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Any author who describes her passionate engagement with Virginia Woolf’s writing will instantly grab my attention. So when I saw how Katharine Smyth’s memoir “All the Lives We Ever Lived” is about her process of finding solace in reading Woolf’s novel “To the Lighthouse” amidst the prolonged illness and death of her father I was drawn to it. My experience was further enhanced by reading this book along with fellow YouTubers Britta Bohler and Kendra Winchester. We left each other wonderfully long geeky messages about our reactions to the book and general thoughts about Virginia Woolf’s life and work. I think this is what makes this book something more than a traditional memoir – it’s a communion for anyone who has been deeply affected by Woolf’s writing. Smyth mimics the structure of “To the Lighthouse” to tell her own experiences before, during and after her father’s illness to mirror the three sections of Woolf’s novel. But she also interjects how her experiences and emotions are informed by her reading as well as meditating on the life of Woolf herself. In this way the author creatively approaches the experience of grief and mourning, the complexity of how we feel about our families and how our relationship with art and literature is often deeply personal.

Smyth powerfully captures that revelatory sensation we can sometimes get as readers where we feel so connected to the text of a book. After quoting a section from “To the Lighthouse” she describes how “I was drawn to that darkness and depth; it actually hurt to read a sentence like the one above; it was so apt, it was so beautiful; I longed for Woolf’s genius, yes, but I also longed for Mrs. Ramsay herself, for her as my mother, for her as my friend; I wanted to be her – that’s how painful I found the distance between us, the distance between me and that text. I might have swallowed the page.” This total immersion in a book is the kind of spellbinding experience which makes reading so important and unique. Smyth chronicles how certain sections of Woolf’s novel spoke to her at different times and how her feelings about the characters change over time. She shows how the experience of reading and rereading yields ever-shifting meanings as we navigate different challenges throughout our lives.

“To the Lighthouse” is a fictional memorial to Woolf’s mother where she sought to capture something of her essence in the character of Mrs Ramsay. Smyth is doing the same with her father but, rather than just neatly draw parallels between him and Mrs Ramsay, Smyth freely makes connections with other figures as well. For instance, she considers how Mr Ramsay strives for intellectual achievement and doesn’t achieve as much as he hoped for. Similarly her father encounters different personal and professional set-backs and disappointments. But Smyth freely admits that her quest to connect life and text doesn’t always work so neatly: “Such is the nature of Woolfian failure, which, despite my urge to conflate them, turns out to be a different breed from my father’s own.” In many ways her experiences and the events in Woolf’s novel are very different. But her process doesn’t feel forced; it’s more of a meandering journey through this significant time in her life while reflecting on how the universal meaning found in “To the Lighthouse” speaks to her experience.

One of the most moving and melancholy sections of the book is the last where she describes her experiences in the aftermath of her father’s death. Here she’s confronted with an absence in the same way the characters in “To the Lighthouse” live with a palpable loss in the final section. It’s an all-consuming sensation of grief and Smyth feels that Woolf’s novel wholly captures the reality of this experience. She poignantly describes the knowledge she gleaned from the book and how “To grieve is to be floored, again and again, by a series of epiphanies that, put to paper, sound painfully banal. To grieve is likewise to be plagued by questions that can only gesture towards the clarity we seek and occasionally find – these are the shorthand by which we must stumble through an experience too vast and too disorientating to express in its totality.” Woolf’s writing frequently gestures at thoughts and feelings which can’t be contained in language and Smyth equally finds that her experience can’t be summarised. Rather, she points to the way time moves onward. Lives end, homes are transformed or destroyed and memories are lost.

Godrevy Lighthouse - Woolf’s inspiration for the lighthouse in her novel

Godrevy Lighthouse - Woolf’s inspiration for the lighthouse in her novel

I’ve always felt one of the most difficult dimensions of grief is how it can valorise those who have been lost over those who are still living. Death can highlight the cruel reality of how we value certain people in our lives over others. Some people in mourning might even wish that other family members had died rather than the person that’s been lost. This dark reality is described in “To the Lighthouse” where some of the Ramsay children resent Mr Ramsay’s presence when Mrs Ramsay’s absence is so painfully felt. It’s striking how Smyth admits how she valued the love of her father over her mother because “how uneventful it is to be loved by her, a person whose very existence was so dependable that I rarely, if ever, considered it.” So it’s moving how she finds one of the most revelatory experiences of losing her father is the appreciation and connection she makes with her mother “it wasn’t until well after his death that I finally took the time to ask for her memories, to listen to her own account of grief. She surprised me”.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Smyth’s style of writing at times mimics Woolf’s own – especially when describing certain places or the presence of light. But I don’t think this is intended as imitation. It’s more a gesture at how Woolf’s sensibility has permeated the way she actually senses and interprets the world around her. It’s a gesture at the way Woolf’s writing has enveloped her life as a way of understanding daily existence in the wake of this significant loss. Moreover, this reinforces how the experience of reading this memoir is akin to enjoying a conversation with a fellow Woolf lover. But, for this reason, I’m not sure I’d recommend anyone who hasn’t read Woolf read this memoir. I’m not sure how meaningful Smyth’s analysis and connection to Woolf’s text would be for anyone who hasn’t read “To the Lighthouse” – although, I’d be fascinated to hear what anyone who has read this memoir but never read Woolf thinks about “All the Lives We Ever Lived”. Regardless, I found this book very moving and it’s made me want to go back to reading Woolf – yet again!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKatharine Smyth
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George Orwell’s books were one of my first great loves. Like many students I was first introduced to his writing through “1984” and “Animal Farm” but soon after I also came to discover his other fiction including “Burmese Days”, “A Clergyman’s Daughter” and “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” as well as his nonfiction journalism in “Down and Out in Paris and London” and “The Road to Wigan Pier” – not to mention his many incisive essays. The Orwell Foundation awards a number of prizes for work which comes closest to Orwell’s ambition “to make political writing into an art” and it’s exciting that this year they’ve launched the inaugural Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. This award specifically aims to reward outstanding novels and collections of short stories that illuminate major social and political themes, present or past, through the art of narrative.

