RedClocks.jpg

When I recently heard that Leni Zumas’ new novel “Red Clocks” was partly inspired by Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” I felt I had to read it. I love Woolf’s poetically-charged novel so much and it’s lived with me for so many years I feel like it’s a part of my body and soul. The plot of Zumas’ novel doesn’t directly relate to Woolf’s writing but it gives several nods to it and pays tribute to her predecessor so part of the great pleasure of reading this book was knowing I was in the company of a fellow Woolf lover. The epigraph of this novel is a line from Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”. Set on the western US coast it portrays the interweaving lives of four different women in a time when abortion is outlawed in America and legislation is coming into place that requires any child who is adopted to have two parents. Sadly, it’s easy to imagine such regressive laws being put into effect with the current administration. Chapters are headed by a part that these four different women play in the story: the biographer, the mender, the daughter and the wife. So the novel is partly about the way that women can become defined by their roles in life and how society brackets women within a specific function. Of course, their characters are really much more complex than these parts and the story dramatically shows the way women can work together under a political regime that seeks to suppress and control them.

A few of the characters’ names relate directly to “The Waves”. The Mender is named Ginny (spelled differently from the character Jinny in “The Waves”) and whose demeanour is very different from Woolf’s creation in that Ginny is a modern-day apothecary who only uses natural herbs and organic concoctions to treat women in need. She lives in rural isolation, pines for the affair she had with a man’s wife and aspires to self sufficiency which make most of the local community “think she’s unhinged, a forest weirdo, a witch.” Ginny’s surname is Percival and comes from a lineage of “menders” she aspires to emulate and who were equally misunderstood and scorned women. In “The Waves” Percival is the elusive hero at the centre who all the characters admire and love. So, in a sense, it feels that by giving her character Ginny this surname Zumas is seeing her work as a writer in a tradition aligned with Woolf.

The Wife of the story is named Susan. Her promising legal career has long been left behind in order to become a full time mother to two children and her relationship to her husband has severely deteriorated despite her efforts to rescue it. It’s interesting how the character of Susan in “The Waves” is the most maternal and domestically-orientated one of the bunch, but over the course of her life she finds herself steeped in regret and sorrow for her stymied passions despite finding so much superficial contentment. I’ve always felt a deep affection for her so I enjoyed how Zumas creates in a modern version of this character the ability for her to pursue new avenues in her life that can exist alongside motherhood (without being anyone’s wife). 

The most fascinating character relationship between “The Waves” and “Red Clocks” is with Zumas’ character Roberta Stephens. Obviously, Stephen was Virginia Woolf’s maiden name. But Roberta is a teacher and writer working on a biography of an obscure woman named Eivør Minervudottir who was a polar hydrologist and arctic explorer “whose trailblazing research on pack ice was published under a male acquaintance’s name”. (Incidentally, Minervudottir’s uncle is a lighthouse keeper.) Short passages of her writing about Minervudottir are positioned in between the sections about these modern-day women. In “The Waves” each section is interspersed with a passage about the movement of light over the course of a day. So, by including these passages about Minervudottir, Zumas shows the way the struggles and ambition of historic women still resonate in the lives of women today. I also highly appreciate how these passages show Roberta’s writing process with lines crossed out as she assiduously attempts to articulate what she wants to express in the biography she’s writing.

RedClocks2.jpg

While these are specific references that relate to “The Waves” in ways that might be incidental (but which excite me to read about because I’m such a fan of the novel), the overall tone of the writing is unique and compulsively readable. Zumas uses such unique turns of phrase. In one section, a character feels as if she’s surrounded by “a crowd of vulvic ghosts”. But there are occasional lines which feel so resonant of Woolf’s writing they might be lifted from one of her novels. Zumas describes “the ocean beyond, a shirred blue prairie stretching to the horizon, cut by bars of green. Far from shore: a black fin” and later on how “Canned tomatoes make loud red suns across her vision.” The novel has touches of this Woolfian description and imagery which gives another sort of lovely tribute to the modernist writer, but overall it is infused with a much more modern sound and resonance.

