Category Archives: Feminism

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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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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Remembering Alice Munro

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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Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito

This collection of twelve stories originally appeared in 1995, but we have Bernardine Evaristo and Penguin Books to thank for their reappearance, together with two later stories, in the Black Britain Writing Back series.This innovative publishing project has brought several neglected Black British writers to readers’ attention. I recently reviewed Minty Alley by CLR James (link here) and I look forward to reading more from the series.

Dat’s Love

The variety in this small collection is astonishing. It is in the subject matter, the style, the length, the narrative structure, the voice, and the settings of the stories. I can’t help wondering what else she had in her files that she did not put forward for publication.

The stories are exuberant, a little wild, often inventive. Many of them are narrated by or from the point of view of young people, girls, and some by historical characters. Here for example, in a very dull setting, is a young girl from the story called Michael Miles has Teeth like a Broken-down Picket Fence:

It was November. The girl looked up at the cloudy sky and sighed like a housewife disappointed in the whiteness of her wash. Mine looks grey, she thought, using the voice of the woman on the advert as she walked along. That was what was meant by November, that time of year when all the colours had drained away by the third week and the world was left in black and white – no monochrome, she thought, preferring that word because it had more grey in it. Not much of black or white there wasn’t, when you had a look. She thought obscurely of cameras and washing machines and vacuum cleaners and fashionable clothing: they were all the same grey tones in the magazine pictures that showed them. Only the covers on the front were in colour. She expanded the word ‘monochrome’ until it fitted everything in it: ‘monochromatic’ was the word. It fitted everything. The girl turned her head and waited to cross to the bus stop on the other side of the road.
She saw the dog as she hurried across. (19)

It was a particular day, dreary as all days were: November 22nd 1963, hardly a monochrome day in world politics. I felt that Leonora Brito captured the greyness of the time, how young people wanted more from the world and their lives. It did not arrive for some time.

In a first-person narrative, a young woman reports about hospital staff ‘when it was over they gave me a doll.’ This is in a short story called Mother Country. The narrator rejects the idea that she is holding ‘a real doll’.

Who are you trying to fool? I asked the one standing in for the midwife, crossly. ‘A real doll!’ This, I shook my head and pointed, is not a real doll. Real dolls have short, chubby legs. Legs made out of laminated plastic; that stay up in the air when you push them up, and don’t just flop like these do. I gestured contemptuously. And another thing, I picked up one of its hands to demonstrate, the fingers and toes of a real doll are always stuck together, while these can be s-e-p-a-r-a-t-e-d out! (42)

Mother Country describes the transition from childhood to womanhood, from rejection of this new being to acceptance, from the trauma of childbirth and the infantilising words of the nurses to a visceral mother-baby bond. 

Leonora Brito was not afraid of playing around with narrative structure. The story called Dido Elizabeth Belle: a narrative of her life (extant) starts in the middle of the action. The narrator is a formerly enslaved young woman who was the great niece of Lord Mansfield, and she grew up in Kenwood House. But we hear a different side to her history in Leonora Brito’s account. She is running away through the woods and meets a man. His reactions and thoughts are interpolated with hers. It’s like the cinematic split-screen, and it works well.

Many of the stories are rooted in Cardiff, such as Digging for Victory set in 1955 when Mr Churchill visited the docks in his warship. Instead of hero worship the story turns into a celebration of community spirit as the great ship had caused the canal to empty and people were needed to lend a hand and deal with the damage.

Many of the most effective stories use children’s or young people’s voices with their naïve point of view. Music and popular songs of the time are also used in many stories, including the title story. Her titles are also delightful.

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito was born in Cardiff in July 1954. Her mother was local and her father was a seaman from Cap Verde. She took some time to find her voice, studying law and history at Cardiff University, and eventually moving into writing for radio and tv, and her short stories. She won the Rhys Davis Short Story Prize in 1991 and it gave her the confidence to become a full-time writer. Dat’s Love was published in 1995 and was well-received and a second collection was commissioned, but Leonora died in June 2007 before it was completed. Sadly, given how good they are, we just have these 14 stories to admire.

Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito, first published in 1995 and republished by Penguin in 2023 in Black Britain Writing Back series. 169pp 

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The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan

Last November, when my book group chose the books for 2023, I recommended The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan. The novel had good reviews and I remembered reading and enjoying The Spinning Heart (2012). The suggestion that it concerned some strong Irish women made it an attractive choice. So here we are, 12 months later, ready to discuss this gem of a book.

The Queen of Dirt Island

The story is structured in a series of two-page chapters, which roll forward and provide a rhythmic beat to one’s reading. It’s a steady story which unfolds over a couple of decades on the edge of a remote and rural Irish housing estate in County Tipperary. It begins with the birth of one of the women, Saoirse. Her father is killed in a road accident even before she is brought home from hospital. He mother, Mary, has been rejected by her family for becoming pregnant. But her mother-in-law, Eileen known as Nana, looks out for her, becomes her friend, and eventually comes to live with Mary and Saoirse.

The story of the women’s struggles, within their families, on the edges of their community, against poverty, and the demands of life, is carried forward through the steady pulse of the short chapters. The prose has a lilt to it, and the speech of the women, their idioms and imagery, are from the best Irish traditions.

Someone had asked Paudie to hide guns in the shed, down behind a load of bales of hay. And other stuff, too. Nana wasn’t sure what. Semtex, Eileen. What in the name of God and His Blessed Mother is Semtex? It doesn’t sound like anything that could ever do any good. And apparently we could all have been blown to Kingdom Come over it. Jim Gildea told me. You’re lucky, Mary, he said. Someone was watching over ye the way it was all brought out in the open now, before Paudie was in too deep. In too deep, Jim Gildea said! As if a shed full of guns and Sem-fucking-tex isn’t deep enough! (21)

Saoirse learns about the world from the conversation of Mary and her mother-in-law Eileen. She is well protected until she is a teenager. In the extract above she hears about her uncle’s arrest.

There’s a great deal of humour in the talk of the adult women as Saoirse grows up. She learns about her world through overhearing their conversations. Despite the lack of punctuation it is always clear who is speaking. When Saoirse reveals that she is pregnant, the chapter called IMMACULATE, is one long paragraph of her mother’s fury. 

How in the fucking fuck could you have gotten pregnant? […] I thought you were different. I thought you’d be something. God forgive me, it’s my own fault for trusting you. I thought behind it all that you were good. (73-74)

The story is built on the strength of the four women: from the grandmother, through Mary to Saoirse and to Pearl, Saoirse’s child. Mary is the queen of Dirt Island. She inherits it from her parents, despite her brother’s ambitions to take it from her. She is the character in the book written by Saoirse ‘s boyfriend, Josh. A heroine, redrawn from Saoirse’s own memories to create something ‘unrecognizable, alien, monstrous’ (214). Josh spiced up the story that we know, to distort Saoirse’s father and his death, and her mother’s role in Paudie’s misdeeds. Later the novel is rewritten and becomes a classic, included in the Irish school curriculum that Pearl is taught.

This distortion reminds the reader of the strength of these women, and we know they love and support each other through daily life, growing up, marriages, births, deaths and betrayals. They shape Saoirse childhood, and then Pearl’s. They have warmth and pride, fury and revenge, love and pity. 

We finish this book, having enjoyed its rhythms and impetus, and the slow march of the decades, aware that we have been given a glimpse of loving life and community. And we make sense of the epigram.

Let the books remember the local battles.
Re-write the plot. Let the harvest wither.
This is your life. She is your great event.
Keep her in the sun.
[‘History’, Mary O’Malley]

What will the other members of my book group think?

The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan first published in 2022. I used the Penguin edition. 245pp 

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The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

When this novel was published in 1962 the era of permissiveness (if it ever existed) was just about to begin. I was about to enter my teenage years. It seemed as if everything about our social mores was being questioned, including especially marriage and sexual partners. What I remember most from my first reading was the scene where the narrator broke down in Harrods household linens department.

