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For all the daring stylistic variations and rich diversity of subject matter found in Beautiful Days, Joyce Carol Oates’s latest collection of short stories, there is a common theme throughout of disruptively close encounters with the “other.” At the Key West Literary Seminar in 2012, Oates gave a talk titled ‘Close Encounters with the Other’ and in this session she describes how “There comes a time in our lives when we realize that other people are not projections of ourselves - that we can’t really identify with them. We might sympathize or empathize with them, but we can’t really know them fully. They are other and they are opaque.” So in these stories characters strive for connections which often tragically break down. These encounters document the awkward or sometimes violent clashes that occur between individuals who are so dissimilar there is an unbreachable rupture in understanding. The factors that divide these characters include issues such as romantic intention, gender, age, race, class, education and nationality. Oates creates a wide array of situations and richly complex characters to show the intense drama that arises from clashes surrounding these subjects.

Some stories take fascinatingly different angles on the question of trust and the durability of love within romantic affairs or long-term marriages. In ‘Fleuve Bleu’ two married individuals initiate an affair with a declaration that they will maintain complete honesty. Yet there are fundamental issues left unsaid which motivate one individual to abruptly bring their affair to a halt. Here descriptions of the environment strikingly emote the passion of their connection and erotic encounters. A couple at cross-purposes is also portrayed in 'Big Burnt' where a weekend tryst to an island is initiated because Lisbeth wants to make Mikael love her, but Mikael wants a woman to witness his suicide. Whereas in 'The Bereaved' it feels as if the female protagonist was taken on as a wife only to care for the husband’s motherless child. The child’s early death precipitates a feeling of her role being taken away as well as deep feelings of guilt which manifest in a fascinatingly dramatic way while the couple embark on an ecological cruise. The stories suggest that no matter the passion or fervour of a couple’s connection there is an element of unknowability about one’s partner which makes itself known in the course of time.

Other stories describe class and racial conflicts between teachers and pupils. In 'Except You Bless Me' a Detroit English teacher named Helen earnestly tries to tutor her pupil Larissa despite strongly suspecting this student is leaving her aggressively racist messages. This is an interesting variation from a section of Oates's novel Marya where the protagonist encounters slyly aggressive behaviour from black janitor Sylvester at the school where she teaches. Both are expressions of the quandary a white individual might have faced at this time of Detroit history when racial tensions ran high. Helen makes little progress in her tutoring and then, many years later, finds herself in a vulnerable position with a woman she imagines to be Larissa as an adult. Like in 'The Bereaved', the protagonist is somewhat aware of her own prejudices, but is nevertheless drawn into paranoid fantasies. However, the wife of 'The Bereaved' is prejudiced not about race, but the obesity and perceived stupidity of a family aboard the cruise ship. Fascinatingly, she thinks of this family as like people who might be photographed by Diane Arbus in contrast to other groups on the ship who are like “Norman Rockwell families”. The central characters in these stories turn certain people they encounter into antagonists because there is an “otherness” about them which they can’t overcome.

Intergenerational conflicts which are described in some other stories are centred around a parent/child relationship. In 'Owl Eyes' teenager Jerald appears to have some form of autism where he has very advanced abilities in mathematics and experiences feelings of panic when there are deviations from his fixed routines. He regularly travels to a university campus to attend a calculus class, but when a man approaches him claiming to be his estranged father Jerald can’t reconcile how this man might fit into the narrative created by his single mother. Jerald is reluctant to engage with memory because, unlike math, it is uncertain and has an inherent malleability: “Memories return in waves, overwhelming. You can drown in memories.” Memory is distorted in the tremendously ambitious story 'Fractal' which is also about a mother and her son. At the beginning of this story the characters are only referred to as “the mother” and “the child” as if these identity roles supersede any individuality that would grant them names. “The mother” indulges her child’s specialist interest by taking him to a (fictional) Fractal Museum in Portland, Maine. As the pair explore the museums exhibits, multiple versions of their reality are gradually introduced until “the mother” is confronted with a true past that she’s wholly denied.

A very different kind of teacher/pupil relationship is depicted in 'The Quiet Car' where an arrogant male teacher/writer reflects on his declining literary fame and an adoring female student who he viewed in a disparaging way. When he bumps into this student again many years later he’s confronted by how his conception of himself has been overly inflated. Oates has recently shown a particular knack for excoriating the pompous egos of celebrated male authors/artists in her fiction. Most notably this can be seen in her collection Wild Nights! and her controversial depiction of Robert Frost in the short story ‘Lovely, Dark Deep’. However, Oates constructs a more playful tribute to a particular author’s ambition and his lasting impact in her story 'Donald Barthelme Saved From Oblivion'. Here she memorably describes the writing process as like walking over and over across a high wire and makes acute observations about the meaning and endurance of art.

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The vivid and intense story 'Les Beaux Jours' contains a much sharper critique of the problematic nature of artist Balthus’s famous painting. Here the reader inhabits the troubled psyche of the girl depicted in this artwork who is like an enslaved fairy tale heroine while simultaneously existing as a girl from a broken affluent NYC home. As with many stories in the second section of this collection, this story slides into the surreal as does the brief and powerfully haunting story ‘The Memorial Field at Hazard, Minnesota’. Here the author’s condemnation for the tyrannical nature of ego-driven politicians sees a former president forcibly condemned to the hellish task of digging up graves of those who were victims of his poor policies and warmongering.

Oates creatively engages with the politics of immigration in what is probably the most radical story in this collection 'Undocumented Alien'. Here a Nigerian-born young man J.S. Maada enters into a secret governmental psychological experiment rather than face deportation. A chip planted in his brain causes a “radical destabilization of temporal and spatial functions of cognition” and results in him believing that he’s an agent from planet Jupiter's moon Ganymede. This leads to paranoid fantasies and a horrific confrontation with the white lady who employs him as a gardener. It’s tremendously poignant that the way J.S. Maada is manipulated, persecuted and discarded is indicative of how an intolerant section of white America reacts to “otherness.”

This collection of stories seems to possess an urgency and anger influenced by current American politics. It never ceases to amaze me how Oates continually pushes boundaries and orchestrates a dialogue around some of the most pressing matters in society today. In addition to how these stories address many dramatic instances of confrontations with the “other”, they also possess an impressive diversity in their style and form. The bold variety of narratives in this collection continuously surprise and delight. Much of the fiction in Beautiful Days is longer than a typical short story. With several stories tipping into lengths considered to be a novella, it feels that many could easily expand out into novels. Given that Oates’s forthcoming novel (currently titled) My Life as a Rat is based off her short story ‘Curly Red’, it will be interesting to see if the author chooses to build upon any of the short fiction in Beautiful Days. However, the stories in this collection stand firmly on their own with all their startling psychological insight and bracing depictions of tragic conflict. 

