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.

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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.

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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.

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The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

Short review: inspiring follow-up to Things I Don’t Want to Know.

I loved the first in this trilogy of autobiographies initially inspired by George Orwell’s essay ‘Why I write’. This second one was equally excellent.

As I’ve been better at reading than writing reviews lately, I wish I’d written my review of this book just after reading it, rather than now. As I turn its pages, looking at all the corners I’ve bent down to return to, what strikes me is how good Levy is at creating a feeling, a cohesive emotional and intellectual sensibility throughout a book that holds and shapes your experience of reading. You come away with an understanding of what she’s saying that feels more like the heightened emotional sense you get from a good conversation, than either an essay or an autobiography. You come away with the tingly feeling of inspiration.

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Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin

Short review: disturbing reflection on our obsession with making virtual connections.

I’m a huge fan of Schweblin’s debut novel, Fever Dream and so was eagerly awaiting the paperback of this novel, named by the Guardian and The Times as the Best Novel of 2020. I knew it would be very different but I was ready to be taken somewhere new by the author.

What I got wasn’t anything I was expecting and yet it took me in a direction I wasn’t surprised to find myself in. An exploration of what connects us, of what it means to be human, is something that Fever Dream shares with Little Eyes. You can feel the same mind moving behind it.

Kentukis are small robotic creatures controlled by an inhabitant using an App. The owner buys the kentuki – it could be a panda, an owl, a rabbit, a dragon, a mole etc. – and waits for someone to inhabit it. The kentuki then moves about in their lives, following them, able to make small sounds and capable of communication only if the owner sets up an agreed system e.g. move back for no, forwards for yes, or puts an alphabet on the floor or gives them their email or telephone number.

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Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden

Mrs Death Misses Death is about a girl, Wolf, who meets Mrs Death at nine-years-old when a fire in her tower block home kills her mother but leaves Wolf alive. She goes on to see and talk to Mrs Death—an old black woman who checks your groceries at the supermarket till; who cleans at the hospital; who goes unnoticed, uncelebrated—using her memories to explore the deaths of Wolf’s relatives and others whom Death cannot forget. 

Though about death and mourning, the book is more about what it means to be alive. Unsurprising from the pen of a poet, the novel plays with form—never quite laid out as you expect: the text is formed of poems, script, voice, song. It plays with language, uses repetitions and refrain, rhyme and rhythm to open experience, memory and imagination into a space that invites interpretation.

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Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

I loved this book. Written as a response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Why I Write’, Levy’s book, framed by her times-across the years-in a hotel in Spain, is a playful and painful exploration of all that led to her lifting the pen, pushing the keys, speaking with a louder voice. 

I wanted to turn down the corner of almost every other page and her choice of quotations from other writers was so perfectly apt that I wanted to go away and read those books too. She uses these quotations to push her thinking further. If, as Adrienne Rich said, ‘No woman is really an insider in the institutions fathered by masculine consciousness’ then Levy unravels Motherhood (her capital letter) as ‘an institution fathered by masculine consciousness’ that leads to Levy staring at a poster in her bathroom of the skeletal system that she continuously misreads as the societal system and to tears on every upward escalator.

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Body of Stars by Laura Maylene Walter

In the alternative world of Body of Stars, women are born with markings on their bodies that predict their futures. During a vulnerable transition from child to woman, when girls are called changelings and their senses are heightened, their markings alter overnight, creating patterns that fix their futures on their skin. The markings and their interpretation are noted and regulated by the state through a book called Mapping the Future: An Interpretive Guide to Women and Girls. Men have no such markings, their future and skins blank, and they are denied the authority to interpret.

During a girl’s transition to womanhood their beauty, alongside their sensory perception, is heightened. They are warned of how vulnerable they are to male attention and desire. They are encouraged to cover up, never walk alone, and stay home after dark.

The novel tracks Celeste’s transition from her girlhood markings to her adult markings. We follow her as she moves from one state to another, attempting to understand her role in life through the confines of her skin. A skin her brother, Miles, has always been fascinated by. He has examined, drawn and redrawn a particular patch near her left elbow and he has managed to find a woman to teach him interpretation even though it is forbidden for men to become interpreters.

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The Girls Are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

The Girls Are All So Nice Here is a real thriller exploring the lengths some women will go to keep their best friend.

I’m not sure I’m the target audience for this novel. Though I did pretty much read the book in one sitting, unable to leave the page before I found out quite what dreadful event happened all those years ago at University, I found the exploration of obsessive female friendship somehow outdated. These young women were so firmly situated in their roles within the patriarchy that though they may have been invented to challenge it, to show how stereotyping women could have horrifying consequences when those very women used that stereotype for their own means, they instead felt unreconstructed, rigid caricatures. But again, perhaps I wasn’t quite the right reader.

The writing is certainly compelling and written with twists in just the right places to keep you guessing. It also begins with a reunion. That kind of hook is hard to ignore.

If you like a campus mystery with mean girls whose behaviour is more acerbic than most you can think of on our screens, then this darkly twisted tale will be right up your street.

I’ll be reviewing Body of Stars by Laura Maylene Walter next.