The shortlist has just been announced today and includes a number of familiar novels as well as some books I’m so glad to see celebrated. It’s notable how the novels listed range from books which consider the past, present and future. From Tshuma’s account of a massacre in Zimbabwe to Evans’ survey of modern life in contemporary London to Zumas’ frighteningly relevant projection of an America where abortion has been strictly outlawed these books consider how individuals are trapped in the politics of their time. Still others straddle a long space of history such as Brown’s account of working class life within a Middlesbrough housing estate to evoke a sense of place as much as character.

It’s amazing to see how Anna Burns’ “Milkman” was first published to relative obscurity but has since gone on to win the Man Booker Prize and be shortlisted for both the Rathbones Folio Prize and Women’s Prize. It’s particularly apt Burns’ novel has been nominated for this award since its central message is about a young woman being helplessly trapped by the crushing political strife within her community. Also nominated for the Man Booker Prize last year was graphic novel “Sabrina” which hauntingly depicts an America emotionally hollowed out by the reverberating effects of gun violence. Taking a different track, Evans’ “Ordinary People” features larger political events in the background as two different black couples wrestle with the pressures of modern day life. I was drawn to reading “Red Clocks” because of its allusions to Virginia Woolf’s writing, but found myself gripped by its story and its prescient depiction of an America which regimentally controls the bodies of women.

The remaining two novels “House of Stone” and “Ironopolis” are both books I’ve been aware of for a while and really want to read. So I’m glad this prize has prompted me to make these novels a priority and bump them up my TBR pile. Have you read any of the books on this list? Any favourites? Are there other recent novels that you also feel meaningfully engage with politics? The winner of this award will be announced on June 25th.

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I don't often read biographies but when I saw that Matthew Sturgis' recent book on Oscar Wilde has been shortlisted for this year's prestigious Wolfson History Prize I thought this would be a great opportunity to learn more about Wilde's life. Sturgis' extensive biography is deliciously comprehensive and draws upon a lot of recent research and untapped material about Wilde to give a really authoritative, well-rounded understanding of this infamous, irresistibly flamboyant and brilliant writer. I've previously read Wilde's most famous fiction as well as several of his plays (I even acted in a production of Lady Windermere's Fan) but I knew little about the trajectory of his life. I was only aware that he was a famous wit whose health and success went into sharp decline after he was tried and imprisoned for gross indecency with men. For instance, Rupert Everett's recent film 'The Happy Prince' is a really sympathetic depiction of the melancholy later years of Wilde's life. Sturgis documents in detail Wilde's family life and many social connections, his rise to fame and the gradual formation of his writing craft, the way his aesthetic principles connected to the expression of his sexuality and, of course, Wilde's tragic downfall from social darling to condemned sodomite. In doing so he has created a masterful portrait of Wilde capturing the rare flame of his brilliance and the gross injustice of his persecution. 

In 2017 I went to an exhibit at the Tate Britain on the subject of 'Queer British Art' and within the gallery hung the large door from Wilde's prison cell. To be confronted with the ugly impenetrable barrier to the artist's freedom was quite moving and brought home the reality of his situation. One could think seeing such a brutal object that this was Wilde's inevitable fate. The challenge of biographies is to present the history of a life while showing that circumstance and coincidence determined what happened to this individual (rather than fate.) This biography begins with a scandalous and much publicised sex trial – but it was for Wilde's father and not Oscar himself. Wilde's father was a doctor accused of inappropriate behaviour with his client. He was exonerated of the charges (partly because of his very respected social position) even though he was certainly a philanderer who fathered a number of illegitimate children. This was sadly not the case with Oscar many years later whose sexual activity happened to be deemed socially unacceptable and so he met severe punishment. Sturgis draws this contrast in a meaningful way.

It's fascinating and surprising to read about Wilde's early life as a rambunctious sporty child in Ireland. I would have assumed that his mannered sense of being was inborn but it appears that (though it was certainly heartfelt) it was a way of presenting himself as one of the leaders of the aestheticism. This was a movement which focused on the aesthetic values rather than political or moral content of literature and art objects. The often flamboyant dress code and posturing which coincided with this was one which periodicals delighted in parodying. It was so interesting to learn how Wilde played into this by connecting himself to such depictions and self-consciously crafted a way of presenting himself in order to achieve fame. And what was especially curious was that Wilde obtained such a level of fame before he'd even published much. I was previously aware that he embarked on extensive lecture tours across America and the United Kingdom, but I assumed that he only did so after the fame of his plays. However, it was quite the reverse. He fervently attempted and failed to get plays produced while simultaneously filling theatres with patrons eager to hear his witticisms about an aesthetic's decorum and manner. This biography taught me what a struggle Wilde had achieving literary success even though he was clearly ferociously intelligent and funny; it just took time for him to learn how to harness this into an art form which would pay his considerable bills.

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Certainly not everyone agreed with Wilde's values and dandy persona. His opinions ran counter to the beliefs of the times so naturally earned him a lot of scorn – as did the petty vengeance which comes within small art circles. But no one could deny Wilde's entertaining style of delivery so it firmly fixed him in the public eye. It was interesting to learn in Sturgis' biography how Wilde attempted to embark in a number of professions before earning money from his own writing. For instance, he reviewed books but hilariously Wilde didn't believe it was necessary or even appropriate to read the entire book he was reviewing. No doubt this position stemmed more from his reluctance to spend so much time on these books.