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Recently I made a video talking about examples of contemporary authors who fictionally reimagine the lives of classic authors. But it's been a funny coincidence that the past two novels I've read do this exact thing in creatively pioneering ways. Cristina Rivera Garza brought back multiple versions of the Mexican writer Amparo Davila in her gender-bending “The Iliac Crest” and now Olivia Laing has done so in her first novel “Crudo” by merging her own identity with that of punk poet and cutting-edge novelist Kathy Acker (who died in 1997.) I've been anticipating this novel so much because Laing's nonfiction book “The Lonely City” was such an important touchstone for me in understanding the condition of loneliness. “Crudo” follows a re-imagined Kathy twenty years after her death in 2017 during the languorous Italian days in the lead up to her marriage to a much older writer. She reflects on the state of the world from dispiriting politics to her interactions with groups of artists to the challenging interplay between the inner and outer world. In doing so Laing forms a fascinating portrait of the modern crisis of an individual who feels she has opportunities and access to vast amounts of information, but is in some ways powerless to enact change or escape her own privilege. 

Part of what makes Laing's nonfiction so mesmerising is the intense connection she describes with the artists and subjects whose lives she explores so sympathetically. These are often figures who were marginalized but whose creations and activism pushed the conversation forward. So it's unsurprising that she'd be drawn to the figure of Kathy Acker whose anti-establishment aesthetic incorporated styles of pastiche and a cut-up technique to explore elements from her own life as well as subjects such as power, sex and violence. Acker's fiction also appropriated a number of prominent classic authors such as Arthur Rimbaud, Emily Bronte, Marquis de Sade, Charles Dickens and Georges Bataille. It's described in this novel how “She wrote fiction, sure, but she populated it with the already extant, the pre-packaged and readymade. She was in many ways Warhol’s daughter, niece at least, a grave-robber, a bandit, happy to snatch what she needed but was also morally invested in the cause: that there was no need to invent”. In the same way, Laing transposes lines from Acker's writing (as well as some other authors) to form a modern narrative which is in some ways autobiographical. This literally bleeds Acker's thoughts and ideas into Laing's sensibility to reiterate what has been said before and say something new. 

I'm really fascinated by writing techniques which incorporate pre-existing texts such as Jeremy Gavron's recent “Felix Culpa” which forms a compelling self-contained fictional narrative. But “Crudo” is much more intensely personal describing its protagonist Kathy's desire to break out of the bounds her gender and her time period: the bleak summer of 2017 when the public dialogue was overwhelmed with talk of Brexit and Trump (as it still is.) It describes how she both wants to engage in this conversation and escape from it in the transformative space of solitude “It was just she kept sneezing, it was just that she needed seven hours weeks months years a day totally alone, trawling the bottom of the ocean, it’s why she spent so much time on the Internet” and how our online lives filtered through mediums such as Twitter allow us immediate access to information, but also have a curious distancing effect. This leads to a understandably pessimistic view of the world with its diminishing resources and reactionary politics:“It was all done, it was over, there wasn’t any hope.” But, of course, Kathy as an individual persists as does the propensity to create art that engages with and reacts to this fraught world. 

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Part of me felt uncertain at first if Laing's method of invoking the figure of Kathy Acker was necessary for her to fictionally express a state of being that is evidently so painfully real for the author herself. After spending a lot of time thinking about what this novel says, I'm convinced that Laing's method isn't just a formal experiment but a necessary act. For all its desperate searching and relatable despair, “Crudo” is a surprisingly romantic novel in the way Laing breathes new life into a pioneering writer from the past and pays tribute to the power of committed love for comfort and solace. One of the most powerful scenes comes when Kathy is at a dinner party where it describes her grappling to eat a crab. She pounds on it persistently to crack inside and there's a moment where her personality melds with that of the crustacean: “Someone was pounding on the door. The hammer, smashing the crab’s back. She wanted to be cracked open, that was the thing, only on her own terms and within preordained limits. There were rules, she changed them.” This beautifully encapsulates the core of this narrative which feels encroaching forces threatening our liberty and our bodies, but which shows a determination to change the landscape which is so rapidly transforming beneath our feet. “Crudo” is both a beautiful drag act and an urgent cry to witness, remember, connect and move forward.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesOlivia Laing
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“The Illiac Crest” describes the journey of a narrator whose fixed idea of the world gradually comes undone after being visited by two women; one who claims to be the Mexican writer Amparo Dávila and one who is an ex-lover ominously referred to as “the Betrayed”. The women take up residence in the narrator's house and develop a language of their own which the narrator is excluded from. It's a story which becomes increasingly surreal as the narrator who works as a doctor at a sanatorium investigates a former rebellious patient, seeks to uncover a lost manuscript and comes under suspicion by the facility's administration. At the same time the narrator visits a challenging older version of Amparo Dávila who claims the narrator really doesn't understand anything. Questions arise surrounding what makes an authentic identity in terms of gender, social standing, citizenship and political beliefs. When the young version of Dávila arrives at the house the narrator is drawn to the prominent bone of her pelvis and feels a mixture of desire and fear. The struggle to recall the name of this bone and acknowledge the truth lying beneath appearances becomes central to the story. This is such an intriguing book and I feel like it's going to take some time for its meaning to fully sink in. 

Experimental fiction which uses a non-traditional approach to plot structure and characters feels like it works best for me when I'm engaged by the immediate story, but only feel its subtler effects as time progresses. There are so many intriguing parts in this novel like the way people come to be named by the narrator as “the Betrayed” or “the False One” as a way of narrowly defining or claiming ownership to them. But, at one point, the narrator switches from the one in authority to the one being prosecuted. It disrupts the narrator's sense of being and his/her certainty about the world. The conscious and unconscious world start to blur into each other. The more ardently the narrator tries to understand things and insist that he is a man the more confused the narrator becomes. I was particularly intrigued by how the narrator is so drawn to the ocean and staring at the ocean as a way of obliterating the need for control: “You need the ocean for this: to stop believing in reality. To ask yourself impossible questions. To not know. To cease knowing. To become intoxicated by the smell. To close your eyes. To stop believing in reality.” 

