The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

the lesser

I had no intention of getting on with this book. If it hadn’t been longlisted for the Baileys Prize then I would almost definitely carried on thinking ‘not for me’, just as I did with McBride’s feted debut novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (which I still have not read).  Written in a poetic, stream of consciousness style, this is a novel that takes a while to get into. Once I was immersed in it the style seemed natural to read. This book could not have worked without the almost dreamlike state its prose creates, and by the end I’d sort of fallen in love with it.

In its basic form, this is a love story set in the mid 90s. Eily, an eighteen year old drama student, moves from Ireland to London. She meets an older actor, Stephen, almost twenty years her senior and semi-famous. The novel is about their relationship over the course of the academic year. It is a coming of age story for Eily, but for Stephen too the relationship marks a turning point. Gradually we discover that both of them have troubled pasts.

Reading this was a little like watching a relationship through a Vaseline-smeared window. The way McBride writes her prose makes the words seem less concrete. Occasionally I missed who was speaking but enough was clear. Since Eily and Stephen spend large chunks of the book off their faces on booze or drugs, it felt more immersive to not have a crystal clear vision of everything they were doing and saying. About a third of the way through, I wondered if there was enough of a story to sustain my interest, but this is where McBride then delves back into their histories. Stephen, for me,  became a believable character here, telling Eily on the eve of his birthday about his childhood and early adulthood. Before that, I did think him a little clichéd – the older man, actor who could have made it bigger had he not battled drug addiction, constantly shagging everything that moved.

While Stephen became fully rounded through his revelations, I never really understood what made Eily tick. Even though this written in first person, in her thoughts, there was a childlike quality to her that never went away. She spends most of the novel trying to grab Stephen’s attention. He is the older man with the more interesting life. Maybe if McBride had brought us more from her time in Ireland, or spent more time with her one friend that she seemed to have, I would have cared more for her. I think it was her lack of interests outside of the relationship that made me find her a little two dimensional. Even the acting was shared by both of them.

The revelation for me is that I really did enjoy this book and I’d not be upset to see it on the Baileys shortlist. I think it would be a good addition just for the bold way McBride writes (plus I hate writing sex scenes and she had to write loads in this! None of which I found excruciating to read).

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

The woman next door

After having my mind blown by The Power I needed something a little lighter to read and so I turned to this next in my Baileys Prize TBR pile.

The Woman Next Door is the story of two women in their eighties. As the title suggests, Hortensia and Marion live next door to each other in an affluent Cape Town suburb. Hortensia is black, originally from Barbados while Marion is white and a Cape Town native. On the face of it they have a lot in common. Both are recently widowed and have made some unsettling discoveries about the men they spent their lives with. Both had impressive careers, in architecture and design. However, they also hate one another. It is only an unforeseen accident that forces the two together.

This is a light read but it takes on a lot: loneliness, racism, betrayal. Both women are facing the end of their lives and having to admit to themselves that they ‘made do’. Neither had a particularly happy marriage and both have been left with their husband’s secrets to deal with. It seems inevitable that the women will end up finding common ground, but it’s not made easy. Both are fairly cantankerous, and they seem to enjoy winding one another up.

There is added tension in the fact that Marion is without doubt a product of the old apartheid society. She claims that Hortensia plays the ‘race card’ too often, but her own children call her racist. One of the funnier moments is when Marion discovers that her black maid, Agnes, has been bringing her own toilet paper to work. Marion had decided that her own two ply tissue was not necessary for Agnes and had provided her with one ply. Agnes, disagreeing, brought three ply with her instead, forcing Marion to upgrade her own toilet paper so as not to be outdone.

Where I struggled a little with the book was the past history of the women. I didn’t really understand why Marion didn’t get on with her husband, or why she had so many children when she didn’t come across as the maternal type and clearly resented having had to give up her architectural practice. I was also unsure why Hortensia, who had endured dirty looks and being spat at on the streets of 1950s London, accepted at an early age that her marriage would not be what she’d hoped. Obviously there was a lot more going on than this (not wanting to give too much away!) but I didn’t buy it completely. I wanted more interaction between the partners during those scenes set in the past. I found these flashback scenes more interesting than the storyline in the present, for the most part.

