A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Posts Tagged ‘writing

Maile Chapman: Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto

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There can be few ancient Greek tragedies more disturbing than Euripides’ The Bacchae. Building to the cataclysmic scene in which the possessed women of Thebes tear their kinsman Pentheus limb from limb, it packs a serious punch and continues to be lauded by critics who hail it variously as a comment on the dangers of fundamentalism, a parable of excess, and a portrait of the dark desires that seethe within us all.

This sinister ambiguity is something that US writer Maile Chapman harnesses in her excellent first novel, Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto. It is set in a sanatorium in the eerie fringe world of northern Finland and follows a group of women caught somewhere between health and madness as they encounter, battle, and ultimately enact urges and feelings that the world does not allow them to express.

Events move slowly, yet, like the water shifting beneath the thick ice that forms as the sunless winter sets in, emotions stir beneath them, giving a dizzying significance to the catalogue of petty grudges and trivial incidents that the book records. This is heightened by the butterfly narrative, which flits from mind to mind, picking up the pitiful memories of Nurse Sunny here, the sexual trauma of her patient Julia there, and the thousand paranoid impulses, peeves and preoccupations that clutter the consciousnesses of the people who inhabit this halfway house between oblivion and the world.

At first, this can be frustrating as you struggle to catch on to concrete details about the characters that form, merge and mutate before your eyes. But Chapman knows what she’s doing: out of the mist of sensations and impressions a weird, collective consciousness forms that is at once everyone and no-one portrayed and that drives the plot through to its ghastly conclusion.

Reading the work, you become uncomfortably aware that yours is the mind in which its events are playing out. When the depths of the winter pass and the narrative draws to a close, you put the book down with awe, unease and, yes, a faint twinge of guilt.

Picture by Numinosity

Written by londonchoirgirl

November 23, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Kat Banyard: The Equality Illusion

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A couple of years ago, I was queuing for a cashpoint in Queen’s Park, sporting a baggy jumper and the remnants of a hangover, and arguably not looking my radiant best. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help being taken aback when the man in front of me — a late-middle-aged chap with a thick French accent — turned, pointed to a heavily made-up woman in a shift dress and knee-high boots, and informed me: ‘You are not as beautiful as this girl’. I was so surprised to be addressed in this way that all I could do was voice an incredulous ‘So?’ at which this connoisseur of female beauty raised his eyebrows in disgust and turned away.

The world that Kat Banyard describes in The Equality Illusion is full of such incidents. Echoing Richard Dawkins in much more than her title, she sets out her stall passionately in her ‘Alarm call’ introduction, stating that ‘it is time to find the way back’ and recognise feminism as ‘one of the most vital social justice movements of our age’ by debunking the comfortable lie that we now live in an equal world and demonstrating that women are still very much considered as objects to please and serve men. 

There can be no doubt of the work and effort that has gone into the compilation of Banyard’s book. Based on hundreds of interviews with marginalised and vulnerable women, and bristling with statistics, this is an ambitious and heart-felt attempt to unpick the structures of everyday life.

When it works, it is compelling. The discussion of gender creation in young children, for example, with its examination of the active toys, pursuits and clothes we give baby boys and how they contrast to the passive, pretty and impractical objects with which we surround girls — and the way parents have been shown to reward assertive behaviour in boys and punish it in girls — is fascinating.

But it doesn’t always work. Much like Dawkins, Banyard is so passionate about her subject that she is often unable to give the case for the opposition its due (and sometimes neglects to acknowledge it altogether). For example, the possibility that a woman could enter prostitution through anything other than male coercion is never entertained. Instead, Banyard is relentless in her attacks on popular portrayals of prostitution such as the Billy Piper Secret Diary of a Call Girl series, which she sees as a gross and misleading glamorisation of a seedy and exploitative industry.

While she is right that that show is ridiculously silly — and while the sex trade clearly exploits many vulnerable people — Banyard conveniently neglects to mention that the concept for the programme was based on a blog by a real-life former prostitute, research scientist Dr Brooke Magnanti, who chose the occupation and appears pretty unscathed. (‘I didn’t go into it cheerfully, but I wasn’t resigned and broken either… I’ve felt worse about my writing than I ever have about sex for money,’ she told The Times in 2009.)

