Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad 

My reading group chose Enter Ghost back in January. By that time the events in Gaza and the condemnations of Hamas and the Israeli government were familiar to anyone concerned with world events. In April the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced and Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad was one of the six books on the list. 

The blurb on the back indicates it is set in Israel, in Haifa and in the West Bank, and concerns a production of Hamlet. Shakespeare’s play is famously full of existential angst, political and family violence, and the dangers in the state of Denmark. It also includes the ghost of the title. All this added up to a novel I was anticipating reading with some pleasure.

Enter Ghost

The pleasure I had anticipated was somewhat delayed. At first, I found it quite hard to get into: there were many characters and their relationship and nicknames were not always clear. Sonia’s backstory was complicated (fractured family, lovers, marriage, career as an actor, miscarriages). It was largely set in the occupied areas of Israel, and involved many Palestinians, with different allegiances depending on where they lived. For a while, it was hard to know which strand of the story to hang on to.

That story begins when Sonia goes to visit her sister in Haifa after an unhappy break-up with her lover in the theatre in London. She plans to spend the summer there, with Hannan who teaches at the University of Tel Aviv, and reconnecting with other relations. Her father was a Palestinian by birth, eventually leaving for Lebanon and then London. 

Sonia meets a friend of Hannan’s, Miriam who is directing an Arabic version of Hamlet. The cast is a very eclectic group of actors, mostly men from various parts of the occupied territories, although none from Gaza. The star, taking the part of Hamlet is a famous pop singer, Wael Hejazi. Miriam’s cast lacks actors for both female roles: Ophelia and Gertrude, and Sonia agrees to stand in for a while. An actor is found to play Ophelia, and Sonia agrees to join the cast as Gertrude. Later Wael decides to leave the cast and a new Hamlet must be found. The shifting of the personnel may be a feature of life in that part of the world. Characters and crew are often absent as a result of the political situation. There is the perennial problem of transport interrupted by numerous checkpoints; one of the cast must attend an interrogation; another is uncovered as a spy; tension is high and in Jerusalem the Al-Aqsa Mosque becomes the focus of tensions for a few days; and the Israeli army appears at their rehearsals and the first performance – a ghostly presence behind the audience.

It was at the point when Sonia and some fellow cast members are held at one of the checkpoints that my interest in the novel took hold. The connections between Hamlet and the events in the Middle East, between acting and real life, become very stark. In an exercise the cast has played a checkpoint scene. Wael had played the Israeli soldier. When their car is stopped, he is the one who is held. Sonia’s reaction increases the danger level by challenging the power of the armed men. The scene in ‘real life’ (the novel’s reality) is more dramatic, more dangerous, more scary. 

There is a great deal more to this novel than the production of Hamlet, although the rehearsals and progress towards performance provide the narrative with its strong thread. Also, poignantly, Sonia and her sister have much to resolve, and there is much to discover about the older generations’ experiences, especially during the Nakba of 1948. 

Sonia has much to decide about her own roots, about her life back in London, including her love life, about her reactions to her experiences in Israel and the occupied territories, about connections between people and their significance, especially in an area and time of heightened political tension. 

Last month, our reading group discussed The Making of the Middle East: a personal history by Jeremy Bowen (2022). It will be interesting to discuss the connections between the detailed history provided by that book and our choice for this month. And I wonder how they have reacted to reading this novel.

Finally, a personal note of my own. I once wrote a short story, also dependent upon Hamlet. It featured a thespian of ambition who had been thwarted by death but returned to play the part of the ghost. I loved the idea of a ghost playing a ghost on the stage, and how others would react. It was called “Alas, Poor Ghost”. I also tried a comedy short story about a ghost in a supermarket. It was an attempt at a far-fetched idea, bit was not a great success. So much for ghosts.

Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad, published in 2023 by Vintage. 323pp. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2024

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Cairn by Kathleen Jamie

I knew before I saw a copy in Waterstones, Piccadilly, that I would love this book. I had already found Kathleen Jamie ‘s previous books, Sightlines and Surfacing, absorbing, thoughtful, full of engaging observations, mostly in poetic form. Some of the pleasure came from her archaeological excursions.

The cover is beautiful.

The book is lovingly produced with clean paper, pencil illustrations, nice print.

I was in London for the weekend immediately following the election, ready to celebrate and ready for new ideas.

Cairn

A cairn is a pile of stones, usually small stones, usually created by people as they pass: ‘rough old assemblages, decades of stones heaped on stones!’ We see many cairns on Dartmoor, some even raising the height of a tor. 

The title beautifully indicates the nature of the contents of this short volume. It is made up of short pieces, rarely more than two pages, most only one, being descriptions of small moments, observations and reflections on these moments, and many considered through the passing of time. (Just like pebbles). The publisher calls them micro essays, but ‘micro essay’ seems to me to be too modern an idea, or at least too modern a term for these short pieces.

In the prologue she reflects on how, reaching 60, ageing affects how she sees things, thinks about things, about herself, her life.

My younger self wrote her earnest poems, and scampered through her thirtieth year. Sixty was different. Now there are more certainties. I can still look out at the sea alright, by night or day, but now, the shape of my life’s arc is becoming visible, as it were. It is no longer below the horizon. Unless there is a sudden curtailment, I can sense the shape of my life pinned against the longer spans and cycles of the natural world I was born into. I can imagine the world going on without me, which one doesn’t at thirty. Or shouldn’t. (18)

Ageing includes seeing the world differently from how one’s children see it. She talks to active young people who do not know about Greenham Common, for example. The image of the stones, rounded by years, centuries, aeons of time reflects the epigraph from John Berger: ‘Stone propose another sense of time …’

Perhaps that is why the arrangement of stones in Kettrle’s Yard, Cambridge is so moving.