I also appreciated the way these characters’ stories make a larger message about the way women relate to their bodies changes when put under restrictive legal measures. More generally, women are often made to feel that they inhabit a biological clock which gives them a limited time frame in which to bear children. Zumas poignantly describes how this is a pressure that some women feel dearly. The larger political message this story creates is skilfully envisioned especially in how the relationship between the US and Canada changes when a “pink wall” is created that disallows American women from seeking out abortions across the border. “Red Clocks” feels like such a timely book and it’s an imaginative and enjoyable read. You certainly don’t need to be a fan of Virginia Woolf to appreciate it, but it adds another dimension to how you can read this novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLeni Zumas
ThreeThings.jpg

There a special delight in having read an author’s debut novel when it first came out, then reading her follow up novel and discovering common themes and patterns which occur in fascinating variations in both books. A wonderful quality of Cannon’s writing is to create a complex picture of a community in how these networks of people both support each other and can help relieve feelings of isolation/loneliness. She describes how “There is a special kind of silence when you live alone. It hangs around, waiting for you to find it. You try to cover it up with all sorts of other noises, but it’s always there, at the end of everything else, expecting you.” But her stories show how neighbours and friends can assuage these difficult feelings.

Cannon’s debut novel “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep” portrayed a neighbourhood with an absence at its centre. A woman goes missing and two intrepid girls are determined to discover what happened to her. Conversely, in her new novel “Three Things About Elsie” the story centres around an assisted living apartment complex where a new resident arrives, but he might not be who he claims to be. Florence is convinced he’s someone from her past and she sets about trying to uncover the truth about his identity with her lifelong friend Elsie. Cannon’s sensitive narrative shows the large impact that small gestures of goodwill can have, the intricate complexities and labyrinthine nature of memory and the story is thickly drizzled with a warm coating of nostalgia.

ThreeThings2.jpg

In a way, this novel feels like the most wonderful kind of old lady drag act. I frequently find myself watching The Golden Girls and wishing I could inhabit these characters or wishing I could sit at a window staring out at a landscape while saying in a melancholy voice “It all happened so long ago…” There’s an attraction to being at a point in your life where you can remain comfortably entrenched in your belief systems and feel free to say whatever you want and not give a fig what anyone thinks. That’s not to trivialize the pitfalls and hardships which come with aging and Cannon certainly honours this struggle. There are many solemn observations about the pains of growing old: “it’s only when you get old that you realise whichever direction you choose to face, you find yourself confronted with a landscape filled up with loss.” But Florence also exhibits the wry sense of humour and stubbornness of a wizened character who many people would revel in watching and enjoy imagining themselves as. It’s a thorough delight reading about her quirky point of view. There’s also a tinge of sadness in reading about her later years as her grasp on the past and her present mind is gradually slipping away. 

As with many stories that have a central mystery, this novel comes with a big twist. I could guess fairly early on what the main twist would be, but I don’t think that’s a mistake of the narrative because it only adds to the pensive mood of Florence’s condition. The chapters alternate between unravelling the suspicious aura surrounding new arrival Gabriel and counting the hours of a day when Florence has fallen down and can’t get back up. Cannon poignantly uses these two strands of the story as a way of describing the plasticity of memory and how Florence has come to reform the past in her mind: “It’s the greatest advantage of reminiscing. The past can be exactly how you wanted it to be the first time around.” The real mystery of this novel is how Florence has come to fool herself and alter her memories to suit what she needs to believe. It builds to a touching conclusion and I admire how Cannon is able to fill her stories with so many pithy observations about the human condition as well as a lot of heart.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJoanna Cannon
2 CommentsPost a comment
NightBrother1.JPG

There are two things I immediately loved while reading Rosie Garland’s novel “The Night Brother”. Firstly, it’s a cosmopolitan story set at the beginning of the 20th century in Manchester. Most Victorian-set novels that depict a city only focus on London so it’s refreshing to see an alternative urban environment in a British historical novel with lots of Manchester-specific locations and events included. Secondly, this novel takes such a disarmingly unique perspective on gender and identity through its beautifully creative premise. The story follows the early life and young adulthood of Edie who lives her daily life as a woman, but at night physically transforms into a man. Herbert (who calls himself Gnome) emerges at night with a consciousness and identity which is almost entirely separate from Edie’s. At first Edie thinks of him as a brother, but gradually comes to understand that they are two parts of a whole person. This is a condition she’s inherited from her mother and grandmother who have very different opinions about this secret state of being. The novel follows the dual narratives of Edie and Gnome as they grapple over the years to share a body and navigate through society hiding the shocking reality of their situation. It’s a fascinatingly thoughtful, emotional and thrilling story that takes the reader through the emerging suffragette movement and underground queer meeting spots of turn of the century Manchester.

