#14 (2020) Orchid and The Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes

My pre-lock down mosey around Chapters led to my buying Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy (thoughts here), and Caoilinn Hughes’s Orchid and the Wasp. I’d seen Hughes’s book while it was still in hardback and enjoyed the first few pages when I’d leafed through it in the shop. The end result, however, was not so satisfactory.

In this dazzlingly original debut novel, award-winning Irish writer Caoilinn Hughes introduces a heroine of mythic proportions in the form of one Gael Foess. A tough, thoughtful, and savvy opportunist, Gael is determined to live life on her own terms. Raised in Dublin by single-minded, careerist parents, Gael learns early how a person’s ambitions and ideals can be compromised— and she refuses to let her vulnerable, unwell younger brother, Guthrie, suffer such sacrifices.

When Gael’s financier father walks out on them during the economic crash of 2008, her family fractures. Her mother, a once-formidable orchestral conductor, becomes a shadow. And a fateful incident prevents Guthrie from finishing high school. Determined not to let her loved-ones fall victim to circumstance, Gael leaves Dublin for the coke-dusted social clubs of London and Manhattan’s gallery scene, always working an angle, but beginning to become a stranger to those who love her. 

The first few chapters set the scene and give a little family history, which helps to contextualise the characters in the book, and you very quickly get a sense of Gael’s personality. Child-Gael seems independent, bossy, and wilful, and not much changes! ‘Raised’ by two fairly unsentimental parents, her actions seem to be reflective of both the environment in which she was brought up, and her father’s financial preoccupations.

Hughes’s writing style is engaging and witty, and I particularly enjoyed the parts where Gael’s mother, Sive, is in the mix. Hughes’s musical descriptions are rich and suggest a sound knowledge of the works referenced and Sive’s career as a conductor. The musicologist in me revelled a little in the descriptive passages, which are beautiful and emotive in a way that we aren’t encouraged to be. One exchange between Gael and Sive stuck out in particular:

Leaning in, her hands on either side of the turntable, Sive heard out the conversation between a flute and E-flat clarinet until cellos introduced their gentle, chordal strokes and a pair of harps stippled like rain. Then, she lifted the needle back an inch to the beginning of the discourse. ‘What do you hear?’ Sive didn’t raise her head to ask this. ‘Love… or lament?’ (Pg. 31) (The piece in question is Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony)

The question Sive poses reminded me of a lecture I had in third year, in which we were played a piece of music and then asked to say which emotion we felt it reflected. I said love, which triggered a whole other conversation about whether love was an emotion or a state of being. Anyway, I digress. Hughes’s description here is lovely and evocative; I can see Sive’s actions, the concentration in her face. Hughes goes on to detail Sive’s appearance through the eyes of Gael, who disapproves of her knee-length waistcoat (that Gael wouldn’t wear for a bet, but looked borderline cool, she had to admit).

The narrative takes Gael to university in London and then across to New York, where her entrepreneurial exploits take shape. My main difficulty with this aspect of the book was a) plausibility of the story and b) how much I disliked Gael. I just didn’t find her a likeable character. She reminded me of those girls at school who just thought they were the embodiment of what was right – everyone else could go jump.

That said, Hughes writing was excellent and the poet in her came through. I’d say it’s worth a look, particularly if you’re unperturbed by a less-than-likeable protagonist! Thoughts welcome, as always.

#10 (2020) A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

I was lured towards A Woman is No Man in Hodges Figgis at the start of the year thanks to its bright cover and striking title. The feminist in me got all prickly and I was interested to see what it was all about.

Palestine, 1990. Seventeen-year-old Isra prefers reading books to entertaining the suitors her father has chosen for her. Over the course of a week, the naïve and dreamy girl finds herself quickly betrothed and married, and is soon living in Brooklyn. There Isra struggles to adapt to the expectations of her oppressive mother-in-law Fareeda and strange new husband Adam, a pressure that intensifies as she begins to have children – four daughters instead of the sons Fareeda tells Isra she must bear.

Brooklyn, 2008. Eighteen-year-old Deya, Isra’s oldest daughter, must meet with potential husbands at her grandmother Fareeda’s insistence, though her only desire is to go to college. But her grandmother is firm on the matter: the only way to secure a worthy future for Deya is through marriage to the right man.

But fate has a will of its own, and soon Deya will find herself on an unexpected path that leads her to shocking truths about her family…

As the blurb suggests, the narrative is split between Isra and her daughter Deya, with occasional chapters from Fareeda. Rum’s novel deals with the realities of arranged marriage, from the lining up of potential suitors to the union that follows. The three generation perspective allows for a range of viewpoints to come through; Fareeda’s thoughts about a woman’s role are far more conventional to those of Deya, for example, who was born and raised in Brooklyn. However, all three women are linked by an overarching sense of duty and expectation reinforced by their culture. Isra and Deya in particular find small ways to push against these expectations, and each feel constricted by their seemingly predestined path.