Kettle’s Yard, July 2023

She muses on the uncertain future of the planet, her fears for it, as humans are so careless with it.  

Short pieces, usually of beautiful observations of the natural world, but also of people working together to preserve it (eg demos), looking at how aging changes observations, and how she fears for the future of the planet.

We are everywhere surrounded by those down-curves out of abundance into scarcity, even into extinction. (61)

The fears are for the world, but also for her children and the generations to come. 

Kathleen Jamie gives us some poems too. In 2021 she was appointed Makar, the Scottish national poet. I read her work because she keeps me focused on the wonders of our world. Was it because I had read this volume over the weekend that I noticed what raindrops on the trees when I took the dog into the forest this morning for her walk?

Holden Forest, Devon. July 2024

These poems and short prose pieces, complemented a weekend spent with friends, with art (Now You See Us, Women Artists in Britain 1520 – 1920 at the Tate), and with music (Schubert Quintet performed by the Esmé Quartet at the Wigmore on Sunday morning). Culture, nature, community. The last line of the shape poem Cairn is 

We are more than the sum of our parts. (131)

And as it is with stones, and people, so it is with words.

… a word is not a single and separate entity; it is part of other words. Indeed it is not a word until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other … [Virginia Woolf in a BBC radio broadcast in 1937: On Craftsmanship]

And the last words of the epilogue

A raven glides past, giving you the eye.
Huh, she croaks, you. (136)

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (October 2019)

Cairn by Kathleen Jamie, published in 2024 by Sort of Books. Pencil illustrations by Miek Zwamborn. 139pp

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There were No Windows by Norah Hoult

There were No Windows is a powerful novel. Perhaps everyone who survives into their seventies begins to think of the threat of dementia. It’s a cruel condition that appears to rob the person of themselves bit by bit. There have been some excellent fictional accounts of older women with dementia. For example, I found Emma Healey’s depiction of Maud in Elizabeth is Missing to be respectful and well-imagined. Many novels treat older women as comic characters, forgetful to the point of amusement. As long ago as 1944 Norah Hoult presented readers with Claire Temple in There were No Windows, a woman who barely understood that there was a war on, and that the blackout and rationing had implications for every household. It is a sympathetic depiction of a women in her 70s who is at a loss to manage herself in the world. It is also a difficult and sad read.

Where can you hear the voices of older women? How often do you hear them or read them? I began the series, older women in fiction, on this blog assuming that I would not find many books featuring the lives of older women. I was wrong. Thanks to many readers I have compiled a list that now contains more than 100 titles, with 68 of them linked to reviews on this blog. This is the 68th post in the series.

There were No Windows

Britain is at war and Claire Temple is an older woman, in her 70s, living in a nice house in Kensington, looked after by one general servant who she addresses as ‘cook’. This is Kathleen, a young Irish woman who can stand up for herself. She needs to because Mrs Temple has become very forgetful and not very nice. Also, the war is on and they must both cope with new requirements: blackout, rations, disappearance of items such as cream and so forth. In addition, Claire is very lonely as so many of the people she once knew have died or moved away from London for the duration.

Claire was once a successful writer, of ghost stories, and knew all the literary set. She had been proposed to by Oscar Wilde, and lived with Herbert Temple, (apparently modelled on Ford Maddox Ford) whom she claimed to have married. She lives inside her head and her house as if nothing has changed: she has got older and is energetic and lonely. She realises that she has a bad memory. Gradually she understands that everything, including London, has changed. One afternoon she finds that a store, possibly on Kensington High Street, is closing although the clock says the time is ten-past four. She learns it is the effect of a war-time regulation in London.

‘O London, where have you gone?’ she cried out in her heart. The London she had known, of smart tea-shops, of taxis which appeared when one raised one’s finger, the London of theatres where one sat in a stall, and waved to one’s friends, and went over to talk to them in the interval, the London of book-shops, where one had only to ask for the manager, and say who one was, to be treated with respect. She had imagined that all that went on, though, of course, without her, because she was now shabby and old and, having lost her memory, had lost her friends. But the clock that said ten-past four had opened a crack in her world through which she viewed with horror for a few moments an abomination of desolation that was all about her. If one got on one of those red buses travelling east, she would see, she believed indeed she had seen, sandbags in Kensington Gardens. Kensington Gardens, sentimentalised by dear Barrie into a nursery for Peter Pans, Wendys and Nanas in perpetuity. Or so one had thought. But Kensington Gardens had not, after all, been made secure by Barrie. Was Barrie dead? Very probably, since everyone she had known, or even known of, seemed to be dead. (221)

In part one we read of Claire Temple’s experiences as she struggles with her diminished capacities, mostly through her battles with Kathleen. The reader can see what hell her life has become, how Claire cannot see beyond her own world. In the second section she is visited by three people from her past: a former friend, a former employee and her publisher. She is so lonely she entreats everyone to stay longer. But they find her company very difficult. She repeats her complaints, forgets who they are and makes unreasonable demands upon her visitors. In the third part ‘The Dark Night of the Imagination’, Claire’s imagination overtakes reality and she suspects cook and her paid companion, Miss Jones, of plotting together, to steal stuff and then to murder her. She visits the police to report them. She is treated like a mad old lady, a nuisance. In her own home she becomes more and more fraught. 

One night, when she has left the house in a temper, she sits on a seat and in the blackout, without her torch it appears to her that the houses have no windows. But no one sees what is inside Claire either, except perhaps her doctor, and she cannot see beyond her own sense of entitlement and disappointment in the world. 

