#12 (2020) The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

Next up on my March 2020 reads was The Fellowship of the Ring (FotR), the first novel in Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings Trilogy (LotR). It has been years since I read these books and I vividly recall finding them quite a tough read as a teenager (the second half of The Two Towers (TTT), in particular, seemed interminable.) However, returning to it as an adult was a completely different experience and I enjoyed every minute. I was annoyed at myself for only bringing the first book to Dublin, particularly when the country went into lockdown and I was no longer able to nip to Chapters and pick up the other two. Fortunately, books two and three are now enroute.

Sauron, the Dark Lord, has gathered to him all the Rings of Power – the means by which he intends to rule Middle-earth. All he lacks in his plans for dominion is the One Ring – the ring that rules them all – which has fallen into the hands of the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.

In a sleepy village in the Shire, young Frodo Baggins finds himself faced with an immense task, as his elderly cousin Bilbo entrusts the Ring to his care. Frodo must leave his home and make a perilous journey across Middle-earth to the Cracks of Doom, there to destroy the Ring and foil the Dark Lord in his evil purpose.

I was ten when the first of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films came out at the cinema. While I don’t have particularly strong memories of seeing them on the big screen, I do remember the years of LotR obsession that followed! I was mad for Middle Earth, watched the films on repeat, learnt the Elvish passages by heart, and bought myself an Evenstar. I was also a member of an online forum where I ‘hung out’ with other fans, spent a lot of time engaged with role plays (essentially collaborative storytelling, for those who haven’t partaken in this particular pastime), and learnt to make digital LotR-themed fan art. I was (am!) quite the geek and, on reflection, a lot of my researcher tendencies can probably be traced back to this point. All of this to say, my love of LotR (similar to that of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series) goes deep.

The intricacies of the world that Tolkien created is something I struggle to get my head around (in a good way). I just can’t quite believe that someone could have the imagination, determination, and patience to create a whole new world and its history. If you’ve never really taken the lid off the LotR box and had a peek, I’d urge you to do so. Spend half an hour looking at all of the books, appendices, maps and so on, and just marvel at the sheer depth of the detail. At a book-level, this detail can make the novels a little dense. But, I found that when I read FotR this time around, a lot of the beauty was in the detail. Here, for example:

To the South, over the line of the Withywindle, there was a distant glint like pale glass where the Brandywine River made a great loop in the lowlands and flowed away out of the knowledge of the hobbits. Northward beyond the dwindling downs the land ran away in flats and swellings of grey and green and pale-earth colours, until it faded into a featureless and shadowy distance. Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains. (Pg. 179)

Isn’t that just delicious? Sure, Tolkien could have used far fewer words to describe the hobbits looking out over the landscape. But in describing it this way he gives both a sense of geography and landscape. I feel like I’m there with Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, taking in those shifting sights. I particularly love the Eastward description; vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue sky. It makes me think of times I’ve stood on a mountainside and taken in the landscape, looking out to the farthest reaches of the horizon where everything becomes a little smudged.

The pleasure of not reading the books before watching the films (opposite to my Harry Potter experience – don’t recommend that) was that I wasn’t spotting errors in narrative or dialogue. There are some passages in the book that are taken and transplanted to different parts of the films, or given to different characters. These things annoyed me less than they would have if I’d already fixed these things in my mind via the books. This particularly famous quote from the films, for example, takes place early in the FotR:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (Pg. 67)

The syntax is different from the films as I imagine Jackson wanted to make it less archaic. Indeed, the dialogue in the novel as a whole has an older feel to that of the films, but I think both work in their different media. Similarly, small details like the role of Arwen in the FotR film – which is substantially greater than in the book – works to modernise the tale somewhat and allows a bit of female empowerment, which is severely lacking in the trilogy as a whole. Women in general, in fact, seem not to have been on Tolkien’s radar at all, but that particular can of worms could easily take up a whole other blog post!

If, like me, you tried the LotR books in your youth and found them a bit treacly, I’d urge you to go back and have another go. And if you’ve yet to enter Middle Earth, you’re in for a treat (but read The Hobbit first!)


#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!