Category Archives: Women of Colour

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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Rattlebone by Maxine Clair

Rattlebone is a black neighbourhood in Kansas City. This novel is set in the city in the 1950s when Maxine Clair was growing up there. It follows the childhood of Irene Wilson and draws in events from the lives of others in the community. I find myself wanting to use words that imply concepts of tweeness, sweetness, naivety and so forth in thinking about this book. But this novel packs quite a punch. It contains little about relations between different ethnic groups. But we are aware that the families who live in Rattlebone have a hard life, do some of the worst jobs and for rubbish wages. At the same time they have built up a strong and developing sense of community. When the high school is destroyed by a rogue aeroplane, local communities contribute to its reconstruction. 

The incident is the most dramatic in the novel. This extract gives us a sense of Maxine Clair’s skill as a writer. Irene is watching the planes from her high school classroom.

They were coming in dangerously low, coming, coming. The pilot in one plane must have been trying to urge the other to pull up. Then the one climbed the sky in a sharp angle, exposing its silver belly to the sun. The other appeared to be locked into a steady plunge. Mr Cox spun around and yelled ‘Run!’ The plane had rotated slightly, so that it seemed to be coming broadside straight for us. By the time we considered running, it was too late. The whole room exploded in a fury of glass. (216)

The incident is included in the final chapter of the novel and leads to a new beginning for Irene, outside of Rattlebone.

Rattlebone

Looked at one way, this is a collection of short stories, but they are all connected to Irene and to the suburb of Rattlebone which makes this more than a collection. There are eleven stories, some of them very short, others extended. Some are retold by characters who appear elsewhere and some are given some perspective by being told in the third person. Some, like the final episode, are narrated by Irene. 

The first chapter is also narrated by Irene and features her new teacher. Interestingly it links her community of Rattlebone with the child herself by starting off in the first-person plural: ‘we’. Here is the first sentence of the opening chapter.

We heard it from our friends, who got it from their near-eyewitness grandmothers and their must-be-psychic ladies, that when she was our same age, our teacher, Miss October Brown, watched her father fire through his rage right on into her mother’s heart. (1)

October Brown comes from outside of Rattlebone, and she immediately begins to change the orderly pattern of Irene’s life. She introduces current affairs and French into the classroom, and her father leaves the family to pursue an affair with her. She appears in other stories, with another errant husband, but also she finally provides Irene with a route out of her narrow life in Rattlebone. 

The perspective in the stories changes as Irene matures, not always making her the focus of the episode. For example, her father is caught up in a flood after work and goes to help with others to build up the levées to protect their families. In another dramatic episode he is forced to face up to what is important in his life. In later stories we find he has returned home, and how his troubled relationship with his wife is resolved, not to Irene’s satisfaction. 

Some of the most touching stories involve the fate of the children of Irene’s age, who experience accidents, or who are so challenged that they are removed from Rattlebone, much to the sadness of mother and sister. The children have considerable leeway over their lives for their parents are always busy working. There is the strange story about the visits of ‘the white woman’. The children are out playing, observing their elders, and enjoying an ordinary day.

Then she drove up in a raggedy-trap, old-time car with no top, black slits in the side of the hood, running boards, rumble seat stuffed with what looked like broken furniture, and a horn blasting Aah-hooga! Aah-hooga!
She stepped out of the car, unfolding her flat self to be taller than any of our mothers. Except for her face, all of her was covered up in white: a long-sleeved, church-ushering dress, white nurse’s shoes, white stockings, white gloves, white thing twist-wrapped around her head with no hair showing. She was the whitest – not beige, not pink, not rouge or lipstick – white woman we had ever seen. (26)

Sister Joan is preaching some kind of religion, but the mothers see her off. She disappeared as suddenly as she arrived.

I have quoted several times from the book because I find Maxine Clair’s prose and her descriptions and the voices she uses to be strong and vivid and entirely suitable to her material. 

Maxine Clair

Born in 1939 and raised in Kansas City, Maxine Clair was 55 when Rattlebone was first published. It received good attention but was not a best-seller. She had been pursuing a career in medical technology, but changed to creative writing, publishing poems and a novel called October Suite, featuring the schoolteacher October Brown – not available in the UK. She is still teaching creative writing. 

The Guardian Review by Nick Duerden in June 2023 refers to Rattlebone as ‘a small perfectly formed classic’.

It was also reviewed on her blog by Heaven Ali in August 2023. You can read that review here. She says, ‘What Maxine Clair does beautifully though is to give us a snapshot of a place in time, that sense of time and place is present in every word she writes.’

Rattlebone by Maxine Clair, first published in the US in 1994. Now available in the UK, published by Daunt Books in 2023, with an introduction by Okechukwu Nzelu. 138pp 

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I Belong Here by Anita Sethi 

I thought about this book earlier today as I was on my morning walk with the dog. It was rather an overcast day in south Devon, the kind where you can’t tell whether it is raining or not. I picked a favourite route, through woodland along a riverbank for about a mile and a half. It was quite muddy underfoot, especially in places where the path isn’t well drained. The fallen leaves are beginning to rot and can be quite slippery. In these woods we see many primroses later in the year, and wild garlic (ransoms). Today there were no wildflowers. I had to make do with the sight of snowdrops in the hedges of the lane on my way out of my village.