It's difficult to imagine how Wilde could be extracted from his famous public persona which persists today in legend and the many photos taken of him in elaborate garb. For instance, actor Ezra Miller cites Wilde as one of his style icons. Perhaps Wilde wouldn't have developed his literary talents without this way of presenting himself (as well as indulging in his excessive lifestyle), but it meant that though he was a great genius his literary output was relatively low. The time he hit his stride having a number of very successful plays produced was also the time that he became most entangled with Lord Douglas (Bosie). Because Bosie's father so viciously harassed Wilde and Bosie to end their relationship the couple attempted to sue him for libel and lost. This also unfortunately meant that the testimonies from that trial led to Wilde's own persecution and incarceration. Sturgis' biography details how this end perhaps wasn't inevitable. Of course, the primary cause of his downfall was the prejudice of the time and this paired with Wilde's inflexibility about being who he was and living how he wanted led to his ruin. Wilde should be celebrated for pursing his desires and bravely standing in the face of such condemnation, but it sadly meant that his life was cut short and curtailed his literary output. Sturgis' impressive biography elucidates this struggle in a meaningful and memorable way.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMatthew Sturgis
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I get so excited whenever I start a novel that begins with a family tree. Something about the style of a family saga really appeals to me in the way it traces how individuals function both independently and as part of a family. “Celestial Bodies” mainly focuses on the stories of three sisters in modern day Oman, but it also presents a number of perspectives of different family members and people connected to that family. Like Sara Taylor's novel “The Shore” it also moves backwards and forwards in time showing how the decisions and circumstances of earlier generations impact the current generation. This creates a poignant picture of what this family inherits but also a larger picture of how the country of Oman has changed so rapidly in its values and social structures (especially in regards to slavery and women's rights) over the past century. But what engrossed me throughout this novel was the skilful way in which Jokha Alharthi entrenches the reader in each perspective to immerse you in their dilemmas and (often) hidden passions. 

It was fortuitous that I happened to be in the middle of reading “Celestial Bodies” when it was announced as the winner of this year's Man Booker International Prize. While I enjoyed the stories it was presenting it's the type of book where you can feel a bit disorientated until you understand its plethora of characters and the various timelines at play. For a while it felt like I was looking at a jigsaw puzzle trying to figure out how the pieces fit together. But the work in putting it together yields a lot of pleasure because it allowed me to see a much larger picture of this family's various trials and developments over a long period of time. It forced me to think about their personal history not in a linear way but in the resonance of events and how they impact different generations.

I especially appreciated how this novel depicts absences within a family like in this passage about the mother named Salima who grieves for her lost son: “Every day and every night, for ten years, she died a little more. She breathed and ate and drank but she was dead. She spoke to people and walked among them, dead.” Quite often families will have members who die at quite an early age and their loss can reverberate through many years. So while the story is mostly about the immediate concerns of these very different sisters we gradually come to understand that their older brothers' presence also remains in the minds and hearts of this family. And there's a touching injustice to how people can become preoccupied with these losses rather than focusing on fostering the development of those still living.

This is such a rich and complex novel whose many layers will probably become more evident with a rereading. Yet there is so much in the immediate concerns of its characters being presented from chapter to chapter showing all their many humorous idiosyncrasies and longings that I found this first reading entirely engrossing. I was particularly gripped by the story of the bookish middle sister Asma whose marriage takes her life in an unexpected new direction. While I could connect with a lot of the sisters and their husband's concerns it was really fascinating to read about lives and a culture so different from my own. It's made me much more interested in exploring literature from other countries and I'm so glad the Man Booker International Prize has prompted me to read more translated fiction this year.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJokha Alharthi
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It's usually only in retrospect that we can consider the seismic importance of major political events we lived through in our childhood. “The Remainder” opens with an account of the children of Chilean revolutionaries whose parents are having a party on the evening of 1988 when Pinochet is voted out of office. Of course, the children are more interested in sneaking sips of alcohol and fostering their own obsessions while the adults are embroiled in politics. Many years later the three children Paloma, Iquela and Felipe embark in a hearse on a surreal road trip. They want to retrieve the body of Paloma's mother which has been lost in transport because a volcanic eruption has covered nearby cities in ash and has caused the plane transporting the body to be redirected. The lyrical prose describe the rich intricacy of their interactions and shifting relationships with each other as well as their stumbling efforts to make sense of the political circumstances they were raised in. This is vibrant story that captures all the complexities of feeling experienced by a particular country's new generation burdened with the weight of the past. 

It's impressive how the prose is mainly composed of big blocks of dense text which are filled with oblique references, yet there's an admirable lightness of style which make them compulsively readable. Chapters switch between the perspectives of Iquela who has a tense distant relationship with her mother and Felipe who turns the country's numerous dead into a mathematical equation he feels obliged to solve. A strong subtle bond develops between Iquela and Paloma who has lived abroad for years so her experience contrasts sharply against Iquela's circumscribed existence. In Felipe's more rhapsodic sections he has emotionally-fraught brief encounters with both the living and the dead. There's a great pleasure in following their chaotic journey which is filled with all the angst and humour of young people trying to figure out their place in the world and navigate the shifting depths of their own desires.

At times It felt like a hallucinatory experience reading this novel – partly because they take some strong drugs left from Paloma's mother's illness and partly because of the haunting physical setting of a city coated in ash. But I found it easy to relate to their ardent confusion trying to connect to a proceeding generation who lost themselves in an imagined future. Felipe's mathematical mission “to count objects so that they became associated with a perfect, seamless figure” takes on a great poignancy as these three young people face the reality of innumerable casualties lost amidst a crushing former dictatorship. Though they don't embody the values of their parents, these queer young people have inherited the fallout of that generation’s conflicts. This novel currently shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize powerfully captures this tension in a way which is imaginative and convincing.