What did I come here for? Why did I walk, in the spring, along a mile of pavement? Do I want bed rest, a barbecue, a clock like a plate or a satin stole, or a pepper mill or a dozen Irish linen tea towels printed, most beautifully, with the months of the year? April brings the primrose sweet, scatters daisies at our feet. I am beginning to cry. I stand in the bloody great linen department and cry and cry quite soundlessly, sprinkling the stiff cloths with extraordinarily large tears. Oh, what has happened to you, Mrs Enterprise, dear? Are your productions limited, your trusts faithless, and what of the company you keep? Think of those lovely children dear, and don’t cry as the world turns round holding you on its shoulder like a mouse.
But I cried just the same. The doctor they sent me to was expensive and Jake said, ‘Do you think you’re going to get over this period of your life, because I find it awfully depressing?’ (p28-9)

What I remember about the film (1964) was how beautiful Ann Bancroft was and what a bastard Peter Finch portrayed as her husband. His reaction to her Harrods tears is typical of his narcissistic gaslighting.

The Pumpkin Eater

This novel is quite short and easily read within 24 hours. The story is told by an unnamed narrator, a woman, who recounts her breakdown and the failure of her 4th marriage. She has many children (unnumbered) and Jake and her doctor assume that she should therefore be very happy. But she finds Jake’s affairs very distressing. She finds his absence on location very distressing. And she is outraged that her husband will support his mistress’s baby despite having persuaded her to agree to an abortion and sterilization. And she is furious when he blames her for her reaction, claiming that she agreed to the operations.

Jake seems incapable of understanding his wife’s point of view. Her psychoanalyst seems unable to understand her either.

‘Apart from everything else you feel about him, all your conflicting emotions … Do you like him?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not very much.’
‘That’s my impression. Why don’t you like him?’
I tried to think. One by one I turned over the possible reasons for disliking Jake: he is a coward, a cheat, he is mean, vain, cruel, he is slovenly, he is sly. ‘I … I don’t know,’ I said. (67)

The title

It’s a strange title, and the epigraph points to its origins. It seems like it comes from a Grimm fairy tale. But Wikipedia tells us that its origins are in English nursery rhymes.

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.

Jake does keep his wife, but not very well.

The 1960s

The introduction to the Penguin Classic edition by Daphne Merkin, makes the point that Penelope Mortimer predated Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer when she wrote about ‘the claustrophobic grayness and casual betrayals of upper-middle class marriage’ (vii). ‘Permissiveness’ was on its way. But she was not celebrating the advantages that less strict social codes would bring women. Indeed you could say she was providing a warning.

Motherhood and maternity

The most surprising thing about our narrator is that she has lots of children, the oldest three are casually sent off to boarding school to accommodate her marriage to Jake. She loses touch with them. Nor does motherhood seem to act as a break upon her behaviour, and certainly not on Jake’s. The damage to their children from their dysfunctional relationship does not appear to have troubled the characters or the writer.

Psychological support

It certainly seems as if the expensive doctor to whom she is sent following her Harrods breakdown, is part of the structure to maintain the status quo, when men can demand that women subjugate their lives and wishes within the marriage. The doctor at times seems more interested in Jake, a successful movie director, than in his wife’s troubles.

Teenage episode

An episode from her childhood gives one hope that Jake’s wife would not sacrifice herself. When her school friend Irene comes to stay, the teenagers find themselves at odds about the imperative to attract the attention of boys. There is a telling scene where Irene arrives at the railway station and is not recognizable.

Irene was wearing what I later heard her describe as a powder blue costume. Her hair was rolled in a perfect sausage at the nape of her neck, and another bobbing over her rather low forehead. She wore high heels, a necklace and lipstick. She was carrying a handbag as well as a suitcase. I thought she looked perfectly frightful. I was horrified. (46)

The contrast between the two girls could hardly have been greater. Irene, who is 14 and a half, plans to spend her time provoking the attention of boys. ‘I felt sick with shame for her.’ But although she doesn’t follow Irene’s example, and although she has had three previous marriages, the narrator has expectations of the marriage that she cannot share with Jake and it causes her great pain.