Overall, I thought this was a strong novel, deserving of its longlist status, but I would be surprised to see it on the shortlist just because the competition this year is so incredible.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power

I often read quotes on book jackets and find them either so generic as to be useless, or the book doesn’t live up to the billing. In this case, Margaret Atwood’s quote is entirely apt.

It happens slowly at first, but across the world teenage girls are discovering that they have a new ability. Their bodies can generate electricity which can be discharged through their fingers. It is then discovered that younger girls can awaken this power in the older generations. Most women have a ‘skein’, the newly discovered body part which generates the power. Men do not have it, apart from a few with chromosomal differences. This novel explores the theory that it is men’s physical abilities that have resulted in our patriarchal society, and looks at what might therefore happen if the tables were turned.

The story is narrated via four main characters: Roxy, daughter of a gangster, who uses her powers to take revenge on the men who killed her mother; Allie, a mixed race child in care who escapes an abusive foster family; Margot, mayor and mother; and Tunde, a young man who forges a career in journalism by travelling the world in search of uprisings. Their stories begin separately but intertwine towards the end. The choice of characters worked well and having a male character showed a different perspective.

This book was excellent regarding the small role changes that occurred quickly: the way that the alpha male TV news broadcaster gradually gets undermined by his younger female co-host; echoes of Trump when Margot goes up against a male candidate for Governor. There are also several incidences of rape – female against male – and while I felt that a couple of these were justified, I thought it became a little gratuitous by the end, especially as they became more violent and graphic in description. I have also read some criticism of the way Muslim women are portrayed (this is concerning the Saudi revolution – though I get that this is a simplified reversal of events such as those that took place in Iran in the 1970s).

Alderman builds tension by counting down to an unknown event. We begin at ‘Ten years to go’ and each section skips ahead a year or two. Generally I thought this worked well, since it would take time for societal changes to bed in, though at times I forgot that we’d moved on a few years, so eager was I to read quickly. I can’t say more without giving away massive spoilers but I was unsure about the very end of the book – I wasn’t sure it entirely worked. Nevertheless, a brilliant novel. In the wrong hands this could have easily become unfocused  given the scope of it, but Alderman corrals her characters expertly to bring together a thrilling book.

I  read this as part of the Baileys Prize longlist. I probably won’t have time to read all the novels before the shortlist is announced but here are links to those I’ve already reviewed:

Books – The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

lincoln...George Saunders has won myriad awards for his short stories, and so perhaps it is no wonder that this, his first novel, was so highly anticipated.

Set in 1862, the American Civil War is ongoing, Abraham Lincoln is president, and his eleven-year-old son, Willie is ill. The boy dies and is laid to rest. This is all fact, as is the documented knowledge that Lincoln went back to the crypt alone several times to visit his son. Saunders uses real history and then intertwines it with his fiction to create this novel.

Willie Lincoln is trapped in the bardo, a Tibetan Buddhist term for the transitional state following death. Within the cemetery he encounters other ghosts who have resided in this state for varying amounts of time. His main companions are three men: Hans Vollman, a former printer who died on the day he was to consummate his marriage to a much younger woman; Roger Bevins iii, who killed himself after being rejected by his lover, and the Reverend Everly Thomas, who knows more than the others about where they are and what comes next. They make it their mission to move Willie onto the next place, knowing that children who remain in the bardo are eventually consumed by it.

Outside of the bardo we also have historical reports on Abraham Lincoln himself. Criticism of his actions (the Lincolns decided not to cancel a party that was held while Willie was ill) at home and politically as the numbers slain in the war rose has put great stress on him. Young Willie clings to the bardo because he hopes that his father will come back again, and the mission of the main trio of ghosts becomes to convince the elder Lincoln, with whom they cannot converse, to release his son.