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It’s interesting how when Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel “My Sister, the Serial Killer” was first published at the beginning of this year it received a lot of positive responses, but when it was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize it started to receive a lot more criticism by people who don’t feel it’s “prize worthy”. Personally, one of the things I enjoy most about book prizes are that they push me to read books I haven’t got around to yet so I was glad to finally experience Braithwaite’s novel for myself. I thought I’d really enjoy reading it and I absolutely did. It’s narrated from the perspective of Korede, a nurse who has lived somewhat in the shadow of her more beautiful and vivacious sister Ayoola. But unfortunately Ayoola has a habit of murdering her boyfriends when they anger her and Ayoola helps her cover these crimes up. When Ayoola becomes romantically involved with a doctor named Tade who Korede also desires things become even more complicated. It’s a fast-paced and thrilling story about sisterhood and the roles of women in society.

I enjoyed how Korede comes across as an uptight but largely sympathetic character who feels protective of her sister above all else. Although they are nothing but supportive to each other in person, the complexities of their relationship are drawn in the way second-hand information is related through the figure of Tade who makes very different claims about what the sisters say about each other. Braithwaite creates a lot of tension in the way the characters slyly try to manipulate and distort perceptions. I also appreciated the way the backstory of the girls’ complicated home life and difficulties with their father cemented an early bond between them and a propensity for acting outside what is morally and legally right in order to survive. All this formed a lot of suspense which kept me gripped to the end and wondering how the story would conclude.

I do get why some people have said this novel doesn’t seem to be making any larger statements. It’s an effective psychological suspense story. It lightly touches upon a number of issues. Ayoola’s beauty gives her a number of privileges and allows people to give her the benefit of the doubt whereas Korede is treated more like a villain because of how she looks and her serious demeanour. Ultimately this says a lot more about the way men treat women and the social expectations placed upon women more than the women’s actions. But the story doesn’t delve too deeply into these topics. I certainly cared about the characters and how the story would resolve itself. Maybe that’s enough and prize winners don’t need to be ground-breaking artistic works with a big message. Regardless of book prize politics I’m glad this novel was given more exposure and I’m sure a lot of people have enjoyed reading it.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s interesting when book prizes such as the Rathbones Folio Prize consider contenders from very different genres and styles. This year’s shortlist places nonfiction alongside poetry and fiction. But even the nominated fiction including Burns’ highly stylized “Milkman” and the contemporary “Ordinary People” varies wildly. Most striking are the lengths of the two historical novels in contention: “Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile” by Alice Jolly which is 640 pages and “West” by Carys Davies which is a mere 149 pages. In a way it feels impossible that these books can be judged against each other, but since they have included such a diverse list I assume the judges must only be considering the excellence of the book itself and how well they believe the authors succeeded within the parameters of form. In this way, “West” excels in how it tells a straightforward, succinct and simple story that has a much bigger meaning.

In early 19th century America a widower named Cy Bellman journeys out to the wild west leaving behind his adolescent daughter Bess. He’s seen a news report that the bones of colossal unknown beasts were discovered there so he sets out hoping to discover if any of these rare animals survive. His mission is undoubtably foolish as such a dangerous journey at this time takes years and means he has to entrust the business of his farm and the raising of his daughter to his sister Julie. It’s not even an endeavour to strike it rich like in a gold rush, but just to witness a heretofore unknown creature of enormous size. We follow the years of his hazardous journey alongside the perils his daughter Bess faces as she grows into womanhood. It’s utterly gripping and poignantly told.

It’s a complicated task to portray a male character who acts with such arrogance and stubborn pride. In a way I hated Cy for abandoning his responsibilities to his daughter and leaving a life where he could have been quite content. He even had the prospect of a new romance with a local woman who was a widow. But at the same time he was merely asserting his independence to pursue his dream (even if he was only acting on what today would be considered a mid-life crisis.) It’s a radical act in response to the weight of responsibility he feels and his unresolved grief at the loss of Bess’ mother. Clearly Cy wasn’t doing what was morally or logically right, but Davies effectively shows the complexity of his decision.

It can be tricky for an author to portray a man acting selfishly and at the expense of others in a sympathetic way – as I felt when reading the recently translated novel The Pine Islands. These novels have another interesting parallel of having non-white “sidekick” characters whose dilemmas are taken seriously while not being treated with equal weight to the primary white male character. Cy enlists the help of a Native American Shawnee teenage boy named ‘Old Woman From a Distance’ to help guide him. His tribulations are treated seriously and in a way I felt he was the most complex character in this novella. But Davies portrays all her characters in a way which maintains their integrity and highlights their sometimes horrific actions while not placing any judgements on them.

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Aside from these characters’ personal stories this novella seems to be saying something much bigger about the country as a whole and the human impulse to chase illusions. In America’s mission to expand and grow it paved over the land’s history and decimated the native people who inhabited it. The novel shows the casualties of this and the innate desire some people felt to connect with this forgotten history. At the same time it shows how pursing what seems most foolish can become the most important drive in an individual’s life. The novella opens up a lot of issues which leave subtle questions in the reader’s mind and I admired how it does all this with tremendous economy.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesCarys Davies
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Sandra Newman’s “The Heavens” begins like a quaint modern love story about two individuals named Kate and Ben who meet at a “rich girl’s party” in New York City in the year 2000, but it steadily turns into a highly innovative and entertaining meditation on time, psychology, memory, reality, ambition and destiny. When Kate goes to sleep she finds her mind has melded with that of Emilia Lanier, the Elizabethan-era poet, member of the minor gentry and the person some scholars speculate to be the “Dark Lady” referenced in Shakespeare’s more “bawdy” sequence of sonnets. And when Kate wakes again she finds the world around her has changed in small and large ways. She becomes convinced she must manipulate history to try to save the world and change the present for the better – even though she runs the risk of making things worse. This is such a surprising and playful tale as well as being one which asks us to seriously question our relationship to history. It’s also a totally original and beguiling time travel fantasy.

The only other book I’ve read by Newman is her previous novel “The Country of Ice Cream Star” which imagines a post-apocalyptic future run by warring tribes of children. The author seems especially adept at creatively considering how our society might radically morph due to cataclysmic events. It’s also notable how Newman consistently includes a diverse cast of characters in leading roles - from her previous novel led mainly by African American and Latino characters to this new novel where the heritage of her protagonists are mixtures of Bengali, Jewish, Hungarian, Turkish and Persian. Other than simply representing the full breadth of society, this inclusion of a range of ethnicities and nationalities deepen our consideration of how notions of history are often highly politicised. Newman’s heroines also challenge our ideas about the roles women play in shaping the past, present and future.