She wished she could open her mouth and tell her parents, No! This isn’t the life I want. But Isra had learned from a very young age that obedience was the single path to love. So she only defied in secret, mostly with her books. Every evening after returning from school, after she’d soaked a pot of rice and hung her brothers’ clothes and set the sufra and washed the dishes following dinner, Isra would retreat quietly to her room and read under the open window… (Pg. 6-7)

The novel wasn’t the easiest read. The subject matter is tough going and there’s an overarching sense of powerlessness that pervades the book and that made me feel angry for the protagonists. I found the way the women were treated difficult to deal with and I was crying out for an all-out rebellion. The similarities between the characters’ lives made me worry that history was going to repeat itself, ad infinitum. However, it also provided me with greater insight into the culture, which I previously knew relatively little about.

I think this is an important read to raise awareness, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with the subject matter, but perhaps not one that you should start if your mood is a little low, or there’s a coronavirus pandemic tearing through the world.

#7 (2020) Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

I returned to fiction for my seventh read of the year. I can’t remember how I came across Gather the Daughters, but it was on my wishlist so I added it to my last library order. I still haven’t quite got used to being a member of a public library, and being able to order books in from anywhere in Ireland makes me feel a bit giddy with glee! Anyway, on to the book…

On a small isolated island, there’s a community that lives by its own rules. Boys grow up knowing they will one day take charge, while girls know they will be married and pregnant within moments of hitting womanhood.

But before that time comes, a ritual offers children an exhilarating reprieve. Every summer they are turned out onto their doorsteps, to roam the island, sleep on the beach and build camps in trees. To be free. 

At the end of one of such summer, one of the younger girls sees something she was never supposed to see. And she returns home with a truth that could bring their island world to its knees.

As suggested by Stylist magazine on the cover of the book, Gather the Daughters has the post-apocalyptic flavour of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (well worth a read if you haven’t yet taken the plunge.) The community living on the island believe that the ‘wastelands’ beyond have been destroyed by fire and disease. Island life is primitive, patriarchal, and misogynistic, rooted in fear of upsetting ‘the ancestors’ and going to hell. Women are wives and mothers, nothing more.

That said, I enjoyed the world that Melamed created. It was vivid and believable, and the narrative was convincingly told through the voices of a number of young women on the island. There were flares of rebellion and feminism and I felt emotionally invested in the lives of the characters from very early on. Melamed created a strong sense of time and space, which was heightened as the novel progressed through the four seasons.

On the fifth day of summer the mosquitos come sudden like the rains, except instead of falling from the sky, they rise up from the ground. In veils of humming gold they sweet the landscape, falling to feed from anything with blood in its veins. (Pg. 97)

On the whole, I really enjoyed Gather the Daughters, but I have a gripe with part of the narrative where I felt that Melamed went too far. This is going to be a bit of a spoiler, although there are flavours of this theme from early in the novel. If you’d rather not know, don’t read on. I won’t be discussing anything else after this point.

Spoilers below

An addition to the misogyny and general sense of women being worthless, Melamed adds a facet that I found unnecessary and distasteful. One of the key ideas in the novel is that once the girls on the island hit puberty, they have a summer of ritualistic courting and sex with the boys of a similar age, and then settle on one to marry. Inevitably, a child soon follows and the cycle continues. However, before the girls hit puberty and begin menstruation, it is acceptable (and expected) for their fathers to molest/rape/abuse them. And this just sat ill with me. I didn’t feel that the book needed it, and while it contributed to some of the character development I thought that Melamed took it too far. The fact that the abuse/rape is alluded to rather than graphically detailed doesn’t reduce the bad taste left in the mouth by this particular facet of the novel. So, proceed with caution and an awareness of this aspect of the story.

#4 (2020): Resin by Ane Riel

Resin by Ane Riel was definitely my favourite January read. It drew me in quietly and by the end I was simultaneously anxious to know the conclusion and sad that it would all be over.

Liv died when she was just six years old. 

Her father knew he was the only one who could keep her safe in this world. So one evening he left the isolated house his little family called home, he pushed their boat out to sea and watched it ruin on the rocks. Then he walked the long way into town to report his only child missing.

But behind the boxes and the baskets crowding her Dad’s workshop, Liv was hiding. This way her Dad had said, she’d never have to go to school; this way, she’d never have to leave her parents. 

This way, Liv would be safe.