One of my favourite things about fiction is that it can take us entirely out of the bounds of reality in a way that can help us get a different perspective on ordinary life. So many of our ideas and conceptions about who we are and what makes a woman/man are ingrained in the way we think and live every day. This novel shows a recognizable “other” reality where there is a case of someone who inhabits both womanhood and manhood, but Edie feels terrified to reveal this secret for fear of being persecuted and ostracised. One of the ways Garland does this so powerfully is to show the internalized phobias within her family. Edie’s mother Cissy has the same condition of being both a woman and man. She unambiguously prefers her son Gnome to her daughter Edie. Nothing Edie does endears her to her mother leading her to feel “Of all the tasks I set myself, it was to make Ma love me. I have failed.” This relationship really hit home for me. As someone who came out as gay quite young, I painfully experienced this sense of failure and the feeling of being rejected simply for being who I am. My mother also encouraged me to publicly hide my homosexuality at school in order to avoid being shamed. Although this novel brought up many personal memories, the way in which Garland tenderly presents this complicated mother/daughter/son relationship touches upon so many universal feelings of acceptance/rejection between many different kinds of parents and children.

Manchester Free Library

Manchester Free Library

One of the beautiful ways in which Garland demonstrates how someone can find acceptance in the greater world if they can’t find it at home is by showing Edie’s discovery of the library. Edie takes numerous trips to the Manchester Free Library and comes to this independently-minded position: “So what if my life constrains me, tighter than the baskets in which hens are brought to market. This story has lifted me into the heaven of the imagination.” It’s very touching how Edie comes to appreciate novels and storytelling as both a way of escaping the drudgery of her present circumstances and of gaining better insight into her own identity. In the course of reading books and looking at paintings she sees a depiction of someone she identifies as a “Thracians” or someone who treads the border between being a man and woman. This is a moving way to root Edie’s condition in a hidden historical tradition which she has the potential to uncover. Although she feels alienated and alone, it’s possible that there are many other people who share her condition and similarly feel the need to publicly hide it. This kind of knowledge and shared history is the first step any persecuted minority group must take to group together to promote visibility and acceptance in society.

Naturally Edie/Gnome’s condition playfully probes questions of the meaning and nature of gender. Edie is subjected to the pervy attention of men at the pub her mother runs. This combined with the harsh way Cissy treats her makes Edie quite delicate and shy: “I grow into a swallowed voice of a girl. I speak when I am spoken to and often not even then.” However, Gnome’s evening wanderings draw him to other groups of boys where he develops a very competitive streak and he becomes boastful/arrogant with women he fancies. He feels that “In this life, you’re either a ginger tom swaggering the streets or a cowering kitten that gets trampled underfoot.” Garland demonstrates the way gender alters how a single individual is treated within society and consequently certain different behavioural traits emerge for Edie and Gnome. The story also shows how Edie learns to challenge and embrace change alongside the lesbian relationship she develops, but Gnome takes a reactionary stance and mocks the emergence of feminism. Edie’s unique position allows her to see beyond the constraints of gendered behaviour and she strives to be an individual who can embody aspects of femininity and masculinity: “Now that I have the choice, it strikes me that I don’t want to be the same, not in that way, which seems to be trading one shackle for another. I want liberation, not verisimilitude. The two are entirely different.”

