Surge.jpg

The question of how we should memorialize victims of injustice, those who've been forgotten or those whose stories can't ever be known is a difficult one. Jay Bernard writes a powerful introduction to their book of poetry “Surge” explaining how they conducted research into the 1981 New Cross Fire which was also called the New Cross Massacre and claimed the lives of 13 young people. Many believed this was a racist attack and the reverberations of this unresolved case are still felt today - especially when there are eerily familiar new cases such as the Grenfell Tower fire. Bernard’s poems poignantly embody the spirit and voice of people involved in these incidents including family members in mourning, bystanders, protesters and even the victims themselves.

Some poems reflect more on Bernard’s own personal experience to discuss issues to do with gender, sexuality, national and racial identity because, as the author states, “Many questions emerged not only about memory and history, but about my place in Britain as a queer black person. This opened out into a final sense of coherence: I am from here, I am specific to this place, I am haunted by this history but I also haunt it back.” What forms over this book’s journey is a communion and convergence of voices who rightfully insist upon a presence in the nation’s collective memory. These poems are artfully infused with a political urgency, sensitively consider the weight of history and punch through the past into the present day.  

A series of poems take on a strong lyrical quality with repetition and rhythms reminiscent of the songs sung in Jamaican patois that emerged amidst the protests after the New Cross Fire. Other poems are more reflective using imagery which considers the border between past and present, memory and forgetting, life and death. The poem ‘Pace’ meaningfully explores a sense of connection to those who’ve come before us in the physical space we inhabit. Still other poems speak with startling directness in the voice of restless victims: “No-one will tell me    what happened to my body”. Interspersed between the poems there are sometimes photographic images of individuals or banners involved in the protests following the New Cross Fire. There are also occasional quotes taken from a variety of media such as text messages, news reports and relevant books of nonfiction. These add to the texture of the reading experience suffusing the poems with a living energy.

Several poems are achingly intimate and form kinds of narratives based in memory. One describes the bravery summoned to join a Pride parade and the confused sensation of melding into a community: “am I the steaming black street, am I the banner and the band, the crush, lilting ale, tipsy hug, charged flesh and open eye”. The poem ‘Ha-my-ca’ recounts a trip to Jamaica and the experience of skinny dipping where a new relationship with the body is formed: “I learned of self and other when my waist left the water”. While the poems with a more personal feel stand slightly to the side of the poems which converse with the research concerning the New Cross Fire, they add a sense of intimacy to how the author isn’t disconnected from this mission of bearing witness but is also a presence made solid.

Johnny Osbourne - 13 Dead

Sometimes I’ll read poetry collections where only a few individual poems make much of an impact, but nearly all the poems in “Surge” made me stop and meditate on them. It’s a richly complex and accomplished book that demands answers for those who’ve been marginalized and rendered voiceless throughout history: “It’s the only question we ask. Will anyone lessen the losing? Will anyone lessen the loss?... Losing and losing and loss. Never recouping the cost.”

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJay Bernard
MyPast.jpg

For some reason I’ve been drawn to reading a number of memoirs recently. I’m not sure if this is just a coincidence or if it’s because I’m especially drawn to real stories of lives so different from my own. Certainly (on the surface) Zeba Talkhani’s history is very distant from my own upbringing and path in life. She grew up as a Muslim girl of Indian descent in Saudi Arabia before moving to study in India, Germany and England. Yet I came to feel such a strong sense of kinship with her over the course of reading her powerful and inspiring memoir “My Past is a Foreign Country”. I connected strongly to her sensibility in a number of ways from a small detail like her love for the wonderful film ‘Violette’ or larger issues such as how physical distance from our homelands has allowed us a broader perspective on our upbringing and cultures. But, aside from the ways I personally connected to this book, I felt an overall admiration and respect for the development of her identity as a proud feminist, Muslim and intellectual.

