrell’s debut novel. Plus I just got Wendy Erskine’s story collection Dance Move out from the library, and I have Colm Tóibín’s forthcoming poetry collection on my e-reader.
I’m currently reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, a collection of autobiographical essays by Irish women writers that originated on the radio. I also got a jump-start in late February by reading these two short books by writers from Ireland:
Wild Child: A Journey through Nature by Dara McAnulty; illus. Barry Falls (2021)
I’d expected this to be just a picture book. Instead, it’s a guided tour through four landscapes – the garden, the woods, the uplands, and a river – and it combines Robert Macfarlane-esque poetry (the rhyming and alliteration are reminiscent of The Lost Words books) with facts and crafts/activities. It starts small, with the birds a child in the UK might be able to see out their window, and then ventures further afield. There is a teaching focus, with information on species’ classification, life cycles and migrations. I also learned to recognize hazel catkins and flowers, and then identified them on our walk later the same day! But the main aim, I think, is simply to encourage wonder and inspire children to get outside and explore the nature around them. I liked the illustrations, but wish the birds hadn’t been given slightly googly eyes. (Public library)
To Star the Dark by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (2021)
Like many, I discovered Ní Ghríofa through A Ghost in the Throat, a genre-bending work of feminist autofiction. I treated myself to a copy of this, her sixth poetry collection, as part of a Waterstones haul with my Christmas book token. One poem actually mentions Eibhlín Dubh, subject of A Ghost in the Throat, and the work as a whole has some of the same attributes, blending biographical portraits and historical reflection with autobiographical material.
“Two Daydreams” connects a teenager in a history exam with the generations leading back to the Famine. “An Experiment to Engineer an Inheritance of Fear” wonders if there is an inherited Irish trauma: “Give her terror in a meadow. / Bind her fear to a black potato. … / When exposed to the ancestral scent, great-grandchildren will show signs of distress.” A newborn’s stay in the NICU occasions “Seven Postcards from a Hospital” (originally addressed to Sara Baume, Ní Ghríofa reveals in the Notes). Marine biologist Maude Delap is the subject of one multi-part poem.
Sensual imagery abounds, and there are several incantatory spells, including the spring one below. My favourite poem was “Craquelure,” likening cracks in a fellow bus passenger’s phone screen to the weathering old paintings develop. (New purchase)
Three on a Theme (and #ReadIndies): Nonfiction I Sponsored Last Year
Here in the UK we’re hunkering down against the high winds of Storm Eunice. We’ve already watched two trees come down in a neighbour’s garden (and they’re currently out there trying to shore up the fence!), and had news on the community Facebook page of a huge conifer down by the canal. Very sad. I hope you’re all safe and well and tucked up at home.
Today I’m looking back at several 2021 nonfiction releases I helped come into existence. The first and third I sponsored via Unbound, and the second through Dodo Ink. Supporting small publishers also ties this post into Karen and Lizzy’s February Read Indies initiative. All:
This Party’s Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals by Erica Buist
A death tourism book? I’m there! This is actually the third I’ve read in recent years, after From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty and Near the Exit by Lori Erickson. Buist’s journey was sparked off by the sudden death of her fiancé Dion’s father, Chris – he was dead for a week before his cleaner raised the alarm – and her burden of guilt. It’s an act of atonement for what happened to Chris and the fact that she and Dion, who used to lodge with him, weren’t there when he really needed it. It’s also her way of discovering a sense of the sacred around death, instead of simply fearing and hiding from it.
This takes place in roughly 2018. The author travelled to eight festivals in seven countries, starting with Mexico for the Day of the Dead and later for an exploration of Santa Muerte, a hero of the working class. Other destinations included Nepal, Sicily (“bones of the dead” biscotti), Madagascar (the “turning of the bones” ceremony – a days-long, extravagant party for a whole village), Thailand and Kyoto. The New Orleans chapter was a standout for me. It’s a city where the dead outnumber the living 10 to 1 (and did so even before Katrina), and graveyard and ghost tours are a common tourist activity.
Buist is an entertaining writer, snappy and upbeat without ever seeming flippant as she discusses heavy topics. The mix of experience and research, the everyday and the momentous, is spot on and she recreates dialogue very well. I appreciated the earnest seeking here, and would happily read a book of hers on pretty much any subject. (New purchase from Unbound)
Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health, ed. Thom Cuell & Sam Mills
I’ll never learn: I left it nearly 10 months between finishing this and writing it up. And took no notes. So it’s nearly impossible to recreate the reading experience. What I do recall, however, is how wide-ranging and surprising I found this book. At first I had my doubts, thinking it was overkill to describe sad events like a break-up or loss as “traumatic”. But an essay midway through (which intriguingly trades off autobiographical text by Kirsty Logan and Freudian interpretation by Paul McQuade) set me straight: trauma cannot be quantified or compared; it’s all about the “unpreparedness of the subject. A traumatic event overwhelms all the defences laid out in advance against the encroachment of negative experience.”