This is not set out on the page like a usual novel. Saunders writes out his prose as first hand accounts of the various characters, when characters converse there are no speech marks, though it is never clear how they actually communicate, and the ‘ghosts’ can possess one another and feel each other’s thoughts, though they don’t often do this. Saunders’ techniques add to the effect of this being a mystical plane, removed from life on earth but within grasp of it. Most of the ‘ghosts’ don’t even realise that they are dead, referring to their coffins as sick-boxes, and wondering when they may return home. Of course, there is much humour woven throughout (a book about death could in other hands become quite depressing!) and, without giving too much away, many of the characters are grotesque either in personality or appearance.

This is a brilliant book, everything that I would have expected from Saunders from my knowledge of his short stories.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

we have always lived

Over the years I’ve had this book recommended to me countless times. It’s a short novel, only 146 pages, but Jackson creates an atmospheric and unsettling world.

The story is told by Mary Katherine Blackwood, nicknamed Merricat. She is eighteen years old and lives with her older sister, Constance, and her Uncle Julian in a big house on the outskirts of a village. Everyone else in her family is dead, victims of a poisoning six years previously. Constance was tried for murder, being the only family member present at the dinner to not fall ill (Julian survived but has never fully recovered, Merricat had been sent to bed for bad behaviour). Arsenic was found in the sugar bowl so this was no accident.

Jackson ramps up the suspense from the first page. Merricat tells the reader that the library books are five months overdue, and that until recently she went into the village twice a week to buy supplies and visit the library. We know that something happened, but not yet what. The first chapter documents Merricat’s last visit to the village:

It never mattered who was in the grocery. I was always served at once; Mr Elbert or his pale greedy wife always came right away from wherever they were in the store to get me what I wanted. Sometimes, if their older boy was helping out in school vacation, they hurried to make sure that he was not the one who waited on me and once when a little girl – a child strange to the village, of course – came close to me in the grocery Mrs Elbert pulled her back so roughly that she screamed and then there was a long still minute while everyone waited before Mrs Elbert took a breath and said, “Anything else?”

The turning point comes when the girls’ Cousin Charles arrives out of the blue one day. Seemingly preoccupied with the rumoured wealth of his cousins (they have removed their money from the bank and keep it in a safe in the house), and admitting that his own parents have recently died and left little wealth behind. Merricat immediately distrusts him, but Constance is more hospitable, glad even to have a newcomer. Poor Constance, acquitted and yet still blamed for the deaths by the villagers, never leaves the house and at twenty eight years old is trapped caring for an elderly uncle and her younger sister who can best be described as disturbed.

Jackson’s use of language, the way she drips in new information regularly so that the reader is constantly adjusting what they think may have happened, is masterful. There is always a worry with books that promise so much so early on that the end will not deliver. That was not the case here. Published in 1962, this was the last of her five novels. I am now keen to delve into her other work.

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

dear-ijeawele.jpg

Last night I heard Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speak at the Royal Festival Hall, London (part of the Women of the World festival). Interviewed by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, she spoke brilliantly on this, her new book, and gave her thoughts on why feminism is important and what it means to her.

Written as a letter to a friend who has asked for advice in bringing her daughter up as a feminist, the book has a conversational tone, as funny yet direct as Adichie is in real life. These are fifteen sensible suggestions, given alongside examples that illustrate how our patriarchal society behaves towards even those women who have achieved positions of great power.

In her fourth suggestion, Adichie talks of the dangers of Feminism Lite, a sort of female equality which has conditions attached. These ideas suggest that men are superior but that women should expect to be treated well:

Feminism Lite uses the language of ‘allowing’. Theresa May is the British prime minister and here is how a progressive British newspaper described her husband: ‘Philip May is known in politics as a man who has taken a back seat and allowed his wife, Theresa, to shine.’

Allowed.