Resin is primarily narrated by Liv, a young girl of around seven, and the prose in these sections holds a childlike quality. It’s punctuated by short sentences and a matter-of-fact tone, and is flavoured by Liv’s endearing belief that everything her father tells her is true. Sometimes her abrupt honesty is heart-wrenching and I wanted to get inside the book, bundle her up and give her a little TLC. These chapters are interspersed with letters from her mother, fragments of backstory about Liv’s family and, later, a couple of other characters.

Within the narrative, Riel deals with some weighty issues, particularly with regards to bereavement. One of the novel’s primary concerns is how loss affects individuals differently, and her carefully crafted characterisation helps to convey this in a very believable manner.

The tale is set on an island, with the family living in relative seclusion. Riel’s descriptions of the landscape are often vivid, and as someone who particularly appreciates a strong sense of place I really enjoyed this aspect of the book.

The path curved and suddenly there was noticeably more space between the trees. The white must which had lain across the forest all day had slowly drifted south. At that moment the troll trees ended completely and left the scene to the afternoon sun, which lit up the forest floor, revealing a myriad of life: glossy beetles struggling across steaming grass mounds; insects dancing in the air between the tree trunks; a shrew’s ceaseless pottering between blades of grass. (Pg. 31)

Readers who liked Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days or Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling will probably take well to this novel.

#3 (2020): The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

My third read of the year was a book I’d been wanting to read for ages: The Mars Room. Crime novels aren’t something I typically gravitate towards, but this seemed more like a post-crime narrative that posed deeper questions about a woman’s place in society, and her right to feel safe and free from harassment.

Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences, plus six years, at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Outside is the world from which she has been permanently severed: the San Francisco of her youth, changed almost beyond recognition. The Mars Room strip club where she once gave lap dances for a living. And her seven-year-old son, Jackson, now in the care of Romy’s estranged mother.

Inside is a new reality to adapt to: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living.

I found the book a little sluggish to begin with, which was disappointing after waiting so long to read it. The opening pages had a fragmentary quality and provided little tastes of Romy in her present state, information about her, or musings on San Francisco. This worked overall but I wanted Kushner to settle on something and drag me in a little before flitting to another perspective or topic.

However, the book was well worth persevering with and I soon felt myself immersed in Romy’s world. Over the course of the book, Kushner weaves the stories from other prisoners into the narrative, and at points the prose shifts from the first person to the third. I liked that this fleshed out the other characters, who might otherwise have lacked substance.

I found Kushner’s depictions of San Francisco vivid and believable, and the little scenic details she dropped in immediately brought vibrancy to a scene. There’s a moment when she describes Los Angeles and I was immediately transported back to my brief stay in California in early 2019.

But Los Angeles was a new planet, with Creamsicle sunsets, sandals in January, giant birds of paradise, supermarkets with gleaming rows of tropical produce. (Pg. 203)

This is a delicious contrast to her earlier description of San Fran:

The Sunset was San Francisco, proudly, and yet an alternate one to what you might know: it was not about rainbow flags or Beat poetry or steep crooked streets but fog and Irish bars and liquor stores all the way to the Great Highway, where a sea of broken glass glittered along the endless parking strip of Ocean Beach. (Pg. 33)

Overall, this was an enjoyable (although sometimes unflinchingly grim) read. I suspect fans of Orange is the New Black may find something for them with Kushner’s institutional tale.

#2 (2020): Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach

My second read of the year, Confession with Blue Horses, took me Berlin and filled me with the desire to book flights and explore the city. (Fortunately or unfortunately, funds did not permit me to fulfil the impulse!)

Tobi and Ella’s childhood in East Berlin is shrouded in mystery. Now adults living in London, their past is full of unanswered questions. Both remember their family’s daring and terrifying attempt to escape, which ended in tragedy; but the fall-out from that single event remains elusive. Where did their parents disappear to, and why? What happened to Heiko, their little brother? And was there ever a painting of three blue horses?

In contemporary Germany, Aaron works for the archive, making his way through old files, piecing together the tragic history of thousands of families. But one file in particular catches his eye; and soon unravelling the secrets at its heart becomes an obsession. 

When Ella is left a stash of notebooks by her mother, and she and Tobi embark on a search that will take them back to Berlin, her fate clashes with Aaron’s, and together they piece together the details of Ella’s past… and a family destroyed.

I enjoyed this a lot, partly due to my fascination with and desire to travel to Germany (Berlin in particular), partly due to how excellent the story was. Hardach’s ability to create a sense of space and to develop believable characters is to be commended. The novel made me want to research more of the history behind the Berlin Wall and finally get around to booking that trip I’ve been talking about for years.

