#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.

#11 (2020) Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith

Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy was a lovely little slip of a book. A brief 161 pages of characteristically lovely writing and clever storytelling. Smith’s novels are always full of the unexpected and are all the richer for it.

Girl meets boy. It’s a story as old as time. But what happens when an old story meets a brand new set of circumstances? 

Ali Smith’s remix of Ovid’s most joyful metamorphosis is a story about the kind of fluidity that can’t be bottled and sold. It is about girls and boys, girls and girls, love and transformation, a story of puns and doubles, reversals and revelations. Funny and fresh, poetic and political, here is a tale of change for the modern world.

Smith’s tale deals with a heady mix of topics, including sexuality, gender, discrimination, and body image. The protagonist, Athena, is a bit of a misfit. A little lost in life, she’s puttering along trying to her best to make her way and to fit in at work. She lives with her sister, Imogen, who seems to have a firmer grasp on things. The narrative is mostly told from Athena’s perspective, but Imogen gets her own section in the book, too.

It would be easy to give everything away with such a short book, so I’ll keep this brief. Needless to say, Smith’s writing is artful, funny, and full of flare. I always really enjoy her novels, and this one was no exception. I marked this passage for its particularly striking and Smithian feel:

The grey area, I’d discovered, had been misnamed: really the grey area was a whole other spectrum of colours new to the eye. She had the swagger of a girl. She blushed like a boy. She had a girl’s toughness. She had a boy’s gentleness. She was as meaty as a girl. She was as graceful as a boy. She was as brave and handsome and rough as a girl… (Pg. 83-4)

There are rich and wonderful passages, like the one above, and then there are these lovely throwaway but hugely meaningful lines:

It’s what we do with the myths we grow up with that matters.

If you’re a Smith fan, this book won’t disappoint, and if you’re new to her writing then this would make for a lovely introduction.

#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.

#9 (2020) Saltwater by Jessica Andrews

Sometimes, you pick a book up and want to buy it immediately. Sometimes, you can’t give into that urge, but the book waits in the wings, on wishlists or mental inventories. This was very much the case with Saltwater, which I remember looking at when it was published last spring. I ordered it in from the library last month and will be sad to send it back!

When Lucy wins a place at university, she thinks London will unlock her future. It is a city alive with pop up bars, cool girls and neon lights illuminating the Thames at night. At least this is what Lucy expects, having grown up seemingly a world away in working-class Sunderland, amid legendary family stories of Irish immigrants and boarding houses, now-defunct ice rinks and an engagement ring at a fish market. 

Yet Lucy’s transition to a new life is more overwhelming than she ever expected. As she works long shifts to make ends meet and navigates chaotic parties from East London warehouses to South Kensington mansions, she still feels like an outsider among her fellow students. When things come to a head at her graduation, Lucy takes off for Ireland, seeking solace in her late grandfather’s cottage and the wild landscape that surrounds it, wondering if she can piece together who she really is. 

One of things I found most enjoyable about Andrews’s novel was its form or structure. The narrative is told in a series of fragments, ranging from a couple of sentences to a page or two. These shift around temporally, moving from the present to the past, detailing Lucy’s life and that of her extended family. These help to flesh out present-day Lucy and to explain how she came to be squirrelled away in her grandfather’s isolated cottage in Donegal.

As someone who loves nature and being outdoors, I found Andrews’s descriptions of the Donegal landscape particularly enticing and rich in their detail. I wanted to get onto Airbnb and find myself a little cosy cottage in which to hide out with stacks of books and mugs of tea. These descriptions contrasted sharply with those of Lucy’s life in London, which is depicted as being fairly wild and gritty. I found the London scenes convincing but harder to relate to than her beach walks! This, for example, resonates much more than a description of a rave in some seedy London bar…

Now that I am in Ireland, I am screaming on vast beaches when there is no one else around. I am swimming in the sea, spreading my body wide in the water, feeling my limbs and lungs stretching as far as they can. I am lying in the grass in the cottage garden and watching the stars at night, letting my thoughts wander, limitless, without cutting them short, or backing them up, or squeezing them into too-small spaces. (Pg. 27)

Urban/rural preferences aside, Saltwater is beautifully crafted. Andrews meticulously weaves a narrative that unfurls bit by bit, providing more and more information and context to help you build a solid image of the characters. She deals with issues surrounding body image, the affects of alcoholism, and the process of growing up with care and sensitivity. At points I found myself transported back to my own teenage years.