One of the most pleasurable things about “The Heavens” is the way Newman playfully undermines Shakespeare’s stature as the most revered figure in Western literature. She’s spoken in an interview about how she purposefully wrote this as a “disrespectful version” of Shakespeare and when he first appears in the novel he’s referred to as “Sad Will”. This isn’t to say Newman doesn’t admire Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, but it’s both challenging and refreshing to think about a version of reality where Shakespeare might have only been a footnote of history and considered a minor poet. Indeed there were probably many writers – especially female poets such as Emilia Lanier who is credited as being the first Englishwoman to assert herself as a professional poet – whose creative writing didn’t fully survive through the ages because of chance or the happenstance of not being lauded in the way Shakespeare’s work has been throughout the centuries.

In this way the innovative plot of this novel raises compelling questions about the nature of ambition. What are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of our own legacy or for the betterment of society? And what does the betterment of society even mean? One of the most fascinating characters of the novel is Sabine, the “rich girl” who throws the party at the novel’s beginning. She has a high level of insecurity in the way she gossips and manipulatively speaks about other characters. But she also has good-hearted (if questionable) munificent tendencies in how she instigates charitable causes whether it’s housing a huge variety of wayward individuals or attempting to foster a more harmonious society by purchasing an entire impoverished town. These strands of the story seem to be questioning how adept capitalism is at “solving” some of the most pressing dilemmas at the heart of our civilization.

Emilia Lanier as painted by Nicholas Hill

Emilia Lanier as painted by Nicholas Hill

I’m so impressed by the way this novel carries out multiple timelines and strands of its story which weave in and out of various potential histories. She plays upon various thematically-linked pop cultural references including ‘Terminator 2’ and she notes in an interview how the genesis of the novel began a joke where it was pitched as “Highlander set in the era of Shakespeare”. Parts of the story also felt like it was playing with ideas similar to ‘The Matrix’ in questioning what version of reality is real. I think this novel also has a similarly creative approach to Joyce Carol Oates’ recent novel ‘Hazards of Time Travel’ in considering ideas of personal responsibility and how we shape history. And even though “The Heavens” contemplates so many bigger ideas and issues, it still works as an effective and compelling love story where we follow this couple’s unusual struggle to be together. It’s a novel that I know will warrant rereading in order to pick out the subtle way its characters and settings change through subtly manipulated different versions of the present.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSandra Newman
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When I can't sleep at night I have a habit of watching nature documentaries. At one point I found a programme that focuses on marsupials and there were two episodes on wombats. After discovering more about these rodent-like burrowers I was absolutely smitten and have become obsessed with watching videos about them ever since. It turns out I'm not alone as the Pre-Raphaelite artists of mid-nineteenth century London were also keen on these curious creatures – as described in this article about Dante Gabriel Rossetti's pet wombats. Elizabeth Macneal sent this to me because she is also a fan of wombats and one prominently features in her wonderfully immersive debut novel “The Doll Factory”. I always enjoy reading riveting Dickensian historical novels and Macneal's excellent book is at the same level as Sarah Waters' “Fingersmith” and Imogen Hermes Gowar's “The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock”, but when I encountered the character of Guinevere the wombat in “The Doll Factory” I fell firmly in love with it. 

The novel is immediately captivating as it describes the tale of the Whittle sisters who work in a doll shop where they painstakingly fashion and paint dolls under the watchful gaze of the bullying proprietress. One sister named Iris who has a misshapen clavicle aspires to become an artist and practices her painting in secret. There's also Silas who is a peculiar taxidermist who fashions curiosities out of animal carcases which he sometimes sells to artists to use as models for their painting. Connecting these two characters is a crafty and sensitive ten year old boy named Albie who is saving to buy himself a new set of teeth while also trying to navigate the hard city streets doing odd jobs like procuring material for the doll shop or animal carcases for Silas. Their stories are set against the 1851 Great Exhibition in London and the atmosphere is evoked with such excellent detail so that you feel the chaos, excitement and gritty realness of the city at this time.

Iris becomes involved in a movement of artists (which includes Gabriel Rossetti) during this period who self-consciously identified themselves as the PRB and sought to use intense colours, abundant detail and complex compositions in their artwork. She develops her craft while simultaneously working as a model for a particular artist. Macneal intelligently describes her difficult position as a woman in this period as she is shunned by her family for not sticking to a more traditional role and as a creative individual whose work won't be considered fairly alongside her male contemporaries. The plight of women is also depicted in the lives of different prostitutes (including Albie's sister) who are largely treated as disposable.

Drawing by Gabriel Rossetti of Jane Morris and his wombat Top

Drawing by Gabriel Rossetti of Jane Morris and his wombat Top

Something this novel does so powerfully is capture the psychology of a character so steeped in his misogyny he doesn't recognize the violence he unleashes upon women as a crime. We follow his vile logic imagining scenarios of how he expects women to react to him so that when they act differently in reality he feels entirely justified in the violence he inflicts upon them. This is a chillingly effective technique of narrative which reminds me of the final section of Rachel Kushner's “The Mars Room”. While Macneal vividly captures a sociopath's logic, she describes with equal power Albie's good-hearted viewpoint. Though he may seem abrupt and evasive on the outside he has deep feelings and sympathy for the women closest to him. Something Macneal does so well in creating her characters is show how their words and actions don't always convey how they really feel about the people in their lives. In this way the author creates a lot of dramatic tension because we can see how people's pride and stubbornness can obstruct them from fostering the relationships they really desire.