The pieces can be straightforward memoir fragments or playful, experimental narratives more like autofiction. (Alex Pheby’s is in the second person, for instance.) Within those broad branches, though, the topics vary widely. James Miller writes about the collective horror at the Trump presidency. Emma Jane Unsworth recounts a traumatic delivery – I loved getting this taste of her autobiographical writing but, unfortunately, it outshone her full-length memoir, After the Storm, which I read later in the year. Susanna Crossman tells of dressing up as a clown for her clinical therapy work. Naomi Frisby (the much-admired blogger behind The Writes of Womxn) uses food metaphors to describe how she coped with the end of a bad relationship with a narcissist.
As is inevitable with a collection this long, there are some essays that quickly fade in the memory and could have been omitted without weakening the book as a whole. But it’s not gracious to name names, and, anyway, it’s likely that different pieces will stand out for other readers based on their own experiences. (New purchase from Dodo Ink)
- “Inheritance” by Christiana Spens (about investigating her grandparents’ lives through screen prints and writing after her father’s death and her son’s birth)
- “Blank Spaces” by Yvonna Conza (about the lure of suicide)
- “The Fish Bowl” by Monique Roffey (about everyday sexual harassment and an assault she underwent as a teenager; I enjoyed this so much more than her latest novel)
- “Thanks, I’ll Take the Chair” by Jude Cook, about being in therapy.
Women on Nature: 100+ Voices on Place, Landscape & the Natural World, ed. Katharine Norbury
It was over three years between when I pledged support and held the finished book in my hands; I can only imagine what a mammoth job compiling it was for Katharine Norbury (author of The Fish Ladder). The subtitle on the title page explains the limits she set: “An anthology of women’s writing about the natural world in the east Atlantic archipelago.” So, broadly, British and Irish writers, but within that there’s a lot of scope for variety: fragments of fiction (e.g., a passage from Jane Eyre), plenty of poetry, but mostly nonfiction narratives – some work in autobiographical reflection; others are straightforward nature or travel writing. Excerpts from previously published works trade off with essays produced specifically for this volume. So I encountered snippets of works I’d read by the likes of Miriam Darlington, Melissa Harrison, Sara Maitland, Polly Samson and Nan Shepherd. The timeline stretches from medieval mystics to today’s Guardian Country Diarists and BIPOC nature writers.
For most of the last seven months of 2021, I kept this as a bedside book, reading one or two pieces on most nights. It wasn’t until early this year that I brought it downstairs and started working it into my regular daily stacks so that I would see more progress. At first I quibbled (internally) with the decision to structure the book alphabetically by author. I wondered if more might have been done to group the pieces by region or theme. But besides being an unwieldy task, that might have made the contents seem overly determined. Instead, you get the serendipity of different works conversing with each other. So, for example, Katrina Porteous’s dialect poem about a Northumberland fisherman is followed immediately by Jini Reddy’s account of a trip to Lindisfarne; Margaret Cavendish’s 1653 dialogue in verse between an oak tree and the man cutting him down leads perfectly into an excerpt from Nicola Chester’s On Gallows Down describing a confrontation with tree fellers.
I’d highly recommend this for those who are fairly new to the UK nature writing scene and/or would like to read more by women. Keep it as a coffee table book or a bedside read and pick it up between other things. You’ll soon find your own favourites. (New purchase from Unbound)
- “Caravan” by Sally Goldsmith (a Sheffield tree defender)
- “Enlli: The Living Island” by Pippa Marland (about the small Welsh island of Bardsey)
- “An Affinity with Bees” by Elizabeth Rose Murray (about beekeeping, and her difficult mother, who called herself “the queen bee”)
- “An Island Ecology” by Sarah Thomas (about witnessing a whale hunt on the Faroe Islands)
- My overall favourite: “Arboreal” by Jean McNeil (about living in Antarctica for a winter and the contrast between that treeless continent and Canada, where she grew up, and England, where she lives now)
“It occurred to me that trees were part of the grammar of one’s life, as much as any spoken language. … To see trees every day and to be seen by them is a privilege.”
Stay strong, trees!
Sponsored any books, or read any from indie publishers, recently?
Recommended May Releases: Adichie, Pavey and Unsworth
Three very different works of women’s life writing: heartfelt remarks on bereavement, a seasonal diary of stewarding four wooded acres in Somerset, and a look back at postnatal depression.
Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This slim hardback is an expanded version of an essay Adichie published in the New Yorker in the wake of her father’s death in June 2020. With her large family split across three continents and coronavirus lockdown precluding in-person get-togethers, they had a habit of frequent video calls. She had seen her father the day before on Zoom and knew he was feeling unwell and in need of rest, but the news of his death still came as a complete shock.
Adichie anticipates all the unhelpful platitudes people could and did send her way: he lived to a ripe old age (he was 88), he had a full life and was well respected (he was Nigeria’s first statistics professor), he had a mercifully swift end (kidney failure). Her logical mind knows all of these facts, and her writer’s imagination has depicted grief many times. Still, this loss blindsided her.
She’d always been a daddy’s girl, but the anecdotes she tells confirm how special he was: wise and unassuming; a liberal Catholic suspicious of materialism and with a dry humour. I marvelled at one such story: in 2015 he was kidnapped and held in the boot of a car for three days, his captors demanding a ransom from his famous daughter. What did he do? Correct their pronunciation of her name, and contradict them when they said that clearly his children didn’t love him. “Grief has, as one of its many egregious components, the onset of doubt. No, I am not imagining it. Yes, my father truly was lovely.” With her love of fashion, one way she dealt with her grief was by designing T-shirts with her father’s initials and the Igbo words for “her father’s daughter” on them.