Rereading this novel made me realise how far things have improved, as well as how far they still have to go, in the matter of marriage and relations between men and women. It would not be acceptable today for women to suffer the gaslighting that Jake subjects his wife to. And he would be expected to have more sympathy and understanding of her life, not assume that because they are married it is all okay, everything he does. 

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer, first published in 1962. I used the Penguin Classics edition from 2015 with an Introduction by Daphne Merkin. 144pp 

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Beowulf – 5 The remarkable revival

The ancient story of Beowulf has had a remarkable revival. 

Beowulf’s story was composed around the 6th or 7th centuries, written down in the 10th or 11th centuries, and has survived for about 1500 years. The manuscript is long, about 3000 lines in Old English, and is kept in the British Library. How and why the manuscript was created is not known. Who composed it is not known. Whether it was composed by one artist or several is not known.

Originally the story would probably have been told or sung in three parts over three evenings, in a great hall, much like the one featured in the story. There is no evidence that anyone called Beowulf ever existed. Except of course he does, in countless translations, adaptations, films and retellings. 

Beowulf is a Geat and a hero. His story tells of his defeat of Grendel and of Grendel’s mother, and a treasure-loving dragon. Grendel was terrorising the Danish mead hall, the pride and joy of its builder the king. After defeating Grendel, the monster’s mother came seeking revenge and there was another epic battle, this time underwater, but again Beowulf prevailed. Much later in life, when he was a king himself, Beowulf took on a dragon who guarded the most fabulous pile of treasure, and although the dragon died, so did Beowulf to the dismay and misery of his people.

As far as I am aware, the revival of Beowulf’s story is a recent phenomenon.

Why is Beowulf so popular today?

It’s a good story. It’s the story of good triumphing over evil and with a couple of twists. Just when Beowulf and his admirers think he has solved the problem of the attacks on the Danish mead hall, along comes another monster for him to dispatch. Later he becomes a king and does the kingly thing of defending his people, even at the cost of his own life. 

Beowulf appeals to children as well as adults. The plot can be simplified, omitting the genealogies, back stories, and sub plots. The hero defeats three monsters. He is brave. He is young and one of a gang at the start of the story and becomes king in his mature years. 

Beowulf is a hero. Superheroes are all the rage at the moment. His power, his superpower, is to have the strength of 30 men in one of his arms. He is more than a human. He finds a magic sword and has the ability to fight for hours underwater. He fits right in with the spidermen, supermen, and other film heroes.

We like a little of the supernatural in our fiction. The powers of the hero and of his defeated monsters and dragon are all supernatural. They don’t quite belong in our world, so we can return from ancient Denmark and feel happy at the outcome, and relieved that such things do not exist in our world. 

The antagonists are sympathetic. Both Grendel and his mother have been made the focus of novels: by JohnGardner and Maria Dahvana Headley respectively. Maria Dahvana Headley updated the story not only to interpret it through feminist eyes, but also to place it in a modern context, which seriously challenges the goodness of Beowulf. John Gardner views the story from the eyes of Beowulf’s first victim, who might even be a human of sorts, seriously challenged by the bragging Danes in the mead hall, and much misunderstood by the other characters and by the original storyteller of course. 

Other times, other places. There is also the mystery and attraction of this being a very old story, capable of retelling in ways that say something about the teller and their context and time. I have not yet read Edwin Morgan’s version, but I note that he says this about his original version published in 1952.

The translation, which was begun shortly after I came out of the army at the end of the Second World Wat, was in a sense my unwritten war poem, I would not want to alter [in a new edition] the expression I gave to its themes of conflict and danger, voyaging and displacement, loyalty and loss. Inter arma musae tacent (“In time of conflict the Muses are silent”) but they are not sleeping. (Preface to 2021 edition)

These themes are timeless, conflict and danger, voyaging and displacement, loyalty and loss and just as Edwin Morgan experienced them in the Second World War, so do we today.

