My interview with the author of my MA dissertation text has been published on the Asymptote blog this evening and you can read it here.
I’ve been a little quiet here recently, mainly because I’ve been focusing on my MA dissertation (which I finally handed in on Friday, hooray!) and I’ve been really involved with lots of projects with Asymptote and finding my feet in Germany.
However, my review of Helene Bukowski’s Milk Teeth, translated from the German by Jen Calleja, has been released today on the Asymptote blog!
It was certainly a surreal experience to select a work to review that just happened to have been translated by Jen, someone who’s been a great mentor to all us Literary Translation folks over the MA course. Fate, perhaps?
Anyway, it was a great (dystopian) read, and you can read my take on it here
I have to be honest with you all. I watched this film a few years ago, and only got the book this year. It was a wonderful film; beautifully touching, funny and sad in equal measure. And the book is even better.
Jack and his mother live in Room. There’s Bed, and Stove and Bath and Dresser and Skylight and Wardrobe and not much else. It’s Jack’s fifth birthday, but his mum has been stuck in Room for 7 years now. 7 years in a few square metres. Reading this book has come with a new perspective in the Age of Covid, as I watched the film before quarantine was an existing reality. Now that quarantine is a thing we’ve all experienced, the prospect of spending 7 years in a single room becomes even more harrowing. Hell, I couldn’t even manage two days inside without sneaking out for midnight walks (nowhere near anybody, everyone chill out).
Jack and his Ma hatch a plan to get them out of Room. Jack has to play dead so their captor will bring him outside to bury him in the forest, but will it work? Will Jack manage to free his Ma from Room?
This book is all written from the perspective of five-year-old Jack which is a feat in itself, one which I appreciate even more so having spent so much time on characterisation and narrative voice in my MA year. The consistency and clarity of Jack’s voice is incredible, and this novel is incredibly ambitious. It feels like he’s speaking right to you, right through you. Donoghue has managed to seemingly perfectly channel a five-year-old’s grammar, odd word order and made-up onomatopoetic names for things. I’m thinking she absolutely must must must have had young children, or have had some young children in the family at the time. Otherwise she’s superhuman, a voice-channeling genie in the pages of a book.
The plot is taught and breathless towards the middle despite so much of the narrative being spent in Room. The trauma and difficulties of the second half of the book feel real and visceral, as does society’s treatment of women who’ve escaped from these macabre situations; as curiosities, almost freakshows. Room is a book that needs to be read quickly, digested slowly and then marveled at.
“You can’t expect the world to be exactly the same as it is in books.”
Skalde and her mother Edith live cut off from the world by fog and a collapsed bridge. Civilization has also collapsed, and they live on the edge of a small loosely-knit group in the so-called ‘territory’. Edith arrived as an outsider, so they are tolerated, yet treated with disdain and suspicion by most of the few people they have any contact with. Skalde loses herself in books until the day she starts losing her milk teeth and finds a girl in the forest called Meisis. Slowly, she finds the strength to rebel against her mother’s neglect and to question the rules of the society she finds herself in.
This is a claustrophobic work. As a child, Skalde rarely leaves their house and garden. The novel feels particularly relevant in the Covid era, as this kind of situation now feels all-too-familiar to all of us. The world beyond the river is a scary, dangerous place that presses at the edges of their small world. It’s a reminder that we are living in an increasingly atomised age — an era of isolationism between countries rather than internationalism, sparked by the international shift to the right, the feeling of some leaders that ‘my country is an island’ — and catalysed by Covid.
In the ‘territory,’ suspicion of outsiders takes hold in Milk Teeth, echoing the eagerness of some to make certain groups responsible for ‘spreading’ new variants in the Covid era. Neighbours judge neighbours, people are cast out for reasons as trivial as having red hair or failing to lose their milk teeth. The setting — dense fog followed by blazing heat in an indiscernible survivalist purgatory, only adds to the novel’s cloying nature. I read this while quarantining. In some ways, it was the best situation in which to read this book, if completely unnerving.
