First Love by Gwendoline Riley
A little book which wallops you with hefty imagery, walking you ‘into the throat of the wind’ and taking you home to the toxic relationship with the master of passive aggressiveness who says, ‘Just so you know, I have no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew.’ Even his baby-talk of ‘my little compost heap’ borders on sociopathic, but however brutal the language, like Neve, you don’t walk away from Edwyn. You listen to Neve dissect and reflect on what’s happened in her life to reveal the present.
30-odd Neve drops readers into past and present with abrupt informality—or rather the timeline can be slightly difficult to follow. Often Edwyn will accuse Neve of ‘reenacting her own family dysfunction’, as cruelty is the only thing she understands resulting in her own viciousness. He’s harping back to her crude and abusive father who literally ate himself to death. We are also shown her tragically brief relationship with her occasional lover, Michael, for further insight into her attraction to toxicity. Her relationship with her mother is the only comic relief, and even then it’s not that funny.
On finishing Gwendoline Riley’s fifth novel, part of me was unsure of what appealed to me as I tried to piece together a storyline, even a character arc. Instead I was content in the knowledge that I was confronted with a first-person narrator spouting pithy Haiku-like dialogue while trying to find who she is in the grand scheme of things—without the narcissistic diatribe. Able to set a scene in a few words, Riley is economic with her prose and snaps Neve’s dialogue away from wallowing with injections of humour, ‘Don’t let your mind get colonized . . . don’t act like a baby. Don’t be a cat . . .’
Many critics have touched on the fact Riley is also a 30-something married to an older man, that the dysfunctional family dynamic has been a recurrent theme in her novels, each story is narrated by ‘female writers who aged in step with Riley’, and it isn’t the first time her novels have featured a ‘tyrannical’ father. She responded to one such reviewer, ‘Well, in order to make statements like that you’d need to know the first thing about my life’, so in the spirit that I don’t know much beyond posing cute puppies in pictures let’s stay away from the topic of auto-fiction . . .
Suitable for lovers of A. L. Kennedy’s Indelible Acts, Janice Galloway’s Foreign Parts, or Ali Smith’s Autumn.
Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan
I was led to this novel slightly pessimistic. Another Great American novel? (I haven’t even cracked the spine of most of the others!) The cover, topic, and extent were slightly unappealing until I realized this book is as much about horse racing as To Kill a Mockingbird is about aviculture. Through dense, complex language, Morgan indulgently crosses the centuries to unveil the history of Kentucky through stories of race and horse racing. Spanning from the Revolutionary War through 2006, we focus on Henry Forge, his daughter Henrietta Forge, and one of Henrietta’s lovers Allmon Shaughnessy. There is no nutshell. The multifaceted plot would take a good 2,000 words and plenty of plot spoilers.
It’s hard to believe this was Morgan’s second novel, as she expertly weaves the story using a mixture of literary devices blending first, second, and third-person narratives with several narrative forms—sermons, dialogue, stage plays, flashbacks, etc. Unapologetically in-your-face, the language is suggestive and slightly ostentatious: ‘viburnum in the yards, pungent as an ovulating woman, pink labial pistils, the leaf bottom shaped like a heart’. The only real qualm is that it does feel that the characters’ fates are slightly contrived.
Although the novel ends before Obama becomes president, it shows that the outcome of the forthcoming election does not mean the end of centuries of oppression. The ambitious novel has received some criticism for its portrayal of racial divides by a white writer. However, Morgan candidly noted that one should ‘approach [race] apologetically, even deferentially, without agency, power, and passion that define mature artistry’.
Drawing on references from literary legends—notably Fitzgerald and Twain—Morgan should be applauded for this beast of a novel. You should read if you like Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Paul Beatty’s The Sellout.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
‘In China you learn a lot from what people don’t tell you.’ Madeleine Thien
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Thien’s heart-rending third novel crosses seven decades of history. Beginning in Vancouver in 1991, we meet ten-year-old Marie (Jiang Li-Ling) and her mother who invite refugee Ai-Ming into their home. Thien hooks readers from her seductive opening line, ‘In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.’
