Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

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

Chemistry by Weike Wang

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

Glitch by Lee Rourke

L-J is travelling back to England after 20 years in the States. The journey begins with a plane ride that is anything but routine. From the very start we are introduced to the idea of the glitch, the fault in the system, the fracture that reveals what is below the surface. Something happens to the plane, some kind of tear in business class that decompresses the aircraft and forces an emergency landing. 

L-J films it. L-J photographs the glitch on the screen when it’s display doesn’t work correctly. He has always loved those little fractures that have come, through long discussions with his mother, to represent not only what art should attempt to unveil – the imperfections that reveal different realities that lie beneath – but the essence of what it is to be human, to be alive. We are the glitches. Continue reading

The Wayward Girls by Amanda Mason

Told across two timelines: one in 1976 when Loo and Bee were children living on a farm in Derbyshire with their three other siblings and their father, Joe, and mother, Cathy; the other in the present when Lucy (Loo) is the only child living close enough to visit Cathy, who suffers from dementia and lives in a care home. What connects the two is the farm house they lived in and a paranormal investigation that began when a police officer was called to the house by Cathy back in 1976. After days of knocking on the walls and slammed doors, a hail of marbles was pelted down on the two older girls and with Joe away working, Cathy was scared. All these years later, a new investigation is beginning and Cathy has been contacted by the new team of researchers looking for evidence up at the farm.  Continue reading

Our life in the Forest by Marie Darrieussecq

Ok, I admit it, I’m obsessed with Marie Darrieussecq. Hers is the kind of fiction I long for us to write more of and value more highly in England. Regardless of the subject, she is always striving to uncover and express quite what it means to live and breathe as a human. In this novel, she goes further and asks how the surge in population sits not only with human nature but with the planet. Are we able to be social beings on such a grand scale? If we lose touch with the fundamentals of our bestial nature, what do we become? She is also interested in the physical act of writing – how the body is part of the conveyance of narrative – and the primal nature of our desire to record stories in ways that don’t require mass production or electricity i.e. the written word, those early handprints on rock.

In Our Life in the Forest, Marie Darrieusecq contemplates a future in which cloning is used to provide spare organs and body parts for the rich. What does this mean for the clones? Do they have rights? Are they unique individuals despite their genetic replication? Continue reading

The Dollmaker by Nina Allan

A modern gothic inspired by, amongst other things, a poem, ‘The Dwarf’, written by Matthaus von Collin and set to music by Schubert in Vienna in the early 1800s, the main character of The Dollmaker, Andrew is of short stature and his love of dolls not only provides him with a career but puts him in the way of another doll collector, Bramber, who is particularly interested in the dolls made by Ewa Chaplin, a woman who also wrote short stories that explore an uncanny fascination with dolls and dwarfs. Continue reading

Mother by Hannah Begbie

Dave and Cath have been trying for babies for years. They had pictured a large house bustling with the noise and clatter of a happy family—several children, four perhaps?—and as the months and years of failed attempts build up the distance from their dreams feels suddenly shorter at the birth of their daughter, Mia. But Mia isn’t all right. Her little face grimaces at feeds. Her sweat tastes of salt.

At only a few weeks old, Mia is diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. Continue reading

Vox by Christina Dalcher

Vox is a very powerful and timely novel that follows hot on the heels of books like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Naomi Alderman’s The Power. It is set in a near future in which the Christian religious right has taken control of America. With The Pure Movement, the government seeks to return America to a state of grace in which the family and the patriarchy are key. Women must understand their place as home makers, supporting their husbands through deed and not word.

Bracelets are introduced for all women and girls that count the number of words they can say in a day. Once they go over 100 they are given a mild electric shock. Keep talking and the severity of the shocks increase. Continue reading

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

A novel about the children of the Holocaust, either survivors or children of survivors, Fugitive Pieces is a thoughtful, intellectual and stylistically rich novel built upon the necessity and pain of memory.

The main bulk of the narrative is about Jacob who witnessed his parents’ death at the hands of the Nazis and got away before he could discover what happened to his sister, Bella. He was found hiding in a bog by a Greek geologist, Athos, who smuggles Jacob into Greece hidden beneath his clothes. Athos gives Jacob all the love and learning any child could want. He is gentle, kind, loving and has an understanding of what it means to suffer tragic loss.

All of this I found deeply compelling. It was Jacob’s later life and the latter part of the narrative which is taken over by Ben, a child of Holocaust survivors keen to help find Jacob’s diaries in Greece, that I found harder to engage with. Not because there was any less examination of identity and memory, of carrying the unspoken and unlived in our present bodies, but because of the novel’s exploration of sexual and romantic journeys.

Jacob, a troubled translator and poet, takes a second much younger wife and finds peace in her forgetting the presence of her limbs. Ben writes about his wife and his lover, focusing on physicality as if it will save him from drowning in his own misery. Suddenly I found myself walking into the pages of a different sort of novel, one which my younger self might have responded to better. The exploration of sexuality and romantic love, for me, lacked the subtlety of the earlier novel, felt too heady with sentiment and left me feeling frustrated. A hard thing to feel reading a novel about the smiling face of fascism and the ease with which we can slip back into a society where the other is dehumanised for political gain (hard not to think of the way we – not just Trump’s America – treat refugees); a novel about the importance of remembering the past. Yes, bodies are important, our thoughts and memories live within our organs, and yes, romantic love is a powerful life affirming force, but somehow the writing of these truths felt verbose in a way that Ben’s description of his father weeping as he ate, or Jacob’s description of feeling Bella’s ghost enter his body and live within him, or even the love Athos has for Jacob, don’t.

Regardless of this quibble of mine, Fugitive Pieces lives up to its hype. It is a significant work. Bella loved Beethoven’s fugues and Jacob and Ben could be seen as two voices speaking against and in imitation of each other. Just as the novel could be said to be about a collective fugue state in which we attempt to retrieve the memories and identities of the dead in order to refind ourselves. And indeed, all survivors or surviving diaries and correspondence can be said to be fugitives. This kind of play on words and meaning runs throughout, challenging the reader to think beyond the plot into the story of their own lives within the world.

Next week I’ll be reviewing Lucia by Alex Pheby.  

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

I don’t often review non-fiction, but Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is exactly what the Observer called it, ‘A wake-up call to a nation in denial’. I finished the book – mine is the edition with the new Aftermath chapter – and all I wanted to do was read more from Reni Eddo-Lodge.

With a brief overview of black British history (far more in depth than anything offered in schools, where the focus remains on black American civil rights, as if there has never been a need for a civil rights struggle in Britain), a clear depiction of institutional racism (not that we should need reminding after the Windrush debacle and those Home Office deportation targets), what white privilege really is, why and how white privilege is afraid, how feminism interacts with race, and an unpicking of race and class, the book is a call to action.

We need a broader, more accessible British history that accounts fully for the wrongs of the past in an attempt to redress racism in the system as well as the individual. To do that, the white privileged, people like me, need to take a hard look at themselves. We need to bring something to the conversation about race, once we’ve really sat back and listened.

This book is a great place to start listening and thinking about how to act for equality. I can’t recommend it enough. I’ll be reading it again.