She talks in her seventh suggestion about marriage and the tendency towards it being seen as an achievement for women. Contrasting the Clintons, when Hillary Clinton ran for president, she listed ‘Wife’ as her first descriptor on her Twitter account while Bill lists ‘Founder’. She originally kept her surname, Rodham, after marriage, but was persuaded to change it to Clinton so that her husband did not lose votes.

Before Adichie spoke last night, Angela Davis gave a talk in the same venue. Both events sold out and I wasn’t able to get into Davis’s talk, but I managed to watch about 20 minutes on the livestream. A common thread is the idea that, especially in western societies, we shrug and say, well, can’t change that within our lifetime so why bother? Behind this book is the message that we can change society for those who come after us, and why not? Adichie pointed out that a more equal society would benefit not only women but men as well. A patriarchal society reduces men in many ways. One example is the idea that if a woman wears a short skirt then a man may not be able to control his behaviour. But what does that say about the man? That he is subhuman? Surely not!

This is a short book filled with simple ideas that work. It is written to a woman with a young daughter, but as Allfrey said during the discussion, there is no point in raising feminist daughters and not feminist sons. Men can be feminists too (so many times on Twitter etc. I see women telling men to butt out of ‘women’s issues’!) and must be for society to change. If you know anyone with a birthday coming up, male or female, young or old, you could do worse than gift them a copy of this book.

Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge

Another day

It took me a week to read this book. Brilliantly written, the stories Younge tells are so heartbreaking that I could only bear to read a chapter or two at a time. The premise is simple. Younge picked one day (Saturday 23 November 2013) and has reported on all the cases of young people shot dead in the US  he could find. This book focused on the lives of those boys and young men. Rather than becoming a lengthy lament on the lack of gun control in the US, the focus is on taking each victim individually and examining their separate circumstances. Younge writes in his introduction: ‘…it is not a book about gun control; it is a book made possible by the absence of gun control.’

Ten young lives are shared, aged from nine to nineteen, of different races, and all male. A few were gang related, several were shot by people they knew, either deliberately or accidentally. Most lived in neighbourhoods where gun crime was expected, but not all. As a person who has rarely even seen a gun, to read that in Chicago ‘it is estimated that between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of children in public schools have witnessed a shooting’ is shocking. It was interesting to read that although several of the deaths that occurred have been linked to gangs, either through the victim’s participation or via mistaken identity, none of them were known to own their own gun. Neither would having owned a gun have saved them. Two deaths were caused by friends who ‘borrowed’ a gun from a relative and accidentally discharged them.

Sandy Hook was supposed to be a watershed moment, the massacre that finally made the gun lobby relent and allow for some tighter legislation around gun control. It is referred to several times throughout the book because, where few of these boys’ deaths made the news, Sandy Hook was different because of the numbers and because of the victims’ ages (mostly only six or seven years old). Even then, with such media attention, the NRA were triumphant (Younge also flags up how they blocked the sale of smart guns – those that have locking mechanisms such as fingerprint ID to stop them from being fired by any other than the owner – by organising boycotts). The parents of these ten boys are resigned to the fact that little will change, and in fact had harboured worries that their children could be shot. I found the following paragraph shocking:

Herein lies one of the most tragic elements to emerge from my research: that every black parent of a teenage child I spoke to had factored in the possibility that this might happen to their kid. Indeed, most of them had channelled their parenting skills into trying to stop precisely that from happening. While others are exerting themselves to get their kids into a decent college, through their SATs, or to excel at sports or music, these parents (who love their offspring no less) are devoting their energies to keeping their kids alive long enough for them to transition either out of the neighbourhood, out of adolescence, or both. It dictates who they think their children should socialise with, where they can go, and when they have to be home. So when you ask them if they imagined that their sons’ lives could be so abruptly ended in this way, they give a knowing shrug. ‘You wouldn’t really be doing your job as a parent here if you didn’t think it could happen,’ one father in Newark, whose son was shot dead just a couple of hours later, told me.

While this is not an easy read because of the subject matter, it is an important insight into the faceless stats that we have become oblivious to. These were ten real boys with real families who grieve, and Younge has given them a face.