I was thoroughly engaged and gripped throughout this powerful story which is written with such intelligence. It creatively meditates on the subjects of art and obsession – and if you happen to be a fan of wombats you'll be enthralled by the role one plays in the plot as well as the hilarious ingenuity of a character who writes a poem from the perspective of a remorseful wombat!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I really like book prizes which include both fiction and nonfiction because it encourages me to read something other than novels. This year's Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist includes two books of nonfiction and one book of poetry. I'm especially keen to read Ashleigh Young's “Can You Tolerate This?” which are essays exploring subjects such as isolation and debilitating shyness. But it also includes a few familiar novels which have also been listed for other prizes such as “Ordinary People” which is currently on the Women's Prize shortlist, “There There” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and “Milkman” which won the Man Booker Prize last year. 

In a way it's ironic that Anna Burns is on this list since the Folio Prize was initially set up in 2014 as a counterpoint to the Booker Prize because the founders of the Folio Prize considered the Booker to be leaning towards popular fiction over literary fiction. That “Milkman” won the Booker and is also on this year's “Women's Prize” shortlist really testifies to the cultural impact and popularity of this novel. When “Milkman” was first published in the Spring of 2018 it went largely unnoticed, but its inclusion on multiple book prize lists have made this novel one of the most bestselling and talked about in the past year! This is partly why I love book prizes which can really elevate a novel's status when so many great books get lost amidst a profusion of new publications. 

While I personally had mixed feelings about “Milkman” it's one I want to revisit on audio book since many have said this makes it a really different reading experience. I'm also especially interested in reading the novella “West” which has been so popular amongst many readers but also has some severe critics. And I'm especially keen to read “Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile” which looks like an expansive historical novel narrated from the perspective of an elderly maidservant. It's one I'd never heard about before this prize listed it. 

Have you read any of these books or are you curious to now? The winner will be announced on May 20th.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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In a way I felt a special connection with this novel centred around a location so familiar to me. Diana Evans’ “Ordinary People” is set roughly a decade ago – spanning between the year of Obama’s election to the year of Michael Jackson’s death - in an area of south London very close to where I live. So I could instantly visualize the landmarks, parks and even the bus routes she references. Her characters eat in some restaurants I’ve eaten in and even if a restaurant wasn’t named I still knew which one she meant based on her description of the tables. That’s how close to home it was for me! 

The novel is truly saturated with details about London life because it recounts with great specificity tube journeys, walks and daily life in the capital amidst the stories of two couples whose relationships are in a state of flux. Both couples have children. Each of them finds the ordinariness of daily existence is gradually draining away their sense of individuality and their ability to dream of any other way of life. In this context it makes sense that Evans loads her novel with such a density of detail because it allows the reader to fully visualize and feel the texture of their lives weighing upon them. A working father named Damian has a panic attack amidst his stultifying routine of getting a sandwich on his lunch break. A freelance journalist and mother named Melissa feels like she’s suffocating staying in her house day after day. And all Evans’ vividly specific descriptions enhance the sense of their reality but it also runs the risk of boring readers by drowning them in the mundane.

Part of me loved how London life was being evoked and memorialised in this way. But I also felt impatient at times because there’s very little plot in this novel other than tracing the small moments of daily life where characters grow increasingly detached from their roles as parents and spouses. Even though I felt a small thrill at recognizing so many locations and aspects of London life, there was no urgency in the narrative. Evans’ writing is so elegant in its wry commentary on her very convincing characters’ situations. She can frame the oppressive nature of a deteriorating relationship in a short simple line: “They lived in two different houses in one small house.” Or she can mordantly describe the sinking feeling an adult can feel listening to her mother chat endlessly about banal things: “The more they talked, the more the world receded, they were sinking, the dungeon was going down deeper, and deeper.” All these succinct observations made the novel a pleasure to read, but every time I put the book down I didn’t feel a pressing need to return to it.

Another difficulty I had with the novel was how it makes it seem like long term relationships are completely incompatible with having children. There’s no question that the difficulty and stress of raising children can put a strain on a couple’s enduring affection for each other. There’s an achingly sad scene in the book where a couple try to recapture a sense of romance by going on a date which becomes horrifically awkward. But I feel there must also be many moments of pleasure to be had in being both a spouse and parent. I don’t have an issue with how Evans’ specific characters might find this duality untenable, but there are no examples of an alternative point of view. This could have been shown in the lives of peripheral characters to give a hint of a different opinion. Evans even blatantly states at one point that “relationships and children simply don’t belong in the same place.” I feel like this perspective is too narrow as I’m sure many people have found fulfilment and an enhanced sense of identity in maintaining both aspects of their life simultaneously.

There’s a lot to admire in this novel and I appreciated what Evans was doing. No doubt many people will be able to relate to the melancholy way its characters muse upon how daily life can become oppressive: “Sometimes, in the lives of ordinary people, there is a great halt, a revelation, a moment of change. It occurs under low mental skies, never when one is happy.” It’s interesting how her characters project their emotions onto their social and physical environment making life feel absurd and trivial. I just wish she had also captured some more of the beauty and joy that can be had in what’s steady and familiar. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDiana Evans
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I’ve took some time calming down from the shock of the shortlist decision for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Few people expected this particular group of novels! It was a lot of fun discovering what was on the list alongside Anna James which you can watch in this video we made together. But we were both stunned that two of our favourites “Ghost Wall” and “Lost Children Archive” weren’t included and I was really disappointed not to see one of my favourite novels from last year “Swan Song” on the shortlist. I’d also spent a lovely morning on Saturday discussing the longlist with a shadow panel I’m on that includes Antonia Honeywell and Eleanor Franzen. They were also big fans of Moss and Luiselli’s novels. Eleanor wrote a really impassioned response to the official shortlist on her blog here and Antonia spent a morning discussing the list and prizes on her Monday morning radio book show on Chiltern Voice. Our shadow group formed our own shortlist out of the longlisted novels which you can see in the photo of us here. Personally, I stand by our choices over the official ones selected.

