A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Archive for September 2011

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto

with 3 comments

Many of the books I’ve blogged about so far this year have dealt with the difficulty of reconciling people. From Marilyn French’s stark portrait of the gulf that separates men and women, to Trilby Kent’s depiction of the rift between coloniser and colonized, the impenetrability of the barriers that divide us — whether political, historical, physical or financial — are a recurring theme in women’s lit (perhaps in all lit, although it hasn’t struck me so forcibly before).

Ann Patchett‘s Bel Canto flirts with being an exception to this rule. Set in an anonymous South American state, this Orange Prize-winning work depicts the creation of an unlikely Utopia after a kidnap attempt finds a gaggle of rebel fighters holed up with 200 wealthy dinner guest hostages at the vice president’s mansion.

As days turn into weeks, the captors and captives’ perspectives soften and their horizons narrow until none can imagine an alternative existence. Set free from the straitjackets of their roles and routines, they are at liberty to structure their world afresh and explore the wells of potential — for music, communication and love — that everyday life too often leaves unplumbed.

Patchett’s skill lies in her ability to inhabit her characters, giving even the most peripheral a rich, inner life. The mystery of prayer, the alchemy of translation, and the curious blend of the physical and the mental that singing requires are all bodied forth, clothed in lavish perceptions.

Yet it’s the little human touches that bring the story home: the longing for a piece of cake you’ve saved to the end of a meal, the memory of a childhood party, the president’s secret penchant for a particular soap opera that means he misses the party — and scuppers the kidnap plans — in the first place.  

In fact, human frailty — or at least humankind’s collective inability to get past the barriers that the characters overcome on a personal level — is ultimately what brings Utopia crashing to earth. While the epilogue may feel a little too neat for some, there can be no question of the power of the novel’s final events.

As the threads of understanding that the narrative stretches across political, religious, national and financial boundaries tremble and snap, you feel deep sadness that the level of harmony reached (in all senses) in the compound cannot be translated into the wider world.

I doubt I’ll read anything as wistful for a long time.

Picture (from Libya) by Nasser Nouri

Written by londonchoirgirl

September 28, 2011 at 7:40 am

Kat Banyard: The Equality Illusion

with 4 comments

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

with 3 comments

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