It's interesting how this novel was first published in Mexico in 2002, but it's only just now been published in English for the first time. Its themes seem even more relevant today in terms of how borders are defined and laid out in a way which doesn't necessarily correspond with our subjective reality or the way we physically inhabit the world. These are the borders between one place and another and between one gender and another. The more rigidly these borders are defined the more conflict seems to arise. In the afterward, the novel's translator Sarah Booker describes how these themes are particularly relevant to Garza having grown up near the US/Mexico border. The novel seeks to disrupt our fixed ideas of reality as they've been socially constructed and demarcated by the society we inhabit. I enjoyed being immersed in its atmosphere of mystery and intrigue. I'm sure it'll be a book I'll think back on often and which will greatly benefit from a re-reading as it contains many hidden treasures. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
2 CommentsPost a comment
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There are innumerable unsung and compelling figures from history who never quite achieved the fame or long-lasting influence you’d expect. One of my favourite books from the past few years is Megan Mayhew Bergman’s collection of short stories “Almost Famous Women” which fictionalizes the stories of several striking women who were figures of marginal significance in their times but not widely remembered. A couple of her tales deal with people around the notoriously vibrant art scene in Paris between the Wars. In Rupert Thomson’s wonderful new novel he reimagines the lives of two particularly fascinating women from this period. Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe were a life-long couple both born into prosperous intellectual families in France near the turn of the century. They were artists and progressive thinkers who questioned static gender roles in the way they presented themselves and by adopting the gender-ambiguous names Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. We follow their lives from childhood to mingling with significant Parisian artists to their dangerous anti-Nazi activism in occupied Jersey to the post-War years. It’s a sweeping and thrilling novel that gives an entirely new perspective of early 20th century Europe and a powerful account of a significant long-term same sex love affair.

It’s clever how Thomson chooses to narrate his novel through the perspective of Suzanne/Marcel becomes she’s in many ways the more stable and practical partner of this intriguing pair. Lucy/Claude is daringly defiant in her opinions and actions, but she’s also erratic and if the narrative were steered by her voice it would probably grow too unwieldy. Instead we follow their experiences through the dogged and perceptive point of view of Suzanne who is enthralled by Lucy’s radical ideas and cavalier attitude. At one point she recounts Lucy declaring “Masculine, feminine,’ she said. ‘I can do all that. But neuter – that’s where I feel comfortable. I’m not going to be typecast or put in a box. Not ever. I’m always going to have a choice.” It’s impressive how forward-thinking and brave this couple were to live in a way which so stridently defied the gender norms and conventions of the time. While this spurred their artistic visions in writing and the visual arts, their refusal to be categorized and the fact it was a male-dominated milieu probably contributed to the fact that this couple’s work isn’t as well remembered as that of some of their peers.

Something I love is the empowering self-determined way these women choose uncertainty over a safe and predictable life. In practical terms it would have been much easier for them to settle down into stable lifestyles, but they chose each other and they chose to question instead of being complicit. They declare their stance as such: “The path I had chosen was the one that I could not imagine.” Given the time period and sex they were born into it’s very easy for them to imagine straightforward conventional lifestyles, but they strike out into uncharted territory in their love affair as well as dealings with the founders of the Surrealist movement and in undermining the imposed authority of the Nazis. Although they are faithful in their love for each other, this refusal to adhere to convention also includes not settling down into a strictly monogamous relationship – something which naturally becomes a source of friction for the couple over the years.

Anyone enamoured with the glamorous intellectual circles which have been frequently mythologized in fiction and nonfiction accounts of the interwar periods of Paris will take pleasure in the many cameos of noteworthy eccentric figures. These include Gertrude Stein and her “melancholy lover, the one with the drooping eyelids”, Salvador Dali who is “a dapper, narrow-shouldered man with slicked-back hair and a moustache… up close, he smelled of old gardenias, their petals browning at the edges” and Andre Breton who “wore a green suit and a pair of spectacles, and he carried his famous cane on which were carved vaginas, erect penises and slugs.” There’s a strong sense of how these groups were self-consciously fashioning legacies at the time. Also, the warring egotism of different artists meant that “The movements came and went more quickly than the seasons, and the rifts between people we knew were perennial and vitriolic.”

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Claude Cahun & an unknown woman

However, this novel comes most grippingly alive when Suzanne and Lucy move to Jersey seeking stability and quiet, but find the war comes to their doorstep. Their actions are incredibly brave and it leads to some very tense scenes. There are also some funny observations about how easy it was, in some cases, to fool the Nazis by simply signing their anti-German fliers as if they were a soldier because “No one looking at the word ‘soldier’ would think of a woman.” However, the very narrow-minded misogyny which ironically allows them to get away with their subversive activities for so long also gets them into hot water when the Germans refuse to believe they were simply two older ladies acting alone. The fact that I had no prior knowledge about this couple and how their lives would play out added to making this novel such a tense read for me.

“Never Anyone But You” is also an especially compelling and heartfelt novel. It’s wonderful reading about a historical same sex relationship portrayed in such a compassionate way. There is an intensity and beauty to breaking taboos to be with the person you’re naturally drawn to, but there’s also a sense of isolation which comes from finding love which cannot be celebrated within the larger society: “Since we were excluded, we became exclusive.” This is a powerful sentiment that’s also echoed in Matthew Griffin’s novel "Hide" about a long-term gay relationship. I also admired how Rupert Thomson avoids sentimentality in how he presents the bond between these women: “It’s a mistake to think that a long relationship is boring. The longer you’re with someone, the more mysterious they become.” Following the harrowing story of this dynamic couple which is brought so vividly to life in Thomson’s novel made me appreciate how complex these women were and grateful that they’ve been rescued from obscurity.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRupert Thomson
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Every generation needs a new young narrative voice to articulate the feelings of disaffection that come with that particular time. From Emma Bovary to Holden Caulfield to Jim Stark to Angela Chase these alienated voices speak to those who feel outside the mainstream. None of the other characters in their stories can understand why these narrators are so problem-ridden because the protagonists are often born into lives of privilege and promise. The heroes of these stories don't feel like a hero to themselves because they are so confused and jaded and their lives are in utter shambles. But to many readers and viewers they articulate a blunt honesty, insight and humour about the anxieties many feel at that time.

It feels like Maya, the narrator of Jade Sharma's debut novel, could be the outsider voice of this generation. Her marriage is inane. Her lover is distant. Her job at a bookstore is going nowhere. Her thesis is unfinished. Her mother is nagging. Her dope habit is getting worse. She's self-conscious about her body size, her skin colour and her distinctly non-PC sexual impulses. Her story has a streamlined candour to it whether she's articulating her desires “I liked feeling like a thing. I like feeling like nothing” or expressing the self-disgust which accompanies feeling overweight “The worst was to feel both fat and hungry.” We follow her journey as she spirals into ever more debased and degrading circles of behaviour and her struggle to find meaning and purpose. But this isn't presented in a self-pitying way. Rather, her narrative has a lucidity, wry humour and insight that acts as a touchstone which many people will be able to sympathize with and relate to even if their experiences are far different from Maya's.

