Tag Archives: feminist

HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie

This book hit me hard. It’s honest, uncomfortable, deeply moving and hurtles towards an ending that both shocked and surprised me.

Twins Aneeka and Parvaiz are at the heart of the story, which revolves around him departing London to work for an Isis media team and her starting up a relationship with the Home Secretary’s son, Eamonn, in a bid to help her brother return home when he realises what he’s got himself into. Also in the mix is their older sister Isma, who herself meets and falls for Eamonn whilst studying overseas and is inadvertently the cause of his path crossing that of Aneeka. Isma incurs her sister’s wrath when she tells the authorities of Parvaiz’s whereabouts and the two fall out, setting in motion a chain of events that sees Aneeka travel to the other side of the world to save her brother.

Essentially a story about whether family matters more than anything else, it comes alive through rich characterisation and a slow but inexorable building of tension. Each  family member is torn in different directions by the pull that religion, sacrifice, ambition and loyalty exert and the overall effect is a searingly candid portrait of a slice of modern Britain. Shamsie really gets under the skin of her protagonists and I appreciated how Parvaiz is neither demonised or let off the hook. Eamonn’s father is a particular triumph – a man who has risen in politics by turning his back on what he defines as the Islam of the past and demanding the very highest standards of himself and his family, who he knows will always be the focus of suspicion, never really part of the establishment.  All their stories beg the question how much does the past shape our presents, and all celebrate the enduring power of love.

Long listed for the Booker prize, pretty much every review will tell you this is a rewrite of the Greek myth of Antigone. If you don’t know how that goes, don’t look it up before you read HOME FIRE – it will spoil things for you and, believe me,  you don’t want to spoil a book this good.

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Filed under drama, love story, Uncategorized

WHITE CHRYSANTHEMUM by Mary-Lynn Bracht

Switching between Korea in 1942, in the throes of  and South Korea in 2011, this is the story of two sisters, separated one fateful day on a beach.

Hana is the eldest, a haneyo – female sea diver – who surfaces from the ocean one afternoon to see a Japanese soldier heading along the sand in the direction of her younger sister Emi. Without a thought, the teenager swims to shore to intervene and so begins her capture and life as a “comfort woman”. Taken far away from her family, she is repeatedly raped by Japanese soldiers, one of whom, Morimoto, decides he wants her as his wife. Hana forms strong bonds with the other girls and women that surround her but it’s memories of home and the thought of escaping and being reunited with her family, that get her through and day each night. When a chance of freedom presents itself, she grabs it with both hands, despite the huge risks, only to fall into the hands of yet more men whose motives and morals she does not understand.

As a 60 year old, Emi is still coming to terms with the guilt of being left behind and still searching for the sister she lost. She has two children of her own and slowly the story of their father emerges, highlighting another aspect of the war between Korea and Japan. Emi goes each year to Seoul to join a march that remembers the “comfort women”. The visit brings back many painful memories of hurt, which though less physical than that endured by her sister, are nonetheless keenly felt. In fact one of the most powerful aspects of this book is how Bracht captures the grief and loss each of her characters feels.

I found Hana’s story most compelling – and most harrowing – but Emi’s is perhaps the sadder. Both evoke anger and deep sadness, as well as illustrating how the past affects the present. Emi’s relationships with her own children, for example, are shaped in many complicated ways by her feelings about her sister disappearance and the aftermath, including how her own parents responded.

I already knew a little about the war between Japan and Korea and the treatment of the comfort women, which seems in many ways to be the story of legions of women in wars not of their making. But WHITE CHRYSANTHEMUM brought it all too life for me, often painfully. This is a book that made me openly weep on a number of occasions so be warned. But it’s also so much more than a story of women as victims. It’s also about women as survivors, the way we connect with others, find hope in the darkest of situations and forge new presents that bring in the light. A beautiful and moving book that I would thoroughly recommend.