I’ve read many a full-length bereavement memoir, and one might think there’s nothing new to say, but Adichie writes with a novelist’s eye for telling details and individual personalities. She has rapidly become one of my favourite authors: I binged on most of her oeuvre last year and now have just one more to read, Purple Hibiscus, which will be one of my 20 Books of Summer. I love her richly evocative prose and compassionate outlook, no matter the subject. At £10, this 85-pager is pricey, but I was lucky to get it free with Waterstones loyalty points.
“In the face of this inferno that is sorrow, I am callow and unformed.”
“How is it that the world keeps going, breathing in and out unchanged, while in my soul there is a permanent scattering?”
Deeper Into the Wood by Ruth Pavey
In 1999 Ruth Pavey bought four acres of scrubland at auction, happy to be returning to her family’s roots in the Somerset Levels and hoping to work alongside nature to restore some of her land to orchard and maintain the rest in good health. Her account of the first two decades of this ongoing project, A Wood of One’s Own, was published in 2017.
In this sequel, she gives peaceful snapshots of the wood throughout 2019, from first snowdrops to final apple pressing, but also faces up to the environmental degradation that is visible even in this pocket of the countryside. “I am sure there has been a falling off in numbers of insects, smaller birds and rabbits on my patch,” she insists. Without baseline data, it is hard to support this intuition, but she has botanical and bird surveys done, and invites an expert in to do a moth-trapping evening. The resulting species lists are included as appendices. In addition, Pavey weaves a backstory for her land. She meets a daffodil breeder, investigates the source of her groundwater, and visits the head gardener at the Bishop’s Palace in Wells, where her American black walnut sapling came from. She also researches the Sugg family, associated with the land (“Sugg’s Orchard” on the deed) from the 1720s.
Pavey aims to treat this landscape holistically: using sheep to retain open areas instead of mowing the grass, and weighing up the benefits of the non-native species she has planted. She knows her efforts can only achieve so much; the pesticides standard to industrial-scale farming may still be reaching her trees on the wind, though she doesn’t apply them herself. “One sad aspect of worrying about the state of the natural world is that everything starts to look wrong,” she admits. Starting in that year’s abnormally warm January, it was easy for her to assume that the seasons can no longer be relied on.
Compared with her first memoir, this one is marked by its intellectual engagement with the principles and practicalities of rewilding. Clearly, her inner struggle is motivated less by the sense of ownership than by the call of stewardship. While this book is likely be of most interest to those with a local connection or a similar project underway, it offers a universal model of how to mitigate our environmental impact. Pavey’s black-and-white sketches of the flora and fauna on her patch, reminiscent of Quentin Blake, are a highlight.
With thanks to Duckworth for the proof copy for review. The book will be published tomorrow, the 27th of May.
After the Storm: Postnatal Depression and the Utter Weirdness of New Motherhood by Emma Jane Unsworth
The author’s son was born on the day Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Six months later, she realized that she was deep into postnatal depression and finally agreed to get help. The breaking point came when, with her husband* away at a conference, she got frustrated with her son’s constant fussing and pushed him over on the bed. He was absolutely fine, but the guilty what-ifs proliferated, making this a wake-up call for her.
In this succinct, wry and hard-hitting memoir, Unsworth exposes the conspiracies of silence that lead new mothers to lie and pretend that everything is fine. Since her son’s traumatic birth (which I first read about in Dodo Ink’s Trauma anthology), she hadn’t been able to write and was losing her sense of self. To add insult to injury, her baby had teeth at 16 weeks and bit her as he breastfed. She couldn’t even admit her struggles to her fellow mum friends. But “if a woman is in pain for long enough, and denied sleep for long enough, and at the same time feels as though she has to keep going and put a ‘brave’ face on, she’s going to crack.”
The book’s titled mini-essays give snapshots into the before and after, but particularly the agonizing middle of things. I especially liked the chapter “The Weirdest Thing I’ve Ever Done in a Hotel Room,” in which she writes about borrowing her American editor’s room to pump breastmilk. Therapy, antidepressants and hiring a baby nurse helped her to ease back into her old life and regain some part of the party girl persona she once exuded – enough so that she was willing to give it all another go (her daughter was born late last year).
While Unsworth mostly writes from experience, she also incorporates recent research and makes bold statements of how cultural norms need to change. “You are not monsters,” she writes to depressed mums. “You need more support. … Motherhood is seismic. It cracks open your life, your relationship, your identity, your body. It features the loss, grief and hardship of any big life change.” I can imagine this being hugely helpful to anyone going through PND (see also my Three on a Theme post on the topic), but I’m not a mother and still found plenty to appreciate (especially “We have to smash the dichotomy of mums/non-mums … being maternal has nothing to do with actually physically being a mother”).
I’m attending a Wellcome Collection online event with Unsworth and midwife Leah Hazard (author of Hard Pushed) this evening and look forward to hearing more from both authors.