A trip to her in-laws for Thanksgiving perfectly captures all the gut-wrenching awkwardness of an obligatory trip to someone's family home. Maya is constantly plagued by self-consciousness from the moment she arrives and struggles to fit into this family's traditions, routines and Christian values. The family tries to integrate her into their home and make her feel welcome but this often produces the opposite result. When Maya makes gestures to try to participate by suggesting a movie for everyone to watch or help rake leaves in the yard the comically disastrous results only make her into more of an outsider. She achieves the perfect tragicomic tone when she remarks how being at her in-laws “was like a job. A bad shift at a bad job.” While experiences like this are soul-crushingly bleak to live through they are great fun to read about because it’s so easy to empathize with Maya’s discomfort.

The narrative takes an interesting turn when Maya slips frighteningly further into addiction, prostitution to support her drug habit and vice. Her descent into repeating self-destructive behaviour causes her to become more an observer of her life rather than the one actually inhabiting it. This detachment seems to reflect how she can recognize the problems she’s readily engaging in, but she’s helpless to stop herself from participating in them. An interesting way which the author plays with point of view is when Maya meditates on her consumption and relationship to porn. In one fascinating passage she describes how she desires to feel her identity shift fluidly from one sexual participant and gender to another while watching it: “In one way or another, I wanted to be the men, and I wanted to hurt the woman. I wanted to hurt like the woman, and I wanted to hate the men for hurting me. I wanted to be the man at home jerking off wanting to be the man wanting to hurt the woman. And then I wanted to hurt more.” This sense of simultaneously inhabiting each participant in sex: tormenter and tormented, perpetrator and victim, exhibitionist and voyeur effectively shows the power play at work behind the physical act. It also describes how sex can be another kind of addiction with ceaselessly recurring patterns backed by some unresolved emotional discord.

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Some readers will no doubt become impatient by Maya’s self-centredness and frustrated by her inability to progress out of her desultory state, but others will undoubtably find her to be the sole voice of reason while living through a modern malaise. By following the details of Maya’s life, Jade Sharma engagingly and succinctly captures many common ephemeral thoughts and feelings which are often contradictory. This is the experience which makes up modern existence. Every era of society throws up new expectations and challenges to succeed. It’s never ideal. It’s what drives us to seek out an honest reflection of all the poisonous emotion which prevents us from becoming the fully-realized individuals that we’re expected to become. This is why we need Maya’s voice.

This review also appeared in the Open Letters Review: https://openlettersreview.com/open-letters-review/problems-by-jade-sharma

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJade Sharma
2 CommentsPost a comment

As I discussed in my video about working on ‘Rediscover the Classics’ with Jellybooks, I have the exciting task of curating groups of classic books. My new selection has just been launched and it’s classic utopian novels! I’ve created original covers for all six of the books. You can see these covers, read more about them and join in here:

https://jbks.co/Utopia-reading-list

After registering for a free Jellybooks account you can select two free books from my selections to download and enjoy on your e-reader.

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I’ve always had a fascination with utopian literature and read a lot of it during my teenage years – as well as the darker side of the coin: dystopian fiction! It’s tantalizing to imagine how we’d build a society from the ground up and that’s just what a number of authors have done through the ages. In doing so, writers inadvertently or intentionally reflect both their own values and the values of their time period. In many cases utopian fiction seems a way of criticising the etiquette, morals or laws of the age they were written in. For instance, Thomas More points out corruption in the Catholic church that was occurring in the 16th century; Charlotte Perkins Gilman cites the injustice of women’s dependence on men being the primary breadwinners; and, in satirising popular travellers’ tales of the early 1700s, Jonathan Swift ironically wrote one of the most beloved and imaginative episodic journeys of all time! Throughout Margaret Cavendish and Samuel Butler’s novels there is also an interesting engagement with emerging technologies and scientific advancements of the 17th and 19th centuries respectively. As well as being engaging and imaginative stories, the six books I’ve selected for this Utopian Classics reading group also offer fascinating insights into history and the way people from the past dreamily gazed into imagined futures.

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It felt important to offer something of a balance (in gender at least) in choosing these utopian tales. The canon of classic literature is often top heavy with male voices and it’s exciting how there has been a recent resurrection of nearly forgotten female writers from the past such as Margaret Cavendish whose life was fictionally reimagined in Danielle Dutton’s fantastic novel “Margaret the First”. Many people will know Charlotte Perkins Gilman from her feminist classic “The Yellow Wallpaper” but not as many will have read her all-female utopian novel “Herland”. All of these novels also often hint at unconscious biases or dodgy ideas which many people will probably find appalling today. Slavery was an integral part of Thomas More’s utopia and Mary E. Bradley Lane vision of an all-female utopia was intentionally racist as it is composed exclusively of Aryan women. Rather than erase or gloss over these uncomfortable aspects of the fiction, I think it’s interesting to consider them in their historical context and just how much society’s ideals have changed since the time periods they were written in.

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Sometimes it feels like the frequent news reports about refugees and asylum seekers can turn into just another political debate and so much rhetoric that it diminishes the powerful fact that this is about individuals in a desperate situation. Recently I read “Tell Me How It Ends”, Valeria Luiselli’s utterly gripping and heart breaking essay about working with Central American children seeking asylum in America. In Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel “Go Went Gone” this issue is brought powerfully to life in the fictional story of Richard, a recently retired professor in Berlin who interviews and befriends groups of refugees after they stage a protest in a city square. This is based on a famous pro-immigration movement that took place in German between 2012-2014. But this isn’t simply a novel that’s giving a human face to one of the biggest social and political issues in Western nations today. It’s also an immensely engaging and philosophical story that says so much about identity, culture, history, memory and society. I was enthralled by the artful way Erpenbeck creates a complex tale that presents the layered past of her protagonist and the nation he lives in to demonstrate the malleable meaning of citizenship.

What this novel does so well in its narrative is show the day to day actions of both Richard and the group of male asylum seekers he visits. You get this progression of everyday life and their habits in a way that contrasts Richard’s steady comfortable existence with that of the state of limbo the various men from Africa and the Middle East experience. This gradually builds to an understanding of what a strain this puts on people who have come out of a traumatic situation. Erpenbeck writes how “Time does something to a person, because a human being isn’t a machine that can be switched on and off. The time during which a person doesn’t know how his life can become a life fills a person condemned to idleness from his head down to his toes.” It’s heartrending seeing how this changes many of the lively and fascinating individuals that Richard meets so that they become either despondent or incensed with anger. It also shows how these men who only want to work and build lives for themselves have their youth, intelligence and talent wasted in waiting for an answer that will inevitably be disappointing.

Richard and some goodwill workers do their best to help the men gain new skills, earn a bit of money or learn the German language, but resources are strained and restrictions prevent them from offering much assistance in terms of education, employment or legal help. Therefore the asylum seekers are prevented from even beginning to integrate or find any useful way to spend their days. It’s particularly striking how the refugees cling to their phones: “Richard notes that the men feel more at home in these wireless networks than in the countries in which they await their future. This system of numbers and passwords extending clear across continents is all the compensation they have for everything they’ve lost forever. What belongs to them is invisible and made of air.”