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LULLABY by Leila Slimani

LULLABY opens with two dead children, killed by the nanny. It proceeds to reveal how and why. There’s suspense, tension and mystery. Louise, the nanny is wonderful – the parents love her, the children love her. But stuff gets in the way – like class, humiliation, relative wealth, race, caring as a financial transaction, suspicion, privilege, hypocrisy and insecurity.

Slimani’s novel has a simplicity about it that I found very appealing, but that simplicity belies its depths. The nanny’s relationship with another woman in the neighbourhood, Wafa, only takes up a few pages all in but tells us so much about them both and the worlds they inhabit. Louise’s interactions with Myriam, the children’s mother, are more frequent but similarly laden with layers of meaning.  And questions too, about what price we pay for our choices, about the illusion that parenthood is one more thing at which we will excel, to which we are entitled.

LULLABY is an easy book to read – it’s gripping and well written. Yet the insight into Louise’s life, into the parent’s attitudes towards her,  makes for an uncomfortable read too. And then there’s what you know is coming. The building tension as we wait to find out the motive. The horror and the sadness. The neighbours hindsight and everyone’s remonstrations.  But it adds up to so much more than a thriller. It’s an interesting book about women’s roles and equality and the emotions we hide from others. Unusual and definitely to be recommended.

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UNDER A POLESTAR by Stef Penney

It’s 1948 and Flora Mackie is on an airplane heading for the Arctic Circle. She’s seated next to a young and irritating journalist, who insists on asking Flora all sorts of questions, when all she wants to do is remember….

This is an epic adventure and love story, with a mystery at its heart. From Flora’s first expedition aboard her father’s whaling ship in 1889, she falls head over heels with the ice, snow and people of northern Greenland, forging friendships that will last a lifetime and which are repeatedly rekindled when she heads up her own scientific expeditions to the Arctic as an adult. Flora breaks ground time and again, as a woman and as an explorer, railing against her male rivals and the media that have dubbed her ‘Snow Queen’. But she is limited in what she can do alone and all too often has to rely on men to help her fulfill her dreams. Flora’s passion for the North is matched only by her passion for Jakob de Beyn, an American, with whom she crosses paths when he’s a geologist on an expedition led by the ruthless Lester Armitage. There’s an inevitability about the doomed relationship between these star crossed lovers that’s only in part down to the reflective structure of Penney’s narrative, but it doesn’t detract from the intensity of their connection – or the heat they make to keep out all that cold.  The erotic heart of the novel burns deeply and is all the more powerful for being set in a context that’s interesting in its own right, as well as unpredicatble. For example, Armitage’s lies, recklessness and treatment of the Inuit in particular cast a new and less than flattering light on the brave explorers mythology that persists, even today.

Penney writes in exquisite detail of the discoveries made in the region at the time, of Flora and Jakob’s exploration of one another’s bodies, and the emotional landscapes they traverse as they conquer the inhospitable glaciers and frozen seas of the North. The ice is smelled as well as felt, heard and tasted. She’s created too in Flora in particular a beguiling and eminently likeable and admirable central character, and in common with Jakob, one who is the very definition of principled and good without being dull or smug. Penney also manages to craft a narrative that moves around in time and is at times timeless, and to do so with a clarity and mostly leisurely momentum that’s somehow difficult to resist.  Every bit as good as THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES, UNDER A POLE STAR is a beautiful story with a dark edge, beautifully told.