Looking at the list as a whole, it’s great to see that it includes a racially diverse group of authors. Only one debut novel is included and the books were all put out by a variety of publishers. However, what’s most surprising is that the judges chose some novels with quite similar themes considering that both Barker and Miller’s novels are retelling of Greek myths from a female narrator’s point of view. Also, Evans and Jones’ novels deal with the breakdown of relationships in a modern time period. Usually the groups listed include a wider breadth of themes. Of course, looking at the novels’ subjects and styles more closely does reveal more variations. Aside from content and looking at reputation, it feels a bit disappointing that novels such as “Milkman”, “An American Marriage” and “Circe” which have all been so popular and sold so well should be getting more attention over lesser-known gems that I loved reading such as “Swan Song” and “Praise Song for the Butterflies”.

Antonia, Eleanor and I with the six novels (by Moss, Luiselli, McFadden, Broder, Greenberg-Jephcott and Miller) that we selected as our shadow panel shortlist.

Antonia, Eleanor and I with the six novels (by Moss, Luiselli, McFadden, Broder, Greenberg-Jephcott and Miller) that we selected as our shadow panel shortlist.

It’s really tricky trying to guess what novel might win from this list. It’ll be quite significant if “Milkman” goes on to win having already won the Booker Prize last year. In a way it’s excellent that this novel which was fairly obscure has gone on to be one of the most talked about books in the past year thanks to these two book prizes. But I personally had some issues with the circular nature of the narrative style which made Burns’ novel drag for me. One of my personal favourites from this list at the moment would be “Circe” and I’m sure many readers will love it but if she won it’d be quite surprising since she’s won this prize before. It’d be quite a funny and lovely coincidence if “Ordinary People” won the Women’s Prize this year because at this book prize’s party last year I was speaking to Sarah Waters who mentioned that her favourite recent novel was Evans’ book. Of course, I’ve not read Braithwaite’s novel yet and not completely finished reading Evans’ either so I might still change my mind about my own favourite. I’m glad there’s more to discover and debate about these books. Nevertheless, considering the outcry from some people in reaction to the shortlist I think this year’s selection will go down as one of the most controversial in the prize’s history! What do you think of the list? Are you eager to read any that you haven’t yet?

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As I described in a recent post about the novel “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti”, the Wellcome Book Prize is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and I decided to explore this year's shortlist a bit more. One of the judges of this year's award is Elif Shafak and one of the shortlisted books is Ottessa Moshfegh's “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”. While I'm naturally drawn to reading more fiction than nonfiction, this award encompasses both kinds of writing so it's a good chance for me to read a nonfiction book I probably wouldn't have got to otherwise. The prize centres around new books that engage with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. Arnold Thomas Fanning's “Mind on Fire” recounts his lifelong struggle with mental health issues. He vividly describes the unwieldy chaos of manic episodes where extreme feelings and fantasies lead him to take drastic action as he careens through cities and airports shocking or outright terrifying people along the way. It's powerful how he conveys that to his manic mind he's following a logical course of action, but of course on the outside his actions are insensible. He also discloses the sensations of debilitating depression when he sometimes physically can't move and his thoughts revolve constantly around suicide. He eloquently expresses how all-consuming these states are and that “Within it there is no without it.” This illness not only wreaks havoc on his own health, but severely impinges upon the lives of his family and friends as well. Fanning powerfully documents his heartrending, difficult journey. 

One of the biggest difficulties in understanding manifestations of mania and depression is how these conditions can exist both as a mental health issue and normal human emotions. It's common for people who suffer from severe cases of this to not have it taken as a medical condition. Instead they are encouraged to buck up and smile instead of frowning as Fanning is encouraged to do by an acquaintance at one point. Fanning concedes that feelings may arise that “may be related to my bipolar disorder, but they are also common human experiences that I share with others. At times I am happy; at times I am sad and I suffer. I have good times, and not so good times. This is life, not illness.” The culmination of his journey marks a point he reaches where he's able to live a stable and productive life, but the extremity of his emotions in this period are very distinct from periods where he was unwell and unable to function. He cites the elements needed for recovery and wellness as being “therapy, medication, exercise, meaningful work (creative, as well as occupational) and a loving relationship and relationships with friends and family.” However, it's extremely difficult to achieve all of these things at once when resources such as money, health care or employment aren't available or support from friends or family isn't available. This combined with a stigma surrounding mental health issues and Fanning's own overwhelming feelings of self-defeat make his path to recovery a long and difficult one.

The book also meaningfully describes how recovery is never a state which will be absolute or constant. There are periods where he seems to have stabilised but due to changes in medication, pitfalls in his creative endeavours in playwriting and screenwriting career or his employment status and/or difficulties in his relationships or environment can send him spiralling into extreme episodes again. His story shows how the fear of relapse can add more anxiety to his state of being. Equally there can be a crushing sense of guilt surrounding the justified wariness from the people closest to him who've been negatively impacted by his breakdowns. Fanning's memoir poignantly conveys all these things and his overall journey gives a moving personal take on issues surrounding mental health. However, there were sections which lingered on details to do with his childhood, certain relationships or creative aspirations which detracted from the momentum of his tale and the impact of his message. I appreciate how he wanted to fully flesh out his life, but the focus at times strayed from the main focus of the issues involved. Nevertheless, I was touched by the honesty of his story and enlightened by the long winding journey of his struggles.

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The short punchy chapters which make up Sophie Van Llewyn's “Bottled Goods” have the feel of flash fiction. They are a sequence of snippets (usually in the form of diary entries or lists) in its protagonist Alina's life within communist Romania. Together they form a portrait of this period of the 1970s rife with paranoia and fear of the secret services. In this hostile environment Alina can't even trust her mother. Like in the novel “Milkman” it's best to go unnoticed in this fractured society. But both Alina and her husband Liviu come under suspicion when his brother defects to the West. Their relationship comes under strain as they feel pressure from the government and need to take radical measures to survive. While I appreciated the way this novel in pieces tried to create an impression of Alina's experience in an oppressive place, the novel didn't quite come together to me as it rushed over some emotionally complex situations and the fantastical elements of the story felt tacked on. 