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Richard’s character may seem simple at first or that he’s simply a springboard against which the author can access the stories of the many asylum seekers. But he’s quite complex in a way that only becomes apparent with the full arc of the story. I won’t give any spoilers but it’s intriguing how aware he is of the role chance plays in terms of one’s national identity and sense of security. During a dramatic wartime situation in his childhood he came close to being left behind or winnowed out. The legacy of a divided Germany still lingers strong in the nation and though it appears unified now his interactions with the asylum seekers makes him aware of divides which are still palpably present: “Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border had suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness.” Richard soon becomes aware of how conservative and resistant many of his countrymen are and how quick they are to make assumptions about and condemn people they don’t know.

Running throughout the novel is a haunting image of a man who drowned in a local lake. This is a holiday spot where an accident led to a man’s disappearance but his body was never recovered. It deters holidaymakers from using the lake and the unseen presence of this lost man casts a shadow over the area. It’s a powerful image that lingers in Richard’s imagination of life that has been lost and can never be known. There is a lot in this novel that has been lost due to chance or violence that it amplifies how cruel it is when a nation blocks the possibility of granting acceptance to so many victims of circumstance. This is a memorable novel rich with meaning and it makes a powerful impact.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJenny Erpenbeck
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This is the first time I’ve read a book by acclaimed novelist and short story writer Christine Schutt, but she has a disarming and fascinating way of writing about self-consciousness, family and the passage of time.  In “Pure Hollywood” the opening title story is also the longest tale in this collection. It’s an impressionistic story of a brother and sister after the sister’s much older husband dies. He was a wealthy famous comedian, but she soon finds she’s shut out of any substantial inheritance and she’s forced to vacate the modernist home she inhabited like a California Hockney painting. The odd series of events which make up her life feel as if they’ve been crafted in a Hollywood film script so she forms an odd emotional distance from her own sense of being. This is a feeling that recurs throughout many of the stories in this book where the enormity of characters’ loves and losses have a sense of being scripted and so they are abstracted out of the personal. What’s left is the sordid and grimy reality that they inhabit like bemused spectators blinking in the sunlight after spending too long in a dark movie theatre.

The stories include a range of characters from an affluent young couple on holiday to men purchasing flowers for a garden to a widow harangued by her daughters about her growing drinking habit. But almost all the characters are accompanied by some sense of personal loss whether it’s a spouse or child. Gardens also frequently feature in the stories so running alongside these deaths are a proliferation of plants and flowers growing with stubborn insistence. Tied into this surrounding life is a sense of eroticism, but the presence of gardens isn’t necessarily comforting or benign. In ‘The Duchess of Albany’ it’s stated “The garden was not genteel.”  In fact, two of the stories refer to the surrounding flora as “thuggish” as if they are mocking or bullying these survivors. Gardens must be tended and cared for, but also controlled and wrangled with just like the people in these characters’ unruly lives. The result is a bewitching mingling of imagery and sensations about how our relationships grow beautifully, but soon wilt or threaten to restrictively entangle us.

 "The Duchess of Albany was not a thug, but a racer on a brittle stem, a clematis with deep pink, upside-down bells, deceptively frail and well-bred, small, timorous bells."

"The Duchess of Albany was not a thug, but a racer on a brittle stem, a clematis with deep pink, upside-down bells, deceptively frail and well-bred, small, timorous bells."

It’s interesting how some of the stories slip into the surreal. The story ‘Where You Live, When You Need Me?’ about a woman named Ella who is employed by a number of affluent mothers to care for their children is particularly intriguing. The narrator reports how this child carer is much trusted, but no one knows much about her. At the same time as Ella appears the body parts of unknown children start being found in KFC buckets. The story has a high-pitched unsettling edge while not giving any conclusions. It strongly reminded me of Schweblin’s anxiety-inducing novel “Fever Dream”. The shortest stories in this collection seem to be the ones where Schutt also takes the most narrative risks in a way which doesn’t always feel successful or satisfying. Yet these micro stories also left some unsettling concepts lingering in my mind such as ‘Family Man’ where a husband living a remote “country-quiet life” feels that “The past sleds behind him.” But, on the whole, it feels like longer stories allow Schutt the space to develop characters that will resonate more powerfully such as an imperious rich old horse rider named Mrs Pall-Meyer or an irascible highly sexed famous painter named Gordon. On the whole I enjoyed these stories which have a vertiginous power to disorient their reader and articulate the peculiar subtleties of conflicting emotions. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It's difficult to capture the slow-burning sense of alienation that someone can feel within family life, but in “Brother” David Chariandy powerfully depicts the story of a working class mother and her two sons in a way that gives a fully rounded sense of this. Michael lives with his grieving and fragile mother in a tower block in Scarborough, a district of Toronto with a high immigrant population. He still sleeps in the bunk bed of his childhood, but now the top bunk is empty and gradually we discover what happened to his absent brother Francis over the course of the novel. Michael struggles to get enough shift work at his low-paid job and spends the bulk of his time caring for his mentally-precarious mother. They are both haunted by a sense of loss and penned in by their circumstances. What's so beautiful about Chariandy's narrative is how he subtly captures the sense of a family who essentially loves and cares for each other, but whose status as West Indian immigrants has made them into perpetual outsiders and these internalized feelings make them unknown even to each other.

Michael relates the story of growing up in the shadow of his old brother Francis who is more socially adept and desirable. I found it particularly heartbreaking how Michael never really feels inadequate until it's pointed out to him by Francis coaching him in how to act or dress or when someone in their circle expresses resentment about Michael's presence. This builds to a sense of self consciousness that's formed from being continuously reminded that he doesn't fit in. Yet there are aspects of Francis' identity which never allow him to fully fit in either and parts of himself he perpetually hides. Most of all the boys economic and ethnic status contribute to their slow realization that they can never fully feel a part of the community that they've grown up in. There's such a striking moment early on in the novel when the brothers watch a television through a shop window. It's showing news report about street violence and while they're watching they can see their own reflections superimposed over the screen. This gives a powerful, haunting sense of how they are trapped in a community troubled by poverty and gang wars.

The family's neighbour Aisha was able to progress onto university, but she returns when her father dies and subsequently helps Michael care for his mother. Unfortunately for Michael and many other people in this immigrant community there are few ways to progress into a life with economic security or escape the perpetual sense of disenfranchisement. At one point in Michael's life he realizes “We were losers and neighbourhood schemers. We were the children of the help, without futures. We were, none of us, what our parents wanted us to be. We were not what any other adults wanted us to be. We were nobodies, or else, somehow, a city.” The novel gradually unfurls the multiple ways this comes to define Michael's life and the tragic way he doesn't fully understand his brother until he's lost.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDavid Chariandy
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I read Margaret Cavendish's writing for the first time recently and, while I enjoyed its creativity, vigour and sheer oddity, I longed to get a taste of what day to day life would have really been like for an intelligent female writer of the 17th century. Danielle Dutton partly answered this in her take on Cavendish's life in her recent exquisite novel “Margaret the First”. Now Anna-Marie Crowhurst has imagined the dramatic life of a female playwright named Ursula who narrates her own story from her birth in 1664 to the beginning of her writing career. She gives a richly detailed sense of what life would have been like for a privileged upperclass girl growing up on a rural estate. Amidst her narrative we're also given various documents including sketches of plays, letters, lists and notes which not only bring her story to life but chart the evolution of her creative process in becoming a writer.

