Tag Archives: feminist

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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THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES by Kate Tempest

Harry is a high end drug dealer, in partnership with her lifelong friend and back-watcher Leon. One night she meets and falls for Becky, a dancer, who also waits tables in the family cafe and gives massages to strangers in hotel rooms. She notices Pete in the family cafe because he’s reading a book written by Becky’s estranged father. The two get talking then get together. Pete is Harry’s half brother but none of them realise the connection until Harry throws a surprise party for Pete. A surprise party at which Harry also discovers she knows Becky’s drug dealing uncles – and not in a good way.

THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES explodes into being as Leon, Harry and Becky are fleeing London with a suitcase full of money. The opening prose is pure poetry  and it only gets better and better. This book is gritty, funny, sexy and like nothing you’ve ever read before. Tempest has created characters that are so real it hurts sometimes. They are linked not just by the story she’s woven but by being variously abandoned and ambitious, and the bricks of their lives, from childhood upwards, are carefully laid and cemented together, generation on generation.

Tempest has captured London too, “cocksure, alert to danger, charming”, in particular parts of my south east corner where “The road is strewn with picked clean rib bones, and the faint smell of boozy piss mixes with the sweet rot of skunk smoke.” But she’s been clever enough not to let the city take centre stage, with a story and a pace that’s irrepressible.

A book about the bass line, THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES thrums with truth, from lines like “People are killing for Gods again. Money is killing us all.” to the way Tempest steadily unpicks the relationship women have with their bodies and their sexuality. It’s a book with purpose but never feels worthy. A book that’s incredibly daring but never tries too hard.

Tempest is a poet, a rapper and spoken word performer. She gives us phrases like “Harry’s voice is a broken window, letting the rain in.” and “She swallowed her doubt, but the hook stuck in the flesh of her mouth, pulling her upwards, away from him.” At times the words on the page feel like song lyrics, so I wasn’t surprised to learn after reading it that THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES is a companion piece to her Mercury Music Prize shortlisted debut album EVERYBODY DOWN.  It certainly made me sing. It made me want to fling open windows too and read passages to passers by, at the same time as wanting to hunker down and greedily savour every word in the peace of my own company.  Extraordinary.

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HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing by yaa gyasi

I picked this up because it’s set in Ghana and my ex spent a year working there recently so I was interested in learning a little about the country’s relatively recent history. As expected it was painful, scarred with exploitation and full of suffering.

Gyasi starts in an Asante village in the 18th century with two half sisters, Efia and Esi. Effia, abandoned by her mother in the bush at birth is sold by her father to James, a British slave trader, to be his wife, and the couple live at cape Coast Castle. Esi, the valuable daughter of an important chief, is seized by local boys working for the slave traders during a raid on her village and also ends up at the castle – in the dungeons, where she’s held until she can be sold and transported to the Americas. HOMEGOING then uses a series of interconnecting stories that picks up and traces each woman’s family over the ensuing years, finishing at the turn of the 21st century.

The individual stories are powerful in and of themselves, so much so that each time one finished to move on to the next I was disappointed to leave them behind, then soon captivated anew by the next. And the stories combine together to make an incredibly rich, moving and well researched whole.

Each of Effia’s descendants inherits a stone that she was given by her mother and that tangibly connects them with family and history. Esi was given a similar stone but lost it in the filth and squalor of the West African dungeons. Nonetheless she too carries the weight of her past and it is passed to her children, and their children and so on. The stories that make up HOMEGOING aren’t just linked by Esi and Effia, they are bound too by the thread of slavery and how its impact continues to resonate, generation after generation. This thread, inevitably, becomes a little looser as we move through time, but whilst on many levels HOMEGOING is about the redemptive nature of love, it also leaves the reader in no doubt whatsoever that nothing can heal the scars Effia and Esi and their descendants continue to bear.

