A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Posts Tagged ‘novel

Miriam Toews: Irma Voth

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Of all the book bloggers out there (and there are quite a lot of us), there are few more established and respected than the Dovegreyreader. Prolific yet discerning, this Devon-based woman of letters tears through books at the rate that most of the rest of us Brits go through cups of tea. 

So when I read that Miriam Toews was one of the Dovegreyreader’s favourite writers, it seemed obvious to include Toews’s latest novel on my list of books by women writers  for this year.

Set in the arid plains of Mexico, the novel draws on Toews’ own Mennonite background to provide a portrait of a young woman struggling to build an identity for herself after she is shunned by the closed and traditional community in which she was raised. When a film crew comes to shoot near her home, Irma Voth finds herself caught up with a crowd of people who think and act in ways she has never experienced before and begins a journey that will lead her to question and confront the rules and memories that have held her captive.

I can see why the Dovegreyreader rates Toews. Packed with striking insights and unusual perspectives, Toews’s writing is at once powerful and delicate. On the surface, nothing very much happens for long stretches of this novel, but the narrative is alive and thrilling, feeding off Irma Voth’s sublimated fury and grief and the thousand thoughts and impressions that make the wilderness sing.

Toews is one of the best writers of dramatic irony I have ever read. Time and again, she sets up and plays out misunderstandings that the reader can see through before the character does, wringing a great deal of tension and poignancy from her scenes in the process.

It’s a tough book, but it’s not without humour. Drafted in to translate for the German Mennonite actress, Voth finds herself getting creative with the script, so that the words the character says are often a wry comment on the male-authored script (as well as an expression of Voth’s fears and desires).

The book also yielded the second description I have come across this year of a woman embroidering secret, subversive messages into clothes (the first was in Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer without Men). I’m not sure if anyone has made a study of subversion and sewing in women’s literature, but it seems that this might be a rich seam for inquiry (if you’ll pardon the pun).

There were one or two moments that felt slightly contrived – particularly some of the more philosophical pronouncements from the film director Diego and the revelation of the fate of Voth’s father at the end.  All in all, though, this was an engrossing read that managed to illuminate a little-known way of life without any of the voyeurism usually attached to such works. Highly recommended. 

Picture by crowderb

Written by londonchoirgirl

December 6, 2011 at 3:07 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

Siri Hustvedt: The Summer Without Men

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A traditional woman

Women hate each other. At least you’d be forgiven for thinking that on the basis of most of the books I’ve read so far this year. Whether it’s Trapido’s bullied teenager Cat, Oates’ tormented misfit Minette, or the brilliant, yet ultimately ostracised Lily Bart, women’s cruelty to one another is a recurring theme in women’s lit.

Interestingly, with the slight exception of Lucy Caldwell’s Noor who passes the treatment she suffers on to the unfortunate Hong Chang Jones with interest, the story is nearly always told from the victim’s point of view.  Whether that’s because literary bods tend to be the bookish, solitary types prone to this sort of treatment, whether it’s because this makes for a powerful plot device, or whether the mechanisms of society are such that all women feel a degree of victimisation at some stage in their lives is not clear. But there’s no doubt that the passages dealing with the peculiar brand of subtle, mental destruction that women mete out to their peers are often among the most vivid and heartfelt in the books.

Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men is no exception. Finding herself at a loose end when her husband of 30 years asks for a ‘pause’ from their marriage so that he can pursue his passion for a much younger colleague, middle-aged poet Faith divides her time between visiting her elderly mother and her cronies in their sheltered home, getting to know a vulnerable neighbour, and teaching a summer class for teenage girls in a quiet US town. Having been victimised herself at school, she is quick to spot a souring dynamic between her most precocious pupil and the rest of the group. When an incident makes what has been going on clear, Faith takes it upon herself to counter the girls’ vitriol and turn their negativity into strength.

It’s a surprising, if not entirely successful, book. From the Amazon blurb, you might easily assume this novel sits towards the trashy end of the commercial scale. If I’m honest, it was the lure of the plot about the unfaithful husband and the dilemma he presented that drew me in. I even felt slightly guilty as I downloaded it, thinking of the hundreds of fascinating, classic and worthy books on my list of recommendations and must-reads.

