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. 

Posted
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. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAmy Bloom
2 CommentsPost a comment
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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.

Posted
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.

Posted
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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It's been quite a journey dedicating myself to reading all sixteen novels on The Women's Prize 2018 longlist (although luckily I'd already happened to read a number of them.) But I was glad that this prize pushed me to read some books I've been meaning to get to and try a couple I don't think I would have read otherwise. Even the books on the list which I don't think come together fully like “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”, "The Idiot" or “Miss Burma” gave me a lot of interesting things to think about in subject matter and narrative style. Since I read “Sight” before its publication and loved it so much it's been particularly interesting hearing people's more critical reactions it. And I love that this prize introduced me to new novels like "The Trick to Time", "Home Fire" and "The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock" which I'm not sure I would have got to reading otherwise. 

Yesterday I met with The Women's Prize shadow panel and spent a fab few hours with Naomi, Eleanor and Antonia at a pub discussing every novel in depth. I was really surprised at how wildly different our opinions were on some books. There were some passionate pleas for novels and big detractors for others, but when it came to whittling down a final list it wasn't that difficult to conclude which ones we collectively agree are the best. However, my personal list would be slightly different. So I'll put photos of both below.

Have you been reading books on the longlist? Which are your favourites? Which don't you think deserve to be there? And which do you hope will be on the shortlist?

I'll be so excited to see what the Women's Prize judges have chosen for the actual shortlist tomorrow evening. 

 The shadow panel's shortlist

The shadow panel's shortlist

 My personal choices for the shortlist

My personal choices for the shortlist

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I had incredibly conflicted feelings while reading “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”. It focuses on loneliness – a subject I come back to continuously on my blog because it is, in part, a self-conscious exploration of that state. The beginning of this novel is prefaced by a quotation from “The Lonely City” by Olivia Laing, one of my favourite books from 2016 – so my expectations were incredibly high. Author Gail Honeyman has spoken about how her initial inspiration for the novel came from reading about an ordinary young adult who had an extremely solitary existence bouncing between work and home with no socializing in between. This is protagonist Eleanor’s routine life. She has a frosty relationship with her colleagues and no one to speak to outside of the office except for weekly phone calls with her belligerent and cruel mother. But, after watching a handsome singer at a gig, she’s inspired to change and camouflage herself “as a human woman” in order to make him fall for her. As she gradually emerges from her hermetic shell she’s forced to confront a painful past and all the emotions she’s suppressed for so long.

Although I’m really invested in the central subject and some sections were very moving, this novel ultimately didn’t come together for me because I couldn’t believe in Eleanor’s character. Even though she has no social contact and is a creature of habit, it doesn’t make sense to me that she’s entirely ignorant about many pop cultural references and aspects of society. It’s noted in the story how she’s someone who regularly reads the newspaper, listens to the radio and watches television, but she’s never heard of McDonalds, SpongeBob SquarePants or the dance YMCA. She’s completely at a loss as to how to conduct a transaction when ordering a takeaway pizza or buying a computer and when a beautician giving her a makeover asks if she’d like a smoky eye she replies she doesn’t like anything to do with smoking. Even for someone who lives in such an isolated way, it feels like she could glean a lot of this information and get an idea of how people interact from the media she consumes. But many times it feels like she’s literally an alien.

You could argue that she has some sort of developmental disability or personality disorder based on trauma or years spent in intense isolation. Or it could be she’s just really bad at social situation. She expresses at one point how she finds people unfathomable: “I often find that I don’t understand why they do and say things.” However, this doesn’t seem compatible with the fact that she’s highly intelligent and could deduce many things about how social situations work. Also, later on, she expresses how “by careful observation from the sidelines, I’d worked out that social success is often built on pretending just a little. Popular people sometimes have to laugh at things they don’t find very funny, do things they don’t particularly want to, with people whose company they don’t particularly enjoy. Not me. I had decided, years ago, that if the choice was between that or flying solo, then I’d fly solo. It was safer that way. Grief is the price we pay for love, so they say. The price is far too high.” So it’s not that she doesn’t understand social norms, but chooses to reject them. This seems inconsistent with her character’s actions and reactions throughout the novel where she literally doesn’t understand what people mean or why they act the way they do. 