Claire finds her paid companion boring and dull and she is provoked into making cruel and mean remarks about her to her face. After a scene of confrontation and violence, she is sedated and retires to bed until she dies. This is one lonely, old, deluded woman, with no one to help her. A friend told me that it may be the saddest novel she had ever read. Hoult modelled Claire on a real literary star she had known: Violet Hunt. She managed to convey the pathetic nature of Claire Temple’s way of dealing with her situation alongside the exasperation that everyone felt having to deal with her.

There were No Windows by Norah Hoult, first published in 1944 and republished by Persephone Books in 2016 with an afterword by Julia Briggs. 341pp

Older Women in Fiction Series: you can find the list of about 100 novels here.

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Widows in Fiction 

Victorian and early twentieth century fiction often reflected the view that the purpose of a young woman’s life was to get married. It is the happy-ever-after that women were sold well into the late twentieth century. Fiction also depicted the plight of the women who never married often leading sad and small lives. The previous post on this blog considers a novel which follows the single life of its title character: The Rector’s Daughter by FM Mayor.

In this post I turn my attention to those women in fiction who are no longer married, they have been widowed. Women have always tended to marry men older than them, and to live longer than men. Consequently there have always been widows, but literature does not promote a positive view of widows, often grotesque, fearsome, embittered. Think of Lady Catherine de Burgh in Pride and Prejudice, as an example. The list of older women in fiction reveals a range of reactions to being widowed, from enjoyment of liberation and rebelliousness to sadness and loneliness. 

Causing trouble

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwoodpublished in 1977.

One of the most fearsome and gruesome widows is Great Granny Webster. The narrator recalls how she had to stay with this widow for three months following a childhood illness.

Often I would be in the same room as Great Granny Webster for hours and she would say not a single word to me. She would just sit there bolt upright in one of the most horribly uncomfortable highbacked wooden Victorian gothic chairs I have ever seen. (13)

The experience is terrifying for the reader too, and one has no confidence that the old lady changed in any way after the child left.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso, published in 2016. 

A different kind of trouble erupted between two old women, both widows, in a more recent novel from South Africa, which tells of their feud. Set in Cape Town, Hortensia and Marion are neighbours who have in common their age, both in their 80s, success in their careers, and their widowhood. But they disagree about everything and feud about everything. An accident in which Hortensia breaks her leg and Marion’s house is badly damaged are the novelist’s devices to bring change to their relationship.

It’s a lively novel, with much action and argument. How can two older women behave towards each other in this way, the reader wonders.

Fighting spirit

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith, published in 1968.

We can find novels that celebrate the fighting spirit of widows, who can be vulnerable without anyone to defend them. Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith is classic tale from the time of the highland clearances at the start of the eighteenth century. Mrs Scott is a fiercely independent widow, a tenant of the duke who wishes to use the land on which she lives for sheep. Mrs Scott is to be evicted. The landowner, his agent and the church all betray her, and it is the community who protect her and give her the strength to resist the actions of her oppressors. 

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, published in 1931.

Another widow who defies expectations, her family’s as well as the conventions of her time, is Lady Slane, in All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. Lady Slane is the widow of ‘a very great man’ and on his death her six children, all in their 60s themselves, plan for her future, staying with them in rotation. She will have none of this, instead she rents a cottage in Hampstead and befriends her landlord and the tradesman who returns it to good order. Her last years are full of happiness with her new friends, and she can help her granddaughter towards her own independence. 

Making the best of it

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor was published in 1971.

In this category, the standout character is Mrs Palfrey from Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. I like this description of her: clearly not a little old lady.

She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man, and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag. (2)

Her daughter shows no interest in supporting her when she becomes a widow, and she has few connections in England. So she decides to live in a residential hotel on Cromwell Road in London. There she must mix with an assortment of older people in similar circumstances and pay attention to their values and conventions. This leads her into a collaboration with Ludo, a penniless young man who picks her up when she falls one afternoon. They trick the other guests into believing that he is her grandson. The novel is a study of loneliness in widowhood, and Mrs Palfrey is not the only lonely widow in this novel.

On their own

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence published in 1964.

A Canadian novel is justly celebrated for its description of the desperation of Hagar Shipley as she becomes more and more of a burden on her son and his wife and loses her physical capacities and her independence. The novel is an indictment of the social customs that prevented Hagar from expressing her needs and wants, and her decline is brutal. 

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens first published in 1955. 

A particularly poignant example of a widow with no resources and overwhelmed by her loneliness in The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens. The author recognises the part played by gender differences in old age. This is the opening paragraph of the novel:

When the winds of Heaven blow, men are inclined to throw back their heads like horses, and stride ruggedly into gusts, pretending to be much healthier than they really are, but women tend to creep about, shrunk into their clothes, and clutching at their hats and hair. (1)

Louise has been bullied by her husband and has few friends and no confidence when she becomes a widow. She dreads ‘those dismal ‘residentials’, where they farm out most widows’ (209). She is unwanted and has no purpose in her life.

New beginnings

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, published in 2015.

Two novels reveal the power of community and relationships to enrich a widow’s final years. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf is a charming novel about two older people who find their way from loneliness to companionship through care of each other, grandchildren and a dog. Addie proposes to her neighbour Louis that they might mitigate some of their loneliness by sharing a bed occasionally. Not for sex, but for companionship. It shocks people in the close community of Holt in Colorado. Addie’s observation is full of optimism.

Who would have thought at this time in our lives that we’d still have something like this. That it turns out we’re not finished with changes and excitement. And not all dried up in body and spirit. (147)

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1922. 

Another favourite novel includes the redemption of the dreadful Mrs Fisher: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim. What a dried-up old prune she is when she first joins the group of single women in a castle in Italy for the month of April. In her own opinion she has avoided the indignity of behaving as if she were younger than she is.