*It took me no time at all to identify him from the bare facts: Brighton + doctor + graphic novelist = Ian Williams (author of The Lady Doctor)! I had no idea. What a fun connection.
With thanks to Profile Books/Wellcome Collection for the free copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Two Novels of Ambivalent Parenthood: The Push & A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself
These 2021 releases I read from the library stood out to me for daring to suggest that sometimes children aren’t little angels and parenthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The Push by Ashley Audrain
“Do you wish you weren’t a mother?”
“Sometimes I wish I were a different kind of person.”
A cracking psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator, this is in the same vein as The Woman in the Window, Gone Girl, and A Good Enough Mother. I hardly ever pick up novels that fit into this genre, but these were all well worth making an exception for. The Push feels closer to literary fiction than to crime. Blythe Connor, living alone with her memories, ponders what went wrong with her seemingly perfect family: a handsome architect husband, Fox, and their daughter Violet and baby son Sam. Now reduced to being a stalker and an impersonator, Blythe vows to write everything down as evidence, taking care to note when she first had cause to question whether Violet was normal. A daddy’s girl from the start, Violet never bonded with Blythe and admitted to deliberately hurting other children in her preschool. But how much of what happened next was because of Violet’s nature, and how much was Blythe’s fault for failing to be the mother the girl needed?
The inkblot design of the cover cleverly evokes classical psychological concepts and experiments. A key topic the novel explores is how trauma is passed down through the generations: Blythe had worried that she wasn’t cut out for motherhood, chiefly because her mother and her grandmother both abandoned their daughters. “Blythe, the women in this family, we’re different. You’ll see,” her mother had warned. The exchange between Blythe and her mother that opens my review reiterates her suspicion: some people just aren’t cut out for parenting. Blythe can’t dismiss her daughter as evil because she knows how much guilt rests on her own shoulders, and because she doubts that she saw what she thought she saw. Moreover, the fact that her experience with Sam was completely different makes her feel ambivalent about motherhood: she’s seen how wonderful it can be, but also how it can turn bad. The nuance sets the book apart from run-of-the-mill thrillers. Yet it’s in short, page-turning chapters, so it reads very quickly and would make a great book club selection.
A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies
At its best, autofiction is an intriguing blend of memoir and fiction, all of it true and universal in appeal. Davies’ minimalist approach – short sections skating over the months and years, wryly pulling out representative moments here and there, all in a mere 180 pages – could hardly be more different from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s, but both are equally dedicated to the unique alchemy of crystallizing fatherhood by illuminating its daily heartaches and joys.
Years ago, “the writer” and his wife were presented with a choice. When genetic tests indicated mosaicism, they terminated their first pregnancy. Instead of a little girl, they later had a baby boy who presented his own challenges, including delayed development and possible ASD. Years later, the abortion still haunts “the father.” He attempts to exorcise his shame (the title = how Anaïs Nin defined it) by volunteering at an abortion clinic. Escorting patients to and from their cars, ignoring the taunts of protestors, he lives out his conviction that you can never fully know what others are going through and why they make the decisions they do.
Davies gets the tone just right in this novella, showing both sides of parenthood and voicing the things you aren’t allowed to think, or at least not to admit to – starting with abortion, which would-be fathers aren’t expected to have strong feelings about. Soon after the writer’s son is born: “He feels about himself for love, the way he might pat his pockets for his wallet and keys. Do I love him yet? Is this love?” As the boy grows into a figure of pathos: “All the things they’ve imagined him growing up to be: A basketball player, a fireman, a chef. [vs. what he actually seems to be] Allergic, friendless, autistic.” Davies also has a gift for zinging phrases, like “the deification of babies” and “the baby-industrial complex” of Babies R Us.
But what I most loved was the rumination on the role that chance plays in a life. “All the coin flips. All the what ifs. Like the litany of prompts he uses in writing class. Heads and tales.” The writer has a background in physics (as Davies himself does), so often brings up Schrödinger’s cat as a metaphor – in any situation, things might have gone either way. Now that the possibilities have narrowed to one and the path has been started, what will you do? The treatment of luck, in particular, led me to think of this as a cross between Larry’s Party by Carol Shields and What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez. The style is similar to Jenny Offill’s; another similar and nearly contemporaneous release is Brood by Jackie Polzin.
I know I read The Fortunes back in 2016 but I retain virtually no memory of it. Davies’s prose, themes, and voice stood out much more for me here. I’ll try his novel The Welsh Girl, too, maybe even for book club later this year. This is an early entry on my Best of 2021 list.
“this is also what the internet is for, he thinks. If online porn universalizes shame, social media universalizes judgment. Both exercises in self-gratification.”
“An older colleague told him once cats were baby substitutes. ‘They weigh the same, they sleep on you, they roll around on their backs kicking their legs in the air. They mewl.’”
For more on abortion from a male perspective: The Cider House Rules by John Irving and Ars Botanica by Tim Taranto.
February Releases by de Visser, George, Lawson, and Smiley
Nonfiction about doctors’ memorable patients and a life of chronic pain and disability; novels set in 1970s Canada and contemporary (but magically outside-of-time) Paris.