“The Night Brother” feels like such a clever way of dramatically describing the changes in consciousness happening in society at the turn of the 20th century. Gradually liberation movements like the suffragettes were emerging to challenge traditional social constraints based on gender and sexuality. Since the character of Edie/Gnome is forced to live as both genders she/he becomes a kind of utopian vision of how we can exist on many different lines of the gender spectrum at once. At one point Edie’s grandmother says that “Nature is far more adventurous than we credit.” I admire the way that this novel shows that individuals are infinitely more complex than simply being any one thing that society would categorize them as. More than all the compelling ideas that this novel contains, it’s also an engrossing tale with lots of tense moments, revelations and a poignant love story.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRosie Garland
8 CommentsPost a comment
chandelier.JPG

Social relations are tricky. Sometimes you have a natural rapport with a person. Sometimes you wish for a stronger friendship than someone wants to give you. Sometimes you receive attention from a person you have no interest in being friends with. Lionel Shriver has an unerring knack for cutting through social niceties and portraying the psychology of her characters in a disarmingly candid manner. In her new novella “The Standing Chandelier” she presents Jillian Frisk: a loud, opinionated, colourful woman with an artistic sensibility. She knows she rubs many people the wrong way but forges on regardless. She’s close friends with Weston who is more of a natural introvert. After years of this friendship, he develops a serious romance with a woman named Paige who can’t stand Jillian. Weston and Jillian’s once reliable friendship becomes threatened. This story asks many tensely awkward questions about our social natures, the emotional risks of intimacy and the limits of friendship.

Something really fascinating that Shriver does in this short book is play upon the readers’ sympathy for her characters. It strangely feels like you’re meeting them in a social situation so naturally make your own assumptions and judgements about them. Jillian is prone to vociferously declaring opinions and attitudes without stopping to consider the feelings of other people. At one point she rants about how surprising it is that idiosyncratic people form romances and ends with “timid Filipina housemaids with wide, bland faces and one leg shorter than the other. It was astonishing that so many far-fetched candidates for undying devotion managed to marry, or something like it.” This casually offensive statement made me naturally side with Paige who has a politically correct and censorious nature. But Paige’s method for slowly severing the friendship between Weston and Jillian begins to feel so cruel, I couldn’t help but empathize with Jillian’s desperate attempts to maintain familiar intimacies with Weston even when it’s clear he’s emotionally pulling away from her.

The pivotal object at the centre of this tale is an elaborate lamp which Jillian creates using bits of memorabilia from her life. She christens it “the standing chandelier.” As someone who refuses to “acknowledge the artificial boundary between fine art and craft” this creation is a work that she simply pours her heart into. It stands as an expression of feeling for all she wants to communicate but can’t because of her own sloppy form of social discourse. As the novella develops, it acquires a powerful meaning in the way that people optimistically share their innermost selves hoping to form a close connection. When this connection doesn’t last we’re left feeling achingly bereft as if a piece of ourselves and all that inner feelings we’ve shared have been stolen. That woundedness leads to cynicism and a view that “Human relations had a calculus, and sometimes you had to add up columns of gains and losses with the coldness of accountancy.”

I was caught off guard by what a tender and particularly moving form of loneliness Shriver portrays in this novella. The story encapsulates a solemn acknowledgement about the challenging complexity of human relationships. There’s an aching kind of melancholy caused from an emotional intimacy which has been severed and a sense of freefalling now that a support network has been lost. Shriver gets at this form of loss which goes beyond friendship or romance, but hints at that inner longing for a reciprocation of feeling which has been rebuffed or withdrawn. For such a short book “The Standing Chandelier” contains many powerful statements about all our various social connections and misconnections. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLionel Shriver
4 CommentsPost a comment

I was surprised and intrigued to see that the feminist and humanitarian Natasha Walter who previously only wrote nonfiction has published her first novel. The blurb for “A Quiet Life” explains how it's about a female spy during WWII and I wasn’t sure how a thrilling plot like this would work alongside the author’s compelling ideas about feminism. As it turns out, the main character Laura is not a feminist or especially an intellectual. She doesn’t become a political subversive and spy delivering crucial government secrets to an underground communist network for the Soviet Union because she has particularly high ideals. Rather, she takes on this highly dangerous and controversial work because she’s influenced by a passionate female friend and a man she falls in love with. However, the way in which Walter captures the subtlety of Laura’s psychology, the prevailing ideologies/social attitudes of the era and the crisis of an individual’s political consciousness during times of international conflict is absolutely compelling. It makes Laura a more dynamic subject and her story more engagingly complex than if Walter had chosen to write a whole novel about Florence, Laura’s ardent communist friend. Reading “A Quiet Life” felt to me like reading a novel by Doris Lessing for the way it wholly commits to faithfully representing Laura’s experience in times of political turbulence.