Ursula's father educates her from an early age sparking her interests in astrology and literature. Though her creativity was fostered in this protected environment, she quickly finds it's scorned by the larger world when she's forced to enter a marriage with a wealthy nobleman and become a pious lady. Ursula has a highly romantic sensibility and she has a hard reckoning with the passion of love and sex, but this isn't a story about a young woman finding the right man. It's more about the development of Ursula's creative talent for translating the lives and issues of her day into drama. Gradually she learns how real life can be folded into fictional dramatic works in such a way that it entertains and reflects back to people their own prejudices as well as their humanity. She also discovers theatre is a collaborative hive where the actors, writers and producers all interpret and transform the playwright's text into become a live show. Opportunities for women to creatively express themselves were obviously severely limited in this era but Ursula finds a way to testify to her own experience and that of the women of her time.

Crowhurst's writing has a wonderful lightness to it. A lot of literary fiction can be so gloomy when confronting serious subjects, but “The Illumination of Ursula Flight” is extremely engaging in how it seriously shows the plight of a creative woman in this time and the challenges she faces without getting bogged down in misery. The story evocatively comes to life in the details of the smells and sights of what life was like in this period from one character who refuses to have a rotten tooth extracted to the messy streets of London covered in refuse. She also gives a keen sense of the women's fashion as well as the politics of the Stuart period rumbling in the background. Most of all I became enamoured with Ursula's character and became wrapped up in following her journey. This historical novel is impressively imaginative, clever and fun in the way it brings her to life and shows the development of her artistic sensibility.

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“White Houses” must be one of the most touchingly romantic stories I’ve read in a long time. This is also a novel with searing political insight that offers an alternative view of history. Amy Bloom writes from the perspective of Lorena Hickock who was a journalist and author of the early-mid 20th century. She also shared a strong relationship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The enormous affection between these two women is well documented but historians still disagree about whether their relationship was physical or not. In Bloom’s novel, Lorena and Eleanor’s enduring love for each other is unequivocal and she frequently takes the reader into their bedroom – not in a gratuitous way, but to show the transformative effect and power of the intense love they shared. At the same time she portrays the seat of government throughout crucial years of US history when FDR led the country through The Depression and the Second World War. This was also a time in LGBT history when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sought to persecute “subversive” behaviour and specifically kept a large file on Eleanor who was a famed liberal and civil rights activist. The result is a tale which is large in scope while also offering an achingly intimate portrait of a love affair cruelly shaken by extraordinary circumstances.

Lorena’s narrative weaves together fragments from her long relationship with Eleanor from blissful moments of their “honeymoon” when they escaped together to enjoy some solitude to the painful time when Lorena moved out of the White House to avoid embroiling Eleanor in a scandal. Lorena also recounts the story of her life from an impoverished childhood to the tricky position of being a female reporter in a male-dominated newsroom trying to hide her lesbianism: “I pretended that even though I hadn’t found the right man, I did want one. I pretended that I envied their wives and that took effort.” What’s particularly interesting about the way her past is related is that its in the context of a scene where Eleanor invites Lorena to tell the story of her life. While the reader receives the unedited version, Lorena leaves out parts that she knows will particularly distress Eleanor such as the sexual abuse she suffered from her father as an adolescent and her moment of sexual discovery with an individual named Gerry who is “brother and sister in one body” at a carnival she worked at for a brief period. This strikingly shows the complexity of how lovers exchange stories of their pasts which are carefully edited or modified, not necessarily in order to deceive their partner, but to drip feed what they know their lover can take.

 Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickock

Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickock

Something I loved so much about this novel is the way Bloom realistically portrays the physicality of these women’s relationship. Lorena and Eleanor are aware that they aren’t “conventional beauties” but in bed “what may not look beautiful does feel beautiful.” It’s so moving the way she describes how features which would be scorned in public can become desirable qualities in the intimate space of romance. What’s more she describes how empowering this can be: “In bed, we were beauties. We were goddesses. We were the little girls we’d never been: loved, saucy, delighted, and delightful.” It’s a safe area where these individuals can reckon with their pasts and identity can become fluid to escape the confines of the roles they have to play in public. The only novel I can recall that comes close to exploring this kind of complexity is Garth Greenwell’s “What Belongs To You” – especially in the way that both books portray how LGBT people seek out spaces where desire can be honestly expressed as a way to enact all the multifaceted aspects of their personalities which aren’t socially acceptable to reveal in public.

What’s so especially engaging about this novel and makes it so compulsively readable is that Lorena’s voice is exremely witty and engaging. She’s a plain-talking journalist who often cuts through the social niceties of high society’s pomp. Lorena speaks frankly to many characters including Eleanor’s duplicitous daughter, a tortured gay cousin named Parker who comes close to ruining the family and Franklin D Roosevelt’s lover. She hilarious recounts her frank disdain for the “pink turkey parts” men have between their legs. There’s also a mesmerising intensity to her insomniac wanderings through the White House late at night where she sometimes encounters FDR to share a nightcap. She remarks of him that “He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day.” But, despite her hardened attitude which she acquired from such a challenging life, Lorena maintains a touching idealism and hope in her relationship with Eleanor that “Our love would create its own world and alter the real one, just a little.” It’s an important message and one which makes this historical novel all the more relevant today given that the US is more politically divided than ever and the echoed message of “America First” carries with it such stifling reactionary sentiments. “White Houses” gives us a portrait of the past which makes it clear how America has always been a nation where there are multiple meanings of the word home. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAmy Bloom
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Deborah Levy has a unique style of writing which references a disparate range of influences and layers in a lot of symbolism in order to tease out some of the most essential questions about life. I admired the way her novel “Hot Milk” looks at what happens when familial roles are reversed or become more fluid. So it's absolutely fascinating reading “The Cost of Living” which is part of what's been branded Levy's “living autobiography” and follows the time period in which she wrote “Hot Milk”. She describes the state of flux her life was in this period with the death of her mother and a separation from her longtime husband, but also the professional success she was experiencing with her novel “Swimming Home” being shortlisted for the Booker Prize and its being optioned for a film. But rather than focusing on the mechanics and reasons behind all these changes she traces an everyday account of her life moving forward: renting a small writing studio at the back of someone's garden and considering her position in life because she surmises “We either die of the past or we become an artist.” It's an emotionally arresting account that makes many pithy observations about gender, identity and the writing life.