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Filed under drama, historical, love story, thriller

BIRDCAGE WALK by Helen Dunmore

John Diner Tredevant  is a brooding and ambitious property developer, who claims his first wife died whilst visiting her native France. He’s now married to Lizzie Fawkes and together they live in Bristol, in the home Diner has built, overlooking the abyss that is Clifton gorge. Lizzie, who was brought up moving from one rather less grand set of rented rooms to another with her mother, Julia, a political writer, feels most at home when in the kitchen of her marital home, with the servant girl, Philo.  She remains close to her mother, both geographically and emotionally,  even if she finds her step father, Augustus, rather pompous and silly at times, and loves visiting the household, which revolves around Julia’s creative impulses, ably facilitated by Hannah, who has served Julia ever since Lizzie was a child, and the couple’s advocacy of women’s rights and republicanism. The bold idealism August and Julia represent is utterly at odds with Diner’s capitalism and Lizzie struggles at times to accommodate the two, torn between strong ties to her past and the ever more controlling, distrustful behaviour of the husband to whom she is passionately and jealously drawn.

The backdrop to these relationships is the French Revolution, unfolding in gory detail through letters sent to Julia and Augustus by political friends caught up in events on the street, and whose economic consequences are soon felt keenly by Diner, desperate to sell the other houses he is building and into which he has ploughed so much. Less significant but equally keenly felt by our protagonists are the revolutions unleashed by the news that Julia has fallen pregnant at the age of 40 and by the arrival of an unannounced visitor from France, asking questions about Diner’s first wife. As Lizzie’s life gets more and more entwined with that of her mother’s household, she feels ever more distant from Diner, whilst his unpredictability and anger grow with every passing day that brings new reports of bloodshed and turmoil over the Channel.

Menace and mystery pulse from the pages of BIRDCAGE WALK and Dunmore’s story telling skills are in fine form. In Diner and Julia in particular, she has created complex characters that are equal to the drama, desolation and danger of the plot they inhabit – one which is full of drama, desolation and danger. I tend to avoid overtly historical fiction though I always enjoy how Dunmore’s novels are committed to revealing the role played by usually forgotten people – and usually women – in defining the past. As she writes in her Afterword, “The question of what is left behind by a life, haunts the novel”. That’s certainly true and, whilst not as brilliant as A SPELL OF WINTER, for example, BIRDCAGE WALK is, nonetheless, a fantastic read and highly recommended.

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GATHER THE DAUGHTERS by Jennie Melamed 

“Let the men be strong like trees, and the women like vines, the children our fruit.”

The dystopian future of this novel is a small, low tech and religious island community that’s deeply patriarchal and deeply disturbing. Channelling THE HANDMAID’S TALE and countless other imitations, Melamed has created a nightmare world for women and girls, in which their primary function is as breeders, morhers and home makers. Each summer the island’s children run wild and enjoy the freedom of living outside-  until, that is, they hit puberty and, during their “summer of fruition,” are paired off and required to marry. For most girls, marriage, though often loveless, violent, monotonous and isolating, is a welcome escape from their families and the rules that mean fathers are expected to have sexual relationships with their pre-pubescent daughters.

This and other rules are set by a group of elders called Wanderers – and yes they are all men – who are the only ones permitted to leave the island and visit the wastelands that exist elsewhere. The ferry man who helps them make the crossing has a stump where his tongue has been cut out. The rules also include unrelated women only being permitted to gather in groups of more than three without the presence of a male chaperone for birthings, and daughters always submitting to their father’s will. 

One summer, Caitlin, whose father is especially abusive both towards his daughter and her mother, witnesses something that goes against the creed with which she has been indoctrinated her entire life. She shares the secret with her peers, who include Janey, desperately starving herself to avoid the onset of periods, and Vanessa, a Wanderer’s daughter who has more access than most to ideas and information thanks to the books her father brings back from the wastelands and who is also lucky enough to have been spared his sexual abuse. 

The girls’ shock at what they have discovered prompts them to start questioning every aspect of life on the island, and the combination of a highly contagious virus, new arrivals from the wastelands and a long sultry summer stirs up unease and rebellion amongst the community’s young women and girls. The solidarity they feel from their shared knowledge has an especially profound effect on Caitlin and Janey but it also affects all the other girls too, many of whom discuss their fears and what their fathers do to them for the very first time. As Janey hurtles towards the point at which marriage is inevitable and the wanderers struggle to contain the events Caitlin has unwittingly set in train, GATHER THE DAUGHTERS builds towards a painful and tragic ending.

