Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

I loved this book. Written as a response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Why I Write’, Levy’s book, framed by her times-across the years-in a hotel in Spain, is a playful and painful exploration of all that led to her lifting the pen, pushing the keys, speaking with a louder voice. 

I wanted to turn down the corner of almost every other page and her choice of quotations from other writers was so perfectly apt that I wanted to go away and read those books too. She uses these quotations to push her thinking further. If, as Adrienne Rich said, ‘No woman is really an insider in the institutions fathered by masculine consciousness’ then Levy unravels Motherhood (her capital letter) as ‘an institution fathered by masculine consciousness’ that leads to Levy staring at a poster in her bathroom of the skeletal system that she continuously misreads as the societal system and to tears on every upward escalator.

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Body of Stars by Laura Maylene Walter

In the alternative world of Body of Stars, women are born with markings on their bodies that predict their futures. During a vulnerable transition from child to woman, when girls are called changelings and their senses are heightened, their markings alter overnight, creating patterns that fix their futures on their skin. The markings and their interpretation are noted and regulated by the state through a book called Mapping the Future: An Interpretive Guide to Women and Girls. Men have no such markings, their future and skins blank, and they are denied the authority to interpret.

During a girl’s transition to womanhood their beauty, alongside their sensory perception, is heightened. They are warned of how vulnerable they are to male attention and desire. They are encouraged to cover up, never walk alone, and stay home after dark.

The novel tracks Celeste’s transition from her girlhood markings to her adult markings. We follow her as she moves from one state to another, attempting to understand her role in life through the confines of her skin. A skin her brother, Miles, has always been fascinated by. He has examined, drawn and redrawn a particular patch near her left elbow and he has managed to find a woman to teach him interpretation even though it is forbidden for men to become interpreters.

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The Girls Are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

The Girls Are All So Nice Here is a real thriller exploring the lengths some women will go to keep their best friend.

I’m not sure I’m the target audience for this novel. Though I did pretty much read the book in one sitting, unable to leave the page before I found out quite what dreadful event happened all those years ago at University, I found the exploration of obsessive female friendship somehow outdated. These young women were so firmly situated in their roles within the patriarchy that though they may have been invented to challenge it, to show how stereotyping women could have horrifying consequences when those very women used that stereotype for their own means, they instead felt unreconstructed, rigid caricatures. But again, perhaps I wasn’t quite the right reader.

The writing is certainly compelling and written with twists in just the right places to keep you guessing. It also begins with a reunion. That kind of hook is hard to ignore.

If you like a campus mystery with mean girls whose behaviour is more acerbic than most you can think of on our screens, then this darkly twisted tale will be right up your street.

I’ll be reviewing Body of Stars by Laura Maylene Walter next.

We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan

Sameer is an extremely hard-working commercial lawyer from Leicester, living and working in London. He has money, a nice flat in Clerkenwell, and enough good friends to fill the hours outside the office. 

Everything changes when one of his oldest friends, Rahool, decides to move back to Leicester and work in the family firm. His other close friend, Jeremiah, also has a new job and though it looks as if Sameer’s career is going well – he has after all been offered a job setting up a new office in Singapore, which would be a huge promotion – he can’t quite bring himself to tell his family, partly because they’ll be disappointed he too isn’t returning home to the family business, but partly because the departure involves an acknowledgement of the racism he faces from some of his colleagues that up to this point he has decided to overlook.

Things are pushed to an even greater level of tension when Rahool is beaten into a coma in a racially motivated attack, only weeks after returning to Leicester. Sameer and Rahool are second generation immigrants whose parents were forced to leave Uganda when Idi Amin expelled all the Asians. They have no memory of Uganda, but they live with the pressure of their parents entrepreneurial success, success hard-earned from their status as refugees with little money or connection to their names. 

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Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan

This may seem like a strange way to begin a review of Acts of Desperation, which in broad terms is about a woman’s account of her obsessive relationship with an abusive man, but I’m currently taken by an article by Maria Tumarkin, ‘This Narrated Life’ in the Griffith Review, which outlines her suspicion of turning all experiences into stories. She’s talking about the danger of turning experience into the typical arc that brings personal development because of the enforced omissions and elisions the form requires. She’s talking about the danger of repeating difficult stories that remain, regardless, unlistened to.

One of the things that Megan Nolan does so well, is to avoid the clichés of speaking her trauma. I know this is a novel, but the character is definitely someone who sits very neatly in this arc of personal development and yet very early on Nolan writes: 

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The Manningtree Witches by A. K. Blakemore

Witches and the history of social attitudes to evil fascinate me so I was immediately drawn to The Manningtree Witches, an exploration of the female stories behind the witches discovered, imprisoned and put to trial by the Witchfinder General during the English Civil War. 