Here’s an extract from early on in the book:

Prenzlauer Berg was looking very cheerful. Gone was the tang of coal fires and cabbage soup. The balconies were firmly attached now, and decorated with spinning pinwheel heads and anti-nuclear posters. A red sun on yellow background, clenching its fist in protest: Atomkraft Nein Danke! Fathers strapped chocolate-smeared children into buggies. Women swished past on fixed-gear bikes, reflective clips flashing from their ankles. (Pg. 114)

The story is primarily focused on Ella’s search for the truth, and Aaron’s archival work. There are also well-crafted flashbacks that provide further context to the present-day narrative. Each thread is equally stimulating and intricate in its detailing, and I found myself pondering over the characters and the tale long after I’d finished it. For anyone who enjoys fiction with a historical twist, this one may be just what you’re looking for.

#1 (2020): Shrill by Lindy West

My first read of the year was Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West.

From a painfully shy childhood in which she tried, unsuccessfully, to hide her big body and even bigger opinions; to her public war with stand-up comedians over rape jokes; to her struggle to convince herself, and then the world, that fat people have value; to her accidental activism and never-ending battle royale with Internet trolls, Lindy narrates her life with a blend of humor and pathos that manages to make a trip to the abortion clinic funny and wring tears out of a story about diarrhea.

The book is brilliantly written — honest, funny, and heartbreaking in parts. I found aspects of it particularly relatable, and I think that anyone who has disliked or felt betrayed their body will find themselves nodding in recognition at what West has to say.

West discusses her career as a journalist throughout the book, and frequently cites instances where she had to pull up colleagues on their double standards with regards to fat-shaming. I found it eye-opening but, at the same time, unsurprising that she encountered such intense prejudice just because of how she looked. Like Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self, which I discussed here, Shrill tackles challenging — and often ‘taboo’ — issues head on. I believe that it’s vital that these discussions keep taking place and that marginalised voices are heard. Kudos to West (and Pine) for having the courage to speak out. More, please!

Lindy West’s second book The Witches Are Coming is out now (and the friend who bought me Shrill assures me that it is equally excellent).

Top 6 Reads of 2019

Since 2016 I’ve kept a log of the books I’ve read each year, and it pleases me to flick back and see what’s kept me occupied. However, the list fails to capture the essence of why I enjoyed a particular volume, which is where this blog comes in. I hope that it becomes a memory aid for me, while providing interest and reading inspiration for others.

I’m kicking off with my top six reads of 2019 (in chronological order).

• • •

Brahms’s Elegies – Nicole Grimes

Brahms’s Elegies provides readers with an insightful exploration of a number of Brahms’s choral works from the 1870s and 1880s: Schicksalslied, Op. 54, Nänie, Op. 82, and Gesang der Parzen, Op. 89. Grimes addresses these works with clarity and eloquence, situating the pieces within their historical, literary, and philosophical context. It is an enriching and thoroughly engaging volume from beginning to end.

Spring – Ali Smith

This is the third installation in Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, but as each one is self-contained you can jump in at any point. Spring deals with themes of loss and bereavement, moral conflict, and questions of identity against the backdrop of Brexit. Smith’s writing is at all times well-crafted and her characters are utterly convincing. Of the three she has published, Spring was by far my favourite.

Notes to Self – Emilie Pine

I devoured this during the summer in three greedy gulps. Pine writes with lucid honesty about her life and the challenges she has faced. She considers what it means to be a woman, and addresses the realities of everyday sexism. Her frank and powerful essays deal with family life, infertility, and depression, to name but a few vital themes. This collection leaves you with much to reflect on after you’ve turned the final page.

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of my all-time favourites, which I return to repeatedly when I’m in need of literary comfort. The narrative concerns two individuals whose lives are inextricably linked through time travel. Niffenegger creates an intricate and wholly believable alternate reality, in which you quickly find yourself completely immersed.

What Red Was – Rosie Price

Price’s debut novel is a raw and compelling depiction of how a young woman attempts to come to terms with trauma. The prose is gracefully crafted and Price creates a superb sense of space — both physically and mentally. Aspects of the book reminded me of Sally Rooney’s Normal People or Anna Hope’s Expectation; all three writers have a talent for making everyday scenes come alive with a tangible vibrancy.

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

Like many, I came to The Handmaid’s Tale via the TV series, and was at once disturbed by and fascinated with Atwood’s dystopian world. The Testaments is a sequel that had a lot to live up to, but in it Atwood offers a perfect balance of explanation, resolution, and new information. It also makes you feel things for characters that you never thought you’d feel (a bit like when you found out that Severus Snape wasn’t a complete swine after all).