#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.

#6 (2020) Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson

When I picked up Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel in early February I also bought a copy of Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, which I’d been wanting to read since it was published. It did not disappoint.

I have come to think of all the metal in my body as artificial stars, glistening beneath the skin, a constellation of old and new metal. A map, a tracing of connections and a guide to looking at things from different angles.

How do you tell the story of a life in a body, as it goes through sickness, health, motherhood? How do you tell that story when you are not just a woman but a woman in Ireland? In the powerful and daring essays in 
Constellations Sinéad Gleeson does that very thing. All of life is within these pages, from birth to first love, pregnancy to motherhood, terrifying sickness, old age and loss to death itself. Throughout this wide-ranging collection she also turns her restless eye outwards delving into work, art and our very ways of seeing. In the tradition of some of our finest life writers, and yet still in her own spirited, generous voice, Sinéad takes us on a journey that is both uniquely personal and yet universal in its resonance. Here is the fierce joy and pain of being alive.

Gleeson’s writing is an absolute joy. Her essays are deeply personal, honest reflections on all aspects of life. She focuses unflinchingly on intimate details about her dealings with illness, and I felt a sense of awe at how much she has had to navigate. At times, Gleeson’s descriptions are exceptionally vivid, which made my squeamish and over-empathetic self squirm in discomfort. Often she is matter of fact about the scars left behind, but at others the poetry of her prose softens the truth of it.

After years of medical procedures my scars are in double figures, but they too form a familiar landscape. Joints can be replaced, organs transplanted, blood transfused, but the story of our lives is still the story of one body. From ill health to heartbreak, we live inside the same skin, aware of its fragility, grappling with our mortality. (Pg. 17. This follows on directly from the extract that opens the blurb above.)

In addition to her medical meditations, Gleeson addresses motherhood throughout the book, frequently highlighting the physical impact of carrying two children and discussing how this affected her body. However, Gleeson also considers motherhood more broadly. Her chapter On the Atomic Nature of Trimesters opens wonderfully, remarking on the woefully outdated expectation that all women should be (or should want to be) mothers. I’d like to quote it all, but here’s a snippet…

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman in possession of a womb and a decent supply of eggs must be in want of a child. […] The urge to procreate and propagate is as arbitrary as any other act of free will, but has been imposed on women like so many other ideals of womanly perfection. Be thin! Be beautiful! Be pregnant! (Pg. 89)

Towards the end of the book, Gleeson offers twenty ‘stories’ (in scare quotations because I found them more like delicate miniature poems) based on the McGill pain index. Gleeson uses the words found in this index as a springboard for her stories, which range in subject matter from the pain of wisdom teeth to that caused by a lumbar puncture. Again, not for the faint hearted!

Possibly the most delicious part of the book is the final chapter, A Non-Letter for my Daughter (named for a warrior queen). It’s a poem, a letter…call it what you will… It’s beautiful and moving in so many ways. It was the sort of thing I read and immediately wanted to copy out and send off to my favourite souls. I’ll leave you with a particularly poignant stanza and the suggestion that you buy a copy of Constellations at your earliest convenience!

Don’t be afraid,
Don’t be fearful.
They are not the same thing.

(Pg. 240)

#5 (2020) Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride

I had been eagerly anticipating Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel ever since it was announced last year as I absolutely loved her previous two novels: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians.

At the mid-point of her life a woman enters an Avignon hotel room. She’s been here once before – but while the room hasn’t changed, she is a different person now. 

Forever caught between check-in and check-out, she will go on to occupy other hotel rooms, from Prague to Oslo, Auckland to Austin, each as anonymous as the last, but bound by rules of her choosing. There, amid the detritus of her travels, the matchbooks, cigarettes, keys and room-service wine, she will negotiate with memory, with the men she sometimes meets, and with what it might mean to return home.

If you haven’t yet read any of McBride’s books, the first thing I’d say is that she is an absolute wordsmith. Her handling of language — both English and Hiberno-English — is fresh and creative. Both of her previous novels deal with very sensitive issues, which she handles with the utmost care. As someone with a closeted desire to be a writer, I am hugely inspired by McBride’s talent and the unique voice she has crafted.

Strange Hotel follows the female protagonist through a series of hotel rooms in different cities, and provides some indication of what happens there. The book reads quite differently to her previous books. The language is arguably more straightforward; McBride describes it as more ‘formal’ in this clip from Faber & Faber. While A Girl and The Lesser Bohemians are both, in their own way, quite introspective novels, Strange Hotel takes this to the next level. The whole work appears to be an internal monologue, rarely broken by external forces. As a result, I found the narrative a little muddy, and wanted more detail about why she was in these different hotel rooms. When I expressed this to a fellow PhDer (and probably the most avid reader I’ve ever met), he expressed surprise that I found Strange Hotel a more challenging read than A Girl. I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

Naturally, there were passages where McBride’s prose shone through with particular clarity, and I relished these parts for their sense of familiarity and comfort. This is the Eimear I know and love, I felt. Here, for example…

It is the farthest furthest she has ever been. On a flat earth she would be at the edge. As it is, to go on might be the shortest way home and just let the world fold back on itself. For despite some perplexity regarding her current notions of home — and her periodic declarations that it is simply not so — her belief in the planet’s curve is secure. It is an unbreachable line, and one of the few of which she has ever been sure. (Pg. 78)

What challenged me most, however, was how I felt about the character. Where before I had been moved to the core, here I felt nothing. For all of the introspection and internal dialogue, I felt no connection to the character. Although McBride in her characteristic manner, teases out details a taste at a time, before drawing back the curtain to reveal all, I was little moved. And for me, as an emotionally-driven soul, this was a big let down.

A few days after I finished reading the book I went to an event at the National Concert Hall in Dublin and heard McBride read a passage from the novel. It was a different experience to reading it myself, and it made me hopeful. I’ll give it some time before reading it through again; perhaps my expectations of what the book might have been interfered with what the book was.

If you’ve read the book I’d love to hear your thoughts, particularly in relation to her previous two. And if you haven’t read it, please don’t let me put you off! There was a lot of personal feeling invested in this book and, as I say, that may have affected my reading of it.