Vesta has moved to a lakeside cabin, once an old girl guide outpost, in the middle of a wood with her new dog, Charlie, after the death of her husband, Walter. The novel begins with her and Charlie on a walk. They discover a note in the undergrowth:
‘Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.’
Vesta, who is in her 70s, has moved to be free of the constraints of her life with her husband whose undermining and irritatingly gentle misogynist approach to their marriage becomes increasingly clear as the novel progresses. Since her move she has acquired Charlie – something Walter would not have tolerated – and embraced the earth, soil and isolation of her home. She has got muddy, eaten and drunk what she likes and written herself to do lists in which every day is pretty much like the last.
But the note introduces mystery. Who is this Magda? Who killed her? Where is the dead body? Who wrote the note?
Vesta becomes obsessed with uncovering these mysteries, and for want of spoiling the plot, ends up rewriting the world around her in her attempt to review her world through Magda’s eyes.
I was excited about reading this novel. It felt like it would be the perfect Halloween read and I wasn’t wrong. If you can imagine a world in which a virus has made all animal flesh deadly for humans, our hunger for meat leaves only one option available. No guesses as to what that might be.
Once you’ve separated out your herds, made choices about how to dehumanise the meat – remove its vocal chords, never dress it, bring it up in cages, remove pregnant heads’ limbs to keep them from harming themselves, refer to it euphemistically etc. – there is still no getting away from the look of an arm or torso hanging in a butchers shop, or the desirable curve of a naked male or female; the bestial pretence is wafer thin.
Tender is the Flesh is of course an exploration of monstrosity. Who are the real beasts? No question, it is us.
The storytelling of this novel is tremendously compelling. Moving between the narratives of three generations of one family and the children whose lives were first changed on the fateful day the village madman stole the car keys belonging to the Pexton oil company representatives, we explore the past and present of this one African village with Thula, a child at the time the novel opens, at its heart.
What fascinates me about the novel is not only how wide-hearted it is, but how clear it is at exposing modern day slavery and exploitation. Personal greed and the power of multinational companies are both to blame. The human condition is a complex one that harbours both sacrifice and selfishness, awareness and denial and we are never allowed to rest in any easy dichotomy of goodness and evil, right and wrong.
Fragile Monsters comes with many accolades. Hilary Mantel says it ‘Takes an immediate grip on the reader’s imagination and doesn’t let go’ and I would certainly agree. This is a stunning work of fiction whose ideas and characters really stay with you.
Durga grew up in Malaysia but left to study mathematics in Canada and though she has returned to Kuala Lumpur to teach maths at the university, living closer to her grandmother, Durga’s identity straddles these two places and cultures – forcing mathematics and logic upon the power of storytelling and suggestion (though by no means are these things so easily polarised in the novel).
This novel does exactly what it suggests it will do on the cover: it gives an overview of the Trojan War – its beginnings and aftermath – from the perspective of the women. We have goddesses, from Gaia to Thetis, queens and princesses, furies and the weavers of fate all giving their voice to the well-known stories. I enjoyed it immensely.
I’m so excited to announce the launch of my soundwalk, One Circuitous Path: a retelling of the Minotaur myth. Released today, listen or download the sound piece here and sign up for the socially distanced event here. Part of #SoundWalkSeptember 2020 the piece is just over 20 minutes long and asks you to reimagine what might really have been at the heart of that labyrinth in Crete. With music by Ruth Bulman and voices by Bronwen Price and Christopher Simpson it’s a mythic feast for the ears. Do take a listen.
Although the novel brings us to the brink of the Millennium, The Vanishing Half feels like a mythical tale. Two identical pale twins of African-American heritage live in a town called Mallard in Louisiana. Mallard is a town established and built only for those African-Americans with the fairest of skins. They don’t want anyone darker skinned living in their town or marrying into their families.
The pale twins, Desiree and Stella watch their father being lynched and killed by white men when they are still only very young. This violence, without them realising it, seems to push them in different directions and whilst they flee Mallard together they do it for very different reasons.
I’m delighted that my interview with the exceedingly talented Irenosen Okojie is now up. We managed to find a quiet spot to talk about her work. Do have a watch and listen. She has some great suggestions about getting up early and reading poetry first thing to really open your mind to the possibilities of language.
Just follow the link to the Author QH page here.
I’ll be posting up my next book review early next week.
Her Body & Other Parties is one of those collections you start to read and wonder why you haven’t discovered before. How could I not have heard of Carmen Maria Machado? Why hadn’t I already read some of her stories?
If you haven’t this collection, do it now. Machado manages to give the oppressive politics of human relationships a sensual eroticism that is hard to look away from. Continue reading
Funny and agonising, Chemistry’s narrator is a young post-grad chemistry student whose loving boyfriend has just proposed. She doesn’t know what to say, or how to respond and he allows her time to think about it. This state of limbo exists in her research too. She can’t find anything of significance, she can’t even be sure she has settled on the right topic or question for her PhD and yet her Chinese parents, when they speak on the phone, are desperately waiting for her to achieve, to become a doctor, to make something out of their ongoing sacrifices for her. Continue reading