Talkhani describes her childhood in Jeddah and the expectations placed upon her there as a girl. From an early age she was sensitive to the fact men and women were treated differently. She naturally questioned this and other aspects of the predominantly patriarchal society but “My questioning was considered a kind of lewdness.” However, she was unwilling to fully cede to the dictation of this social order and continued to query the many written and unwritten rules governing how women were meant to conduct themselves. Of course, it’d be a simplification to present Saudi Arabia only as a place where there is an issue with sexism. Crucially, Talkhani highlights the way in which this region is in some ways more progressive in its attitudes towards women. She identifies how “The problem wasn’t so much my culture, but the universal reverence we placed on men of faith, and the reputation of men in general.” What she identifies are the power structures that are in place which reinforce the patriarchy and how this manifests in different ways throughout the world regardless of the nation or predominant religion. That’s not to excuse the cases of egregious sexism she highlights in particular places, but to point out that they spring out of common issues to do with male dominated societies.  

It’s really moving the way Talkhani charts how she grows and learns as an individual. A crucial issue she struggled with in her adolescence and adult life is with hair loss. This caused many more issues for her as a young woman than it would for men – especially because of the emphasis her family and community placed upon marriage and finding a suitable husband. Her condition challenged her sense of self-worth when being judged by those around her but it’s heartening to read how she developed an inner-resolve and certainty of self: “Investing in my sense of self and divorcing it from the perceptions of others not only kept me afloat as a teenager but it protected me from making life-altering choices from a place of insecurity. I knew my value and I wasn’t going to waste my precious time enabling fragile, toxic masculinity.” This is such an inspiring message for anyone who is vulnerable to letting such judgements defeat them.

It’s interesting how throughout her life Talkhani has been part of a minority whether it was living with her Indian heritage in Saudi Arabia, as a Muslim in India and as both these things in Europe. While this naturally led her to feeling ostracised at times it also allowed her to achieve a unique perspective on the assumptions and ideologies which guided the different societies she lived in. It’s given her an insight into the way in which societies differently discriminate against people based upon their gender, faith, race or nationality. This occurs in both subtle and overt ways whether it’s meeting potential suitors or being part of a predominantly white book group, but are all related to how different groups can have parochial views about those who are different. What’s truly admirable is the way Talkhani doesn’t allow the judgement of others affect her personally because “Nothing was personal, it was just how the patriarchy worked.” She comes to this conclusion partly by drawing upon many different writers and philosophers from Sylvia Plath to Simone de Beauvoir to better inform and frame her understanding of the world. After a long challenging journey she understands that it’s only her opinion of herself that matters. She articulates this beautifully in the later parts of the book as well as sympathetically describing issues of insecurity she still wrestles with.

One of the most striking points of connection I felt with the author was when she conveys in her recollections how she’d repeatedly hide her vulnerability. At a few different points in her life she describes suppressing tears or closing down rather than expressing sadness or anger to those around her (even if people close to her recognize she’s in pain and are trying to comfort her.) It’s a pernicious sort of defence mechanism whereby feelings are internalized and it ironically blocks us off from the support of people who love us when we need them the most. Talkhani movingly describes how she learns to open up and express herself more. This adds to how this memoir demonstrates an admirable maturity. Her vital perspective contains so much wisdom and insight for anyone who has felt marginalized or been pressured to conform to the status quo.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesZeba Talkhani
ThisBrutal.jpg

I think the best novels say as much in their form as well as in their content. Niven Govinden’s new novel “This Brutal House” is about a silent protest staged by several mothers from different drag houses in front of NYC’s City Hall. For years these mothers housed many queer children who were forced to leave the homes of their biological families. But when these children have gone missing the police force haven’t taken their disappearances seriously and even used these losses as an opportunity to harass and interrogate the lifestyle embodied by these drag houses. Frustrated and tired of trying to form a dialogue these mothers sit in silent protest because “we are past words.” The author conveys the complexity of this political act in a number of ways. Govinden invokes their collective voice to capture the tenor and sweep of their emotions and experiences. But he also relates the story of Teddy, a child from these drag houses who now works in City Hall and is caught between these two very different social spheres. By switching between these points of view and relating large sections through dialogue Govinden allows us to wholly feel this complicated situation and hear everything that’s left unspoken in the midst of these drag mothers’ mute resistance.