The most vibrant and interesting character for me was Alina's eccentric Aunt Theresa who is in a privileged position with the government so can continue pursuing her religious and superstitious practices. I was also compelled by the inordinate pressure Alina and Liviu receive not just from the government but the other citizens surrounding them. A fairly minor infringement from a girl in Alina's class means she's subjected to torturous scrutiny and gossip from those around her. I was also moved by the way her relationship with Liviu sours when he's rigorously cross questioned by the authorities, but their marriage is too easily patched up and some incidents of trauma are handled too briskly. I was interested in how mother and daughter come to such a crisis that Alina was prepared to do anything to silence her, but sadly rather than adding a dynamic layer to this strife the fable-like element introduced detracted from the impact of this crucial part of the story. I wonder if this novel would have worked better as a single short story.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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When this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist was announced it included French book “The Years” by Annie Ernaux. Some people scratched their heads at its inclusion – not because of its perceived quality – but because the English version was published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo with their recognizable plain white covers and blue lettering. This signifies it’s a book of essays or nonfiction (as opposed to their plain blue covers with white lettering which signifies it’s a work of fiction.) But the Man Booker International Prize is only open to fiction. What gives? Well, when “The Years” first appeared in its native French language it was classified as a novel. So apparently Fitzcarraldo asked the Booker if “The Years” could be submitted as a novel even though they originally classified it as nonfiction. The Booker accepted.

This titbit of gossip doesn’t matter, but it shows how the form of “The Years” doesn’t follow any neat classification. It’s part fiction, part essay, part autobiography. Personally, I don’t care how books are categorized or which shelf they sit on in a bookstore. What is important is how this revolutionary book conveys a sense of history, consciousness and national identity like no other book I’ve read before. Narrated in a unique collective “we” voice it follows a woman and those around her from post-WWII through to the current Information Age. In doing so it provides such a unique shifting sense of time as it speaks from the perspective of people in an era of rapid change. Also it regularly focuses on jarringly precise details that come close to poetry. Somehow it achieves the startling feat of being both intimately personal while also speaking as the collective voice of a generation. It’s extraordinary, beautiful and warrants prizes no matter what label it’s published under.

One of the absolutely fascinating things “The Years” does is openly discuss its protagonist’s desire to write a book and the struggle to find the right form for doing so. Normally such self-consciousness can be distracting, but in this book it’s very poignant how it captures our desire to catalogue our experiences and lives in a way which will both memorialise them and articulate their true meaning. In fact, in the later part of the book she explicitly states the mission of why she’s written the book in this way: “By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History.” She does this by referencing a number of photographs taken throughout the protagonist’s life and it’s through the lens of these different stages of an individual life that she touches upon the sensibility of a generation. For instance, with a picture of the adolescent girl she devises “that writing is able to retrieve here something slipping through the 1950s, to capture the reflection that collective history projects upon the screen of individual memory.”

I also felt I could strongly relate to how she discusses the process of maturity. As we age our perception of time and our own personalities change as well. As a precocious teenager she feels: “She has gone over to the other side but she cannot say to what. The life behind her is made up of disjointed images. She feels she is nowhere, 'inside' nothing except knowledge and literature.” This beautifully captures a sense of moving from childhood to a different form of engagement with society where we become preoccupied with intellectual questions rather than just looking at the world with wonder. Later there’s an especially poignant moment where she feels her life is passing her by: “She feels as if a book is writing itself just behind her; all she has to do is live. But there is nothing.” This so elegantly and tragically describes a heightened sense of self-consciousness where we see our lives like a movie or the story of a novel. And we feel that it’s being captured in some essential way, but in reality our experiences only exist on the periphery of other people’s and aren’t memorialized except in fleeting memories or photographs.

It’s so interesting how personal details are often only referred to in asides. We’re fleetingly aware the protagonist gets married, works, has children and gets divorced but these aren’t the central tenants of the plot. What this book is more concerned with is capturing the mood in stages of time and how this individual’s personality is informed by and reflects the changing society. The sense of a collective voice powerfully shows the social change and predominant ideology of a certain section of French society at different times. As she moves through the decades of the 60s and 70s there’s a growing sense of feminism and social progress. Later on there’s a critique of capitalism and material obsession in the 80s and a sense of how our relationship to world events changes with the advent of the Information Age. But there is also an expression of regressive values and xenophobia which periodically emerge in views about immigrants and Arabs. In response to acts of terrorism there are some jarring statements where its expressed “That people could murder each other over religion was beyond our comprehension. It seemed to prove that these populations had remained at an earlier stage of evolution.” Ernaux describes how these pervasive feelings of prejudice spread throughout cultures at certain times, the way in which sections of society can form elitist views and subject different cultures to a form of “otherness” which divides people in the country.

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I admire how daring the author was in self-consciously plotting out the book’s structure while also creating such an enjoyable and moving reading experience. I felt I could connect with the story so powerfully though it’s so wrapped up in a time, place and people very different from my own. The novel is beautifully framed at the beginning and end with certain images which seem plucked at random but have taken on such importance for the protagonist. There are several points in the book when she recalls the memory of a woman pissing out in the open and though it was just a fleeting observation it stays with her so vividly. I love how this reflects the way we can become obsessed with certain experiences or memories which linger in our minds – not because they have any great significance but they have been defined by our point of view. They are “the images of a moment bathed in a light that is theirs alone.” This shows how it’s not the fact of events in history which resound in the collective memory but our unique perceptions of them. This is one of the many brilliant ways this novel expresses so much about personality, time and the state of being.

Now that “The Years” has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize (and even though I still have three other books to read on the list) I hope Annie Ernaux wins.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnnie Ernaux
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