The reality was quite the opposite. As far as I know, there is no literary prize for the number of academic references in a single book, but if such an award existed Hustvedt would be a hot favourite. From Winnicott and Chomsky to Nietzsche and Kant, the whole galaxy of intellectual stars is brought to bear as Faith works her way through a maze of thoughts about gender, identity, love and truth. Pensees range from meditations on the female orgasm in the animal kingdom to the portrayal of the sexes in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

And that’s the problem: thought-provoking though it is, the book reads like a series of essays strung together with a loosely conceived plot. Strange devices, such as the bizarre Mr Nobody, are introduced and tail off unresolved and the central dilemma of the husband — surely the hook that will snare many a reader — is never adequately confronted. As the final pages approached, I found myself wondering when the story would begin.

There are also some irritating textual effects: any piece of writing that ends ‘Fade to black’, for example, except possibly a book about film, clearly takes itself far too seriously.

Still, you have to give Hustvedt credit for the intellectual rigour with which she presents her preoccupations and her attempt to do more than simply reflect the cruelty that troubles her. In a market where it’s tempting to drop the complexities and play to the gallery, this is a writer who bangs her own drum.

Fade to black.

Picture by Robert Wade

Written by londonchoirgirl

June 9, 2011 at 9:36 am

Kiran Desai: The Inheritance of Loss

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A policeman at the gorkha statue in Kalimpong

VS Naipaul’s recent assertion that no women authors are equal to him unleashed an avalanche of comments from readers and writers around the world. Among the arguments advanced in the Nobel Prize-winner’s defence was the suggestion that women wordsmiths tend to focus on narrow, domestic topics and leave the empire building to the boys. Women, bless ’em, the implication was, can’t get their pretty little heads round politics and have no need to try when there are big, strong writers like Naipaul around to do the thinking for them.

If evidence were needed against such a ridiculous argument, then Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss surely provides plenty. Set in the 1980s, in the remote community of Kalimpong in the foothills of the Himalayas, the book follows the fortunes of three characters who spend their days alone together in a crumbling villa in the jungle, each locked in his or her own neuroses, obsessions, memories and fears.

While the curmudgeonly judge broods over his chessboard, plagued with recollections of the wife he once cruelly drove away, his orphaned granddaughter beguiles the long hours with dreams of her earnest, impoverished tutor from the slum down the hill. Meanwhile, their cook pines for letters from his emigrated son, who, unbeknownst to him, is tasting the bitter side of the immigrant experience in NYC.

So wrapped up is each of them in his or her own concerns, that they are oblivious to the currents of anger and bitter hatred swirling about the region until the crusade for a separate state of ‘Gorkhaland’ literally invades their home. Yet, as the insurgency gathers pace and atrocity is heaped upon atrocity, they each struggle to break out of their isolation and forge the bonds of affection and understanding that will ultimately save them and, perhaps, their homeland.

Having been lucky enough to spend a few days in Kalimpong recently, I can vouch  for the fidelity of Desai’s evocation of what is a fragile, enchanting and truly moving place. From the tawdriness of the town bazaar, to the steaming momos (dumplings) at Gompu’s shack, and the mountain mist ‘charging down like a dragon, dissolving, undoing, making ridiculous the drawing of borders’, Desai captures the character of the Darjeeling hills and bodies it forth in all its exuberance, madness, wistfulness and colour. She deserves her Booker Prize for this alone.

Yet her portrayal of the complex politics of the region, which has been parcelled up and handed between kings, empresses and governments for centuries, and the violent separatist passions that simmer and flare among rival groups there, is equally strong. With a little probing, the wilderness that at first seems so idyllic and peaceful reveals itself as a warren of grudges and suspicions, in which tensions mount and occasionally explode. 

Desai captures this mixture of sleepiness and sudden, violent action perfectly. In fact, if anything, it informs the book a little too much, being subsumed into the plot so that it too moves sleepily, punctuated here and there by frenetic events, and finally fades into the mist. While some readers may find this frustrating, no-one can dispute Desai’s skill in getting under the skin of the society she portrays and tracing the threads that connect individual lives to the making and breaking of nations. Naipaul himself could do no more.