Laura moves to England at the start of 1939 to visit relatives, but really she is trying to escape the confines of her suffocating and damaging family life in the States. On the boat across the Atlantic she meets two people who will affect the rest of her life in crucial ways. She finds it challenging to learn how to live amongst the privilege, manners and social preoccupations of her affluent English relatives. But this well ordered world is in the midst of being thrown into chaos as time progresses and German bombs fall over London. Despite the danger, Laura refuses to return to America and embarks on a course of love and political intrigue which radically destabilizes her future. There are certainly gripping moments as questions arise about who Laura can really trust and if her surreptitious activities will be caught out, but this is more a novel about the tension between her complicity with the social/political structures around her and her rebellion against them.

There is a clear awareness of the limitations imposed upon women in this time period. Laura is highly conscious of how she presents herself physically and acts socially as she “had been brought up into the certain knowledge that a woman’s body and voice were always potential sources of shame, that only by intense scrutiny and control could one become acceptable.” There is an attention to detail for how Laura uses her sexuality to both meld into her social milieu and manipulate people when needed. At other times there is a frustration for how little women are allowed to participate in social engagements and are seen as only decorative: “The women provided the colour between the black and white of the men’s tuxedos, but that was all they seemed to be there for; these flashes – green, scarlet, blush and blue – between the black coats.” Laura lived through a difficult abusive childhood and is aware of how little she is intellectually valued amongst men. These conflicts play into the complex reasons why she engages in acts of espionage.

Melinda Maclean who acted as a spy for the Soviet Union as did her husband Donald Maclean, a British diplomat. 

Melinda Maclean who acted as a spy for the Soviet Union as did her husband Donald Maclean, a British diplomat. 

It really surprised me how much I personally connected with Laura. She feels distanced from her American upbringing, but she's never able to fully integrate into exclusive social groups in England. Having moved from America to the UK many years ago I found this to be very relatable and wholly believable. There are subtleties in our national differences which can only be felt from prolonged exposure to both cultures and Walter captures these very well. There are also striking moments where Laura overhears what people say about her which collapse the English social niceties and reveal how people really feel about her.

The dilemma for Laura between living a comfortable (quiet) life and making a real difference is palpable throughout. Just what a quiet life means is shown in its full complexity over the course of the novel. There is a life of privilege sheltered from the protests and struggles of people outside that circumscribed world, there is the potential quiet life a couple can find after years of difficult work, alcoholism and conflicts in the relationship have worn them down and there is a quiet life which is disengaged from the politics of the time – a life of simply getting by. Walter creatively and engagingly explores these dilemmas within the story giving a heartfelt account of Laura's struggle to determine what sort of life she really wants. There are also hints of a wholly other life Laura could have had where she might have developed and expressed herself artistically if only she'd come of age in a quiet peaceful time outside of war.

This is an utterly fascinating novel which gives an entirely new perspective of the WWII time period. It's a wholly immersive and wonderful read about a compelling character inspired by the real life of a woman named Melinda Maclean who was suspected (but never proven) to be a Soviet spy. 

Here's a brief interview with Natasha Walter about her inspiration for writing the novel: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/12/natasha-walter-a-quiet-life-cambridge-spies-fiction

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNatasha Walter
2 CommentsPost a comment

I’ve been looking forward to reading “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep” for a long time. Not only did book bloggers who I follow and respect like SavidgeReads and NotesFromTheChair rate it highly, but the advance copy I was sent is covered with quotes from authors such as Rachel Joyce, Sarah Winman and James Hannah – whose books I’ve loved reading over the past couple of years. Added to this is the fact that Joanna Cannon received support in writing this, her first novel, from the WoMentoring Project (a programme that matches mentors from the publishing industry with talented new female writers) which was set up by Kerry Hudson – another author whose books I love. So a lot of build-up was attached to this novel! Part of me was nervous that this would be a book with prose so polished the story would come across as cold. However, the pleasure of reading a debut author is that you never know what the writing will be like until you get into the thick of it. Rather than something overtly showy, I was delighted to discover that “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep” is awash with the subtle delights of relatable human stories and inventive writing that is rich with emotion. At its centre is the intriguing story of a neighbourhood mystery which two intrepid adolescent girls are determined to solve.