She herself had grown old as people should grow old, – steadily and firmly. No interruptions, no belated after-glows and spasmodic returns. (188)

To begin with she is an unhappy and lonely older woman, full of ‘shoulds’, who takes her dissatisfaction out on those around her, an image with elements of caricature. But the sun, Italy and above all the kindness and friendship of Lotty, who organised the trip, gradually transfigure the old woman, and she discovers the value and joys of friendship in her old age.

Click here to find the complete list of the Older Women in Fiction series on Bookword. 

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The Rector’s Daughter by FM Mayor 

How were a certain class of single women to achieve the satisfaction of a life well lived? This is the central question of the novel, published by the Hogarth Press in 1924. It is not that Mary Jocelyn is unable to attract a husband. She meets at least two men who considered her suitable. But she is not beautiful or appealing in the usual way and has profound beliefs that mean she feels a duty to care for her father, a widower, while he is still alive. The man she falls in love with becomes attracted to a more lively and more beautiful young woman and she is passed over. What is her life to be?

The Rector’s Daughter

Here is the inauspicious opening paragraph of The Rector’s Daughter. It describes the place where the main character, Mary Jocelyn, lives. The reader can see that this is not a place of drama.

Dedmayne is an insignificant village in the Eastern counties. There were no motor buses in the days of which I write, and Cayley, the nearest station, was six miles off. Dedmayne was ashamed of this, because without a station the most interesting feature for a picture postcard was not available. There was no great house with park or garden to give character to the village. Progress had laid hold of it fifty years before, and pulled down and rebuilt the church, the Rectory, and most of the cottages. Part of Redmayne was even ugly; there was a bit of straight flat road near the church, with low dusty hedges, treeless turnip fields, and corrugated iron roofs of barns which might rank with Canada. Dedmayne was on the way to nowhere; it was not troubled by motors or bicycles, except native bicycles. The grimy ‘Blue Boar’ did not induce anyone to strop for tea. Artists and weekend Londoners wanted something more picturesque. Still, being damp, it was bound to have certain charms; the trunks were mossy, and the walls mouldy. There were also those tall bowery trees in the hedgerows, and little pleasant risings in the meadows, which are so common in England one forgets to notice them. (1)

We are not to expect much from Mary’s home either. The Rector, Canon Jocelyn, is a man who is very happy to be in such a backwater as he can pursue his literary interests (Virgil and St Augustine) and be little disturbed by change. Mary, while popular with the villagers, is unlikely to cause much disturbance to her father or to Dedmayne.

Her uninteresting hair, dragged severely back, displayed a forehead lined too early. Her complexion was a dullish hue, not much lighter than her hair. She had her father’s beautiful eyes, and hid them with glasses. She was dowdily dressed, but she had many companions in the neighbourhood, from labourers’ wives to the ladies of the big houses, to share her dowdiness. It was not observed; she was as much a part of her village as its homely hawthorns. (3)

The first 35 years of Mary’s life have produced loss and sadness, even before the narrative begins. Her brothers have emigrated (to Canada), and her older sister Ruth is described as an ‘imbecile’. Their mother died young, and Ruth was sent away. Their Aunt Lottie cared for them for some time, and then Ruth returned home requiring constant care by Mary. When Ruth dies Mary is left alone with her father.

He feels but does not express affection for his daughter, which adds to her isolation. She turns to books.

In October, as regularly as the leaves fell, she began the winter habit of reading her favourite novels for an hour before dinner, finding in Trollope, Miss Yonge, Miss Austen, and Mrs Gaskell friends so dear and familiar that they peopled her loneliness. (17)

Canon Jocelyn is a fine figure of a Victorian father. It does not occur to him to express emotions, such as at the loss of his wife or older daughter, or to complement Mary on her attempts to distinguish herself. She begins a reading group in the parish, but it fails. She sends samples of her writing to a publisher, but they are rejected. His response is not to comfort her for her disappointments but to suggest she is less ambitious.

Mary is appreciated. She has a close relationship with the faithful Cook. While she is away with Aunt Lottie at Broadstairs, Cook reveals that her father missed her care very much, but he wasn’t able to say this. And while at Broadstairs she captures the attention of Mr. Maltby, who is regarded as a great bore by the other guests in the boarding-house. She becomes friends again with Dora, who had previously lived in the Dedmayne area. And then a new vicar comes to the parish of Lanchester, Mr Herbert, and Mary and he fall in love. They are well suited, both quiet people, serious and responsible. But Mr Herbert goes away briefly to Buxton for his health and meets and becomes engaged to the. More glamorous Kathy Hollings. 

Poor Mary, she must endure the return of Mr Herbert and all the celebrations consequent on his marriage. She had previously met and been rudely ignored by Kathy and now she had to defer to her as a bride. Following the wedding Mary devotes herself to her father, and to her friendship with Dora. It emerges that Kathy and Mr Herbert are not well suited, and Kathy’s friends enjoy rather wild outings and holidays, not appropriate for a clergyman’s wife. Kathy goes to the French Riviera with her cousin and nearly runs off with an unsuitable young man. 

While she is absent, Mr Herbert is lonely and afraid that his wife’s affections are not strong and he becomes more consumed by his mistake in passing over Mary. One day the Canon asks Mary to visit Mr Herbert on a literary matter. Emotions run high and Mary burst into tears at Mr Herbert’s unhappiness.

He put his hand on her shoulder, and said, ‘Don’t Mary, don’t cry.’ Their eyes met. Before they knew what was happening he kissed her. (172)

They both have strong reactions to the kiss, seeing it as marital transgression. And they both resolve not to see each other again. But when Kathy returns from her ill-judged stay in Monte Carlo, badly disfigured by botched dental treatment, Mary is asked by Kathy’s aunt to help her. She does so and continues to support Kathy through a pregnancy and the birth of twins. 