The mystery of the text. The story of the survival of the version of Beowulf that we have is fascinating, not least because it is so ancient, and the language in which it was written is obscure to most readers, despite being a version of very old English. It is not clear whether it is written by more than one scribe or composed by more than one poet. We know that the poet and the scribe cannot be the same person, for the poem predates the written version by some centuries. Survival of texts and arguments about versions and who wrote what and authenticity are the very stuff of fascination. For example, Shakespeare’s plays have been subjected to a huge amount of scholarly examination in the various versions that still exist. I have looked at the versions listed below, which include prose, and poetry, adaptations and translations. No doubt there are others, and in different genres, perhaps a computer game, anime or film. Whatever version Beowulf is in, the story will be read into the late twenty-first century. Not bad for a text that started as a spoken or sung poem fifteen centuries ago.

Pile in order 2

Versions of Beowulf discussed in this series

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff, (1961) reissued by Puffin in 1966.

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo, (2006) by Walker Books.

Beowulf, translated and introduced by Kevin Crossley Holland (1987) Phoebe editions

Beowulf by Charles Keeping & Kevin Crossley-Holland, (1982) Oxford University Press.

Beowulf by Michael Alexander (1973) Penguin Classics

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, (1999) Faber

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley (2021) Scribe. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (2018) Scribe. 

Grendel by John Gardner, (1971) Picador. This edition contains the illustrations by Emil Antonucci.

Beowulf by Edwin Morgan (1952) republished by Carcanet (2002)

Links to previous posts in the Beowulf series

Beowulf 1 Some versions February 2021

Beowulf 2 in which he meets a feminist July 2021

Beowulf 3 – Grendel by John Gardner March 2022

Beowulf 4 – Charles Keeping’s Illustrations December 2022

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Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

It seemed to happen a great deal in the ‘70s and ‘80s. A book would capture the attention of readers, especially women readers, and the question people asked was ‘have you read it yet?’ That doesn’t happen so often nowadays, but here is a book that I find all my reader-friends have read or are planning to read. I overheard two women talking, last week. ‘I’m reading that book.,’ said one. Her friend replied, ‘Oh yes, that Demon book. I wanted to read it in my book group, but they said it was too long. Their loss. How far have you got?’ ‘Only about halfway. Don’t tell me what happens. It’s so good though. I’m enjoying it so much.’

I am puzzled by a book group that resist reading a prizewinning novel, and one that so many people are talking about, ‘because it’s too long.’ As she said, ‘their loss’. I look back through other recent novels, and I think that another winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction caused a similar sensation: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. It too was long (453 pages).

It’s taken me a little time to read Demon Copperhead. And to put my reactions into a post for the blog. It is a long book. But I wonder what there is new or different for me to say. As usual I’ll say what I think. You can add your thoughts or differ with mine in the comments.

Demon Copperhead

First, it is very Dickensian. Of course it is, Barbara Kingsolver acknowledges her debt to the Victorian writer.

I’m grateful to Charles Dickens for writing David Copperfield, his impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in his society. Those problems are still with us. In adapting his novel to my own place and time, working for years with his outrage, inventiveness, and empathy at my elbow, I’ve come to think of him as my genius friend. (547)

So it is Dickensian, first by being an adaptation of the story of a disadvantaged boy, and a brilliant one, to her context. More than that, she matches his ability to tell stories, conjure characters, keep a plot alive. And by matching Dickens’s outrage at society’s failure to care for children who slip through the cracks, who are not well treated by social services, and who are preyed upon by opportunists and others who should know and do better. The social injustice permeates this story. Dickens showed novelists how to do this.

