Pew by Catherine Lacey

Pew is an extraordinary novel. Every word weighty with meaning, measured just so, held up to bright examination and understood to always, even with this level of care, be wanting. It’s a political, intersectional, theological and philosophical exploration of life from the viewpoint of a person who rarely speaks and who likes to sleep in churches when they’re tired.

Found one morning sleeping in a family’s regular pew, the local community is baffled by this person. What age are they? What race are they? Are they male or female? Why don’t they just help them out by speaking a little, by explaining themselves? 

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Black Sunday by Tola Rotimi Abraham

Set in Lagos, Black Sunday is a tale of four children attempting to overcome the misfortune placed upon them by their parents. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, for even though the novel is elegantly crafted to give us the perspectives of all four siblings, each chapter feeling like a contained story in and of itself, there is a real drive to the story as we eagerly turn the pages to find out what will happen to these children next.

Originally from a middle-class, educated family, their mother loses her job. Shortly afterwards their father is swindled out of all of his money by a pastor at their church and the family are left destitute. Their mother runs away to New York, leaving them behind with their father who soon abandons them to his mother. Their easy life is now filled with the worry of money and hunger.

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Quicksand & Passing by Nella Larsen

I bought Quicksand & Passing after seeing it recommended by Emily Midorikawa on Instagram. I knew nothing about the book and didn’t really know what to expect. What I found was an inquisitive and eloquent voice that really transported me into the mind of Helga in Quicksand and Irene in Passing. I’m a huge fan of the concise, short novel (often really a novella by any other name). I love the way it can hone in on one theme or idea in a way that a longer work can struggle to sustain.

Both works tackle the concept of race in the 1920s, most specifically in America but touching on Europe too. 

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What Doesn’t Kill You: Fifteen Stories of Survival edited by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska

I was sent a review copy of this book by the wonderful Irenosen Okojie whose story ‘Three Wise Women’ is an excellent example of what this collection does so well: it creates memorable stories of struggle and survival, distillations of lived experience that are both remembered and inherited, delivered in ways which play with our sense of the straightforward narrative. Of course, not all the stories play with form, but some of my favourites do.

‘Eight’ by A. J. Ashworth combines facts about the sun with an exploration of panic and crippling anxiety. ‘Three Wise Women’ by Irenosen Okojie allows us to reconfigure the heroines of her story, giving the reader the chance to find them within herself. ‘The Lily Show’ by Lily Bailey begins mid sentence, situating us right in the flow of her obsessive compulsive disorder, placing us in the Truman show bubble that she imagines herself within.

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Wild Swims by Dorthe Nors, translated by Misha Hoekstra

I’ve really enjoyed reading Dorthe Nors other works and was excited to read this collection. Wild Swims is such a beautiful title too and from the moment you dip your toe in, you are immersed in different lives all told at those moments of heightened awareness. Either a narrator is stuck up a deer stand with a damaged ankle and no phone (‘In a Deer Stand’) or they’re preparing to head out into the wilderness (‘Manitoba’) or they’re standing with a gas can staring out over a fairground contemplating what it means to be in love (‘The Fairground’ – where it isn’t the joyful flowers and rainbows you imagine as a child). 

Most of the stories feel like a brief immersion into one mind whose sense of present comprehension often involves a significant memory that somehow ties into that moment, that solidifies their sense of self-consciousness, their understanding of the world and themselves. These feel like stories in the classic Carver sense, tips of the ice-berg, Pritchard’s glimpses from the corners of eyes. 

Her use of imagery coheres with this too. A small thing seems to stand for how a character feels during a certain experience. The reflected sun spots on the ice of the Arctic tundra – the sun dogs as they are called in the language of the tundra – are the visible intangible rivals to the narrator’s ex, seen through the body of his mother whom she befriends on a writing retreat and who is so afraid of having her stories, her self written about (‘Sun Dogs’). The description of the image allows it to speak in ways the words can’t do alone. 

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The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

I wanted to read this book after listening to The Literary Friction Podcast on intimacy (their first one). If you haven’t listened to them, I thoroughly recommend it! This is one of the books that they mention and recommend often.

I must say that I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t perhaps what I started reading. Here was another non-fiction book dealing with gender, motherhood, how to place oneself in the world, but in this book there is a sense of being as an endless becoming. 

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The Sound Mirror by Heidi James

Tamara is on the way to kill her mother. This is how the novel opens, with the threat of murder. Of course, it isn’t quite that. Tamara’s estranged mother is on life support and has, surprisingly, asked for Tamara to be there, to be the one that oversees the machines being switched off. 

Inside Tamara’s DNA lurk the voices of the women who have gone before and seeping out of this jumble of experience come the other narratives. I don’t think I’ll be spoiling too much to say that these voices are Tamara’s past, her grandmothers Ada and Claire, who tell us their own journeys as they reflect and refract back onto the molecular canvases of their mothers’ faces. A seemingly endless sound mirror that Tamara has decided to end through sterilization. There will be no more women to continue this line.

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Against The Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa

A story of Palestinian resistance, AgainstThe Loveless World is told by Nahr from an Israeli prison called The Cube. 

Always watched, cut off from the rhythms of the natural world, her solitude as a political prisoner is harsh in the extreme. The toilet flushes at random; the shower – that she names and thinks of as a lover, it being the only thing to caress her skin – comes on as and when her guards decide. She has no control over her surroundings inside that small box room of plastic to which she must shackle herself before anyone enters.

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Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

Set in a basti, an overcrowded area on the outskirts of a big Indian city, constantly under threat of being bulldozed and edged by a rubbish dump, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is a dynamic and engaging story that takes on the difficult subjects of religious division, social mobility, child abduction, politics and poverty with a surprising sense of hope and energy. Right from the start we are immersed in the characters’ minds, seeing the world through their eyes with impressive clarity. 

Despite the horror of the subject matter – children are disappearing from the basti and as more and more disappear, it can’t just be a matter of children running away – Deepa Anappara speaks from the children’s perspective with such care and generosity that there is refreshingly little room for pity or condescension. 

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Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinéad Gleeson

Constellations is one of those non-fiction books whose phrasing is so eloquent you feel like you’ve fallen into the consciousness of the writer in a way that most often happens in fiction. We can inhabit the world of Sinéad Gleeson in the same way we might inhabit a Marie Darrieussecq character or Madame Bovary. This kind of writing feels as if it crosses over with the trend for autofiction, grips in a way that Machado’s In The Dream House does. It feels fresh, honest and erudite. 

The title reflects the telling of Gleeson’s life. We are treated to different essays that map out different aspects of her experience as she explores illness and pain, love, motherhood, grief and more. There is a clear feminism, a politics that she herself seems surprised is there, reminding us of how our bodies define the way we move through the world. 

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