The Herberts are reconciled and they are grateful to Mary. After her father’s death Mary goes to live with Aunt Lottie in Croydon and is valued in her new social circle for her qualities. 

FM Mayor shows how Mary had to rely on tiny crumbs of comfort because her father or Mr Herbert were the focus of her life: a brief kind word, a voluntary interruption to routine, a saved note arranging an appointment, one kiss. This is the small fare of single women dependent upon men. She never escapes them, even after her father’s death and she has moved away from Dedmayne.

There were two people in the world she wanted – her father and Mr Herbert. Nothing besides existed for her. She had felt beyond the verge of feeling: at present she could feel no more. (294)

The Rector’s Daughter by FM Mayor, first published in 1924 and reissued by Persephone Books in 2021 with a new preface by Victoria Gray. 313pp

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Women’s Prize for Fiction 2024

… and the winner is 

Brotherless Night by V V Ganeshananthan

And you should know that the inaugural women’s prize for Non-Fiction has been won by Doppelganger by Naomi Klein.

The 6 shortlisted fiction titles in 2024:

The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright

Brotherless Night by V V Ganeshananthan

Restless Dolly Maunder by Kate Grenville

Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad

Soldier, Sailor by Claire Kilroy

River East, River West by Aube Rey Lescur

29 years of the Women’s Prize

Here are forty-three (that’s 43) brilliant books, all written by women, from the longlist for this year and all the previous winners. I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword Blog. 

The 16 long-listed books in 2024

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize

I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword Blog. 

Barbara Kingsolver: Demon Copperhead (2023)

Ruth Ozeki: The Book of Form & Emptiness (2022)

Susanna Clarke: Piranesi (2021)

Maggie O’FarrellHamnet (2020)

Tayari Jones: An American Marriage (2019)

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire  (2018)

Naomi Alderman: The Power (2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both (2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997) 

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

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Persuasion in Bath

I have recently been enjoying Bath and its connections with culture, not least with books. I have visited twice this spring and begin to feel I know the city even if it is 100 miles away from where I live in Devon. In April I attended the first Persephone Festival; a couple of weeks ago I joined some members of the Jane Austen Society SouthWest Branch in a brief tour of the city and its connections to Jane Austen and her novels. In preparation for that second visit I reread Persuasion, a novel that reaches its climax in the city.

Persuasion

Persuasion was published after Jane Austen’s death in 1817. Some commentators believe that she was too ill to complete the editing of the text before she died. Perhaps we will never know if she planned to revise it further, but we do have evidence of some revision in the cancelled chapter. In 1818 Persuasion was published in the form we have now, and some editions include that chapter.

The Bath location occurs in the final nine chapters of the novel, with 91 pages that make up 42% of the short narrative. The main character, Anne Elliot, is the daughter of a very vain, snobbish and imprudent baronet, who has had to rent out their home in Kellynch to live in Bath. Some eight years previously Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth had fallen in love and were ready to announce their engagement, when Anne was persuaded by her dead mother’s closest friend, Lady Russell, to break off the engagement. 

Anne is thoughtful, unselfish and forgiving. Neither her father nor her elder sister, Elizabeth, take any notice of Anne and her state of mind. She is not consulted about the move to Bath, for example. Her younger sister, Mary, lives close to Kellynch Hall in Uppercross and entertains a belief that she is being passed over and neglected by everyone. Anne spends a few weeks with Mary and her family before she goes to Bath, and the warmth and appreciation for Anne are a contrast to the indifference of her own father and sister. Into this situation Captain Wentworth returns, now enriched by his exploits in the navy. He is in search of a wife and seems to be drawn to Mary’s lively and sociable sisters-in-law: Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove.

There are four locations in this novel: Kellynch Hall, Uppercross, Lyme Regis and Bath. They represent four locations which increasingly connect Anne to the wider world. In Kellynch life is restricted by snobbery and unkindness; Uppercross has a close family of enthusiastic and warm people; Lyme Regis adds several friends who are involved in the navy; Bath is a place of fashion and transactional social relations. At each step she comes closer to Captain Wentworth.

On my recent trip to Bath I learned a great deal about the social situation in the fashionable city. For a start, we learned at the architectural museum that it had gone beyond its most fashionable era by the time Jane Austen was writing. But its conventions and social activities remained even if the more socially privileged were seeking other places to indulge themselves, such as the continent, seaside resorts and so forth. The function of the Lower and Upper Assembly Rooms, the regular weekly events which included concerts, theatre presentations, balls and taking the waters, all this was still in place. Jane Austen lived in Bath for a while and knew all this. Moreover, many of her readers would have known all this too.

On this tour I learned about the precision with which Jane Austen locates her characters, and how she does this for the express purpose of telling the reader something of her characters. Sir Walter, that snob, reveals the social standing of the novel’s characters, as well as his attitude through his observations on their residences. For example he has some ‘severe’ words for Anne when he discovers that she has been visiting an old school friend in Westgate-buildings.

‘Westgate-buildings!’ said he; ‘and who is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate-buildings? – A Mrs Smith. A widow Mrs Smith, – and who was her husband? One of the five thousand Mr Smiths whose names are met with every where. And what is her attraction? That she is old and sickly. – Upon my word. Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you.’ (141-142)

Sir Walter is disgusted by the part of town in which Mrs Smith lives, by her ill health, by her common name, by her widowhood. His judgment is not sound. We learn that Mrs Smith is not old at all, but a former school friend of Anne’s and therefore about her age. 