That One Patient: Doctors’ and nurses’ stories of the patients who changed their lives forever by Ellen de Visser
[Translated from the Dutch by Brent Annable]
Ellen de Visser is a science writer for the most popular newspaper in the Netherlands, De Volkskrant. Her “That One Patient” column, which began in the summer of 2017, turns interviews with medical professionals into punchy first-person narratives. A collection of them was published in Dutch in 2019. This English translation tacks on 10 additional pieces based on conversations with English and American practitioners (including Dr. Anthony Fauci, immunologist and presidential medical advisor), four of them explicitly reflecting on COVID-19.
Many of the cases are decades old yet stuck with the doctor or nurse in question because of a vital lesson learned. Overtreatment is regretted just as much as an omission of care. Again and again, these medical professionals conclude that it’s impossible to judge someone else’s decisions or quality of life. For instance, a surgeon admits he had a hard time empathizing with his obese patients undergoing stomach reduction until he followed up with a young woman who told him about how invisible she’d felt before her surgery. Premature and disabled children bring grief or joy, not always in the expected doses. A doctor resents the work his team puts into repairing a woman who jumped from an eighth-floor window – why the heroic measures for someone who wanted to die? – until he learns she was pushed. A cancer surgeon develops breast cancer and now knows exactly what her patients go through.
Some of these stories are disturbing: being stalked by a patient with a personality disorder, a man poisoning his girlfriend, a farmer predicting the very day and time of his death. A gynaecologist changes his mind about abortion after he meets a 15-year-old who gave birth at home and left her baby outside in a plastic bag to die of exposure. Other pieces are heart-warming: A paramedic delivers a premature, breech baby right in the ambulance. Staff throw a wedding at the hospital for a dying teen (as in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke). A woman diagnosed with cancer while pregnant has chemotherapy and a healthy baby – now a teenager. There’s even a tale from a vet who crowdfunded prostheses for a lively terrier.
One unique thing about the Netherlands is that euthanasia is legal and provided by doctors upon the express request of a patient suffering from a terminal illness. It is taken for granted in these essays, yet some interviewees express their discomfort with it as an option for young patients. De Visser is careful to note that, even with the situation as it is, only 4% of deaths in the Netherlands are by euthanasia, and the majority of these are end-stage cancer cases.
As with any collection of this nature, some stories are more enticing than others, but overall I found it a surprising and moving set of reflections that is alive to ethical complexities and grapples with tough issues like disability, doctor error, loneliness, pain, and sense of purpose.
Two quotes, in particular, stood out to me, one from a nurse – “We are only ever guests in other people’s lives, and that’s how we ought to behave” – and the other from Dr. Fauci’s piece. In 2014 he treated a doctor who had been volunteering in Sierra Leone after an Ebola outbreak but became ill with the virus and had to be evacuated. “He cited Hippocrates: ‘It is far more important to know what sort of person has the disease, rather than what sort of disease the person has.’ You treated me like a person, not a disease, he said. And that’s what medicine is all about.”
With thanks to 4th Estate for the proof copy for review.
A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George
Over a year of lockdowns, many of us have become accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (My full review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Times Literary Supplement. See also Eleanor’s thorough review.) This is top of my wish list for next year’s Barbellion Prize shortlist.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson
I discovered Mary Lawson in 2015 with Road Ends and caught up with Crow Lake in the summer of 2019. All four of her books are set in fictional locations inspired by the villages and rural areas of Northern Ontario, where the author grew up before moving to England in 1968. So Solace, while not a real town, is true to her memory and, despite the sometimes gruff or know-it-all locals, an emotional landmark for the three central characters, all of whom are processing trauma and looking for places of comfort where they can start over.
1972. First we meet Clara, a plucky seven-year-old sitting vigil. She’s waiting for the return of two people: her sixteen-year-old sister, Rose, who ran away from home; and their next-door neighbour, Mrs. Orchard, whose cat, Moses, she’s feeding until the old lady gets back from the hospital. As days turn into weeks, though, it seems less likely that either will come home, and one day Clara sees a strange man moving boxes around in Mrs. Orchard’s house. This is Liam Kane, who’s inherited the house from a family friend. In his thirties and recently divorced, he’s taking a break in this tiny town, never imagining that he might find a new life. The third protagonist, and only first-person narrator, is Elizabeth, who lies in a hospital bed with heart trouble and voices her memories as a monologue to her late husband.
As we cycle through these three characters’ perspectives in alternating chapters, we gradually come to understand the connections between them. There are satisfying parallels in that, on multiple occasions but in slightly different ways, a child attaches to an older person or an adult stands in as a guardian for a neglected child. All of Lawson’s creations, even the secondary figures, are dealing with distressing memories or a loss of some kind, the details of which might only emerge much later on. Solace offers myriad opportunities for recovery, whether kitty playtime at Mrs. Orchard’s or diner food and homemade ice cream.
Like Lawson’s other works, this is a slow burner featuring troubled families. Her characters, often full of regret and sorrow, take a shadowy past as a prompt to reset their lives. They’re charming in spite of their flaws. I recalled that Crow Lake also looks back to the climactic happenings experienced by a seven-year-old girl. And like Road Ends, A Town Called Solace makes a convincing case for present decisions being influenced by historical trauma. It’s a tender and inviting story I’d recommend to readers of Wendy McGrath and Anne Tyler, with Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley and Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout as specific readalikes. (My dilemma now is whether to read my only remaining Lawson novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, right away or save it: she’s not the most prolific author, with four books in 19 years.)