The buzz of hunger wears away at hate. Skirts too tight and skin dimpled in changing room lights. We get bad haircuts and put toothpaste on our spots and we learn the opposite of love. I cannot tell if I am a pear or an apple or an hourglass or even which one I am supposed to want. You tell me it doesn’t matter but I know that it does, even to you. Boyish seems best because boyish means exempt from these things. I am not boyish. I do not want my body to cause a stir. I don’t want it to be the first thing that speaks. (Pg. 147)

As a whole, the book might be classed as a coming-of-age story, a Bildungsroman. Fans of Sally Rooney, Anna Hope, and Emma Cline would probably find much to enjoy here. It’s definitely one that I’ll eventually buy my own copy of and reread for the sheer pleasure of it.

#8 (2020) Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

I picked up a copy of Lost Children Archive while I was back home, as I’d been belatedly Christmas-gifted Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, The Horse, The Fox and The Mole and already had a copy. It was one of those impulse purchases as part of a buy one get one half price offer, and I’m hugely glad that I followed the urge!

(Sidebar: if you haven’t already read Mackesy’s The Boy, please go and do so. It is tremendously beautiful and full of important sentiments about being kind to yourself and others.)

A family in New York packs the car and sets out on a road trip. This will be the last journey they ever take together.

In Central America and Mexico, thousands of children are on a journey of their own, travelling north to the US border. Not all of them will make it there.

The book is made up of four parts, primarily narrated by the mother in the family. None of the characters are named, which always intrigues me as a reader and and impresses me as a writer. Later in the book, another narrator takes over, and there are also sections of prose taken from a fictional book entitled Elegies for Lost Children. This volume details the migration story of seven children and becomes central to the narrative of Lost Children Archive.

The family comprises of a mother, father, and two children of 10 and 5. One of the most interesting facets of this outwardly ordinary set-up is the professions of the parents. One is a documentarian, the other a documentarist, and both are fundamentally interested in building soundscapes in order to tell a story. The narrative of the book explores their individual story-telling ambitions and how they intersect and diverge. The following extract is taken from early in the book.

My husband and I met four years ago, recording a soundscape of New York City. We were part of a large team of people working for New York University’s Centre for Urban Science and Progress. The soundscape was meant to same and collect all the keynotes and sound marks that were emblematic of the city. (Pg. 2)

One of the key themes Luiselli explores is the migrant crisis. She considers this from a US perspective and specifically focuses on the impact that this has on children, and on the parents of those children. Luiselli writes beautifully throughout, shifting the focus from small details, such as the routines of daily life and the feelings of the narrator, to the bigger picture. Her descriptions of the two children — seemingly eternally in the backseat of the car — are particularly vivid and enjoyable to read.

Then, quite suddenly, she tires of being in the world, becomes quiet, looks out of the window, and says nothing. Perhaps it is in those stretched-out moments in which they meet the world in silence that our children begin to grow apart from us and slowly become unfathomable. Don’t stop being a little girl, I think, but don’t say it. She looks out of the window and yawns. I don’t know what she’s thinking, what she knows and doesn’t know. I don’t know if she sees the same world that we see. (Pg. 139-40)

I love that last line. Children don’t, in my experience, see the world in the same way as adults. They see it through the protective haze of childhood, innocent and buzzing with curiosity. Impossible things are feasible. Their view is coloured by imaginative introspection and is arguably all the richer for it. But, as Luiselli’s novel artfully conveys, not all children have that experience. Not all children have the luxury of that innocence, protection, and care. Not all children get time to be children, which is a particularly devastating truth.

This little snippet review doesn’t do the book justice, but I hope I’ve offered a small insight into why its well worth a read. I think it would appeal to travellers, researchers, and to anyone with a desire to know more about migration. Feel free to share your thoughts below.

P.S. There’s a nice article and interview with Luiselli available here, but be mindful that it’s full of spoilers!

#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).