One of the themes Levy frequently meditates on is the gender roles for women as wives, mothers and writers. The book begins and ends with reference to the breakup of her marriage without going into the specifics of why they separated so her meditation on this subject becomes especially poignant for what Levy leaves unsaid about why her marriage ended. For instance she notes when talking to men at parties or on a train that they don't refer to their wives by name, but simply call them “my wife”. Similarly Levy refers to some of the most important men in her life not by name but by their actions such as “the man who cried at the funeral”. This is a humorous way of highlighting the glaring way men define women by their roles in life rather than acknowledging the complexity of their being.

Levy meditates on the way wives can become trapped in their status and actually transform their identities to fit in with expectations. She reflects how “The moody politics of the modern home had become complicated and confusing… Orwell, in his 1936 essay ‘Shooting an Elephant’, noted that the imperialist ‘wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it’. The wife also wears a mask and her face grows to fit it, in all its variations.” The situation becomes further complicated with the introduction of children and the different levels of freedom allowed to the father over the mother: “When our father does the things he needs to do in the world, we understand it is his due. If our mother does the things she needs to do in the world, we feel she has abandoned us. It is a miracle she survives our mixed messages, written in society’s most poisoned ink. It is enough to drive her mad.” Levy herself resolves to work at the writing life amidst mounting financial pressures, obligations and the responsibility of motherhood. She also poignantly describes her role as a creative writing teacher to hone her students' prose and the way she helps young female writers to embrace the legitimacy of their voices.

 Levy writes of Simone de Beauvoir "She was my muse but I was certainly not hers."

Levy writes of Simone de Beauvoir "She was my muse but I was certainly not hers."

While Levy takes her subjects very seriously there is also a wonderful levity to her accounts which include the absurdity of the world and the comic roles we often inadvertently play. For instance she rides her electronic bike to an important meeting and encounters trouble on it, but only realises after the meeting how she had leaves and mud in her hair throughout the day. Or in the desperate last days of her mother's life she manically sought out ice lollies of a certain flavour because they were the only things her dying mother could bear to consume. These add a welcome level of humanity to what could otherwise be ponderous reflections that are too intense.

Readers can sometimes tire of the insular nature of writers who write about the process of writing. But Levy's writing is so expansive in its account of states of being that it always feels refreshing and relatable with a pressing desire to connect. Moreover it comes across as simply honest. Levy notes how “To speak our life as we feel it is a freedom we mostly choose not to take” but thankfully she exerts her freedom to candidly and poignantly speak about what she feels most intensely.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDeborah Levy
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Reading two major classic novels written by women for the first time felt like the perfect way to bookend my reading of the entire Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 longlist. I started with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and now I’ve ended with “Wuthering Heights”. These novels are also both included in the ‘Rediscover the Classic’ campaign I’ve curated and overseen for Jellybooks. Although both these novels and their famous characters are so ingrained in our cultural lexicon, I’ve been taken aback by the way their powerful narratives still gripped and surprised me. This is also the third novel I’ve read by the Brontë sisters after reading “Jane Eyre” for the first time several years ago and “Agnes Grey” last year. It’s interesting to think about how some parallels can be drawn between them but also how each author employs such different writing styles and has their own unique outlook. “Wuthering Heights” felt like it had the most complicated narrative form of all these books and some of the darkest content, but its made a big impact on me.

It's a good time to get swept up in Brontë fever with 'Brontë 200' happening. This is a five year programme celebrating the bicentenaries of the births of the four Brontë children (2018 marks Emily's 200th birthday). Recently it was announced stones engraved with new writing by Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay, Jeanette Winterson and Kate Bush that commemorates the sisters will be placed in the walk between the sisters’ birthplace and the family parsonage. Not only does The Women's Prize organize events celebrating new authors, but they create opportunities to celebrate women's writing in general. So this week I also went to a wonderful event they held with a number of authors who paid tribute to the legacy of “Wuthering Heights” and they discussed the personal impact its had on them. It was so fascinating hearing the different perspectives on how much they were influenced by “Wuthering Heights” as teenagers and how their reading of the novel has changed over time. It was also noted how the themes, violence portrayed and style of the novel still feel so bold today.

Since I'm discussing “Wuthering Heights” in the context of The Women's Prize, I'd like to briefly draw some parallels I can see between Brontë's novel and books that were on the longlist. I have no idea whether these current authors were influenced by “Wuthering Heights” or not, but it's still interesting to look for connections. The way Brontë explores the line between romance and obsession/abuse and how it portrays the real bloody violence that results in a destructive relationship made me recall Kandasamy's extraordinary portrayal of an abusive marriage in “When I Hit You”. The rift between classes with the Lintons and the Earnshaws/Heathcliff and the question of who will control this rural land and houses felt reminiscent of the class struggle evident in Mozley's “Elmet”. The intense sense of claustrophobia and a family that hates each other trapped inside the farmhouse that is Wuthering Heights made me recall the toxic atmosphere in the house in Schmidt's “See What I Have Done”. The continuing impact of history that manifests in the presence of ghosts was also portrayed in Ward's “Sing, Unburied, Sing”. I don't know how much an in-depth comparison between these novels would yield, but it's nevertheless worth noting how Emily Brontë wrote about themes which are still relevant and being written about today.

 Authors Kate Mosse, Dorothy Koomson, Juno Dawson & Louise Doughty at the Baileys Bar Women's Prize event on Wuthering Heights. 

Authors Kate Mosse, Dorothy Koomson, Juno Dawson & Louise Doughty at the Baileys Bar Women's Prize event on Wuthering Heights. 

It feels odd in a way coming to “Wuthering Heights” as a 39 year old man as this does seem like a novel that I ought to have first read as a teenager. In the discussion the other night, Juno Dawson noted how “Jane Eyre” seems like the perfect young adult novel but she didn't appreciate “Wuthering Heights” as much until reading it now. I might have had a similar reaction, but I like how the reality of reading Emily's novel defies the common conception that it is a great love story. The reality of Heathcliff and Catherine's lifelong romance is so much more twisted and bitter than a Romeo and Juliet story. Built within it is a rift between the born privilege and class aspirations of Catherine and the resented orphan Heathcliff. Rather than a love story, “Wuthering Heights” is more an extremely elaborate revenge tale where Heathcliff plays the long game to enact the wrath he feels at being so mistreated as a child and then slighted by the woman he loves. I sympathized with Heathcliff's anger over his outsider status, but of course I was also horrified by the monstrous way he acts and schemes to dominate the houses and all who inhabit them.

