The Giant Dark by Sarvat Hasin

The Giant Dark begins with the particular obsession of devoted music fans. We all know the type. They’re the people who form #freebritney, who feel a personal connection to a world-wide name, who truly are die-hard fans.

The theme of obsession runs deeper of course. Aida, the famous singer and musician, is also obsessed; obsessed with an ex-boyfriend, Ehsan, who provides all the inspiration for her music. And Ehsan too, it seems, is obsessed, but we’re never quite sure what with.

Years after breaking up, these two are brought together at a mutual friend’s dinner party and something new begins.

Just when you think you are getting a handle on this book, it twists into new territory. Neither Aida nor Ehsan feel that they fit in. Ehsan is Pakistani living in London and pursuing poetry and publishing against his father’s wishes. Aida is American, though of North Indian heritage, pushed by her mother into singing lessons and hard-work when her friends are out socialising and dating. Neither seems to feel comfortable in their lives. Both have formidable talent. Aida blooms into a rock star. Ehsan becomes an award winning poet.

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Matrix by Lauren Groff

Twelfth century France, Marie, a seventeen-year-old royal bastard and recent orphan, travels to the court of the magnificent Queen Eleanor. But Marie de France is tall, energetic, clever, willful and considered to be manly. She does not fit at court and Queen Eleanor soon sends her off to England to become a prioress of a nunnery despite having shown no previous piety, or deep religious interest. 

Marie feels abandoned. She loves Queen Eleanor and England is cold, the nunnery on the brink of famine. No one there expects anything of her. They are wrong.

A wonderfully rich novel filled with the female religious fervour and creativity of hagiographies and Marie’s own publication of poems (the real Marie de France published twelve short narrative verses about courtly love), Matrix is also about power and desire. 

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Animal by Lisa Taddeo

I’m not really sure how I feel about this book, which is probably something to be said in its favour. 

Joan, the protagonist, is a woman fading towards maturity whose obsession with sex and how to manipulate through desire is entirely generated by a patriarchal society that exposed her to sexual trauma as a child and continues to repeatedly expose her to sexual trauma, sometimes at her own behest as a painful and self-harming attempt to take control.

Joan is on a mission. She is going to find the one person left to whom she fully relates, but this picking up and running to a new life is not something new for her. Slowly, we learn what she seeks and why. 

She isn’t a nice character – not that she should be, I hasten to add. She is the kind of woman who feels awkward around other women because she imagines they see her in the way that she sees them, as competition.

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Everybody: A Book About Freedom by Olivia Laing

Gravitating around Reich’s theories, his enclosed prison-like liberation machine, Olivia Laing’s own life and the stories of artists and thinkers from Susan Sontag to Nina Simone, Everybody explores the idea of freedom particularly as it relates to the body; the body that doesn’t fit society’s expectations by being too other in health, gender, sexual desire, belief or race. 

It is the kind of book whose corners you turn down to return to. It’s fabulous, exploring the idea that freedom is often defined by its opposite and that true freedom may be something we can’t quite yet imagine.

The only thing I wish it did more of is explore that sense of freedom specifically from a British perspective. Though the book explores the issue across Europe and America, England and its specifically complicated relationship with bodies gets limited exposure. Another book on that would be great please, Olivier.

It has certainly honed my appetite for more of Olivia Laing’s books and Funny Weather is smiling at me from my kitchen counter, waiting to be read.

I’d have liked to have written in more depth about Everybody, but as you’ll know if you follow the blog, I’m rather behind in my reviewing. I’ve read the books and not blogged about them so a few short reviews will follow. These will look at: Animal by Lisa Taddeo, Matrix by Lauren Groff and The Giant Dark by Sarvat Hasin.

Assembly by Natasha Brown

This is a fabulous book that tries to step out of the confining and controlling aspects of certain stories.

A young black woman, whose parents are Windrush survivors, describes her upwardly mobile education and career from a working class background into Cambridge, banking and a boyfriend in the political, elite British classes. The ascent is hard work and it has costs, costs that impair her health, freedom and conscience. 

The story explores the lead up to a weekend at her boyfriend’s family seat alongside a doctor’s appointment in which she discovers she has cancer. No one will let her escape the blackness she embodies within and without. She longs for freedom, but it will cost her life.

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Helen and the Grandbees by Alex Morrall

Helen ran away from home as a young teenager. Bad things happened to her and she had a baby too young to know how to look after it. That baby was taken away by the System. But twenty years later that baby comes looking for her and along with love and hope comes a need to face the past, especially when her baby, her bee, has children of her own.

I don’t want to say much more about the plot of the story because that would ruin the novel. I will say that Alex Morrall approaches the complexities of Helen’s life with careful consideration, thinking through how hard it is to live with truths we would all want to run from. Helen’s mental health naturally suffers and Alex Morrall develops a linguistic tic – Beep. Beep. Bop. – that represents Helen’s attempts to run from the pain that still lives in her mind.

The story is a difficult, but heart-warming one and would make a wonderful read for a book group eager to explore all the issues that surround the characters. Mental health, social services, racism and abuse are all explored and looked at from multiple facets with different perspectives coming in to give their sides of the story. This is a modern, multicultural Britain in all its beauty and ugliness. 