It’s the compelling and credible characters that really make this book, that give it both dark and light, even if at times the historical span means they have to embody a particular stereotype too restrictively – whether that’s the Harlem jazz musician or the missionary scholar. There’s Quey, James and Effia’s mixed race son, who refuses to follow in his father’s footsteps as a slave trader. Then there’s Esi’s child, Ness, born on a plantation in the American South,  who with husband, Sam, later flees the captivity and slavery they’ve known all their lives in one of the most heart wrenching sections of the novel. Decades later there’s Marcus and Marjorie, who meet in the US, unaware that their ancestors were half sisters and who travel together to Ghana.

Marcus is involved in a research project there and as the pair wander on the beach, he yearns to tell Marjorie how overwhelmed he feels with wanting his work to capture “the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else existed in it – not apart from it, but inside of it.”  Any flaws in HOMEGOING seem to arise from the fact that Gyasi’s task is just as enormous, especially when her subject matter throbs with such importance. Yet rather than get lost in this vastness of scale, it looks for roots and finds them in the lives of individuals – and it’s that combination which I think makes the novel such an incredible success and HOMEGOING a book I am sure I will read again and again.

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THE WONDER by Emma Donoghue

the-wonder-by-emma-donoghue

I loved Donoghue’s last novel, ROOM, but wasn’t sure I’d like this as much because its setting is historical – 19th century Ireland to be precise. In fact it’s almost as good and her story telling abilities drew me in from the offset.

The plot is quite simple: Lib, a Nightingale nurse trained in the Crimea, is contracted to watch over eleven year old, Anna, who appears to have survived 4 months of self imposed fasting with no ill effects. The local community think Anna is a holy miracle in their midst, and a committee made up of the local priest, doctor, publican and baronet want independent verification that all is as it seems, not least so they might fully benefit from her potential as a religious tourist attraction. Lib is joined in her task by a local nun and the pair take turns to watch over Anna, monitor her condition and observe whether she is indeed faith personified or in fact a fraud.

Lib is convinced Anna is getting food from somewhere and that she will find her out immediately. So when her thorough searches of the family’s most basic of homes reveals no evidence the girl is eg sneaking into the kitchen at night, she turns her attention elsewhere and variously suspects the doctor, the priest, her nursing colleague the nun and both parents. Hitting related brick walls it’s only as Anna’s condition deteriorates rapidly severely, that Lib is forced to change tack. In doing so she confronts the difficult truth that it is her own presence making Anna sick – that the very act of being observed has changed the subject of the investigation. Buoyed by the words of a passionate journalist she meets at her lodgings, and her growing attachment to the young girl, Lib determines that the matter of miracles must take a backseat to persuading Anna to eat to stay alive. To do that she must better understand why Anna stopped in the first place and that discovery makes Lib wonder whether the girl will ever be safe.

One of the most striking things about WONDER is Lib’s scorn for Ireland and everyone she meets there. She rails at the poverty, ignorance, superstitions and religious fervour. And her fury at the damp and the peat smoke that permeate everything is palpable. Lib stands for progress, for science, yet this is sorely tested as the story unfolds, and she finds herself having to draw on aspects of  the very same faith and folklore she despises in order to save Anna from the inevitable consequences of starvation.

The other most striking thing is the same sense of claustrophobia and oppression that marked out ROOM. But Lib isn’t really in a contained physical space – just one of her own making – and one of the downsides of this novel is that she has the freedom to act sooner and more actively challenge what is so obviously going on, so her refusal to do so is both frustrating and calls her moral superiority into question. We know her reaction to Anna is complicated by a backstory that contains loss and grief, but that doesn’t quite excuse her failure to see what’s staring her in the face, or the way her assumptions about Ireland lead her to wrongly assume all sorts of things about the situation in which she finds herself. Donoghue has given as a flawed protagonist and that’s OK, but she’s also given us one who doesn’t quite measure up to her own self or experiences and that’s less forgivable. Nonetheless, this is a good book, with strong, interesting characters and a compelling narrative – definitely worth the read.

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