Second, despite adapting David Copperfield for her novel, Demon Copperhead stands in its own right. You do not need to have read Dickens’ novel to follow the plot. And if you have read it, you do not need to spend too much time identifying the parallels between the two. One or two are a bit clunky: the upside-down boat for example. But mostly the original story is so strong that Barbara Kingsolver’s adaptation lightly makes the connections. I found Coach to be the least convincing character in Demon Copperfield, and I can’t think from which original character he would have been adapted.

Having said that, I found that for the most part she created authentic characters, many with great quirkinesses. Mr Dick is a joy. U-Haul is suitably creepy and oily as Uriah Heep. The Peggot family are as warm and embracing as you could wish. The belief by Mr McCobb that something will turn up is as misguided as in the original. And so on. The main joys of this novel are the characters, their influence on Demon and the interlacing of their stories with his. 

Third, it’s a story worth telling. It is told by a boy who wants to make the best of himself, but life keeps knocking him down: born into poverty, in a rural setting where the mining industry has collapsed, Appalachian Mountains, to a single mother who cannot cope without alcohol; he is looked after by the state’s social services which means his labour is swapped for accommodation and payment, on a deadbeat farm, and then with a struggling family. He learns much from this degrading treatment, but it is only when he takes his destiny in his own hands – running away to find the truth about his father – that things slowly begin to get better. He is knocked down many times before he finds true love and happiness.

Meanwhile we have seen the damage caused by the opioid epidemic, neglectful social services, and greedy individuals in a brutal and raw story. Here she is, at her most outspoken, describing an evening on the farm where the foster carer relied upon children’s labour.

A ten-year-old getting high on pills. Foolish children. This is what we are meant to say. Look at their choices, leading to a life of ruin. But lives are getting lived right now, this hour, down in the dirty cracks between the toothbrushed nighty-nights and the full grocery carts, where those words don’t pertain. Children, choices. Ruin, that was the labor and materials we were given to work with. An older boy who never knew safety himself, trying to make us feel safe. We had the moon in the window to smile on us for a minute and tell us the world was ours. Because all the adults had gone off somewhere and left everything in our hands. (76-77)

Blame disadvantaged and deprived children for making bad choices and then go off somewhere and leave them to it. 

Don’t be put off by the American setting – it has a great deal to say to us in the UK as our public services collapse. And don’t be put off by its length. There is a huge amount to enjoy and to think about in this novel. I’m not surprised it won so many prizes and has been so highly praised. Have you read it yet?

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, published in 2022 by Faber. Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 548pp

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Fight Night by Miriam Toews 

Miriam Toews does not avoid difficult subjects. All my Puny Sorrows was a great success with my reading group, despite its story following the increasingly desperate attempts by a woman to keep her sister from killing herself. It was based on the author’s own experiences. I found Women Talking to be a shocking account of rapes in a Mennonite community, also based on a true story. Both novels, refer to the power of women’s relationships, and to their strength in the face of tragedy and human frailty and distress.

This novel, different again from those two in its themes, highlights the resilience, resistance and stubbornness of three generations of females. It’s about fighting hypocrisy, exploitation and above all injustice in everyday life. After one episode battling to get her grandmother to lunch with her friends the narrator reports:

Fighting is so hard and yet we’re never supposed to stop! (34)

Fight Night

Swiv is the narrator of this novel, and the reader meets her when she is 9 years old and has already been expelled from school, accused of a ‘lashing out tone, which I’m supposed to be working on’. She is at home in Toronto with her grandmother and mother. Both these older women are great fighters. No doubt Swiv was following their example and advice when she crossed the teacher.

The novel begins as a letter by Swiv to her absent father. This device mostly fades into the background. The family is not in a good place. Her mother is pregnant with a baby they call Gord, and her grandmother is grieving for the loss of her husband and most of her family. Their family therapist has advised them to write letters to the people they are missing. 

The first section outlines Swiv’s unorthodox life and education. She acts as carer to her grandmother, just as much as she is herself cared for. They have a hilarious home curriculum, homework of writing those letters, and some maths lessons that require calculations about a jigsaw of an Amish farm, or working out when the growing girl and the shrinking grandmother will be the same height. They are assailed by developers wanting to buy the house, and the religious bigotry of Willit Braun. And the family are challenged by the consequences of Grandma’s irrepressible love of people and life.