If they did not know this already, the information that Sir Walter had accommodated himself in Camden-place would have shown readers his weakness. Jane Austen describes the choice in this way:

Sir Walter had taken a very good house in Camden-place, a lofty, dignified situation, such as becomes a man of consequence, and both he and Elizabeth were settled there, much to their satisfaction. (125)

Camden-place was a terrace at the northern end of Bath, built in 1788, on subsiding land: half the buildings collapsed in the 1880s. The baronet was not only on unstable financial grounds when he moved to Bath.

Sir Walter is ready to fawn upon his Irish relations, Lady Dalrymple and her daughter, Miss Carteret. They had taken a house in the newest part of Bath, off Great Poultney Street in Laura-place. The hotel we stayed in was in a house off Laura- Place, and very close to the delightful Henrietta Park. Lady Dalrymple’s lodgings were the most fashionable and newest among all the characters, as fitting her social status.

Sir Walter’s tenants, Admiral and Lady Croft, also come to Bath, primarily for the Admiral’s health. Again we read more about the social standing of these characters, and the snobbism of Sir Walter, through his observations.

The Crofts had placed themselves in lodgings in Gay-street, perfectly to Sir Walter’s satisfaction. He was not at all ashamed of the acquaintance. And did, in fact, think and talk a great deal more about the Admiral, than the Admiral ever thought or talked about him. (150)

Jane Austen lived for a while at 25 Gay-street. She knew what she was writing about.

The White Hart, where the Musgraves are staying, is the scene of the tense letter-writing scene, in which Captain Wentworth finally admits that he still loves Anne. Their reunion takes place soon after – where else but in Union-street?

Our walking tour of Bath took us to many places that were significant in Jane Austen’s life, and to many of the streets and meeting places mentioned in Persuasion as well as in Northanger Abbey. We also noted film locations, but my interest has been in how the writer used locations in Bath within those final 9 chapters of Persuasion.

I am indebted to Hazel Jones, the tour leader and secretary of the Jane Austen Society SouthWest Branch, for her skills in organising and leading this tour. Her knowledge of Bath and Jane Austen were impressive and invaluable. I also learned from her that before my next visit to Bath I will reread Northanger Abbey as its early chapters are set in Bath.

Persuasion by Jane Austen, first published in 1818. I used an edition published by Pan Books in 1969, now its pages are yellow at the edges and the glue is giving out on the spine. It has an inappropriate cover too. 

Related Posts on Bookword Blog

In the society of Jane Austen – December 2019

Pursuing Jane Austen – June 2019

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Remembering Alice Munro

Knowing more about Alice Munro (added 23rd July 2024)

The original post (which follows) appeared at the end of May 2024, celebrating the fiction of the Canadian writer Alice Munro who died earlier that month.

On July 15th Andrea Skinner, the daughter of Alice Munro, wrote a piece in the Toronto Star revealing that she had been sexually abused by her step-father, and that Alice Munro had chosen to support her husband over her daughter.

Instantly Alice Munro and her fiction were condemned. If true, what she did was not forgivable. Even if true, this knowledge does not diminish her skill in writing or our appreciation of it. But not for the first time I wonder how people who write well (or compose music, or paint amazing pictures) can also behave badly. Part of the answer is that their work is not them, and they are not their worst behaviour. 

I once heard Sister Helen Prejean remind an audience of the horror of being defined by the worst thing one had ever done. For this reason she has worked against the death penalty in the US. And for the same reason I continue to admire Alice Munro’s short stories, at the same time condemning her behaviour towards her daughter. (Tuesday, 23 July 2024)

The original post

Some time ago, more than a decade ago, I attended a fiction writing course. We were asked to bring the first page or so of some fiction we admired. I chose the first page of a short story by Alice Munro, called The Love of a Good Woman (1998).

For the last couple of decades, there has been a museum in Walley, dedicated to preserving photos and butter churns and horse harnesses and an old dentist’s chair and a cumbersome apple peeler and such curiosities as the pretty little porcelain-and-glass insulators that were used on telegraph poles.
Also there is a red box, which has the letters D.M. WILLENS, OPTOMETRIST printed on it, and a note beside it, saying, “This box of optometrist’s instruments thought not very old has considerable local significance, since it belonged to Mr D.M. Willems, who drowned in the Peregrine River, 1951. It escaped the catastrophe and was found, presumably by the anonymous donor, who dispatched it to be a feature of our collection.” (3)

There are so many questions raised by these two paragraphs. Why did Mr Willens drown? What was the catastrophe? Did anyone else drown in the river in 1951? Is there anything in this museum that is more dramatic than insulators, butter churns and Mr Willens’s optometry box? Does this rural setting have a secret? Will the anonymous donor make an appearance in the story? 

We were asked to re-write the passage using our own words, but following the pattern of the sentences, the rhythms, the clauses of the original. Both choosing the opening passage and the re-writing exercise underscored Alice Munro’s excellence as a writer.

This month, it was announced that she had died in the town where she had lived in Ontario, Canada. Although she had not written anything much for a decade it was still a sad moment to reflect on the passing of one of Canada’s great writers. She comes from the same era as Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, and did much to put Canadian women on the literary map. 

So I went back to my considerable collection of her published works and reread some of her short stories and remembered why I loved them, and why she so inspires me as I struggle with my own short stories. 

Alice Munro. Picture credit: Edward MacDowell: Medal acceptance speech in 2006 via Wiki Commons

Alice Munro

She was born in July 1931 and died at the age of 92 in May 2024. She had been writing since she was a teenager and had been recognised for her work. She was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2009 for her lifetime’s work. And in 2013 she won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Most of her work is set in rural Ontario where she lived.

Her first story was published when she 19 in 1950 while she was at college. The following year she married James Munro. They moved to Vancouver and remained together until they divorced in 1972. Those twenty years of marriage produced two children, and Alice Munro said she found it hard to write while also being the model 1950s and 1960s housewife and mother. 