Also, the tone of the novel felt quite uneven where I wasn’t sure if the author or Eleanor were being intentionally funny or not. At a funeral she considers the various ways that a corpse can be disposed of and she thinks how when she dies she’d like to be fed to zoo animals. She plans to write to the WWF to find out if this would be possible. It felt very difficult to know if instances like this were just supposed to be funny or if we were supposed to actually believe her outrageous naivety. Also, she expresses how much she loves reading and has a particular fondness for Jane Eyre, but later she remarks how she ends up reading dull manuals because she’s so entirely baffled as to how to find literature she’d enjoy and states “There are so many books in the world – how do you tell them all apart?” But someone who is as smart as she is and went to university surely would be able to guess that if she likes Jane Eyre so much she’d probably like to try reading some other classic fiction.

 For much of her life, Eleanor's closest companion has been a parrot plant.

For much of her life, Eleanor's closest companion has been a parrot plant.

On the positive side, there were some sections I found effective. In particular, I thought Eleanor’s relationship with money was portrayed strongly. She’s highly conscious of how much she spends and is scrupulous about contributing anything to social occasions such as buying people drinks. She describes how “if I were to run out of funds, find myself indebted, there is no one, not a single soul, on whom I could call to bail me out. I’d be destitute.” So it’d make sense that she’d be particularly anxious about safeguarding her personal finances. She's basically a high functioning alcoholic and when she experiences an instance of totally crashing on an all-out binge it's really powerful. I also appreciated the gentle way the author handles the way people react to Eleanor’s odd behaviour where some sneer/mock her and others approach her with more sensitivity. Her journey towards building somewhat stable friendships and accepting herself was well plotted. But Eleanor as a character didn’t feel wholly convincing to me. I also think the story would have been stronger if Eleanor’s hidden history wasn’t so melodramatic. It feels like it would have been more effective and relatable if she just happened to be an awkward introvert.

It’s interesting reading this novel now that it’s been out almost a year and gained some supporters as well as strong detractors. It was the winner in the debut fiction category of the Costa Awards and has been nominated for numerous other awards such as The Women’s Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize. So it’s caused this book to come under a lot more scrutiny than a debut novel would usually get. I don’t think opinions could ever become as sharply divided as they were for the novel “A Little Life”, but this novel seems to be coming close.  

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesGail Honeyman
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I love it when a novel surprises me. I’m not specifically talking plot twists – although, this book does have a big one towards the end which I didn’t anticipate. It’s more that feeling when I’m reading a book and the writing is fine, but I’m not sure I see the point of the story. But then it gets to a section where it emotionally grips me and breaks my heart and pieces it back together bit by bit. The best example of this I always go back to is Colm Tóibín’s “Brooklyn” which made me flip and fall in love with it halfway through. But now I can say the same about Kit De Waal “The Trick to Time”. This novel slides effortlessly between the early and later life of Mona, a girl from Ireland who eventually moves to England and spends many years making elegant handcrafted dolls as well as emotionally assisting bereaved women in their grieving process. It’s a deceptively simple story that makes big statements about loss, relationships and the power imagination can play in rescuing us from the ravages of time.

One way this novel really pulled on my heart strings was by portraying some characters who are outwardly “difficult” but their prickliness is really a defensive guise shielding hidden psychological pain. A woman named Sarah visits Mona at one point and, though she is quite rude and dismissive, Mona persists in helping her because both women have experienced a similar sense of loss and Mona can sense how much she’s in pain. This astute, empathetic manner is really touching, but it’s also heartening to read about a character like Mona who is so essentially good that she’d selflessly give her time and attention to someone else rather than become embittered by her own anger and despair. This is something I also found so striking about another novel I read recently called “The Ninth Hour”.

 Mona and Karl visit Packington House, a 17th century mansion in Warwickshire

Mona and Karl visit Packington House, a 17th century mansion in Warwickshire

This novel also meaningfully engages with a question I’ve grappled with a lot in my life. It’s difficult not to let ourselves become preoccupied with thoughts about what might have been if we’d made different life choices or if chance had made us take a different path in life. Usually I’ve felt that getting lost in such musings is counterproductive as its taking you out of your immediate existence or the moment you’re living in. But this novel posits a different slant on this issue. Early in Mona’s life her father explains to her that there is a trick to time and throughout the book there are multiple examples of how people can indulge in imaginatively building alternate timelines for themselves – not necessarily as ways of escaping real life, but overcoming grief which feels otherwise insurmountable. So when Mona’s mother is very ill she engages her daughter in picturing how Mona’s life might play our or when a neighbour named Karl takes Mona to an antique fair they engage in playful musings about a luxurious lifestyle where the furniture around them fills an imagined stately home. It feels like this way of allowing ourselves to be manipulated by fantasy and the imagination can be a way of building a stronger sense of self as it allows us to simultaneously inhabit all the multiplicities of life.