Melamed does oppressive and claustrophobic wonderfully well and captures the different voices of her characters to great effect. The story is told from the perspective of key girls and women on the island and much of what I enjoyed about the novel is the way their narratives reveal a society that’s been carefully thought through and detailed by the novelist- from the final draft older members are required to drink once they’ve outlived their usefulness to the growing prevalence of detectives, “born blue and slimy and dead like drowned worms in a puddle”. 

 Melamed has also been thoughtful about the impact on sons and mothers of what happens between girls and their fathers – the girls all fear bearing daughters and pray desperately for sons, in part so they don’t end up hating their daughters the way they have felt hated by their mothers growing up. The scenes of rape and abuse are all the more shocking for their absence of embellishment – the facts are allowed to speak for themselves, though in other parts of the book, the writer doesn’t manage to exercise the same restraint and her writing is less powerful as a result. 

Overall though this is a memorable, if difficult, read – with themes that have added resonance  given I am writing this in the recent aftermath of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and the ensuing  #MeToo campaign. 

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SWING TIME by Zadie Smith

Wow – this is Smith back on form and with a novel that’s apparently superficial plot about a young woman working for a Madonna inspired superstar belies its dark heart and complex sub narratives.

It opens with the unnamed narrator hiding out from the press in an upmarket London apartment block. Then it takes us on a journey of discovery about what she has done to end up there. Moving back and forth in time, we explore her childhood on a London estate, raised by a black mother, an ambitious community activist determined to chase an education for them both, and a white father, who turns his back on promotion to go back to working as a postman.

As an adult she has difficult relationships with both parents, caught up as she is in a transient life that spans every continent. They simultaneously make her feel guilty and proud, with encounters prompting both memories and soul searching about the accuracy and meaning of those memories. From a childhood with strong roots and connections she moves into an adult lifestyle where being off line for 72 hours is “among the great examples of personal stoicism and moral endurance of our times”.  Despite her apparent success at escaping the estate where she grew up, the replacement is not as glittering and glamorous as it appears and the lack of real connections with people and places dogs our narrator. She feels she has spent her life attaching herself to the light of other people – first Tracey her childhood friend and dance prodigy, later Aimee, singer, dancer, tyrant, benefactor, adoptive mother and one of a category of people “of financial means and global reach, who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own good fortune.”

The layers beneath this story of a girl making something of her life are remarkable. Smith isn’t afraid to tackle big topics here – with a lightness and subtlety that means I often found I had to go back and re-read sections to check I had them right. Most notable is when the narrator discovers Tracey is being abused, a realisation they both treat as “absolutely true and obviously untrue”, prompting the observation “perhaps only children are able to accommodate double-faced facts like these”. The idea of children being a mix of knowing and innocence is something Smith comes back to again and again, including in the shape of a universal “girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”

She cleverly picks apart notions of success and happiness, and also delivers wonderfully astute and social commentary. In common with Smith’s other novels, she mocks all her characters and the prejudices, assumptions and inconsistencies with which they go forth into and shape their worlds. So for example, the other mothers disapprove of Tracey’s mother finding a job and neglecting her children almost as much as they were critical of her being a lazy and unemployed. Everyone is trying to better themselves, to escape, to change, and yet, Smith forces us to ask, what exactly does better mean? This is starkly brought home by the contrast between what Aimee’s body guard sees when the entire entourage travel to Gambia to help build a school and what our narrotor sees:  “Where I saw deprivation, injustice, poverty, Granger saw simplicity, a lack of materialism, communal beauty…” And do we measure our own success objectively or always in relation to someone else’s?

SWINGTIME has a soundtrack to die for and language that sings. It has characters that seem familiar and at the same time intriguing. It has a story that flies of the page and says important things about race, about class and about gender. Pretty much all I could want from a novel, really.

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