After her marriage ended and responsibilities for her daughters were reduced, she wrote many stories, often producing a collection every four years or so, and others were printed in literary journals such as The New Yorker. She also taught at universities in Ontario. 

Her themes were attractive to readers from the ‘70s onwards: girls growing up in rural settings; the limiting of women through contemporary attitudes and customs; relationships; marriage; death; aging and the counter-culture of the 1960s.

The short stories of Alice Munro

When I began reading her stories in the 1980s, I was impressed with how complete and well-crafted they were. She clearly loved the genre, never needing to expand into longer fiction. Readers often observed that she managed to get as much into a story as any novelist writing in the longer form. She had a grasp of the least words required to provide the reader with the details they needed to understand a character or place. (See the description of the museum contents above, which tells you all you need to know about the kind of place that Walley is.) Here is a good example of a description of a person.

My mother prayed on her knees at midday, at night, and first thing in the morning. Every day opened up to her to have God’s will done in it. Every night she totted up what she’d done and said and thought, to see how it squared with Him. That kind of life is dreary, people think, but they are missing the point. For one thing, such a life can never be boring. And nothing can happen to you that you can’t make use of. Even if you are racked by troubles, and sick and poor and ugly, you’ve got your soul to carry through life like treasure on a platter. Going upstairs after the noon meal, my mother would be full of energy and expectation, seriously smiling. (4)

In case you think her mother was too dour the next paragraph makes her quite human.

She was saved at a camp meeting when she was fourteen. […] She could tell stories about what went on at those meetings, the singing and hollering and wildness. She told about one old man getting up and shouting, “Come down, O Lord, come down among us now! Come down through the roof and I’ll pay for the shingles!” (4)

This is from an unusual story, The Progress of Love (1987), in that it’s told in the first person. It is also a good example of a skill she developed in which she moved the narrative within a story between periods of time. Another example of this is in Lichen, from the same collection, where a formerly married couple remember each other as they were. The husband realises that he is still bound to her through a long, shared past as he remembers a moment when he betrayed their marriage. The blending of different time periods is something Alice Munro excels in.

I love writing and reading short stories. Alice Munro is without peer in this genre. If you haven’t yet read any of her short stories, I encourage you to start now.

Related posts about Short Stories on Bookword

Short Stories – More Treats (July 2023)

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine (March 2021)

Even more praise for short stories (September 2021)

More Praise for Short Stories (January 2017)

Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor (June 2016)

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston (November 2020)

There’s No Story There by Inez Holden (March 2021)

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10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

When a member of our book group suggested this novel for us to read in 2024, I was enthusiastic. I had very much enjoyed The Architect’s Apprentice (2014) and admired the scope of The Island of Missing Trees (2022). 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was published in (2019) and had received good reviews. The book includes references to sexual abuse, and the life of a sex worker. For this Elif Shafak was investigated by the Turkish authorities. She lives in exile from Turkey.

I admire her writing for its lavishness and for its inventiveness. The Architect’s Apprentice is one of the richest works of fiction I have ever read, featuring an elephant, the building of some of the greatest architectural masterpieces of the Ottoman Empire, life in the harem, and the travels of the apprentice. The Island of Missing Trees featured a fig tree from Cyprus that was transplanted to North London, and which contributed to the narrative about the divisions in Cyprus’ past. I wouldn’t say that it was entirely successful, but it was interesting.

In 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World the main character has been murdered, but before her brain stops functioning it is recalling life events through smell and taste, and this is a device to learn about Leila’s life. Richness of descriptions and innovation are combined.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World has been described as a love letter to Istanbul. More accurately, it’s a love letter to the outcasts, underdogs and misfits of Istanbul. Leila has been murdered, and her recollection of her life in the last 10 minutes and 38 seconds reveals that she had five friends, all misfits in Istanbul, as she is. In the second half of the book, the friends come together to reclaim Leila’s body, and then to give her the burial they believe she should have. Murder and funerals might seem to be sombre subjects, but there is plenty of merriment and celebration in this novel.

In many ways it is a book of lists: the 10 minutes before her brain activity ceased, her five friends, and the many descriptions of places and events in her life. Leila’s life began with salt, for example, and later, when her brother was born, with goat stew. We follow her as a rebellious young woman in Turkey in the 50s and 60s. She suffers sexual abuse by a member of her family and to cover this up her family plan a wedding to her cousin. She runs away to the capital and becomes a prostitute. This life is no easier, and she remembers an incident with sulphuric acid. On a happier note she also finds her five friends and has a brief but happy marriage with a communist student. 

We do not understand her murder until the second part of the novel, where we also meet the coroner who espouses the theory that the brain continues after the heart has stopped beating. And perhaps more important that the activity of her brain, the novel describes how the significance of Leila, or anyone, on her friends and family also lives on after death. This is an exploration of death within a community, a city, a family, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World.

And Elif Shafak tells a good story, even if the Turkish authorities did not like it. Leila’s life story is rich with detail of her family in the city of Van, where her birth mother had to give up her title of mother to her husband’s first wife. Where to be a girl was a definite disadvantage, especially in terms of education, arranged marriage, abuse and so-called ‘honour killings’ (where there is no honour at all). In Istanbul, the lives of a prostitute, and of the other misfits, are vividly described, with all the risks and abuse that the friends must endure. The events take place for the most part from the 1960s, when Istanbul was changing very rapidly, including as a result of the opening of the bridge over the Bosphorus in 1973.