While considering turbulent decades in China’s history from the beginning of Mao Zedong’s reign in 1949 to the present day, the novel is about so much more than politics. Thien masterfully interweaves stories, which focus on four eras: the land reform campaign, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square protests, and ‘the present’. At the core of these tales are the triage Sparrow (composer), Kai (pianist), and Zhuli (violinist) who come together through their passion for classical music during the Cultural Revolution.
Fragmented with forget and Marie’s inability to speak Chinese, we quickly learn from Thien that you learn a lot from what is not said—strikingly so as to be translated into Chinese, Thien will need to cut the third part of the book focusing on Ai-Ming’s involvement in Tiananmen Square. While there are several characters to grapple with, Thien’s effortlessly lyrical writing guides the reader by forming a new narrative through the stories that have passed between generations with linguistic simplicity. The author’s craft is particularly apparent when she discusses the effect that music has on Sparrow: ‘the notes collided into him. They ran up and down his spine, and seemed to dismantle him into a thousand pieces of the whole, where each part was more complete and more alive than his entire self had ever been.’
It shows how prevalent censorship is in our time and makes one question the significance of Sparrow’s unfinished symphony. Is this about censorship and what is not said, or does the novel hint that the story will never really be completed? The world (or rather China’s) history cannot be understood in absolute terms. History is not always linear or transparent, and does not have a fixed end point. Instead, as Marie discovers, ‘It’s taken me years to begin searching, to realize that the days are not linear, that time does not simply move forward but spirals closer and closer to the shifting centre.’
This book is for you if you liked We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, or The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. In fact, read it regardless, it’s a beautiful story! Want a little taste before you commit?
Read the first chapter in full at: https://granta.com/do-not-say-extract/
Dark Circle by Linda Grant
WW2 is over in theory, but not in essentials. Food remains rationed and London is grimier than ever. It’s 1949, 18-year-old twins Lenny and Miriam Lynskey both have TB and have been taken to a modernist sanatorium. The venue is deliciously appealing. The NHS has emerged with the promise of free treatment and regular meals regardless of social status.
Previously an Orange Prize winner, it’s no surprise that Linda Grant’s hypnotic novel was a longlist contender. The Jewish Lynskey’s claustrophobic confinement pulls the reader in, as the sanatorium begins to have the eerie feel of a concentration camp: ‘the solid world of London dissolving on them [. . .] Everyone looked . . . half-dead, skeletons in pyjamas and slippers’. (Religion doesn’t feature prominently.) While rich in metaphor, the language can also be bitingly simplistic: ‘everything is short, joy is short, sex is short, and no one on the street was laughing so the jokes must be short too.’
There is a strong cast of characters: the teens, an aristocratic woman, a car salesman, a German lady, a uni graduate, officers, a lairy American, and a nurse. However, they avoid confrontation ‘keeping a low profile’ while falling ‘into lassitude and boredom’. Although the twins clearly have a bond, the lack of connection can make the story slightly stilted at points. Instead, Grant sweeps the reader up to show the palpable fear of TB at the time. Several critics have questioned whether this timely novel allows us to reflect on the state of healthcare today by looking at the emergence of the NHS.
While Grant won the award previously, this novel didn’t allow for the same level of reflection as the rest of the shortlist. Not that this isn’t a compelling read—quite the opposite. This is purely subjective and it could be that the genre didn’t appeal to my particular tastes—I watch Gilmore Girls reruns religiously people! But I think the aftershock of the other novels will make this a beautifully crafted runner up, and even though she doesn’t need more kudos I’m in two minds as to whether Atwood’s Hagseed should have been stricken from the shortlist.
You should read if you liked The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant or All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. In fact, Doerr’s novel will make you cry like a baby; Grant’s won’t.