Grandma rants to Swiv about what the church and Willet Braun did to their community. It goes on for about three pages, but this part seems especially relevant to so much that we see being done in the name of religion.

They took all the things we need to navigate the world. They took the beautiful things … right under our noses … crept in like thieves … replaced our tolerance with condemnation, our desire with shame, our feelings with sin, our wild joy with discipline, our agency with obedience, our imagination with rules, every act of joyous rebellion with crushing hatred, our impulses with self-loathing, our empathy with sanctimoniousness, threats, cruelty, our curiosity with isolation, wilful ignorance, infantilism, punishment! (161)

Grandma has a great line in problem solving, which often means avoiding the obvious or breaking the rules. Here, for example, Grandma and her old friends are talking about dying, including the value of assisted dying. 

Wilda said she was worried about saying goodbye to everyone before she died. How would she get round to it all when she’d be so busy with dying. Grandma said no problem! Let’s say goodbye now and get it over with! We’re friends, we love each other, we know it, we’ve had good times, and one day we’ll be dead, whether we’re assisted or not. So, goodbye! They all thought that was a good idea so they all said goodbye to each other and got it over with. (35)

Swiv’s mother is for ever rehearsing a production of a play, despite being ‘in her third trimester’. She has a short fuse, but plenty of love for the grandmother and Swiv. 

The first section ends with Grandma’s planning to visit her nephews in Fresno, and the decision that Swiv will go with her. From this point on their adventures take off: the flights, meeting the nephews (but they are old), a sailing trip, a visit to an old people’s home and a dash home. Nothing progresses easily, but much of it is enjoyable because of Grandma’s presence. She is friendly and fearless, so as they move through the disasters of this trip, she attracts people who will help her, rescue her, look after her. 

Swiv is young, as we are reminded by her horror of anything sexual (such as a woman’s thong underneath the bed), and by her naive observations from time to time. She reports everything breathlessly, and without speech punctuation. See the quotation above for an example. I know this annoys some readers, but Miriam Toews is skilled at telling a harsh and tender story through the eyes of this child. Swiv does not avoid the difficult and intimate aspects of the episodes in which she is entangled. She has good teachers, for her two carers have made it plain that speaking the truth, being direct is as important as learning to fight.

The ending is funny and sad but also uplifting.

I read Grandma’s letter to Gord the other day. You’re a small thing and you must learn to fight. (250)

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews by Alessio Jacona (Rome Italy) Capri 2015 via wikicommons

Born in 1964 and brought up in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, Miriam Toews left when she reached 18. She lives in Toronto. Fight Night is her 8th novel. Speaking about Women Talking, she said, 

My goal is always to tell a story and to create characters that will move the reader. But I’m of course a feminist. I have a need to challenge that status quo that I’ve experienced. [From an interview with Katrina Onstad in the Guardian 18.8.18]

In writing Fight Night she has continued to create interesting and sympathetic characters, and to provide a plot that challenges the status quo. Recommended.

Fight Night by Miriam Toews, published in 2022 by Faber & Faber. 252pp

Related Bookword posts

Women Talking by Miriam Toews (September 2019)

All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (August 2015)

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The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Writing in her diary about her short story, Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street, Virginia Woolf observed that ‘she ushers in a host of others, I begin to perceive’ [August 16th 1922]. She had already appeared in Virginia Woolf’s first novel The Voyage Out (1915). Ten years later she was one of the two main characters in the novel Mrs Dalloway (1925).

It was not just her own writing that was influenced by Clarissa Dalloway. In 1998 Michael Cunningham published his novel The Hours, using Virginia Woolf’s original title. Since then, there has been a film made of Cunningham’s novel, and an opera. And Mrs Dalloway featured in the ballet Wolf Works. She certainly ushers in others.