Here is an example of how she uses lists, and of an excellent description of a character, Bitter Ma, the madam of the brothel in which Leila works:

The new madam was a woman of ample proportions, resolute gait, and rouged cheeks that sagged like flaps of staked leather. She had a tendency to address every man who walked in, whether a regular or not, as ‘my pasha’. Every few weeks she visited a hair-dressing salon named Split Ends where she had her hair dyed a different shade of blonde. Her wide-set, protuberant eyes gave her an expression of permeant surprise, although she rarely was. A web of broken capillaries fanned out across her mighty nose, like streams threading their way down a mountainside. No-one knew her real name, Both the prostitutes and the punters called her ‘Sweet Ma’ to her face and ‘Bitter Ma’ behind her back. She was all right as far as madams went, but she had a tendency to do everything to excess: she smoked too much, swore too much, shouted too much and was simply too much of a presence in their lives – a veritable maximum dose. (47)

All members of our reading group enjoyed this novel, some for the second time, and it produced a lively discussion about Istanbul, Turkey, death and reading other novels by Elif Shafak.

Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a Turkish-British writer, born in 1971. She writes in Turkish and English. She has published 11 works of fiction, some in English. She lives in London, and has lived in many other countries, including being brought up in Turkey. She says she carries Istanbul in her soul, and many of her books feature the city, as this one does. I admire her ability to tell a strong story through some well-drawn characters, and to innovate with some interesting narrative tropes, such as a talking tree.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak, published in 2019. I used the edition from Penguin 312pp. Shortlisted for Booker Prize 2019

I have reviewed two other novels by Elif Shafak on Bookword blog:

The Architect’s Apprentice in April 2023,

and The Island of Missing Trees in August 2022 

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Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman

It feels, doesn’t it, like the worst of times. And that things are getting still worse. Here is another view:

The reality is exactly the opposite. Over the last several decades, extreme poverty, victims of war, child mortality, crime, famine, child labour, deaths in natural disasters and the number of plane crashes have all plummeted. We’re living in the richest, safest, healthiest era ever. (13)

Rutger Bregman, the Dutch author of Humankind, goes on to say ask why we don’t realise this.

It’s simple. Because the news is about the exceptional, and the more exceptional an event is – be it a terrorist attack, violent uprising, or natural disaster – the bigger its newsworthiness. (13)

And it’s because we are susceptible to negativity bias and increasingly to availability bias and come to assume that the exceptional we are being told about is common. And in his book, Rutger Bregman goes on to challenge the myth that humans are but a small step from anarchy and violence, and basically selfish animals.

Humankind: a hopeful history

The pessimistic view of humans is exemplified in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In that fiction, some schoolboys are marooned on a desert island, and after some weeks, when the survivors are rescued, violence has broken out, some boys have died and the survivors have developed a system of rules and beliefs based on humiliation and terror. 

And, you may be asking, if humans are kind and sociable as Rutger Bregman claims, how did Auschwitz ever take place, or the murder of so many women and children in Gaza in the last few months? And I am sure you can think of many other occasions when humans have behaved very badly.

This is a hopeful history, and Rutger Bregman traces back the success of the evolution of homo sapiens to the development of kind communities. He reports a very long history of communal hunter-gathering, but the harmony was threatened when humans began to settle on farms and to create towns. This brought competition for land, from such competitions so many harms in the world arise.

But in small and local communities, he argues, the basic urge to kindness and community spirit holds good. The further you are from conflict the less you care about other humans. He finds a real-life example of boys being marooned on an island and finds that they survived without the conflict of Golding’s imagination. 

The story of the real-life shipwreck of six boys who survived over a year in harmony on a Pacific island of Ata in the 1960s is not well known. Their rescuer, Captain Warner wrote,

‘the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.’ [quoted on p32]

The idea that humans are brutish and need rules to control them, a Hobbesian outlook, underpins how many institutions work. Rutger Bregman considers how the world might look, if our social institutions were based on more cooperative principles, in particular, schools, prisons and our governance. He finds examples where innovations have taken place: a school in the Netherlands, the prison system in Norway, a democratic local government in Venezuela. And he reminds us about the Danish under German occupation in October 1943 and their response to the plan to arrest and deport all Jewish citizens. It was defeated by the actions of thousands of Danish citizens who ensured that Jewish citizens escaped, often by small boats to Sweden. Rather than pitched into chaos and panic, the London Blitz produced resilience, helpfulness and camaraderie, known as the Blitz Spirit. While this upbeat approach was not universal, the bombing did not reduce the British population to panic and chaos. (Sadly, the example of this reaction did not stop the Allies using the same tactic on German towns and cities at the end of the war. The German population was not cowed either. The exceptionalism of the British response proves to be another myth.)

Rutger Bregman is not providing a prescription for individual lives, partly because it is not disputed that towards our immediate neighbours humans are for the most part compassionate, caring and generous. Rather Rutger Bregman considers that social institutions based on trust, generosity and friendliness may be more successful and cheaper for society than our current models, especially for prisons and schools. 

But here are three warnings:

  1. The opposing theory that humans are prevented by a very thin veneer from being violent and selfish is like a hydra. ’Veneer theory is a zombie that just keeps coming back’ (19).
  2. To stand up for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be, and you will be seen as threatening, subversive, seditious and a communist (where such a theory has a bad name).
  3. To stand up for human goodness will also produce accusations of naivety, ridicule, lack of common sense. 

Advocating more positive views of humans and their behaviour is not, however, doomed to fail. It is the right time.

The reasons for hope, by contrast [to the doomsayers], are always provisional. Nothing has gone wrong – yet. You haven’t been cheated – yet. An idealist can be right her whole life and still be dismissed as naïve. This book is intended to change that. Because what seems unreasonable, unrealistic and impossible today can turn out to be inevitable tomorrow.
It’s time for a new realism. It’s time for a new view of humankind. (20)

Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman, published in 2020 by Bloomsbury. Translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore. 467pp

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