There was a long period during which drag was seen as a fairly niche section of the queer community where the only far-reaching understanding of it came from the vital documentary ‘Paris is Burning’. But, in recent years, it’s become more popular with the advent of TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and ‘Pose’ as well as some excellent fiction such as Joseph Cassara’s “The House of Impossible Beauties”. Govinden doesn’t seek to create a guide to understanding the form and rules of drag houses in this novel. Those who know nothing about drag will no doubt feel disorientated when they start reading it, but that shouldn’t deter book lovers who appreciate engaging and imaginative fiction. Instead of explaining the author immerses the reader in the attitudes and social dynamics of drag houses showing how they are in their essence and very existence a political phenomenon. These are the voices of children who often provide an alternative to the dominant narrative of the largely white, heterosexual and patriarchal society they’ve been born into. By inhabiting the art, fantasy and cut-throat competition of drag balls or immersing themselves in the capitalist dreams of high end stores they find “bubbles which envelop and shield you from real life.” In doing so they discover succour, kinship and vitality amidst a society that seeks to stultify or erase those who are queer and refuse to conform to its pervading values.

Govinden intelligently conveys the essence of this community by indulging in the rich pleasures, fierce attitudes and humour of the drag ball scene. Several pages are narrated from the perspective an MC calling out a multiplicity of drag categories – everything from “backstreet dancer realness” to “Miami Jewish matron” realness. Through this repetition with endless variations and a keen ear for the irreverent we feel how these individuals can simultaneously inhabit and play upon the full spectrum of identity: “The balls were heaven as we divined; a right we would give our last breath for.” In the exactitude of criteria there is an ironic freedom to be found from all categories of being and a liberation from all the boxes which society tries to put people into. I loved how Govinden’s framing of the scene conveyed both the celebratory joy and the heartrending sincerity of these balls and their expression of realness. This is tribute to the craft and excruciatingly hard work which goes into drag as an artform. I especially enjoyed when the author likened drag families preparing for a ball to soldiers preparing for war: “Weeks of preparation! Through that time life was somehow lived, yet this took over everything. Soldiers readying for battle clean their gun and polish boots. They run ten miles, expelling yet withholding the energy they will need. They’re drugged up to the eyeballs, fucking comfort women in conflict zones. No different to us: method and masculinity shared.”

ThisBrutal2.jpg

The novel conscientiously gives space to the collective voices of the drag mothers, their children and the police force. Between these groups there is the friction of misunderstanding or opposition. But spaced throughout the novel Teddy’s experiences and dilemmas give a personal weight to these fraught groups as he invokes his own understanding of the city. Perhaps one of the most admirable things about this novel is how Govinden refuses to give a simplified and one-sided view of the drag scene - which in some recent popularised iterations has become more about catty indulgence rather than politics. The mothers in “This Brutal House” are queens worthy of reverence but they are not saints. Some of their children have become lost due to illness or violence, but others wilfully left out of rebellion or because they simply grew up and moved on. At one point the children say of the mothers “Their mania for taking our money? They were our bosses. Gang masters in drags.” Just like in many biological families the propensity for parents dominating and exploiting their children (and vice versa) is just as prevalent in drag families. But because there aren’t legalized social structures to give credence and support to drag families it can more often lead to isolation. This is aptly summarised in the haunting lines: “Drag is nothing but family. Drag is everything but family. Remember this.”

This novel is saturated with a verve which made it compulsive and pleasurable reading for me, but I also savoured the author’s exactitude in his language and ear for dialogue which brought these disparate groups to life. Moreover I admire the ingenuity of its structure for conveying a social scene and section of society which deserves to be recognized and celebrated.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNiven Govinden
The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg .jpg

I first became aware of Valerie Solanas amidst my teenage obsession with Andy Warhol. During this period I loved reading books by and about Warhol as I was entranced by how this nerdy awkward kid of Polish descent from Pittsburgh grew to be the famed leader of an art movement. Solanas was one of the interlopers who frequented Andy’s factory and starred in one of his films, but in 1968 Solanas shot Warhol and almost killed him. Her story was brilliantly realised by Lili Taylor in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol. Solanas was a radical feminist and anarchist who wrote a book called the “SCUM Manifesto” which encouraged women to overthrow society and eliminate the male sex. She was evidently very troubled and difficult, but an absolutely fascinating person. Sara Stridsberg reimagines Solanas’ story in her novel “The Faculty of Dreams” which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. We follow Solanas from childhood through to her sadly impoverished later years with frequent leaps backwards and forwards in time simulating the fragmented consciousness of this highly-intelligent and problematic heroine. In doing so Stridsberg captures Solanas’ frustrated brilliance as well as her obsessive mind, mental breakdown and how she was one of many radical outsiders who were scorned and swept under the rug of society.