A favorite passage:
[Liam’s] life prior to coming north seemed to be taking on the quality of an old movie, one in which he’d been deeply engrossed while watching it but which now seemed trivial, unconvincing and profoundly lacking in either colour or plot. Solace had colour and plot in spades, maybe too much. In every way it was coming to seem more real than Toronto, with its endless malls and traffic jams and high-powered jobs. Though maybe, if he went back to Toronto, the same would be true in reverse. Maybe when he’d been back for a couple of months he’d find that it was Solace that seemed unreal, its unremarkable streets and stores like something from a dream, its dramatic landscape fading to nothing, like a holiday photo left in the sun.
With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.
The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley
(Published in the USA in December 2020 under the title Perestroika in Paris. It’s been given a The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse treatment for its UK release.)
My summary for Bookmarks magazine: “A racehorse, Perestroika—nicknamed Paras—strays from her unlocked suburban stable one day, carrying her groom’s purse in her mouth, and ends up in Paris’s Place du Trocadéro. Here she meets Frida the dog, Sid and Nancy the mallards, and Raoul the raven. Frida, whose homeless owner died, knows about money. She takes euros from the purse to buy food from a local market, while Paras gets treats from a baker on predawn walks. Etienne, an eight-year-old orphan who lives with his ancient great-grandmother, visits the snowy park to feed the wary animals (who can talk to each other), and offers Paras a home. A sweet fable for animal lovers.”
Yes, this is a talking animal book, but the animals only talk to each other; they communicate with humans through their gestures and soulful eyes. Kindly shopkeepers work out what Frida wants to buy based on what she stares at or points to with a paw; the baker whose window Paras passes on her early morning walks intuits that the horse is hungry; Etienne, who gives a couple of the stray animals a home during a chill winter, learns to understand when Paras needs to go out to relieve herself, after piles of dung build up in the sitting room.
I liked how patiently and convincingly Smiley builds the portrait of each character – human or animal – and the overall situation of kindness and good fortune. Raoul is particularly amusing for his birdsplaining: “It is a feature of age. I have learned so many things in my life that they just force their way out of my beak,” he says. However, a crow would be much more realistic for Paris (or any city) than a raven, and, overall, this was a little twee and farfetched for my tastes. It was nice to read something a bit different from Smiley, who I haven’t tried since her Last Hundred Years Trilogy. She has a sideline in YA horse novels; this should probably have been lumped with those. (Annabel liked it a bit more.)
I was sent an unsolicited review copy by Picador/Mantle.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Three on a Theme: “Heart”
From a vibrant novel about trauma and second chances to a cultural history of our knowledge of the organ and its symbols, via a true story of the effects of being struck by lightning, what might these three disparate books have to tell us about the human heart on Valentine’s Day?
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo (2018)
This was criminally overlooked a few years ago, though I do remember Naomi F. featuring it on The Writes of Womxn. Set in the early 1990s in the Filipino immigrant neighborhoods of the Bay Area in California, it throws you into an unfamiliar culture at the deep end. There are lots of different ethnicities mentioned, and snippets of various languages (not just Tagalog, the one I knew of previously) run through the text, sometimes translated but often not. It’s a complex, confident debut novel that references episodes from the history of the Philippines of which I was mostly ignorant – genocide and reforms, dictatorship and a Marxist resistance.
Geronima is a family name for the De Veras; not many realize that Hero, in her mid-thirties and newly arrived in the USA as an undocumented immigrant, and her cousin Roni, her uncle Pol’s seven-year-old daughter, share the same first name. Hero is estranged from her wealthy parents: they were friendly with the Marcos clan, while she ran away to serve as a doctor in the New People’s Army for 10 years. We gradually learn that she was held in a prison camp for two years and subjected to painful interrogations. Still psychologically as well as physically marked by the torture, she is reluctant to trust anyone. She stays under the radar, just taking Roni to and from school and looking after her while her parents are at work.
When Roni’s mother Paz, a medical professional, turns to traditional practices for help with Roni’s extreme eczema, Hero takes Roni to the Boy’s BBQ & Grill / Mai’s Hair and Beauty complex to see Adela Cabugao, a Filipina faith healer. The restaurant becomes a refuge for Hero and Roni – a place where they hang out with Adela’s granddaughter, Rosalyn, and her friends in the long hours Paz is away at her hospital jobs, eating and watching videos or reading Asian comics. Over the next few years Rosalyn introduces Hero to American holidays and customs. Castillo is matter-of-fact about Hero’s hook-ups with guys and girls but never strident about a bisexuality label. Hero pursues sex but remains wary of romance.