During a relentless heat wave in the summer of 1976, a woman named Mrs Creasy goes missing from her house in the avenue of an ordinary British town. Ten year old Gracie and her delicate bespectacled friend Tilly visit the local vicar about the matter which has the neighbourhood buzzing with worry. The vicar has delivered a sermon where he quotes scripture about people being divided into those who deserve eternal punishment and those who deserve eternal life – like a shepherd who separates the goats from the sheep. What the girls correctly guess is that it’s not always so easy to tell who belongs in what group. Life is filled with lots of moral ambiguity and appearances can be deceiving: that’s the trouble. This is certainly the case in this avenue filled with characters who all harbour secrets and private lives unknown to their neighbours.

The story plays out something like a ‘whodunnit’ as the stories in each numbered house are revealed and the tangle of their connections to Mrs Creasy becomes clear. Layered on top of the story of her disappearance is a tale from a decade earlier where the neighbours united against a local outcast with disastrous consequences. A socially-awkward and mysterious man named Walter Bishop was accused of a serious crime. The courts acquitted him, but he remained guilty in the hearts of his neighbours who still scorn him. One resident puts it like this: “There are decent people,” said Mrs. Roper, “and then there are the weird ones, the ones who don’t belong. The ones who cause the rest of us problems.” This is a novel very much about belonging: from a girl who spurns her good friend in an attempt to become more popular to a family of Indian descent who move into this predominantly white neighbourhood. Even though some people find it harder to fit in (or be allowed to fit in) with others, this novel shows how everyone is equally complex and equally fearful of being cast out. Groups have a tendency to target and vilify those who are superficially unusual in an effort to hide their own hidden peculiarities or their own misdeeds. 

Grace likes to carve her name and the names of her friends into this delicious mousse-like dessert

Grace likes to carve her name and the names of her friends into this delicious mousse-like dessert

It’s really original how this novel solidly creates in the reader’s mind a picture of a neighbourhood and the relationships between all its colourful residents. The author lays this out so clearly in the narrative that I felt like I could see a map in my mind where each house is positioned and how the inhabitants spend each day. Through short sharpened metaphors Cannon can invoke a rare feeling of understanding for another’s life. In one section she writes: “widowhood wore a beige cardigan and said very little.” This creates a powerful sense for the mixture of isolation, sadness and despondency this character feels. When Cannon hits these snippets which perfectly encapsulate a character the story really soars, but when the narrative gets too caught up in the minutiae of the neighbourhood interactions it can drag somewhat. However, what really drives the story and allows a three-dimensional understanding of the avenue are Grace and Tilly. This compelling and likeable duo trundle from neighbour to neighbour seeking clues for Mrs Creasy’s whereabouts - treated to plates of custard creams and bowls of angel delight along the way.

Grace is a strikingly precocious girl still discovering the ways her intentions don’t always meet her actions. This is eloquently described here: “I still hadn’t learned the power of words. How, once they have left your mouth, they have a breath and a life of their own. I had yet to realize that you no longer own them. I hadn’t learned that, once you have let them go, the words can then, in fact, become the owners of you.” This is a moving way of realizing how you have to take responsibility for what you say. In another part, Grace reveals herself to be a fellow bookworm from the pernickety way she organizes her shelves: “I had to run my finger down the spine of each book to check it was in its proper place and make sure they were all safe, before I could even think about doing anything else.” It’s endearing reading about Grace’s burgeoning awareness of her place in the world and the surprisingly central role she plays in this neighbourhood mystery.

Even though “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep” is a novel concentrating on a mystery set within one small neighbourhood, it stretches open to reveal many compellingly intricate stories of love and loss.

Listen to Joanna Cannon being interviewed by Simon Savidge on the You Wrote the Book podcast

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJoanna Cannon
2 CommentsPost a comment