Read the first chapter at: http://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/The-Dark-Circle-Linda-Grant-Little-Brown.pdf
The Power by Naomi Alderman
‘It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.’
A story framed within a story, Alderman’s The Power is intoxicatingly visceral. I approached this novel with an embarrassingly prejudice mindset, thinking how trite for a YA novel to be about harnessing the power within. I considered quotations from popular novels like Divergent, ‘Becoming fearless isn’t the point. That’s impossible. It’s learning how to control your fear, and how to be free from it.’ But it’s hideously understated to say this novel is about coming-of-age changing bodies. Instead, teenage girls begin to acquire supernatural abilities, making them unstoppable forces causing revolutions and palpable fear across the world.
Alderman allows readers to feel the transformation like an incision, ‘[She] feels the thing like pins and needles along her arm. Like needle-pricks of light from her spine to her collarbone, from her throat to her elbows, wrists, to the pads of her fingers. She’s glittering, inside.’ (Not the Twilight kind of glittering!) Each chapter alternates between four main characters Roxy, Tunde, Allie, and Margot. While in third-person narrative, it doesn’t mute the voices as each character is articulated with skillful precision.
The pace runs at a gallop. The novel will make you feel dominated, paralyzed, and painfully out-of-control. Roles are reversed as boys are warmed ‘not to stray too far’, made to lick glass off of the ground, or viciously raped and murdered. Call it speculative/dystopian/sci-fi, the novel is for readers of Atwood or Gaiman alike. Alderman has crafted a tinglingly vivid world. 200 pages in, I thought she was the clear winner, but the writing became uncomfortably invasive and in the end the judges will have a difficult decision.
Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò
‘But the biggest lies are often the ones we tell ourselves.’
The tagline should read, ‘Just when you didn’t think it could get any worse it does!’ Offering a window into Nigerian culture, at the heart of the story is Yejide relationship with Akin and their inability to conceive after four years of marriage. The narrative subtly flits between the two characters perspectives. The heartache is delicately understated, but produces a numbing effect.
Yejide longs for a miracle—a child—and despite running a successfully business, she is chastised by those around her for not being able to fulfil this ‘most basic’ of wifely duties. Instead, she encouraged to conceive by the arranged marriage of a second wife for Akin. An entirely different world, we are confronted by superstition, bigamy, and nauseating family pacts. Yejide is so desperate to give birth she even breastfeeds a goat, ‘the goat appeared to be a newborn and I believed’, leading to a two-year phantom pregnancy. The story is peppered with the political chaos in Ilesa, Osun, in the 1980s, but Yejide and Akin’s relationship (and living nightmares) are at the forefront showing that life and love is seldom simple, ‘even when it's in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn't mean it's no longer love’. The fragility of their relationship and conflicted feelings are expertly exposed, ‘“Hold it. Just hold it there. Please don't sweetie me again this morning.” But I did want him to call me sweetie again, only me and no one else. I wanted him to reach across the table, hold my hand and tell me we would be all right.’
The women exhibit strength in the novel, and while praised by their Moomis (mothers) the men make shockingly flawed choices. While in hospital with her son Sesan, Yejide notes: ‘His hand gripped mine with pain-induced strength that crushed my knuckles together. I welcomed the pain in my hand, aware that it was only a tip of what he was feeling. I hoped that by holding me, he could transfuse his agony into my body and be free from it.’ With every death of her child, Yejide accepts the cards fate has dealt her, and at times the bleak plot felt contrived. It would have also been useful to see Akin and Yejide’s earlier life together at university, as well as what happened in the fifteen year gap towards the end of the novel.
I loved this novel. It was breathtaking and I struggle choosing between The Power and Stay With Me. Well, luckily I’m not a judge and don’t have to choose, but I do wonder if Alderman’s ability to push me out of my comfort zone clinched the deal.
Read Stay With Me, you’ll enjoy it, particularly if you’re a fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus.
Thanks for listening! That was exhausting!