I also really appreciated how this novel frankly deals with the subject of miscarriage in such a complex and moving way. It’s always felt to me like a somewhat taboo subject that’s not often talked about or perhaps it’s something I’ve never been that aware of as a man who has never been with a pregnant partner. But several years ago I was startled to find that some women close to me had experienced miscarriages which I hadn’t previously known about. It’s entirely understandable that something so sensitive isn’t brought up except in certain contexts and, of course, this is why many pregnant women don’t tell many people about their pregnancy until a certain stage, but it feels important that there’s more dialogue about something which can have long-term emotional consequences. “The Trick to Time” handles this beautifully and in such an effective way. I was entirely engrossed in the novel and moved by its very touching ending.  

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKit De Waal
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It feels surprising that “Miss Burma” is perhaps the least known novel on this year’s Women’s Prize longlist when its plot and the origins of its story are so sensational. Perhaps its initial publication made a bigger splash in the US, but I’ve seen many people in the UK remark that they had not heard of this book before its prize nomination. The blurbs on its cover from accomplished authors such as Viet Thanh Nguyen and Garth Greenwell certainly speak highly of the regard this novel is held in. It’s Charmaine Craig’s second novel, but prior to becoming a writer she was an actress who notably played the live-action model upon whom the animated character of Disney’s Pocahontas was based off from. The story of  “Miss Burma” and the central character of Louisa were based on Craig’s mother who had a truly epic life as a beauty pageant winner, famous Burmese actress and political revolutionary. Both Louisa and her family were intimately involved in the complicated social and political changes that occurred in the recent history of Burma (presently known as Myanmar.) Charmaine Craig reimagines her family’s harrowing story which parallels this turbulent 20th century period that involved a break from colonialism, warring ethnic groups, invasion/interference from numerous foreign powers and the military leadership of the country after a coup d’etat in 1962.

One of the great missions of this novel is to evoke the presence and struggle of the indigenous peoples of Burma who were systematically stripped of their cultural heritage and were subject to acts of genocide. Many ethnic groups have struggled to establish a presence and voice within the country’s government in the past century. At one point a character feels how “His opinion didn’t matter, because Burma’s peoples didn’t matter. Burma mattered only so far as it posed a problem for the countries that did matter. America, China, Russia.”  “Miss Burma” focuses in particular on the plight of the Karen people who were subjected to frequent attacks and oppression. Some Karens waged a war against the central Burmese government demanding either representation or the establishment of an independent Karen state. The bulk of the story follows the tumultuous marriage of Benny and Khin, Louisa’s parents. Although their coupling begins in the most innocent and romantic way, their lives include tremendous strife as well as some periods of success as the country and its people are ravaged by war.

The story includes very powerful sensory descriptions of Benny and Khin’s plight. These range from the fetid conditions and rat-infested cells that Benny is imprisoned within to the smell of Khin’s own sweat as she arduously hauls good to sell on the open market so that she can afford to feed her children. I was moved by the depiction of a relationship that is dragged through so much conflict and how this influences the characters’ actions as well as the transformation in how this couple view each other. This combined with the meaningful internal conflict many characters feel about what direction the country should take amidst riotous political strife made the novel really come alive for me. Most notable are evocative scenes where Benny paces in his study while scribbling his thoughts and audibly debates with himself while his bewildered family witnesses his mental fragmentation. Benny and Khin strategically plan on putting their daughter Louisa forward to win beauty competitions to first become Miss Karen and then win the country-wide title of Miss Burma. Because of her mixed race heritage Louisa subsequently becomes an “image of unity” in the press as well as a celebrity figure subject to insidious tabloid speculation. This platform that Louisa achieves allows for strategic manoeuvring between political figures and gradually Louisa takes a revolutionary stance.