Similarly, again like Dawkins, Banyard has a tendency to get swept off into irrelevant arguments in her enthusiasm. Her analysis of the way the beauty industry works by playing on women’s insecurities may be accurate but is surely no different to the way advertising works across the spectrum. Fear of inadequacy has always been used to shift units, whether you’re selling compacts, cars or cottages in the Algarve.  

All of which is a shame, because Banyard has plenty of good stuff to say. It’s just that she weakens her argument (to use a traditionally male metaphor) by wanting to score more goals than the opposition in every match, rather than trusting that her line-up is strong enough to win on aggregate now and then and scoop the championship overall.

Nevertheless, I can’t help wishing she’d been standing behind me that day in Queen’s Park. Now that would have been entertaining… 

Picture by The Jordan Collective

Written by londonchoirgirl

September 18, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Rivka Galchen: Atmospheric Disturbances

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One of the great things about writing a blog like this is that you get recommendations of things to read. At first they come from friends, but pretty soon people you’ve never met all over the world are chiming in and bringing things to your attention that you would never have found on your own.

So when Andra Watkins joined the debate about magic realism that blew up in the comments to my post on The Tiger’s Wife, and suggested that I give a book about a man who ‘becomes convinced his wife is a doppelgänger and sets off for Argentina to find the “real” one’, I was intrigued.

As it turned out, reading this book in response to a suggestion from someone I didn’t know  over the internet was very fitting. Narrated by, in his own words, ‘a fifty-one-year-old male psychiatrist with no previous hospitalisations and no relevant past medical, social or family history,’ the novel charts the unravelling of reality as Leo gets sucked into the delusions of one of his patients. Increasingly convinced that the woman living with him is a simulacrum of his wife and that he is being recruited by the Royal Academy of Meteorology to help wage a war that involves controlling weather systems in parallel worlds, the New Yorker travels to South America, picking up coded messages, emails and signs from the mysterious professor Tzvi Gal-Chen (haven’t we seen that name somewhere before?).

Books like this live or die on the strength of the narrator’s voice and this novel thrives. Obsessive, quirky and clinical, Leo is constantly surprising. At times, particularly when constructing justifications for some of his more outlandish decisions, he recalls Nabokov’s  Humbert Humbert or John Nash in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, enabling the reader to inhabit the rogue selectiveness of the paranoid psychotic and the cruel, strange way that mental illness weaves itself through the personality so that it’s impossible to tell where the condition stops and the person begins.

There are some arresting insights into the more general business of living too. From the nonsense phrases that play at the back of the brain and the paranoid connections made between things by internet search results, to the way that a stain disintegrates into power when you pick at it with your thumb, Galchen is a past master at picking out the little details we are each usually alone with as we move through the world, whether sane or not.

Yet she is not about to let us get comfortable with the notion that what we are reading is purely the addled account of someone experiencing a mental breakdown. Throwing in just enough external coincidences to make Leo’s reading of events conceivable, she teases us with the possibility that his is in fact a reality where there are weather wars, doppelgänger wives and parallel worlds.

The conundrum of what is really going on in the book (and what ‘really’ really means) is something we can never be 100 per cent certain we have solved. Whether we try to explain the strange happenings as elements of magical realism, products of psychosis, or a conscious attempt to mislead, or whether we buy into them wholesale, there is no solid ground on which to base our interpretation. Without an independent, or at least second, perspective from which to calibrate our reading (as Tzvi Gal-Chen discusses in one of his papers on radar technology and the doppler effect), we are dependent on our own partial soundings to try and pinpoint truth.

Leo ponders the dilemma himself:

If a story seems too random, or perhaps too brilliant, for a ‘madman’ to have conceived of it himself, then consider that the ‘author’ might be reality and the ‘madman’ just reader. After all, only reality can escape the limits of our imagination.

But it doesn’t stop there. Qualified psychiatrist Galchen (the author, not the meteorologist) has left the door open for us to wander outside the bounds of the novel and question her storytelling too: her father, in ‘real’ life, is none other than Tzvi Gal-Chen, a professor of meteorology. And the family photograph of the Gal-Chens that Leo keeps on his fridge door is her own.