Stridsberg doesn’t hide the fact she feels a deep sympathy for Solanas and sometimes intervenes in the text to say so in dialogues between a “Narrator” and Solanas. But this isn’t just a fan’s tale. The story she creates conveys Solanas’ deep complexity and hardship from early abuse/emotional neglect to her evident struggles with mental illness – but she also recounts opportunities Solanas didn’t fully take advantage of such as her university accolades and how Solanas’ resolutely combative nature alienated her even from people honestly trying to help her. The style of Stridsberg’s narrative conveys Solanas’ extremely strained mental state where internalized abuse and trauma start to sound like an echo chamber from which she can’t escape: “there was nothing left to cry about except America would keep on fucking me and all fathers want to fuck their daughters and most of them do and only a few don’t and it’s not clear why except the world will always be one long yearning to go back.” This effectively produces a sense of claustrophobia in the reader who becomes equally trapped in Solanas’ circular and exhausting thought process.

Of course, this makes some parts of the books difficult to read. While I appreciated Stridsberg’s stylistic choices such as presenting dialogue like a script and creating impressionistic lists it was often disorientating trying to locate where we were and it sometimes felt tiring reading Solanas repeating the same withering verbal onslaught against men (including gay men who she branded “faggots” and women who comply in a male-dominated society.) This was effective in conveying how Solanas was a tragic figure as you witness people becoming increasingly alienated from her and how she’d plead for money from someone while simultaneously attacking them. But I wished for a bit more clear-sighted detail about her downward spiral especially in the breakdown of her relationship with a woman named Cosmo that she strongly connected with at university. Nevertheless, there are some heartrending moments like when Solanas calls her mother Dorothy while she’s at university hoping for her approval but only getting her mother’s soporific mourning for Marilyn Monroe. There are also some fascinating periphery characters such as her early friendship with a gay prostitute called Silk Boy and strange bond with her psychologist Dr Cooper. Stridsberg shows how there were bands of outsiders across the country and these are the people’s whose stories are so seldom told.

Valerie Solanas

Valerie Solanas

It's curious how Stridsberg continues to be fascinated by and drawn to Solanas though she’s very aware that Solanas would most likely refute her. The author playfully alludes to this in the metafictional line: “no sentimental young women or sham authors playing at writing a novel about me dying. You don’t have my permission to go through my material.” Yet this is exactly what Stridsberg does so if Solanas is the high priestess of SCUM this book is a kind of sacrilegious act. But Stridsberg clearly sees value in Solanas’ extreme point of view within the feminist movement. She gives Solanas lines which still feel compelling in thinking about sexual politics today: “Your gender isn’t a prison. It’s an opportunity. There are just different ways of telling. Write your own account.” This feels like a thought that will strongly resonate with members of a newer generation who refuse to define their gender. Equally, Solanas represents a voice from a diminished class of people whose only source of income is begging or prostitution. She states “A room of one’s own is a fiction that doesn’t work.” It feels like her point of view is an important repost to the privileged classes that typically dominate the narrative of history.

I greatly admired this book’s inventive style and faithful desire to give such a controversial historical figure a better ending than the one she actually got.

All the Lives We Ever Lived by Katharine Smyth.JPG

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 signals 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 this book to anyone who hasn’t read Woolf before. I don’t know 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!

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKatharine Smyth
2 CommentsPost a comment
OrwellPrize.jpg

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.

Oscar_June7th.jpg

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.

Oscar2.jpg

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.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMatthew Sturgis
Celestial.jpg

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
TheRemainder.jpg

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.

MySistertheSerial.jpg

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
West.jpg

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.

mammoth_skeleton.jpg

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.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesCarys Davies
5 CommentsPost a comment
The Heavens.jpg

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.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSandra Newman
DollFactory.jpg

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!

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
Rathbones Folio Prize 2019.JPG

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.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
9 CommentsPost a comment
Ordinary People.jpg

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. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDiana Evans