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It is jarring in some sections how the author curiously breezes through dramatic changes in periods of her characters’ lives. For instance, during a period of stability Benny achieves a great amount of financial success running a number of businesses. This all happens quite quickly in a few paragraphs after a long section of his living with Khin in near destitution. Equally, Louisa’s success in pageants which springboard her into celebrity status and film stardom happens so quickly its as if they required hardly any effort from her or her family at all. Perhaps for a historical novel that uses material which is so personal to its author, Craig felt that certain sections of the characters’ lives were predetermined so she didn’t need to show the challenges these individuals faced in achieving their success or the tension of what might have happened if they’d failed. Instead she is much more concerned with the intricacies of the social meetings of political figures and the very tense uncertainty of different characters’ national loyalties.

I didn’t always understand the complex politics and conflicts involved in this novel. So in some sections I did feel a bit bewildered and in some ways it was perhaps too ambitious for the author to try to contain so much about the warring factions and complex motives of different parties. I didn’t find this to be a huge problem because I’m glad it’s encouraged me to read more about Burma’s fascinating history. But it did draw me out of the story at times. However, the novel really resonated when I felt the weight of expectation put on Louisa’s shoulders as she’s moulded into a symbol who becomes cognizant of the privilege of her role to take a stance and enact change herself. It’s intriguing how Charmaine Craig remarked in an interview that she originally wrote this novel focusing on her own relationship with her mother. This final novel feels quite far removed from that more personal story as it primarily delves into the lives of Craig’s grandparents. Though it would have made it a huge epic, I would have liked to see the story carried through to the author’s own times and her mother’s later life while sacrificing some of the political conspiracy elements. I feel like this would have made the novel resonate more as a personal story rather than an inside history of Burma.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesCharmaine Craig
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It’s really exciting seeing the international book community experiencing a surge of interest in Latvian literature. I’m aware that there is a vibrant literary scene in Latvia, but translations of new Latvian fiction are slow in making their way to the West. So I was thrilled to read “Soviet Milk” by established author Nora Ikstena. This book won the Annual Latvian Literature Award in 2015, but has only just been translated and published in English. The story alternates between the perspectives of an unnamed mother and daughter over a number of years from 1969 to 1989. They have a tumultuous relationship with each other and both struggle to find their place in society because this was a period of time when Latvia was still under Soviet rule. The mother is a skilled doctor specializing in female fertility, but finds life in the communist system stiflingly oppressive. Equally the daughter struggles to grow and nurture her developing intellect in such a regimental system. This is a moving and achingly poignant story of an unconventional mother-daughter relationship and a country undergoing radical social change as Latvia regains its independence.

At first the mother and daughter’s sections are separated by years of time as the mother describes her childhood and the very different landscape of Latvia during WWII. Meanwhile the daughter describes the painful experience of feeling unwanted and being raised by her grandmother and step-grandfather because her mother is incapable of caring for her. Gradually their narratives come together until they occur in a simultaneous time period. It’s ironic that the mother specializes in reproduction, yet finds no motivation to mother her own daughter. She feels “I had carried and given birth to a child, but I had no maternal instincts. Something had excluded me from this mystery, which I wanted to investigate to the very core, to discover its true nature.”

 Nora Ikstena

Nora Ikstena

In some ways it feels like the mother can’t nurture her daughter because she can’t inhabit a fully rounded identity under the Soviet system. She’s an intellectual who hordes works of literature that have been banned and experiences severe mental health problems. The daughter is equally intelligent and as she grows discovers how her curiosity is equally curtailed by a regime that seeks to instil only a Soviet-approved point of view. People who don’t fit into the system such a brave poet who tries to teach school children an alternative point of view or the mother’s friend Jesse who might be intersex or transgendered are winnowed out.

The novel filters such a rich view of Latvian history through three generations of characters. Although we only get the perspectives of the mother and daughter, we’re also given snippets of the grandparents’ points of view. Having lived through so much oppression the step-grandfather resignedly feels: “one shouldn’t dwell on the past. Nothing would change here. The Russian boot would be here for ever.” However, as the daughter comes of age she becomes aware that a new age is finally coming where Latvia can achieve independence from Russia once again. However, there are potent and ever-present reminders of the severe violence and tragedies that the Latvian people experienced. Even in a field of growing crops it’s remarked how “Cabbages, beetroot and potatoes to provide for our Soviet pigs would grow abundantly here, for bodies from military executions fertilized the soil.” There is a striking sense of progression within the novel where the physical bodies of the people and their stories persist through succeeding generations. It illuminates the distinct personalities of certain characters in how the weight of history impacts them, but also shows a cumulative sense of national identity.