We buy into her story, suspend our disbelief and allow the narrative to sweep us along.  But what is really behind the words? What hybrid of experience, truth and fantasy constitutes her art?

Maybe the only distinction between madness and sanity is the extent to which you are able to make others believe your story could be true.

Picture by kristiewells

Written by londonchoirgirl

September 8, 2011 at 7:28 am

Trilby Kent: Smoke Portrait

There are few things more nerve-wracking than reviewing books by people you know. All the way through reading them you find yourself walking a tightrope of anticipation, braced for the false step or loose thread that will send you plummeting into the pit of no return. As I’ve found to my cost, there are no safety nets for friendships where bad reviews are concerned.

So when Trilby Kent, whom I met through last year’s Guardian International Development Journalism Competition, wrote on Facebook that her first novel for adults, Smoke Portrait, had been largely ignored by the UK media, and I posted a comment saying I would read it for my blog, it wasn’t long before the doubts set in. What if it was terrible? What if I hated it? What if my well-intentioned promise was the start of a lifelong rivalry between two ambitious women wordsmiths destined to run up against each another on the shortlists of writing awards for the rest of their careers… (hmmn, possibly wishful thinking on my part here).

Because, after all, don’t books get ignored for a reason? Doesn’t good writing rise to the top of the literary quagmire like oil through water? Aren’t the novels left to moulder away at the bottom of the Amazon rankings  there because of one very simple fact: that they aren’t very good?

The answer, I am pleased to report, having devoured Kent’s engrossing work, is that that is total nonsense. This is a book that deserves to be bought, reviewed and read — and, for me, a timely reminder of the fickle nature of the literary world.

Set in the 1930s and told from the viewpoint of 13-year-old Belgian teenager Marten and aspiring writer Glynis (Glen), who flees London for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where tensions about politics and racial purity provide an uncanny echo for events in other parts of the world, this book offers a striking and fresh perspective on the well-trodden territory of the second world war. Charting the unlikely correspondence between the pair, in which Marten pretends to be a political prisoner after a spelling mistake in addresses puts them into contact, the narrative unfolds the psychology of two bright young people facing a darkening world.

As with many first novels, writing is a prominent theme. Kent uses Glen’s forays into literature as the platform for some telling and witty observations about the art, providing one of the most vivid descriptions of failing to write that I’ve come across. She also delivers a killer putdown for all those who fail to recognise writing as a skill: ‘Sometimes I fancy I might make a rather fine medical officer’ Glen tells a colonial bore who trots out the old ‘they do say we’ve all got a story in us’ line at a party.

The skill of writing is clearly no mystery to Kent. Although the narrative feels a little mannered in the early chapters about Glen, the style complements the subject matter well and the whole thing is swept along by a deftly controlled plot, making this one of those rarest of beasts: a literary page-turner.

The broad scope of the book and the research it must have demanded is well-handled too. And if the level of colloquialism required from Marten’s schoolboy English occasionally stretches credulity — ‘she wants seeing to. Do you know what that means?’ he writes at one point, begging the question, ‘More to the point, Marten, do you?’ — Kent’s portrayal of the startling ways we sublimate emotion more than makes up for this. The scene where Marten wonders what it would be like to eat his tyrannical father, for example, is extraordinary.

All of which leaves me heartily seconding Kent’s frustration that Smoke Portrait has been passed over by the reviewers. And it seems I’m not alone, as the book first got publishers’ attention through being named youwriteon‘s Book of the Year on the strength of site users’ feedback. Time the literary press caught up, methinks.

What other books have been unfairly neglected by the media? Leave a comment and let me know.

Picture by madaboutasia

Written by londonchoirgirl

August 28, 2011 at 7:53 am

Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad

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It was only when I got stuck into chapter two of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad that I realised I’d read some of it before. As the narrative zoomed in on the impotence, guilt and cringe-making memories of ageing music producer Bennie, I had that weird feeling you get when you recognise a celebrity in the street and raise your hand to wave only to remember they’ve got no idea who you are at all. I’d seen this somewhere before, but it wasn’t connecting with me in quite the same way.