The everydayness of life here – car rides, cassette tapes, job applications, foil trays of food – contrasts with too-climactic memories. Though the plot can meander, there’s forward motion in that Hero shifts from a survival mindset into an assurance of safety that allows her to start rebuilding her life. I loved the 1990s as a setting. The characters shine and the dialogue (not in speech marks) feels utterly authentic in this fresh immigration story. My only minor disappointment was that second-person narration does not recur beyond a chapter about Paz and one about Rosalyn. The title riffs on a classic of Filipino American literature, America Is in the Heart (1946) by Carlos Bulosan, though I didn’t explore that comparison; it’s a novel that opens up real Google wormholes, should you take up the challenge. Castillo’s vibrant, distinctive voice reminded me of authors from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Viet Thanh Nguyen. Please tell me she has another book in the works.
Favorite line: “Baggage means no matter how far you go, no matter how many times you immigrate, there are countries in you you’ll never leave.”
Words about the heart:
“Hero had no truck with people for whom the heart was a dreamt-up thing, held together by divine saliva, a place where gods of love still made their beds. A heart was something you could buy on the street, six to a skewer … served with garlicky rice and atsuete oil.”
“Hero had never even felt ambivalence toward Pol … She’d only ever known what it felt like to love him, to keep the minor altar of admiration for him in her heart well cleaned, its flowers rotless and blooming. What she hadn’t known was that her love was a room, cavernous, and hate could enter there, too; curl up in the same bed, blanketed and sleep-warm.”
“May tinik sa puso. You know what that means? Like she has a fishbone in the heart. She’s angry about something.”
Source: Free from a neighbor
A Match to the Heart by Gretel Ehrlich (1994)
In August 1991, as a summer thunderstorm approached her Wyoming ranch, Ehrlich was struck by lightning. Although she woke up in a pool of blood, her dogs stayed by her side and she was able to haul herself the quarter-mile home and call 911 before she collapsed completely. Being hit by so much electricity (10–30 million volts) had lasting effects on her health. Her heart rhythms were off and she struggled with fatigue for years to come. In a sense, she had died and come back to a subtly different life.
After relocating to the California coast, she shadows her cardiologist and observes open-heart surgery, attends the annual Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Conference, and explores a new liminal land of beaches and islands. Again and again, she uses metaphors of the bardo and the phoenix to make sense of the in-between state she perhaps still inhabits. Full-on medical but also intriguingly mystical, this is another solid memoir from a phenomenal author. I know of her more as a nature/travel writer (This Cold Heaven is fantastic) and have another of her books on the shelf, The Solace of Open Spaces.
Words about the heart:
“Above and beyond the drama of cardiac arrest, or the threat of it, is the metaphorical territory of the heart: if love desists, if passion arrests, if compassion stops circulating through the arteries of society, then civilization, such as it is, will stop.”
“The thoracic cavity must have been the place where human music began, the first rhythm was the beat of the heart, and after that initial thump, waltzes and nocturnes, preludes and tangos rang out, straight up through flesh and capillary, nerve ganglion and epidermal layer, resonating in sternum bone: it wasn’t light that created the world but sound.”
Source: Birthday gift (secondhand) a couple years ago
Heart: The Story of Its Myths and Meanings by Gail Godwin (2001)
I’d read one novel and one memoir by Godwin and was excited to learn that she had once written a wide-ranging study of the religious and literary meanings overlaid on the heart. While there are some interesting pinpricks here, the delivery is shaky: she starts off with a dull, quotation-stuffed, chronological timeline, all too thorough in its plod from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Industrial Revolution. I quickly resorted to skimming and my eye alighted on Chinese philosophy (“True knowledge, Confucius taught, lies in the heart. He created and taught an ethical system that emphasized ‘human-heartedness,’ stressing balance in the heart”) and Dickens’s juxtaposition of facts and emotion in Hard Times.
Part Two, “Heart Themes in Life and Art,” initially seemed more promising in that it opens with the personal stories of her half-brother’s death in a murder–suicide and her mother’s fatal heart attack while driving a car, but I didn’t glean much from her close readings of, e.g. Joseph Conrad and Elizabeth Bowen. Still, I’ll keep this on the shelf as a reference book for any specific research I might do in the future.
Source: Bookbarn International on February 2020 visit (my last time there)
If you read just one … It’s got to be America Is Not the Heart. (Though, if you’re also interested in first-person medical accounts, add on A Match to the Heart.)
Fairy Tales, Outlaws, Experimental Prose: Three More January Novels
Today I’m featuring three more works of fiction that were released this month, as a supplement to yesterday’s review of Mrs Death Misses Death. Although the four are hugely different in setting and style, and I liked some better than others (such is the nature of reading and book reviewing), together they’re further proof – as if we needed it – that female authors are pushing the envelope. I wouldn’t be surprised to see any or all of these on the Women’s Prize longlist in March.
The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin
What happens next for Cinderella?
Grushin’s fourth novel unpicks a classic fairy tale narrative, starting 13.5 years into a marriage when, far from being starry-eyed with love for Prince Roland, the narrator hates her philandering husband and wants him dead. As she retells the Cinderella story to her children one bedtime, it only underscores how awry her own romance has gone: “my once-happy ending has proved to be only another beginning, a prelude to a tale dimmer, grittier, far more ambiguous, and far less suitable for children”. She gathers Roland’s hair and nails and goes to a witch for a spell, but her fairy godmother shows up to interfere. The two embark on a good cop/bad cop act as the princess runs backward through her memories: one defending Roland and the other convinced he’s a scoundrel.
