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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Sisters by Daisy Johnson

Sisters opens with a return to an old house owned and rented out by an aunt. The family only seem to go to this house when something is wrong, when they need to retreat from the world and something significant did happen in March, in Oxford. We’re just not sure what.

As the narrative progresses we feel a growing sense of unease. September, the older sister, is manipulative, just like her father had been. He died long ago but he was born in this house and his presence remains, lingering in the sight of his abandoned binoculars.

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The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde

I opened this novel looking for light relief. Ah, Jasper Fforde is funny, I thought. This will be a space to escape from the crazy days we’re living in. And yes, in some ways, it is. Imagining a world in which spontaneous Events create anthropomorphised animals – elephants in Africa, kangaroos in Australia, foxes, weasels, and crucially rabbits in the UK. The animals tend to grow into more humanoid physical forms and be able to communicate in human languages as well as their own.

After one such event in England, the United Kingdom now lives in a state of political turmoil due to the rapidly growing rabbit population. With such fast breeding times, an entirely different religious and social system, the rabbits, once miracles, are now seen as a threat and treated as invaders who steal jobs, land, and traditional values. The UK Anti-Rabbit Party is the main government party and there is a special Rabbit Compliance Taskforce. Sound familiar?

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Manual For A Decent Life by Kavita A. Jindal

Waheeda is an independent, middle-class, Muslim woman living in Delhi with her young daughter. She is an academic and her husband is a painter, living in the countryside, ostensibly but not entirely for his art. Though her situation with her husband isn’t ideal, mostly her life is simple, free from scrutiny, untouched by the politics of her step-father’s world.

Her step-father is the head of a small political party in Uttar Pradesh, the Nulkazim Peace Forum. 

Until the untimely death of her step-brothers, both killed in a train accident that looks anything but accidental, Waheeda has always steered clear of what she considers the mess of Indian politics. But her brothers’ deaths change everything.

Suddenly, she is all the family has left and her desire to enhance the lives of local girls, to get them and keep them in education, propels her into the political sphere. No longer can she lead a life free of scrutiny. None of her choices must be questionable. Her marriage, her appearance, everything is now open to judgement.

In the middle of all this change she meets Monish, the son of a business tycoon. A one time playboy, a Hindu whose family money is not entirely clean, Monish and Waheeda would seem opposites and yet, of course, they find themselves inextricably drawn to each other and into a painful alternative life of subterfuge that threatens to destroy both of their lives.

I can’t say where the book goes because that would spoil what was, for me, a surprising and painful ending. Without saying more, the novel is a thorough exploration of middle-class society life – of how business and politics are conducted, of how good intentions often run foul of old allegiances, promises, and blackmail. 

This is a love story with a very dark heart.

I was particularly fond of, and impressed by, the wider set of characters each playing their parts in the overarching narrative. Waheeda’s friends and family feel very real. We are forced to contemplate the extent to which we are all prepared to risk not only our careers and social standing, but our family and friends simply to fulfil desire.

Winner of The Brighthorse Prize for the novel, I’m sure Kavita A. Jindal will go on to write many more novels that shine a new light into modern, middle-class, Indian life. I look forward to reading them.

Next, I’ll be reviewing The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.

A Dinner Party in The Home Counties by Reshma Ruia

Reshma Ruia’s poems often tell stories of significant moments, shine light on the little things that prize open people’s sense of security or identity: the exhaustion of family life (‘The Beginning’); the lazy, seemingly good-natured stereotyping of people with different heritages (the title poem); how a failure in pronunciation, or effort, to say an unusual name creates a whole new person severed from their old self (‘In Which Mrs XU Becomes a Sally’); memories of partition (‘1947’); deportation (‘Mrs Basu Leaves Town’) and so it goes on. Here are people contemplating or sitting at critical moments in their lives, who often struggle to definitively claim one geographic identity. In some ways this exploration of race and cultural confusion is at the heart of Reshma Ruia’s work, but there are other themes of identity at play. What it means to be on a journey to becoming a mother (‘Egg’), or the complexities of the maternal relationship (‘Biography’) where a child must 

Hold on tight my love, she says.

A gentle nudge is all it’ll take.

Away we’ll go, spilling and spluttering,

desires and dreams drip-dripping fast

through tightly shut fists.

But then the mother throws them in the air herself and folds her arms as she watches her child fall.  Continue reading

Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Apeirogon isn’t a book you can read lightly. This isn’t a reflection upon its style, which is clear, eloquent, at times haunting, but instead upon the subject matter. I feel I’ve been reading a lot of books recently that play with the idea of what a novel is, that dance over the line of fact and fiction. Apeirogon is one of those books. Continue reading

Motherhood by Sheila Heti

Motherhood is one of those books that will enthral some and, perhaps enticed in by glowing reviews, dispel others. It mixes a sharp intelligence with a reliance on a less complex I Ching style dice rolling for critical enquiry. It easily slips into the self-absorbed misogynies about women and their hysteria, and yet, it remains compelling and most importantly, honest. For there is no point in attempting to explore the pressures for women to become mothers and all the societal gesturing, comparisons and petty rivalries that go with it, without being honest about how much time can go into the exploration. And for that, Motherhood must be commended.  Continue reading

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

I loved this book. I’m excited about the way it takes memoir in new directions, directions that feel necessary to the ways in which we contextualise and envisage our own lives as part of the wider social and historical setting. This is non-fiction in its most creative and fictional sense, for every form of expressing experience requires a shape and this is something Machado is brilliantly skilled at unpicking and reweaving. Continue reading

Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey

The full title of this book is Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass. Written by a man whose own story of deprivation – growing up on the wrong side of Glasgow with an addict for a mother who abused and abandoned him and then committed suicide – he claims has gained him a voice in the established middle class media, the title alone explains the complexities, difficulties and necessity of addressing class. In order to be given a voice, Darren realises he needs to talk about his own suffering, he needs to give the middle classes their poverty safari, their grand tour through the deprived estates of Britain, because if he doesn’t no one will listen to what is an essential message – that no one is listening to the deprived lower classes and if no one listens, nothing with change apart from a growing sense of anger and disaffection.

It’s refreshing to read a political and social commentary that challenges the standard responses of left and right. It’s refreshing to read an honest, personal account that puts political opinion in a personal context.

The book is at once autobiography and a call for social justice that suggests changing poverty requires radical changes in everyone involved.

It’s not easy reading – it is sometimes depressing, sad, upsetting – but it is important. Change involves dialogue, but before we can speak, we need to learn to listen.

I don’t usually review or read much non-fiction, but my sister recommended I read this book and I’m really glad she did. It has something to say to everyone in Britain.

I’ll be reviewing In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado next.