The reason, I worked out after a bit of head-scratching, was that the chapter was featured in Granta‘s new writing anthology number 110, the issue entitled Sex. And, while I had enjoyed the portrait of a somewhat seedy yet touchingly bewildered bloke struggling to keep up with the modern world when I first read it, its inclusion in a collection of writing about sex had slanted my reading of it, pushing the focus on to Bennie’s preoccupations with physicality and downplaying some of its other aspects.

Chapter two wasn’t the only section to have gone solo. Surprisingly for a book celebrated for its experimental structure (which, similar to David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, sees a series of linked stories weaving characters in and out of one anothers’ lives) a large number of Egan’s chapters appeared in publications such as The New Yorker and Harper’s prior to the book’s launch.

Although the quality of the writing would be more than enough to ensure readers enjoyed the extracts wherever they found them, context is so crucial to the work as a whole that it’s hard not to feel that the isolated chunks must have presented slightly different faces to the world through being separated from their companions in this way — much as people in varied social contexts present modified versions of themselves to the world.

With each chapter told over the shoulder of a different character, the book trades off the gap between our perceptions of the people around us and the reality. Its wide timeframe, sweeping from the seventies through to fifteen years or so in the future, allows Egan to play with some impressive effects, from bathetic flashes forward into characters’ lives (reminiscent of the deflationary techniques of Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) to a compelling vision of the NYC of the future: malaria-ridden, patrolled by helicopters, ruled by consumer babies and with trees that bloom in January. There are some startling insights too, particularly into the way that various people get ‘lost’ as their lives drift off the course predicted for them while their contemporaries power on by.

However, the structure is not without its problems. One of the more annoying is that if, like me, you struggle with remembering names, the opening pages of most chapters are spent in a haze of frustration as you try to place the figure who is set to guide you through the next stages of the story.

But far more serious still is the fundamental conflict between the book’s vision and the structure through which it is presented. Setting out a lonely cast of characters, all so walled up within their own perspectives that they can only be brought to a brief moment of unison by a corrupt marketing ploy, Egan gives an incredibly bleak prognosis for humankind. Yet, this is undercut by her own skill in realising the viewpoints of her characters.

Surely if one person can recognise the conflicting needs and secret loneliness of the world around us there is more hope for humanity than Egan leaves room for. If it’s possible for readers to perceive the good, the bad and the ugly in so many people, then it’s possible for human beings to connect more deeply, meaningfully and frequently than they do in Egan’s book. And if that’s the case, then A Visit from the Goon Squad is a magnificent, elegant and deeply heartening failure. And we should all be very glad.

Picture by it’s tea

Written by londonchoirgirl

August 16, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Rosamond Lehmann: The Weather in the Streets

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One of my favourite things about reading books from eras past is those rare flashes of insight that remind me that I’m really no different from people who’ve gone before. ‘Stop thinking you’re so sophisticated,’ the best writers say, ‘Stop thinking that you invented sex, irony, hair removal [or whatever it might be]: you’re much more similar to these folk than you can even begin to imagine.’

That doesn’t happen in Rosamond Lehmann‘s The Weather in the Streets. There is not one single, isolated insight. Instead, the whole book is soaked in universal female experience; so much so that you forget you’re reading and feel rather as though you have been granted privileged access to the interior monologue of the woman sitting across from you on the bus as she thinks through the things that happened to her last year.

Told from the perspective of Olivia, an early thirty-something who has separated from her husband and rents a room in a wealthy single friend’s London pad, this 1936 classic unfolds the germination, blossoming and consequences of her affair with a married childhood friend. It charts her progress from emotionally fettered, overgrown adolescent to seasoned woman, throwing up startling glimpses of the mental cages that the people around her live in along the way.

Lehmann is a fearless writer. Not only does she lay bare the terrors and neuroses that riddle us all and wade freely in the waters of the forbidden — homosexuality, drug use and back-street abortions being just a few of the topics she takes on — she also takes the rules of writing and snaps them in two.

Her promiscuous use of both the first and third person voice would make a creative writing tutor weep. Indeed, it would make nonsense of most writer’s work, but Lehmann’s style is so distinctive, and her touch so deft, that it merely serves to heighten our sense of being in Olivia’s world by showing us the ambivalent way she sees herself — sometimes ‘me’, sometimes ‘she’. At its most magnificent, Lehmann’s writing has the fluidity of an impressionist painting, yet with all the details picked out in astonishing clarity.