Milk Teeth is difficult to categorise. In some ways, it is a traditional survivalist novel: the narrator rears rabbits, plants potatoes, makes her own soap. In other ways, this book’s eccentricities combine to make a work that is singularly strange: its chapters are entirely inconsistent, the narrator is highly unreliable, and the reader is left with the feeling that everything is distinctly off-kilter, left wondering if anything described is even ‘real’. The narration and prose are dreamlike and topsy-turvy, the women live in a bubble within a closed-off society. Edith never seems to eat yet always paints her lips a new colour, lays in the bath for hours or days on end, and wears a black rabbit skin coat in summer. She feeds her dogs tree bark. To use the vocabulary of Stranger Things, it’s as though they are stuck in the ‘Upside Down’.
Much of the novel is left unexplained. I wondered why society had collapsed: why those who founded the territory fled over the bridge and then blew it up behind them. I wondered where Edith came from, why the trees don’t fruit and the rabbits die. I feel there could be some deeper warning here about the imminent climate emergency we are all facing, but this isn’t a book to read if you’re looking for answers rather than more questions. The novel is short, and the short chapters create an almost breathless reading experience
The fragmentation of this novel also adds to its mystery. Some chapters are no more than short scraps of memory. Time doesn’t seem to move in any logical way. Sometimes the novel’s fragmentation is a drawback, as the plot seems to meander in the second half of the book without really building to anything. Skalde seems to speak directly through the reader via the medium of cryptic notes written to herself, which appear in block capitals. I particularly enjoyed these sections — Jen Calleja has constructed sentences with a beautiful cadence in English:
“HOW LONG CAN I STAND UPRIGHT WHEN HOLDING UP MY OWN BODY BRINGS ME TO MY KNEES TWICE AS HARD”
The novel and some of the block caps notes are reminiscent of Cormack Mccarthy’s The Road in its brutality and graphic focus on telling a survival story via the senses:
“I DREAMED THE SMELL OF GUNPOWDER. THE LAND HAS BEEN LEFT FULL OF HOLES. THESE VOIDS ARE MY DOWNFALL.”
This book isn’t for the fainthearted, or someone looking for an uplifting message. Like The Road, this book is dark, heavy, and throws light on the worst facets of the human condition: fear, hatred, mistrust, suspicion, selfishness and neglect. There is violence, but I would say this novel is harrowing on a more psychological level. One of the most tragic themes is the broken relationship between Skalde and her mother Edith. The arrival of Meisis only seems to heat tensions in the household as Edith plays mind games, ignoring and then favouring Meisis over Skalde. The group shun Meisis as an outsider and initiate a campaign of slowly increasing terror and intimidation against them.
Edith, Meisis and Skalde become the town scapegoats and all problems are laid at their door, including the disappearance of a child. It’s a reminder that, in a time of crisis, we often seek to impose meaning on madness, we want to find an easy solution, to make it make sense. Someone or something has to be to blame. But prejudice and finger-pointing only ever serve to endanger us further and tear us further apart. Milk Teeth isn’t a comfortable read, but it’s a timely book. It’s the kind of novel with a lingering taste, one that weighs on the soul. It’s the kind of book that asks for introspection, makes you take a deep look at yourself and wonder aren’t we all just as bad?
Recently, I haven’t had the time to do full book reviews like I used to because I’ve been in a dissertation hole. But now the first draft is done (touch wood) and I’m letting it mature on my laptop like a fine wine before opening it again. So I’m vegetating on a Friday morning in front of the Olympics and reminiscing over the most memorable books I’ve been reading recently. Watching events at the velodrome always reminds me of that episode of Malcolm in the Middle where Hal gets into speedwalking and ends up competing with his neighbour for the tightest, lycra-est and most ridiculous speedsuit and helmet combo:
The Familiars by Stacey Halls
Absolutely wonderful historical novel covering the well-known and hidden aspects of the Pendle witch trials in the northwest of England, 1612. Fleetwood Shuttleworth (what a name!) is the very young wife of a young gentry dandy, and pregnant for the 4th time. She’s had three miscarriages already, probably because she’s 17, but everyone seems to think there’s something wrong with her instead of telling her husband to hold off impregnating a child. Fleetwood seeks the help of a mysterious wise woman and ends up enmeshed in a witch frenzy…
This was a beautiful book and easy to read, a good light relief from everyday life as well as being packed with history and covering women’s historical lack of agency and how the patriarchy fed into the witch craze.