For those of you interested in exploring more, I’ll be discussing this novel with Alex Morrall at City Writes, the showcase for all the wonderful writing coming out of City, University of London’s creative writing short courses, this Wednesday 7th July at 7pm on zoom. You can register here.

I’ll be reviewing Everybody by Olivia Laing next.

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

This is an extraordinary book that defies expectations.

Vern lived and grew up in Cainland, in the deep South of America, where a community of black people believe their God, the God of Cain, will keep them from harm, keep them honest and safe from the white devils. 

Vern is albino and as such has always been different. Cainland’s leader takes a fancy to her, partly because she brims with questions and defiance and thinks marriage to him, despite her young age, will keep her tame. But Vern will not be contained. When she runs from the compound she is heavily pregnant.

We think we know this story. It holds familiar echoes. But what teenage mother could give birth to twins, alone in a forest, strap them to her chest and run and swing through trees to escape a pursuer with a gun and wolves? What teenage mother could survive in a self-made shelter, foraging for food, making her own clothes, teaching her twins, alone in the forest? This is no ordinary young woman and Cainland is much more than it seems. How could such a community survive in the American South without incident? Who really has the power in Cainland? Why can no one seem to run away, until now…

Part speculative fiction, part painful contemporary realism, Sorrowland doesn’t fit the usual moulds but takes the reader on a journey for freedom that explores race, sexuality and the boundaries of the human mind and body as something rooted in the natural world. At times crazy, but always an exciting ride, this is a genre busting novel with a powerfully raw emotional heart that beats loudly in the reader’s ears. You’ll know if this sounds like your kind of thing.

I’ll be reviewing Helen and the Grandbees by Alex Morrall next, followed by Everybody by Olivia Laing. Apologies to those who follow the blog for my slow write-ups recently! I’m reading the books but not getting the blogs up fast enough. I hope you can bear with me.

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

I loved this book. It’s a collection of short stories but it also feels like a novel in that each story hangs next to and within the others. The world of one woman’s daily life is so meticulously drawn that an atmosphere of unsettling attention draws you in and holds you lingering for paragraphs over the silence of another’s house, how drink is the only way she’ll muddle her decision making mind enough to sleep with a man, or how to replace the knobs on her outdated cooker.

I was leant the book and so I took great care not to mark the pages, turn them down or underline anything. Instead I now have a book filled with pieces of paper that mark passages I want to return to. ‘The Big Day’ (see below), ‘A Little Before Seven’ (explores her relationship between men and alcohol), ‘Control Knobs’ (about her outdated cooker) and ‘Lady of the House’ (about monsters, control and self-sufficiency) are four of my favourite pieces, though I like them all. 

The first provides the meaning behind the title, Pond, I think. The big day is a village opening. Her landlord and other residents have looked into the history of the houses and land, exploring old photographs, labelling where things are and used to be. One of her neighbours has gone off to label the pond.

… I can’t help but assess the situation from the child’s perspective. And quite frankly I would be disgusted to the point of taking immediate vengeance if I was brought to a purportedly magical place one afternoon in late September and thereupon belted down to the pond, all by myself most likely, only to discover the word pond scrawled on a poxy piece of damp plywood right there beside it. Oh I’d be hopping. That sort of moronic busy-bodying happens with such galling regularity throughout childhood of course and it never ceases to be utterly vexing. One sets off to investigate you see, to develop the facility to really notice things so that, over time, and with enough practice, one becomes attuned to the earth’s embedded logos and can experience the enriching joy of moving about in deep and direct accordance with things. Yet invariably this vital process is abruptly thwarted by an idiotic overlay of literal designations and inane alerts so that the whole terrain is obscured and inaccessible until eventually it is all quite formidable. As if the earth were a colossal and elaborate deathtrap. How will I ever make myself at home here if there are always these meddlesome scaremongering signs everywhere I go.

p40-41 from the Fitzcarraldo Editions version

You can see how the prose is a wonderfully rich mixture of complex sentences, precise vocabulary with a conversational tone that feels strangely old-fashioned – ‘Oh I’d be hopping’ writes itself out of Enid Blyton. It’s a lightness of touch that reveals a self-conscious self-mockery as if the character is amused by the seriousness with which they view the seemingly mundane. Of course it is a serious matter. There is a radical heart to this accounting. Her life, her choices, matter, add to the wider pattern of human behaviour and are part of the unravelling of human experience. The stories challenge society’s naming, its colonial and patriarchal desire to claim and label places, people and experiences. 

It’s a fabulous collection that I suspect I’m going to buy once I’ve given back my borrowed copy. I thoroughly recommend it and feel really excited about reading more of Claire-Louise Bennett’s work.

I’ll be reviewing Corregidora by Gayl Jones next.

Practicalities by Marguerite Duras

A delightful insight into Marguerite Duras’ thoughts and experiences, Practicalities is exciting to read and was created in a unique way that is, in itself, inspiring. Pieces that were originally transcriptions of texts spoken to Jérôme Beaujour, each short text was then read over and modified between the two of them.

… none of the pieces deals with a topic exhaustively. And none reflects my general views about a particular subject: I don’t have general views about anything, except social injustice. At most the book represents what I think sometimes, some days, about some things. So it does incidentally represent what I think. But I don’t drag the millstone of totalitarianism, i.e. inflexible, thought around with me.

You’ll know already if this gets your fingers itching for more pages to turn.

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