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365 days of women's lit

Archive for the ‘Prize-winning’ Category

Sigrid Undset: Kristin Lavransdatter (trans. Tiina Nunnally)

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Now and then someone recommends a book to me and my heart sinks. It might be that the title sounds naff. Or that the author is someone I’ve made a vow never to read. The genre might be the problem (as regular visitors to this blog know, magical realism and I have a largely hate-hate relationship), or the subject matter.

In the case of Norwegian Nobel-Prize-winner Sigrid Undset‘s Kristin Lavransdatter, it was the 1,100-plus page count that had me gnawing my knuckles in dread.

Now, as anyone who’s seen my plans to read the world in 2012 knows, I’m not afraid of a challenge. It’s simply that on balance I prefer novels to look like books rather than doorstops. So when this three-volume beast thunked on to the mat, it took me a good while to work up the enthusiasm to open it and have a read.

But, oh, am I glad I did because, quite simply, and with no qualifications of any kind, this is one of the best books I have read in my life.

Set in fourteenth century Norway (I know, it’s not a promising start, but stick with it), the 1920s trilogy follows the life of noblewoman, Kristin Lavransdatter. The narrative keeps largely to the estates and convents at which she lives, yet this is no period kitchen-sink drama: kicking sand (or perhaps Scandinavian snow) in the face of all those who maintain that women’s lit is narrow and homely in scope, Undset uses the domestic as a prism through which to view national and international events.

In this, the book shares ground with Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but, as the protagonist is female and, as such, not privy to the machinations of the kingmakers as Mantel’s hero is, Undset’s achievement is all the more impressive.

Impressive, too, is Undset’s knowledge of the period in which her story is set. This is evident in everything from the detailed descriptions of rituals around events from births, through the preparation of the marriage bed and the last rituals of dying right down to her choice of similes. These are consistently faithful to the setting and yet fresh and memorable for the modern reader — for example, when Kristin is only able to glimpse her lover from a distance at convent services, she is described as feeling like ‘a hawk that sat chained to a roost with a hood pulled over its eyes’.

Yet what brings all this alive is Undset’s feeling for the characters and world she has evoked. Instead of a cold procession of historical and anthropological details, we are presented with a vibrant milieu, peopled with beings riddled with faults and contradictions. What comes home again and again over the course of the epic is its author’s insight into and sympathy for humanity and her awareness of the cruel conspiracy of character and circumstance that drives people off the course they would have wanted for their lives and yet enriches existence.

The upshot of this is a cast of characters with whom we feel and live through events (when Kristin’s father Lavrans died, I cried my eyes out on the tube — apologies if you were riding in the same carriage), and it makes for a book that is without question among the greatest works in the world. If I hadn’t already read it, I would be recommending it to myself for next year, regardless of its length.

Thanks to Jason Cooper for the recommendation.

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Written by londonchoirgirl

December 29, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Marilynne Robinson: Gilead

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Preachers tend to get a bad press in literature. From bumbling buffoons like Jane Austen’s Mr Collins through to Hilary Mantel’s sinister and erratically cruel Cardinal, it’s clear that there is not much love lost between many wordsmiths and the Church.

Much of this is no doubt justified by the countless instances of abuse of trust and power, not to mention downright idiocy, bodied forth in pulpits around the world across the centuries. Nonetheless, it was surprisingly refreshing to find an alternative perspective in Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead

Set in 1957, the novel is gathered together out of the final writings, recollections and pensees of the Reverend John Ames, a pastor in the two-horse town of Gilead in America’s Midwest. Aware that death is approaching fast and that he will not live to see his young son grow up, the old man sets about writing an extended letter that he hopes will explain something of his history, life and belief system to his child in years to come.

It sounds like a recipe for a huge helping of mawkish sentimentalism. And yet it absolutely isn’t. Instead, Robinson uses a talent for transfiguring the mundane to create a monument to the beauty of the human spirit and the honest attempt to seek out and remain faithful to truth, whatever it may be.

It’s a novel built on moments. The fragmentary nature of the narrative allows Ames to dwell on particular instances, imbuing them with significance because of the way he remembers them. The best of these have a poetic lyricism, backlit by Ames’s certainty about their eternal significance, which offers readers of any religious persuasion and none a compelling insight into the alchemy of faith.

Ames could be a prig, but he isn’t. Suspicious of the shiftless Jack Boughton, who he fears may have designs on his much younger wife, Ames wrestles with his own jealousy and paranoia, deceiving and rebuking himself by turns. He also loves life with a fierce passion that breaks through the measured prose, full of joy, wistfulness and poignancy: ‘Oh, I will miss the world!’ he exclaims in the middle of an anecdote.

This, coupled with Robinson’s excellent eye for awkwardness, and an impeccable interweaving of scripture, gives the narrative a richness and humanity guaranteed to sweep the reader along. I doubt there are many who make it through the final quarter without shedding a tear. 

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Written by londonchoirgirl

December 27, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Diana Wynne Jones: Howl’s Moving Castle

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You’d have to have been taking part in a three-year BBC 4 social documentary recreating the living conditions of 18th century crofters not to have picked up on the YA hype that’s been going around lately. Young adult fiction (just in case you are still struggling out of your smock) is massive and, as one literary agent tweeted breathlessly from the Frankfurt Book Fair last month, even publishers who would never have dipped their toes into the teen lit market before are crying out for dystopia, fantasy, werewolves and vampires.

Bloggers are on to it too. In fact many of the comments and feedback I’ve had for this site have involved recommendations of YA books to read. And one name has cropped up again and again: Diana Wynne Jones.

Published in 1986, one of the English writer’s most famous novels Howl’s Moving Castle has been reaping the benefits of the YA surge. Set in the magical kingdom of Ingary, it follows Sophie Hatter as she sets out to seek her fortune in the wake of being turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste. Sophie is thrown on the mercy of Wizard Howl, whose moving castle has been menacing her town, and who has a nasty reputation for sucking out the hearts of young girls. But of course nothing is quite as it first appears and before long she is striding around the country in seven league boots, casting all sorts of spells in an effort to defeat the witch and return Ingary to its happily ever after.

So far, so conventional. What lifts the narrative out of its fairytale formula, though, is the wit and verve with which Jones sets out her stall. We hear that magical folk only wear cloaks and buckled boots on festival days and would never dream of putting them on for work, and that ‘it is quite a risk to spank a wizard for getting hysterical about his hair’. And when Sophie makes it through the castle’s mysterious black exit to the weird land of Wales (where the provenance of Howl’s name — Howell — suddenly becomes clear) her response to cars and computers is a joy to read.

I loved it. But one of the things I loved most about it was how familiar it felt. Far from being part of a brave new genre, this book took me back to the children’s stories I got from my Mum’s collection — forgotten classics such as Marion St John Webb’s The Little Round House (London, 1956), which, for all their political incorrectness, managed to spin engrossing yarns with wit and clever observations layered on top.

Judging by Wynne Jones, I couldn’t help wondering whether YA fiction is simply what used to be thought of as good children’s lit. And if, instead of creating a magical new genre, publishers have simply shrunk childhood and pulled off the greatest marketing trick of the 21st century to date.

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Written by londonchoirgirl

November 17, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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August 16, 2011 at 3:57 pm