The Foundling by Stacey Halls
I loved Hall’s first book so much I went back for more! Immediately (because I know The Works don’t stock books forever). I liked this book slightly less than the first one, mostly because I didn’t find the subject matter as fascinating. I love the occult, the esoteric, the supernatural, myths, folklore and legends; so witch trials are right up my street. The premise of this novel was the Foundling hospital in Georgian London. The protagonist, Bess, drops her day-old baby off because she cannot afford to keep her, and the father is dead. She scrimps and saves for six years and finally puts enough money away to go and collect her. But then Bess finds out her daughter has already been collected, by her mother. Who stole her child?
I did really enjoy this book, but there were a few plot holes with kind of ruined the experience for me. Why wouldn’t Mrs Callard know Bess was Charlotte’s mother straight away, if she knew Bess had dropped a baby off at the hospital and was the spitting image of Charlotte? Why would she ever employ her as a maid? The simple answer is that she wouldn’t have, and the book falls apart.
Wally Funk’s Race for Space by Sue Nelson
I have rather eclectic tastes in books. It’s usually based on whatever I can fish out of the clearance boxes at The Works. This was an absolute steal, and a brilliant book. As a feminist, I was a bit miffed we spend our childhoods learning about Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but nobody’s ever heard of the Mercury 13. Who were the Mercury 13? 13 women who passed the exact same gruelling astronaut tests as the men, before their funding was suddenly cut in 1961 because NASA were getting antsy, probably at the idea that female astronaut candidates were doing better than NASA thought they would (and they were worried these 13 plucky gals might steal some of the limelight away from the Mercury 7 men.)
Wally Funk was one of the Mercury 13. A huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, mountain bikin’ 21-year-old star pilot- who later became the first woman employed to teach both women and men how to fly and one of the first female air crash investigators. In the late 1950s and 1960s, female pilots were rarer than unobtanium under the surface of Pandora, so these women ought to be recognised as the trailblazers they were, who underwent extreme mental and physical tests and were just as willing as the Mercury 7 men to give up their lives in the name of space exploration. What a book!
I wish I had time to write reviews of all the lovely books I’ve been managing to squeeze into my evenings at the moment (the stack next to my bed is slowly going from 3ft high to something under that), but I don’t. However, I still feel the itch to write. So, a quick window into my state of mind:
Wuthering Heights was fabulous, if horrendously confusing. I referred to the family tree in the front about 400 times. I should have stuck a post-it on that page so I could find it easier. Nobody smiles. Almost everyone dies. There’s nothing raunchy, only violence and terrible people with terrible motives making everyone else feel miserable and thus perpetuating the cycle of terribleness.
Frankenstein definitely felt like an early novel. Why say something in one page that you can say over several? Who says a paragraph can’t be three pages long? Do I have enough adjectives in this sentence? No, surely not! Add some more! More! MORE ADJECTIVES! And a monster who can quote Dante? Let’s not address that at all!
Hats off to Shelley, though. I mean no disrespect. She did something amazing in writing the first science fiction novel. Imagine a world without Star Wars.
Other than that, keywords of the month have been:
Fingers crossed this post-Brexit Covid dystopia we’re living in doesn’t get in the way of starting my teaching course in Germany in September, but it may well. It. May. Well.
A punchy story of sin and redemption.
Elizabeth Chadwick is a prodigious historical fiction author. She has dozens of books to her name, yet this was the first one of her which I read. It definitely didn’t disappoint, and I would go back for more, but it’s nothing groundbreaking either. It’s a good story told well, and based on sound research. Chadwick hit her stride when it comes to novels possibly even decades ago, so I’m not surprised that the storyline and character arcs are tight if not a touch formulaic.
I’m not sure why I’d never read something by Chadwick before. Possibly it’s because my historical fiction consumption tends to focus on later centuries- Tudor, Victorian. I have nothing against the medieval age but it does tend to be told as epic stories of knights and damsels, which is sort of the case here, but Templar Silks is also not completely typical of the genre. I studied the medieval age a lot at university, so I guess moving on to devouring Tudor fiction has been my way of rebelling since graduation.