Photo by Steve Lennon.

Barbara Vine: A Dark-Adapted Eye

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There was a working gallows at Wandsworth Prison until 1992. It was tested every six months

Every so often as a rookie novelist, you come across a book that reads like a masterclass in what you want to do. For me, juddering my way up the London Overground line to work, still dazed from the six o’clock alarm and the hour spent plugging away at my second draft,  A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell) is such a one.

Centred around the execution of Vera Hillyard in the years after World War II, the novel examines the ripple effect of infamy, the way that ‘Murder reaches out through a family, stamping transfers of the Mark of Cain on a dozen foreheads’.

At least that’s one description. Another would be that this is a novel about maternity, about the things society expects of mothers and the things women expect of themselves in that role, and the gap between those ideas and the reality. Or you could say this is a novel about secrets, childhood, war, femininity, storytelling, and outsiders.

The reason for such multivalency is that the novel is told largely from the narrator Faith’s memories of her aunts Vera and Eden during the war years. As that period marked Faith’s transition from childhood to adulthood, her perspective and the things she noticed shifted with each stint at her aunts’ house, where she was sent to escape the London bombing raids. Coupled with this shift in perspective is the revelation of a number of secrets, which tilts the significance of events first one way, then another, and finally wrenches the focus away from the murder itself on to the mystery at the book’s heart.

It’s a complicated structure and one which (she says, thinking of the ragbag of events and motivations saved in a file on this computer) could easily get out of control. Vine steers it mistressfully, though, using two main techniques: she uses inquiries from a biographer interested in profiling Vera Hillyard as a spur and then series of guideposts for unfolding the narrative, and she makes sure each of the large cast of characters looms from the page with a startling set of needs, desires and grudges of his or her own. Most striking is Vera Hillyard — by turns the personification of Sartre’s Bad Faith with her obsessive adherence to rigid rules about deportment and manners, and the pathetic victim of a vicious game the rules of which she can only dimly recognise.

Now and then, the complexity of the structure does necessitate a bit of forcing to make the box click shut. The suggestion, for example, that Eden might have been reluctant to falsify a birth certificate because registry offices had lots of intimidating posters up in those days rings oddly when considered alongside the far more shocking things she is supposed to have done. It also seems strange that the biographer would eventually decide not to write his book because he was ‘defeated’ by the central mystery, a mystery so extraordinary  that, as Faith says, it is hardly ever encountered by normal people — just the sort of thing to have a jobbing hack’s ears pricking up, surely, even if it couldn’t be finally resolved?

For my part, though, I couldn’t help but be grateful for these minor flaws. Seen in light of the overall accomplishment, they felt like the tiny symmetrical imperfections that prove the pearl is real. They hinted at the months of attrition the story must have undergone in its author’s head, and gave me conviction that such craftswomanship might be possible after all. Thanks for the recommendation, Sue.

Picture by Jaime Perez.

Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth

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Rubbish pickers in Kolkata, India

Airport bookshops are strange places. Something about the transience of the terminal experience rubs off on the shelves of slasher stories and chick-littery, putting browsers in a holiday humour, and making reckless purchases and bold choices seem somehow less of a stretch. And so it was that on my way to India this spring I found myself at the check out in Gatwick’s South Terminal clutching… a copy of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.

Alright, I’ll admit it, my stock of adventurousness was all used up on the contemplation of the trip ahead. I’d never been to India before and despite having visited parts of Africa and South-east Asia, I had a feeling nothing could prepare me for the madness of Kolkata. I was looking for something comforting, familiar and safe: a tried and trusted formula that I could retreat into when one of the world’s most extreme, desperate, colourful and crowded cities got too much for me.

But Edith Wharton had other ideas. Feisty to a fault, this grande dame of early twentieth century American literature grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and thrust me into a world every bit as unforgiving and shocking as the place I was headed.