Part One toggles back and forth between flashbacks (in the third person and past tense) and the present-day struggle for the narrator’s soul. She comes to acknowledge her own ignorance and bad behaviour. “All I want is to be free—free of him, free of my past, free of my story. Free of myself, the way I was when I was with him.” In Part Two, as the princess tries out different methods of escape, Grushin coyly inserts allusions to other legends and nursery rhymes: a stepsister lives with her many children in a house shaped like a shoe; the witch tells a variation on the Bluebeard story; the fairy godmother lives in a Hansel and Gretel-like candy cottage; the narrator becomes a maid for 12 slovenly sisters; and so on.
The plot feels fairly aimless in this second half, and the mixture of real-world and fantasy elements is peculiar. I much preferred Grushin’s previous book, Forty Rooms (and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, one of her chief inspirations). However, her two novels share a concern with how women’s ambitions can take a backseat to their roles, and both weave folktales and dreams into a picture of everyday life. But my favourite part of The Charmed Wife was the subplot: interludes about Brie and Nibbles, the princess’s pet mice; their lives being so much shorter, they run through many generations of a dramatic saga while the narrator (whose name we do finally learn, just a few pages from the end) is stuck in place.
With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the free copy for review.
Outlawed by Anna North
I was a huge fan of North’s previous novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, which cobbles together the story of the title character, a bisexual filmmaker, from accounts by the people who knew her best. Outlawed, an alternative history/speculative take on the traditional Western, could hardly be more different. In a subtly different version of the United States, everyone now alive in the 1890s is descended from those who survived a vicious 1830s flu epidemic. The duty to repopulate the nation has led to a cult of fertility and devotion to the Baby Jesus. From her mother, a midwife and herbalist, Ada has learned the basics of medical care, but the causes of barrenness remain a mystery and childlessness is perceived as a curse.
Ada marries at 17 and fails to get pregnant within a year. After an acquaintance miscarries, rumours start to spread about Ada being a witch. Kicked out by her mother-in-law, she takes shelter first at a convent and then with the Hole in the Wall gang. She’ll be the doctor to this band of female outlaws who weren’t cut out for motherhood and shunned marriage – including lesbians, a mixed-race woman, and their leader, the Kid, who is nonbinary. The Kid is a mentally tortured prophet with a vision of making the world safe for people like them (“we were told a lie about God and what He wants from us”), mainly by, Robin Hood-like, redistributing wealth through hold-ups and bank robberies. Ada, who longs to conduct proper research into reproductive health rather than relying on religious propaganda, falls for another gender nonconformist, Lark, and does what she can to make the Kid’s dream a reality.
Reese Witherspoon choosing this for her Hello Sunshine book club was a great chance for North’s work to get more attention. However, I felt that the ideas behind this novel were more noteworthy than the execution. The similarity to The Handmaid’s Tale is undeniable, though I liked this a bit more. I most enjoyed the medical and religious themes, and appreciated the attention to childless and otherwise unconventional women. But the setup is so condensed and the consequences of the gang’s major heist so rushed that I wondered if the novel needed another 100 pages to stretch its wings. I’ll just have to await North’s next book.
With thanks to W&N for the proof copy for review.
little scratch by Rebecca Watson
I love a circadian narrative and had heard interesting things about the experimental style used in this debut novel. I even heard Watson read a passage from it as part of the Faber Live Fiction Showcase and found it very funny and engaging. But I really should have tried an excerpt before requesting this for review; I would have seen at a glance that it wasn’t for me. I don’t have a problem with prose being formatted like poetry (Girl, Woman, Other; Stubborn Archivist; the prologue of Wendy McGrath’s Santa Rosa; parts of Mrs Death Misses Death), but here it seemed to me that it was only done to alleviate the tedium of the contents.
A young woman who, like Watson, works for a newspaper, trudges through a typical day: wake up, get ready, commute to the office, waste time and snack in between doing bits of work, get outraged about inconsequential things, think about her boyfriend (only ever referred to as “my him” – probably my biggest specific pet peeve about the book), and push down memories of a sexual assault. Thus, the only thing that really happens happened before the book even started. Her scratching, to the point of open wounds and scabs, seems like a psychosomatic symptom of unprocessed trauma. By the end, she’s getting ready to tell her boyfriend about the assault, which seems like a step in the right direction.
I might have found Watson’s approach captivating in a short story, or as brief passages studded in a longer narrative. At first it’s a fun puzzle to ponder how these mostly unpunctuated words, dotted around the pages in two to six columns, fit together – should one read down each column, or across each row, or both? – but when all the scattershot words are only there to describe a train carriage filling up or repetitive quotidian actions (sifting through e-mails, pedalling a bicycle), the style soon grates. You may have more patience with it than I did if you loved A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing or books by Emma Glass.
A favourite passage: “got to do this thing again, the waking up thing, the day thing, the work thing, disentangling from my duvet thing, this is something, this is a thing I have to do then,” [appears all as one left-aligned paragraph]
With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.
Tomorrow I’ll review three nonfiction works published in January, all on a medical theme.