I bought the book online, so I first noticed the reviews on the cover when I was about to open it up and start reading. They were certainly disconcerting. I saw the Times, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. I swallowed, my mouth went dry. Oh dear, I thought to myself, what kind of lens is this story going to be through? Then I read the blurb and realised it was about the Crusading era, and one knight’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land. My hands were sweaty and my stomach twisted. I thought I knew why it had gotten such glowing reviews from such demagogic trash newspapers. Was this going to be another story of evil Saracens and turbaned foreigners with dark skin, glinting black eyes and scimitars razing villages of ‘innocent’ European settlers to the ground and eventually being cut down by the ‘worthy’ Crusader knights? Were beautiful blonde princesses going to be stolen away by the swarthy Moslems? Was it going to completely ignore the fact that people had been living in the Middle East for thousands of years before the Europeans rocked up and decided it was theirs?
Needless to say, I was rather anxious as I turned the first few pages. Fortunately, Chadwick does realise that it’s all much more nuanced than that. The book focuses much more on internal conflicts inside the court of Jerusalem, with different warring factions vying for supremacy in the face of a dying king. King Baldwin is slowly succumbing to leprosy in his early twenties. He is level-headed, wise and extremely intelligent, but he cannot help the fact that his body is failing and literally falling apart. The heir to the throne is six years old. Saladin, the bane of the crusader state, is lurking on the sidelines, really to take advantage of Jerusalem’s weakness. Guy de Lusignan, arsehole extraordinaire, is little six-year-old Baldwin’s stepfather and assumes he will be taking over the reins when King Baldwin dies. Leprosy Baldwin would do anything to stop that from happening. The Patriarch Heraclius is playing his own mysterious games, seemingly sitting on the fence and biding his time with his mistress, Paschia de Riveri. Most of the other princes and lords around Jerusalem would rather eat cold vomit than follow Guy de Lusignan. The city is on a knife-edge, it’s a tinder box waiting to explode.
And in walks William Marshal, whom history calls ‘the greatest knight’. His master, the Young King Henry, has died of dysentery, and William promises to take his cloak to Jerusalem and lay it on the altar at the Holy Sepulchre to make amends for their sins- the greatest of which was stealing from a Holy Shrine to the Virgin Mary to pay their mercenaries. Marshal arrives at court and has to play the game, which he accomplishes rather well until he falls into the arms of the mysterious Paschia…
I think Marshal’s character is written brilliantly. As ‘the greatest knight’, it would be extremely easy to make this character one-dimensional, to make him a bland, wholly morally good chivalric hero who saves the city- a Jon Snow-esque trope. However, Chadwick gives him depth and vibrancy. He sins, he makes mistakes, and he proves himself to be an astute political player as well as an outstanding warrior. Knights had to know how to do both – they had to manoeuvre for patronage and favours to survive. It was a delight to read in most places, and, despite it being around 500 pages long, I finished it in a few days. It’s a light read but still maintains beautiful description throughout. Chadwick is a great writer, but her prose is not as dense, complex or loaded as other writers such as Mantel. But that’s absolutely fine. Chadwick is great at world-building, giving us enough detail without the prose becoming bloated. Her development of the brotherhood between William and Ancel is one of the most touching aspects of the book.
So why four stars instead of five? I’m not sure. It was a great book. But it’s not Mantel. The baddies were obvious from the get-go. The affair was also obvious. Nothing came at me like a ton of bricks.
A testament to its era, Sinclair’s 1917 modernist classic has recently been re-printed by the British Library.
I can understand why Sinclair has been called ‘the readable modernist’. Think Victoria Woolf but instead of taking three pages to describe one action, Sinclair only takes one. I appreciate Woolf for what she did for literature and women in general, but I can’t read Woolf. I can read Sinclair though.
I bought this book for its references to the Women’s Suffrage Movement, but it was also so much more than that. Since it was first published in 1917, it’s not surprising that all roads lead to war. The Suffrage Movement is one of the threads in the book, as represented through Dorothea Harrison, but it’s by no means the main thread. Sinclair also presents a fairly nuanced attitude towards the militant suffrage societies which is by no means entirely positive. She could definitely be classified as an early feminist, and was part of a writer’s suffrage society herself, but she did not condone either the violent actions taken in for the Cause or the fanatical and autocratic leadership of the Pankhursts, fictionalised in this novel as the Blathwaites.