The Hours

Michael Cunningham’s novel is structured around three versions of Mrs Dalloway, in different times and different places. Clarissa Vaughn (Mrs Dalloway) in New York at the end of the twentieth century. Virginia Woolf (Mrs Woolf) in Richmond, near London, as she is writing Mrs Dalloway in 1924; and Mrs Brown in Los Angeles in 1949, who is reading Mrs Dalloway. Short chapters tell a little of their stories in turn.

This is not a reimagination of Mrs Dalloway (the character and the novel), or of Virginia Woolf, in different times and places. It is not an adaptation. Rather Michael Cunningham has taken many of the themes of the novel and considered them from different viewpoints.

The title of his novel is significant. It is about time, and the life we have to fill time. Not everyone feels able to cope with this. Every story has a character who considers ending their life. Richard has HIV\Aids for which treatments are only just being provided. He is being encouraged by Clarissa to attend the party she has organised, and to receive an award for his poetry.

Richard nods, and does not move. His ravaged head, struck by full daylight, is geological. His flesh is as furrowed and pocked, as runneled, as desert stone.
He says, “I don’t know if I can face this. You know, the party and the ceremony, and then the hour after that, and the hour after that.”
“You don’t have to go to the party. You don’t have to go to the ceremony. You don’t have to do anything at all.”
“But there are still the hours, aren’t there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there’s another. I’m so sick.” (197-8)

Writing her novel, Mrs Woolf thinks at first that Clarissa will commit suicide, but comes to think that this will be the action of a different character. Mrs Brown sees no place for herself in all those hours, and at the end of the novel we learn that she botched her suicide. The novel opened with a description of Virginia Woolf’s suicide, nearly twenty years after she had written Mrs Dalloway

Famously, Mrs Dalloway is set within 24 hours, and each of these three narratives unfold in a day, but also over 70 years. This is a comment about time, and how lives are connected with each other, even over time. I was pleased to read The Hours in a day.

Here are some of the other ideas explored in The Hours, some more, some less explicitly than in Virginia Woolf’s novel: 

  • the effects of war on husbands, 
  • sexuality and social attitudes to it,
  • marriage and its value,
  • motherhood,
  • the excitement of the city,
  • changing possibilities for women,
  • legacy, what will be left after death,
  • the damage wrought by HIV/Aids,
  • what it means to care for someone, and to be cared for by someone,

All these themes and ideas are explored in both novels (except HIV/Aids, which was of its time in New York in the late ‘90s).

Clearly Michael Cunningham immersed himself in Mrs Dalloway and has created something new and his novel enhanced my understanding of Virginia Woolf’s novel at the same time as providing new perspectives. It is not necessary to have read her novel to enjoy The Hours, but I would recommend it.

Survivors have to go on living through the hours too, like Clarissa who in the penultimate sentence of the novel, reflects, ‘here she is with another hour before her”. (226)

And of course there was a film, released in 2002, starring Meryl Streep (Mrs Dalloway), Nicole Kidman (Mrs Woolf) and Julianne Moore (Mrs Brown), directed by Stephen Daldry. And in 2022 an opera. (A note on the film casting of Meryl Streep: there’s a nice little self-reference here because Clarissa, seeing a celebrity’s trailer, imagines it might be Meryl Streep inside p27.) 

The Hours by Michael Cunningham first published in 1998 and in the UK by 4th Estate. 230pp

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Pen/Faulkner Award in 1999.

 

Related Links

The Hours at 25: The book that changed how we see Virginia Woolf, by Lillian Crawford on BBC Culture, August 9, 2023

In step with Virginia Woolf about the Ballet Woolf Works (Bookword May 2015) 

Inspired by the Writings of Virginia Woolf about the exhibition in Pallant House, Chichester called Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings (Bookword August 2018)

With Virginia Woolf in Cambridge about the summer school I attended (Bookword August 2023)

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Bookword February 2020)

The second Mrs Dalloway (Bookword July 2019)

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street by Virginia Woolf (Bookword May 2016)

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