The book retells the story of these so-called witches through the historical character of Rebecca West, whose confession appears in modern English in the text. Nothing about this retelling disappoints. The suppressed desires of the puritans, the overarching power of the patriarchy, and the sense of poverty – both material and educational – make the complex unravelling of the possible workings of the devil salacious material pertinent to a modern world of fake news and self-appointed spokespeople. 

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Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

Reading Whereabouts felt very much like opening the pages of a slightly seachanged Dorthe Nors. A woman both at home and out of place watches the ease and discomforts of others’ lives as if she herself is untouched and yet every day, every moment is an exercise in overcoming disappointment. She does not have the perfect job, or a partner. She has never lived anywhere else. She remains the loyal friend whose passion is somehow never fully engaged. She has freedom but does not use it.

The writing is elegant, quietly sharp. Its blade has slipped between your skin before you even notice.

For some reason, for me, the overwhelming image left by the book is a small shrine to a dead son, pressed against a wall half way up a hillside. A road snakes up past the path and it is along this path that she occasionally bumps into a man she finds attractive who is married to a friend of hers. A crackle of desire hums between them but is never explored. The shrine stands for all she has lost without ever having had it to begin with. She hovers, for me, at the side of that road, on that hill, near the wall, neither fully up or nor down, watching a potential lover walk past her for the sake of propriety, for fear of consequence.

It’s a beautiful, meditative piece of writing that so carefully expresses what it can be to be a woman of a certain age without her own family, still somehow unrooted to the world around her, living anywhereabouts. Out in April this year, put it in your wish list.

I’ll be reading The Manningtree Witches by A. K. Blakemore next.

Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan

Luckenbooth is a striking novel spanning 100 years in a tenement building in Edinburgh. Weaving stories across and between flats, decades, people and ghosts, we watch the devil’s daughter move in but it is many years before she finally walks out.

The slippery stream of reality is a glorious riot of genre, as each section brings new characters whose lives present new styles, new modes of expression, and from the moment the devil’s daughter sails to Edinburgh in a coffin, her father’s dead eyes watching her from a crack in the rock where his body was thrown rather than buried, we know we’re on a ride that could take us through many planes of existence. It’s a thoroughly joyous, depressing, enlightened read that seeringly burns a host of Edinburgh’s people onto a reader’s mind. The writing is rich, inspired and inspiring.

I particularly loved the chapters from William Burroughs, who lives in the building for a while, on holiday from America. He voices the powerful magic of words that time travel and the miraculous intimacy and philosophical complexity we all love without divorcing thought from the messy sensations of living. And it is this mixture of down to earth with philosophy, murder with spirits, magical real with mental illness, that makes the novel so startlingly its own.

Life: A User’s Manual for Edinburgh, Luckenbooth is a fabulous book that should definitely hit the prize lists this year. I loved it and find images, sensations and ideas evoked by its pages, occupying my mind long after I’ve finished reading it. Definitely go and buy this one, now!

I’ll be reviewing Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri next.

Nightshift by Kiare Ladner

A summary of this fabulous debut from Kiare Ladner doesn’t do justice to the deeper themes that resonate beneath its surface. Meggie, a twenty-three-year-old woman living in London, leaves a stable life and relationship in pursuit of a woman whose behaviour, appearance and attitudes attract and fascinate her.

Meggie is worried about being staid, about following the trajectory middle-class life lays out of university, job, marriage, children, retirement, death, and ultimately missing something more. She wants something against which she is forced to react, to change, something for which she has to risk, to stretch the limits of standard expectations. 

Sabine is a reflection of all the things she desires. When Meggie meets her in her day job, a job she does solely to support her studies, she is immediately drawn to Sabine. She wants to be friends with this interesting woman, clearly so much cooler and more edgy than Meggie feels. So when Sabine leaves to take on a night shift at the same company, Meggie is sure she’ll be able to balance her life and studies better if she too, follows Sabine into a nocturnal lifestyle of shift work that gives you periods of night work against weeks free of any work at all.

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A River Called Time by Courttia Newland

This novel defies easy categorisation. Yes, it is about parallel worlds and astral planes through which our spirits can move. Yes, that makes it speculative fiction but one in which our world is altered at a historical and spiritual level both in the future and in the past – something not many books in the genre attempt to do. 

A River Called Time reimagines our world without the colonialism we know, allowing for a culture that prizes older religions and cultures from Africa, India and China above Christianity, Islam, Judaism. But humans remain humans and our ability to create division and discrimination continues. The Ark, the promised structure created as a haven and saviour from a world crippled by environmental collapse, isn’t all Markriss Denny thought it was promised to be. His journey behind its walls lifts him out of his body and into alternative histories in which the same characters must be met and understood anew.

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