She’s really funny, too. Best of all are the flashes of steel that puncture the pomposity and smugness of minor characters. A case in point is Olivia’s private response to a prudish acquaintance’s plans to embroider a set of eight chair covers for her dining room chairs.

‘I think it will be gay’  she said meekly, holding up the square with her dear little old-fashioned head on one side.

Nothing you did or conceived of could ever be gay; and do your children know yet they hate you?

That’s not to say the book’s perfect. The wrapping up, involving a host of secondary Bohemian friends who engineer a possible next step for Olivia, feels thin after the heady emotion of the preceding chapters. Although it does contain some nice touches and wicked vignettes — the scene where the drunk Adrian tries to chat up the beautiful teenage boy who features as the back end of the bull in the amateur play is great.

Taken as a whole, though, this book is extremely impressive, elegant, engaging and a lot of fun. Much like the lady who recommended it (thanks Jo).

Picture by jaybergesen.

Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall

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So here we have it: the beast. The big one. The book so huge, it spawned a year-long project. But was it worth it, I hear you cry? Well, yes. But not for the reasons you might expect.

When I picked up the book, I was expecting a great, grand narrative unfolding the life and times of one of England’s most memorable, irrational and charismatic kings. I was a bit daunted, truth be told, remembering the hefty history tomes in my school library. (I gave up history at the age of 14 and still to this day can be plunged into a maelstrom of ignorance and guesswork by such names as ‘William of Orange’, ‘Pitt the Younger’  and ‘Edward the Confessor’). 

In fact, just about the only period of history I know anything about is the Tudor period. Most of my knowledge of this is gleaned from a project I embarked on at the age of 12 trying to work out if Anne Boleyn really had ruled for 1,000 days, not realising that I could find out the answer from pretty much any textbook.

Nevertheless, even with my expert grasp of all things Tudor, I found the prospect of wading through Hilary Mantel’s 650-page doorstop a little off-putting. It felt like getting an invitation to a back-to-back screening of David Starkey’s programmes: fascinating and terribly good for you, but more than a little bit like hard work.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. For, although the book makes no bones about taking on History (with a capital ‘huh’), the positioning of the camera on the shoulder of urchin-turned-trusted-adviser Thomas Cromwell keeps it firmly rooted in the personal, private and everyday details that bring characters alive.

Tics are recorded. Nicknames flit from mouth to mouth. And the million little mannerisms and oddities that make up a person are lovingly scrutinised and set forth. Seeing Anne Boleyn through her archness of manner, her casual cruelty to her sister and the snivelling little serving wench who frequents her chambers, and Henry through his flashes of fear, kindness, and the ornate ring he fumbles off his finger to send to his wife on news of the birth of his son, brings home the humanity and fragility of the people involved.

We might be used to thinking of them as finished characters on history’s stage, but for the notaries of the House of Tudor life must have been as muddling and shambling, as taken up with petty annoyances and frustrations, as it is for anybody. The effect of watching them at close quarters is like shuffling along a great tapestry with a magnifying glass, marvelling at the deftly woven threads.

Another surprising thing was the circular feel of the narrative. Although the story is ostensibly chronological, seeing it through Cromwell’s eyes gives the novel a strangely circular feel, as we move with him around the city’s seats of power, in ever tighter spirals. It is like watching a spider working its way round and round a web, adding layer after layer of meaning to the structure.

That’s not to say that the book is perfect. In one or two of my less charitable moments, reading with my head craned under someone’s armpit on a rush-hour tube, I wished that the editor could have been more ruthless, particularly as the interminable business of settling Henry’s divorce and marriage to Anne drags on. The book would not have suffered for having one fewer simmering discussion, or missing a significant glance or two. Hang the historical accuracy. 

But, taken against the achievement as a whole, this feels like a minor point. Overall, the book surprises with its intimacy and subtlety. If the grand, male narrative occasionally sinks beneath the sea of details. It emerges all the brighter for it.

Picture: History in an Hour

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