I must confess that I found the convoluted narrative structure a struggle for most of the first half. There is so much story within story where in some instances the present tenant Lockwood is being told a tale by the servant Nelly who is recounting a letter written by Isabella who is recalling an encounter she had. It made some parts difficult to follow, but this is a reason why it feels like rereading would yield a lot more and how it's worth really knowing the characters and the dynamic between them going into this novel. I know that this style of narration raises lots of interesting questions about how trustworthy the narrators are, but it does make it challenging to follow. In a way, I much preferred the second half of the novel which has to do with the second generation of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Here I could feel the resonance of all that came before and how children are drawn into and absorb the quarrels of past generations. It's also fascinating how the roles of characters are switched around in the new generation and how you can feel the internal battles these younger individuals have to reconcile the past. There are also passages which are deeply meditative with characters contemplating their positions and struggling to see how to carry on. The second half of the novel gives “Wuthering Heights” an epic feel and made it much more emotionally resonant for me than if the story had stopped at the end of the first half.

It struck me that as an orphan story “Wuthering Heights” is much bolder and more daring than a book like Dickens' “Oliver Twist”. Oliver is so wholly good and moral whereas Heathcliff becomes an embittered and destructive monster. It feels like Emily Brontë presents a much more complicated and nuanced portrait of good vs evil and she shows how, though there is a lot of reprehensible action and other people's resentment is taken out on innocent people, there are understandable reasons for such violence. I could empathize with the struggle of many characters in “Wuthering Heights” and particularly admired the way she portrayed Isabella. She could be dismissed as a superficial or comic individual, but I felt for her conflict, the way she gambled and lost, and the way she resolutely decided to remove herself from a toxic situation where everyone else remained. I'm excited now to look at some film adaptations of the book (although I know most only portray the first half of the novel) and one day I look forward to reading Emily's story again.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEmily Bronte
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It’s compelling how debut novelist Arja Kajermo handles the challenge of writing about a child’s mostly bleak and bare external life in relation to her rich inner life. “The Iron Age” presents a coming of age tale about a girl growing up in post-war Finland, first on a rural farm without electricity or indoor plumbing and then in urban Sweden with its foreign language and more cosmopolitan ways. Since children have a natural tendency toward make-believe and dreaming its tricky to negotiate the relationship between real life and the imagination within narrative. As a cartoonist by trade, Kajermo creatively manages this by showing her girl protagonist’s accounts of early life heavily infused with local folklore and her family’s mythology. Later when the girl discovers a love of reading she creatively fuses her experience with fairy tales and the stories she finds in books. This is all accompanied by sketches by Susanna Katermo Torner which reflect this fusion of fantasy and reality. It’s a creative way of presenting a particular childhood not just as narrative, but as an immersive experience.

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Life in Finland after WWII was incredibly challenging given how war reparations needed to be paid to the Soviet Union for a number of years. As such, the girl’s father and many other working people found it difficult to gain decent paying jobs and many sought employment elsewhere. Living in relative isolation, the girl witnesses the strain this puts on her father and the misogynistic ways he takes his frustration out on her mother. There are striking scenes of emotional and physical abuse. What I found most powerful is a scene where the father gets so angry at the girl he’s about to beat her and the girl’s defensive tactic is to go silent. “There was a strange safety in not saying anything. It was like being very small inside a very big bomb shelter and looking out through narrow slits that were my eyes. I realized I was safe inside, looking out at a very angry man.” This is such an evocative way of describing a retreat to an inner life. In this silence, partly-inspired by the stories the girl discovers at a local library, she begins to fantasise and form stories of her own.

I enjoyed this deceptively simple and powerful novella that gives an episodic account of sensitive girl’s early life and the strength she discovers in silence.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesArja Kajermo
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What a joy it was reading this novel! And I'm so glad I purposely saved it as the last book to read from The Women's Prize longlist. I had a hunch it'd be a pleasurable and immersive story and it was. It's the kind of book I was eager to get back to every time I had to put it down which is something I can't say about some other literary novels no matter how clever or interesting they are. Given how much I enjoyed reading both Imogen Hermes Gowar's debut novel and “The Parentations” I'm beginning to think my favourite kind of historical fiction has a dash of the supernatural mixed in with it. Although, to be honest, “The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock” is almost entirely firmly grounded in reality. The mermaid element comes to stand for something more emotional and rooted in the real world later in the novel. It's primarily the story of a widower businessman whose livelihood is at stake when his merchant vessel is unwittingly traded away and a high society escort/prostitute named Angelica Neal who is reentering her trade after the death of a duke that kept her and left her nothing. Their stories collide in a richly imagined version of late-18th century London with its bawdy houses of ill repute and emerging middle class neighbourhoods.

Fans of Sarah Waters are likely to enjoy this novel for Gowar's incredibly engaging prose style and the rich way she reimagines this historical period without making her research too evident. Also in Waters' fashion, there's a playfully indulgent sexiness to the writing where a woman's breasts are described as “full and pale, seamed with one or two pearly lines, quivering just fractionally in time with her pulse” and, in response, a man is “hard as a yardstick.” It's also the kind of story about a historical time period that wouldn't have been written in the time its set because Gowar adds realistic details that wouldn't have normally been included. For instance, in one part a woman visits a household where she drinks a great deal of tea and in the carriage back has an urgent need to urinate. So Gowar doesn't shy from showing how cumbersome and messy a situation like this would have been in the time period. Also, it gives some presence to racial minorities in Georgian times. One of the sub-plots involves a prostitute named Polly who is bi-racial and a black servant named Simeon. They have very different attitudes towards race and feelings about how to navigate English society as members of a racial minority. While I'm glad Gowar took care in representing different kinds of people from this time period, their stories are perhaps too self-contained and slight within such a larger story so it feels close to tokenism. Nevertheless, she portrays their plight in a sensitive way.

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Mostly I found myself drawn towards the character of Angelica and I was wholly wrapped up in her story. She's someone who seems quite superficial and selfish, but comes from a difficult background and has a dogged faith in intense romance. It's skilful the way Gowar made me care about her even when she was doing foolish or cruel things. And it's also compelling how the characters around her seem to caution and advise her against making obvious mistakes, but Angelica can't stop herself from getting into trouble and falling into disgrace. Mr Hancock is sensitive to the fact that “She is a woman out of place, this Angelica Neal, a piece fallen loose from a great machine.” This combined with the melancholy losses Mr Hancock has endured gives the novel real depths of feeling which might not be evident at first. Their journeys take them to a place which should seem like a happy conclusion, but a lasting sense of fulfilment and contentment remain elusive. Rather than stand as a thing of glorious wonder, the mermaid that the characters seek becomes merely “A thing that tells us what we really want is out of reach.” For a novel that appears on the surface to be an indulgent historical tale, “The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock” has a real emotional resonance.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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