Dorothy spends a spell in Holloway Prison, and the experience is an almost divine epiphany for her, but she also refuses to become a member of the fictionalised WSPU because it would mean giving up her individuality and having to obey the leadership. Dorothy secretly disapproves of the devout attitudes of the society’s more fanatical members, and this eventually drives a wedge between her and her best friend Rosalind. I wasn’t expecting to have my own opinions reflected so accurately in this novel. I really appreciate the militant suffragettes of the WSPU for the attention they brought to the great Cause, but the more you read about Christabel and Emmeline, the less you like them. Especially Christabel. This is why she hardly features at all in my novel, and why I’m bringing in other characters with a less fanatical attitude than Kitty Marion, to show the range of feeling and belief within the suffrage movement itself.
The book is a modernist family drama at heart. It follows one upper-middle class family, the Harrisons, over several decades. In true modernist style, it focuses intently on each character’s inner life and motivations, which is why it sometimes takes several pages to describe what must only be a few seconds of action or dialogue. It also skips and flows fluidly between narrative points of view, which is no longer en vogue in fiction. The majority of fiction these days is either written in close third or in anthology style, from the POVs of several characters but confined to individual and distinct chapters. But I actually like fluid POV in the modernist style. However, when I tried to have fluid, shifting POVs in my novel-in-progress, it was absolutely workshopped to shreds by my coursemates. So I scrapped that and I’m now writing Rebellion in close third, purely from Kitty Marion’s POV.
I loved the psychological insights Sinclair gives us into her host of characters, each searching for fulfilment within the strict confines of Victorian and Edwardian society. Frances appears the model wife and mother, but you still get a sense that she is aware of her own wasted intelligence. The children all break with tradition in their own ways. Dorothy, the only girl, does not marry because she would have to give up her identity and individual beliefs. Her would-be fiancee doesn’t believe in the Suffrage Cause, and shows himself to be a narcissist when he assumes that Dorothy’s interest in Suffrage is a ruse to rile him.
Michael becomes a poet and doesn’t marry either, despite his father’s attempts to bring him into the family wood-importing business. Nicky marries too young. He marries a fickle artist who is pregnant with another man’s child. The child dies soon after birth and Nicky manages to get a divorce from Desmond, but it is still a blot on the family name. Obviously, not as much of a blot for Nicky as it is for Desmond, because ‘reasons’ (sexism).
I’m giving this book four stars because I started to switch off towards the end. Too much is explained via letters from the Front during the First World War, and as someone who is only interested in social and political history, military history sends me to sleep. And due to its lack of extreme and competing ideologies, the First World War is much less interesting to me than the Second. WWI was a tragedy for everyone involved, and nobody was really to blame. Millions died in the grinding methods of attrition in the first war of mechanised slaughter. However, I picked this book up for Suffrage and ended up skipping the last twenty pages.
A careful, considered, tragic page-turner which captures the refugee crisis by going beyond the headlines.
In 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron once referred to a ‘swarm’ of migrants in Calais, desperate to cross the channel by any means necessary. This caused a media shit-storm in the UK for its dehumanising of desperate human beings. I wonder if this had any impact on Lefteri’s decision to make bees one of the main threads of this beautiful book. An ironic nod, maybe?
My possibly completely wide-of-the-mark musings aside, I would recommend anyone reading this book. Absolutely anyone. It’s not perfect, which is why it doesn’t get five stars from me, but it goes a long way towards crafting a nuanced and human story out of something which we mainly only recognise from news clips beamed into our comfortable, centrally-heated homes with hot running water and no immediate threat of a shell coming through the roof. Lefteri may not be Syrian or Afghan herself, but she has had experience in working with refugees in Greece, and acknowledges the influence that listening to their stories has had on her crafting of this novel.
