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.

Continue reading Practicalities by Marguerite Duras

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

The final, delightfully attentive, part of Levy’s trilogy of living autobiography.

There is a quality of absorption that springs from Deborah Levy’s three living autobiographies. The writing is both sharp and gentle – perhaps it is the iron fist in the silk glove (silk being important for Levy in this the third of her non-fiction trilogy) – that eases you into her world, in which she travels and lives in different places, surrounded by different objects, walking in different shoes that sometimes have the wrong soles, and then hits you with a truth about what it means to be a woman and a writer in our world that sends you reeling. I feel as if I’m offered a new state to live in, a new way of attending to the events, the things, the conversations with friends and strangers, the overheard. I’m gifted some of Levy’s powers of attentive thought.

I like that she calls this trilogy of non-fiction about being a female writer, living autobiography because I do feel that I live the events, thoughts and ideas that she writes about. She generously invites me in through the door of her unreal estate, the house of her mind; she lets me put on her shoes; she asks me to consider her and then, of course, myself, in this new environment. Who built the house? Upon whose land is it built? What rights do I have to it? How can I live there? Should I leave? What can I take with me? What do I want my house to be like?

Continue reading Real Estate by Deborah Levy

Madame Zero by Sarah Hall

A collection of short stories that reminds us of the wild inside us.

This is a very beautifully presented collection of short stories that do indeed stay with you after reading. I am particularly fond of four: ‘Mrs Fox’ that won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2013 about a wife who, well, you can guess; ‘Wilderness’ about walking along the Southern Cape coastline in South Africa; ‘Later, His Ghost’ set in a dystopian future where winds decimate the landscape; and ‘Evie’ about a sudden development of sexual desire. 

I like others, of course, but it is these four in particular that stay in my mind. If I were hard pressed, I’d probably pick ‘Wilderness’ as my favourite because it combines so many different things in one short blast. It’s an excellent showcase for what the short story can do. It can pack so many disparate ideas, feelings, emotions, and political standpoints into a snapshot of an hour or so. One English woman walks along the coastline with a relatively new South African boyfriend, of whom she is tiring, and his old childhood friend. Concepts of fear, danger, wildness versus ownership, it’s all in there, bristling alongside the complexities of friendship and desire. 

This sense of mutability, of our status as beings of nature in whom the wild still lives, sits at the edges of all of these stories and is what makes the collection such a pleasure to read. They tilt one’s look at the world enough to force us to see it afresh, to delight and be unsettled by it all over again. 

I haven’t read Sarah Hall’s other work, but it makes me want to. 

Winner of The East Anglian Book Award for Fiction, Madame Zero is a very enjoyable read indeed.

I’ll be reviewing Real Estate by Deborah Levy next.

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

Short review: brilliant modern myth-making.

In 1976 David Baptiste found and fell in love with a mermaid in the waters of Black Conch in the Caribbean. When the yearly fishing competition opened, two white men from Florida hired a crew and sailed out to catch the biggest fish. They caught the mermaid.

They string her upside down by the sea and drink in the local bar. David cuts her down and takes her home, planning to put her back in the sea. 

Next day, no one knows if it was madness, drunkenness that had all those men believing they’d strung up a mermaid.

David doesn’t take her back straight away. As she sits in water he salts, in his bathtub, the mermaid starts to lose her tail. Tail, fins, scales, webbing fall away revealing a young woman beneath. A woman, Aycayia, whose beautiful voice and enticing dancing, made men long for her and women hate her enough to curse her, many hundreds of years ago, long before the white man killed her people, and banish her to the loneliness of the sea.

Continue reading The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Short review: an exploration of the domestic life behind Shakespeare’s work that does what it says on the tin.

Hamnet is the story of Shakespeare’s home life or, at least, some of it. From the beginning we know we are getting the story of the death of his son, Hamnet. We know that Hamnet, back in those times, was synonymous with the name Hamlet. We know what is coming, and yet, we are drawn in and we suffer when we finally get there.

Continue reading Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Short review: excellent exploration of middle-class woman seeking meaning in, and questioning the morality of, her life.

I loved this book. It’s so considered, so carefully wrought, like something distilled and matured in a cellar whose journey to the light feels exciting, a little taboo.

It’s the kind of book that a creative writing tutor would tell you to avoid writing because it is exceedingly expositional – the whole thing written as if spoken to a person called Jeffers who we never meet and know very little about other than that he is a moralist. The fact this exposition works just makes it more appealing to read.

The book opens with a description of running from the devil on a train, a devil who is fiddling with a little girl. Everyone is ignoring him and what he’s doing. The protagonist tries to ignore him too, but everywhere she runs she finds him sat opposite her again. This beginning, which comes after the triggering moment of discovering L’s paintings when staying in Paris, is never fully explained but seems to express something of what it means to see and not act, to be aware of something bad taking place but to seek to avoid looking at and to avoid doing anything about it. There is a comment on our society here.

Continue reading Second Place by Rachel Cusk