‘Jane Austen with teeth’ was the first description that sprang to my mind as I began to read my way through the unravelling of Lily Bart, the beautiful and penniless New York socialite, whose flawless facade of serenity is both the secret and the nemesis of her success. But that would be unfair, both to Austen, who has a much sharper set of gnashers than she’s often given credit for, and to Wharton, who sees no point in biting her prey when she might as well tear the subjects of her scrutiny limb from limb.

No-one escapes. Not the bright creatures of high society sniping at one another from behind their opera glasses; not the conservative family members so bound up with ideas of duty and correctness that they fail to distinguish between petulance and desperation; not the charwoman who schemes for her own ends and not  beautiful, spoiled, hopeless Lily herself.

The Penguin Classics blurb-writer describes Lily as ‘the embodiment of woman as a passive creature, as the ultimate “consumer item”‘. Close, but no cigar. For while Lily allows herself to be carried on the currents of other people’s whims and schemes, she has a core sense of self-respect that won’t allow her to go along with the final strokes of deviousness and heartlessness that would assure her future.

It is what redeems her in the eyes of the reader, but also what brings her low. If she were a little more passive — more the superficial, carefree creature she pretends — then she would accept the repugnant offers of marriage, mistresship and mindless monetary gain that come her way and drift along the bright surface of the world she thinks she aspires to, and there would be no story.

What makes Lily’s fall so compelling and her final undoing so very, very sad is the kernel of humanity Wharton conjures at her core, reminding readers that the creature dwindling before their eyes is every bit as complex, conflicted and scared as they are.

In a city where naked children squat in the gutters as limousines glide past, the resonance of Wharton’s words was strong.

Picture by FriskoDude

Written by londonchoirgirl

May 24, 2011 at 6:05 am

Barbara Trapido: Sex and Stravinsky

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A poster for the Chippendales' Vegas show (nothing to do with this blog post, but it made you look...)

A would-be novelist on my old creative writing MA course once got very frustrated. We’d been discussing the thorny issue of titles and how difficult it is to make your book stand out from the thousands of volumes tumbling on to bookshop shelves every month. After half an hour or so of pulling apart various possible ways of evoking that elusive blend of atmosphere and intrigue that the book in question needed to get readers interested, he gave up. ‘Why don’t you just call it “Buy me, you c**t”?’ he said.

It’s tempting to think that Barbara Trapido had the same thought process when trying to package up Sex and Stravinsky. There’s so little of either in the book that the title feels like a bit of a fudge, a shrugging resort to the old adage that ‘sex sells’. So much so, that when I mentioned to a friend that I was writing my next post on this book, she couldn’t even remember that she’d read it until we hashed over the plot.

That’s not to say that there isn’t anything memorable in the book itself. Weaving together the lives of two couples who married the wrong people, this insightful and touching novel unpacks the loneliness that exists in the gap between the narratives we find ourselves caught up in and the stories inside our heads.

It works best in the delineation of characters’ backstories and the conflicting pressures that create their personalities. Make-do-and-mend Caroline, the thwarted academic who excels at homemaking on a shoestring, for example, is a marvellous mixture of post-feminist empowerment and little-girl-lostness. 

This mining of experience allows Trapido to spark tension through different characters’ views of the same events (a tricky feat to pull off, as anyone who’s ever had a go at split narratives will testify).

There are some lovely comic touches too: the French exchange who describes himself in his letter of introduction as a ‘tall, merry fellow’, the ball dress ‘ruched like a festoon blind’ because it has been ‘made out of a festoon blind’.

For all that, though, something’s missing. The resolution, when it comes, is too neat and predictable. The whole thing feels ever-so-slightly smug and cynical: the work of an accomplished writer who knows exactly the notes to hit to keep the marketeers happy, as though Trapido is bored by the ease with which she is able to shuffle the characters into a pleasing configuration.

I hear she’s done better in the past, so perhaps I’ll have to give her another shot. Maybe next time I’ll pick out something that trumpets itself a little less cynically.

Incidentally, that would-be novelist decided not to resort shock and awe to sell his first book. When he landed his deal with Canongate, his book came out under the title Fresh. Well done, Mark McNay.

Picture by TheJose

Written by londonchoirgirl

May 15, 2011 at 1:14 pm