Interview with Nora Ikstena

Eric:
I greatly enjoyed reading this novel - particularly because I have Latvian heritage and distant Latvian relations, but I know little about this part of my family’s history. The story poignantly focuses on different generations of Latvian life, history and social change. What was your initial inspiration for the novel?

Nora:
In 1998, I wrote my first novel Celebration of Life. It tells the story about the daughter going to her mother’s funeral after not knowing her mother all of her life. I got the first copy of my novel on the day of my own mother’s funeral. That was also the day when I started to think of Soviet Milk. It took 20 years. It’s my most important novel, as it's very personal for me. It's a real story about a mother's and daughter's complicated life under the Soviet regime in Latvia 1969-1989. It’s near to autobiographical, but I think this is honest to share your own life experience with readers. It was important for me to tell this story not only for readers in Latvia but also across borders.

Eric:
Milk takes on many complex metaphorical meanings where it isn’t always something nutritional or life-giving, but which might also be tainted or bitter. How did the image of milk as a symbol evolve for you while writing?

Nora:
Milk, especially mother’s milk, is an essential liquid of life. In my novels it becomes poisoned milk because the mother does not want to give it to her daughter. She does not wish the same life in a cage for her daughter, as she has. At the same time it is a metaphor – poisoned milk of our homeland, for what we were drinking during the Soviet occupation. It is also very poetical – in Latvian folk songs called ‘dainas’ we have many sayings about milk. For example – water is warm like milk, or ‘milk rivers’ or Milky Way in universe.  It is all went together in my novel.

Eric:
I found it fascinating how traditional family roles are somewhat subverted in the story where the daughter often takes on a mothering role. This subversion is emphasised by the fact we never learn the characters’ names so it’s as if they are locked in these identity roles which don’t accurately suit them. Did you always plan to leave the central characters in the novel unnamed?

Nora:
No, that is first time in my writing I leave central characters unnamed. And I did it on purpose. I wanted to generalize the story. The story is inspired by my life, but it’s also a story about anyone who has experienced love and loss, and that battle of trying to bring someone back to life. These people in search of the truth, who in the process struggle against the everyday life, its troubles and joys, and the reversals of fortune. It's a story about a cage and freedom, about endless love, and about life that is larger than literature.

Eric:
The mother’s friend Jesse is such a compelling character who takes on a kind of family role as she has been rejected by her own family and peers. What inspired this story line of someone who is intersex or has gender confusion?  

Nora:
Jese comes from my favourite Christmas song – I know the beautiful rose that blossomed from the heart of Jese. For my mind Jese is a symbol of unconditional love. Spiritual love. Somebody in between man and woman, soul and flesh. Jese is true and devoted. Pure love.

Eric:
Some classic novels of Western literature such as Moby Dick and 1984 are referenced throughout the novel as subversive books read in secret. Do you know of many instances of forbidden literature being secretly shared while Latvia was under Soviet rule?

Nora:
There were many instances of forbidden literature, because the role of literature in Latvia is enormous. We are nation of readers. It has been like this all the historical times (and I am sure will be in future.) I can give an examples of two translations: 1984 by Orvell and Ulysses by Joyce into Latvian. Both were translated by Latvian exile translators and published in 1950s by the Latvian exile publishing house in Sweden. Then some copies were secretly passed to Soviet Latvia. For many intellectuals these underground copies were like a Bible at that time. Imagine that you can have a copy of Ulysses for three reading days? People went to jail for reading such a book. At the same time our national poetry was a huge part of Latvian expression during the Soviet rule – with hidden and obscure meanings, it offered a subversive insight and poets were at the heart of this subversive expression, and thousands of people would come together in the street to hear their voice.

Eric:
It feels as if each of the three generations represented in the novel aren’t entirely aware of the many social and political challenges faced by previous generations. Do you feel children in Latvia today are more aware of the complex history their elders lived through?

Nora:
Literature plays an in important role in Latvia, particularly in the way it allows us to share our history through a personal perspective. There is a new series in Latvia called ‘WE.XX Century’ which explores different aspects of our history through 13 novels. These are all best sellers – with the old and the young – as fiction is such a powerful way of communicating our past and our country, which has forged its independence in the beginning of it and lived through the horror of two world wars, followed by Soviet era, and dramatic regaining of independence.


Soviet Milk is published in the UK by Peirene Press, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis. The Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – will be the Market Focus for the London Book Fair 2018 (10th – 12th April). Nora Ikstena is the Latvian ‘Author of the Day’

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNora Ikstena