This novel was necessary. It’s so easy to feel detached from human suffering, to see refugees as ‘other’, to feel fear, to see them as a threat to ‘Western’ culture (whatever that is). When it’s reduced to soundbites and sovereignty, numbers and political wrangling over how many to let in, how much to give them, how much of a ‘danger’ they are to the fabric of society, it’s much more comfortable to think of refugees as some kind of amorphous, threatening mass pushing at the edges of good ole’ Blighty.
But these are people. People who have suffered enough for ten lifetimes. People who have seen their children die in front of them, their homes destroyed, their livelihoods ruined. People who have fled West hoping to build a better life for themselves and to protect the people they love most, in the hope of living in peace. Do you think that anyone would risk crossing from Turkey to Lesbos in an overloaded dinghy across the open ocean with no lifejackets if this were not life or death?
And let’s leave off the ‘economic migrants’ theory, said with a sneer over a pint of John Smith’s. Anyone who moves to another country is an economic migrant. Nobody willingly moves country without thinking they might be better off over there, they might be happier or have a higher standard of living or better quality of life. Why does it only become a negative when the person moving (or fleeing) their country is not white or Christian? Oh yeah, I think we all know why.
Anyway, this was a necessary book. I wish all those who see refugees as a vague, dark threat to Britishness would read this book. I wish they would try to make that mental leap of understanding. The protagonists of this novel, Nuri and Afra, are deep and nuanced. They have hidden strengths and surprising weaknesses. They love each other but their love is imperfect. After months and months of hardship, they have reached England and are in temporary accommodation, a B&B on the coast. They are stuck in limbo, anxiously waiting for their application for asylum to be approved. Both are indelibly scarred from their experience of the war in Syria.
This book is beautifully written, but almost too simple in places. It was a page-turner. I read it in under three days. It didn’t make me cry, although almost everyone I know who has read it had cried whilst reading it. The last book or film I cried at was Marley and Me. Animals dying still hits me ten times harder than humans.
A creepy, lyrical slow-burner that blends several genres: historical fiction and supernatural thriller.
A woman, Elizabeth Vogelsang, is found dead by her son Cameron Brown. She’s floating face-down in the river next to her Cambridge home, The Studio, clutching a glass prism. It’s ruled an accident, but the truth is far more complicated than it first appears.
Lydia Brooke, an author, is Elizabeth’s friend and Cameron Brown’s ex-lover. Cameron hires her to finish Elizabeth’s manuscript on Newton’s alchemical research. Lydia moves into The Studio and things start to get decidedly creepy once she starts poking around in the history of Isaac Newton’s obsessions.
There’s also a parallel storyline. A radical animal rights organisation (NABED) is busy threatening both Cameron and Lydia by association. Cameron is a neuroscientist whose laboratory regularly test on animals. Lydia and Cameron have been involved in an on/off adulterous relationship for years. Dead animals start turning up, and workers at the laboratory are attacked.
Stott’s writing is beautiful. This is a brilliantly researched book with more layers than a matriushka doll. The book contains several extracts from Elizabeth’s manuscript, and I certainly found the exploration of Isaac Newton’s true-to-life involvement with alchemy fascinating.
The supernatural side of the book was extremely well-written. I love horror, I love creepy, so books with supernatural elements really appeal to me. Lydia begins to feel uncomfortable living in Elizabeth’s home, and the light start to play tricks on her. Manuscript sections start to appear and disappear. A dead can turns up on the doorstep.
The thriller side of the book is compelling, until the last few chapters. This is not a new book, it was released in 2007, and you can definitely feel the influence of Dan Brown’s the Da Vinci code. It contains historical mysteries and secrets, with clever people investigating them. It contains shadowy organisations with ulterior motives. Some of the main characters turn out to be the exact opposite of what they seem. Some doors are slammed in their face, other doors open. Despite the controversy, I absolutely loved reading the Da Vinci code, so this connection really didn’t bother me.
Stott’s writing is also very cerebral and philosophical in places. She goes to great lengths to paint a picture with words, and draws on a huge variety of sources and influences. There are references to a vast array of historical figures and authors, and Brooke and Brown’s snappy conversations are extremely interesting if you’re a nerd like me.
The plot twist was very predictable and also a bit too much of a stretch for me. I won’t ruin it for you, but it did ruin the last few chapters or so. Once I knew the twist, I didn’t really want to read past it, because the book already felt finished.