I love walking this route. It is always changing. When I first discovered it, I had no dog, and it was not well walked. You rarely met anyone. Since Covid we meet plenty of dog walkers. As people in Devon do, we greet each other and pass on. The river has a strange name: the Lemon. I haven’t been able to establish where it rises, but it collects the water from many hillsides and eventually joins the Teign just before that river widens into its estuary. 

The river undermines trees all the time, and those on the banks often fall. Some create barriers across the path; some create bridges across the narrow river; others lie where they have fallen. But one that I previously relied on for a seat has been removed. It was perfect for sitting and watching the dog leaping into the water, so I had to find another. The dog loves swimming, even in January. She has an absorbing hobby: collecting stones from the bed of the river and taking them away onto the dry bank. I can sit until I feel the cold, watching her leap into the water and emerging after some bottom exploration with a huge wet stone. I don’t know why she does this. She did it yesterday at the beach as well.

Walking with the dog, rain or shine, twice a week has been part of my life for about five years. Even before I moved down to Devon from London I would frequently go out on my own. I have walked around the LOOP (the London Outer Orbital Route, which encircles London without going beyond the M25). It took two years to complete all the segments, but I understood London and its edges so much better when I had completed it.

With my friend Sarah I have also walked the Thames Path, from the source of the river near a patch of snowdrops in a soggy field in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier. That was in about 15 stages. Given that we were following the route of one of England’s greatest rivers, I am not quite sure how we got lost on one section. Our current walking and musing often takes place high above the Vale of Pewsey, in the area of Salisbury Plain – think white horse of Westbury and Eric Ravillious.

Walking is a such a good activity, on your own, with a dog or with other people. It puts one in touch with the landscape, especially a familiar landscape when one can notice the small changes of the seasons or the topography. And it is an excellent social activity, bringing people together, creating shared experiences, providing opportunity for interaction, reflection and quiet togetherness. 

As I walked this morning I noticed a new perspective on a ridge, and how some foresters had been clearing some of the scrub and hedge material that had previously hidden the river along sections of the path. I considered as I walked, the notion of belonging to a place. This summer it will be eleven years since I moved to this part of the world. I have walked some part of it every week. Do I belong? How does walking help me to belong?

I Belong Here: a journey along the backbone of Britain

This book was a Christmas present from the previously-mentioned Sarah.  Thank you Sarah!

Anita Sethi experienced nasty racial abuse on a train in the north of England. She reported it to the train officials and the man was prosecuted and found guilty. Upset by the incident and previous experiences of racism and sexism, she seeks to gain equilibrium through hiking in the north, specifically the Pennines as she was born and brought up in Manchester. Some of this walking she does alone, sometimes she has some support.

Having been told to ‘go back where you belong’ she asks the question, where do I belong, and how do I know. She considers the experiences of Black people in the countryside, of women walking alone, of the meaning of belonging. Along the way she meets people, talks with them, is rescued and helped by them. She considers literature of walking. I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the geology of the areas she walked in, including Hadrian’s Wall. This is a fusion of memoir and nature writing, justly popular and prize-winning.

Of course she belongs. I do too. Belonging is not in the gift of White male racists. Belonging is a function of living.

I Belong Here: a journey along the backbone of Britain by Anita Sethi, published in 2021 by Bloomsbury. 320pp

Shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize for nature writing in 2021 and winner of the Books Are My Bag Readers’ Non-Fiction Award 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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Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

It only seems a short time since I read and reviewed Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi on Bookword blog. It was published in 2016. It was a story in two parts, one following African generations who remained on the continent, and the other following the descendants of an enslaved woman. The novel allowed contrasts between the two branches of the family, and how they emerged in the early 21st Century. It made a strong impression on me.

Since that time, I have wanted to read her second book, Transcendent Kingdom (2020), which has been well reviewed and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2021.

Transcendent Kingdom

This later novel is also constructed as a contrast, here to contrast two apparently opposing stances on life. The Ghanaian connection is here again. The narrator is Gifty, who has been brought up in Huntsville Alabama, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants. 

Gifty has been a brilliant science student and has moved to Stanford, California to work on her doctoral research. She is a neuroscientist, experimenting on mice, hoping to find whether it is possible to control their responses to pleasure and pain. 

Gifty’s mother has put all her faith in the church she attended since arriving in the States: The First Assemblies of God. She is a diligent attendee and as a child Gifty shared her devotion. But Gifty lost her faith and her mother’s was severely tried by two significant losses in their lives. The first was Nana, Gifty’s talented brother, and the second was her father who returned to Ghana. 

Nana, a gifted soccer player turned to basketball and sustained an injury to his ankle takes him to hospital and he is prescribed OxyContin. This is a very effective painkiller, but it is also highly addictive. Nana’s descent into opiate addiction, attempted rehabilitation, heroin dependence and subsequent death is charted through the eyes of his younger and adoring sister.

Gifty’s mother has a breakdown, after Nana’s death and Gifty spends a summer in Ghana. The novel begins, many years later, when she has had another breakdown, and has come to stay in Gifty’s flat as there is no one else to care for her. The narrative jumps back and forth over time, and from Gifty’s attempts to help her mother to her research in the lab. 

Neither mother nor daughter are managing very well. While Gifty is a brilliant student, she has no social life to speak of and she is in her mid-twenties. Her mother lies in bed, hardly moving, speaking or eating for several weeks. Faith and science seem to have failed both women. 

Gifty herself articulates the issue:

All of my years of Christianity, of considering the heart, the soul, and the mind with which the Scriptures tell us to love the Lord, had primed me to believe in the great mystery of our existence, but the closer I tried to get to uncovering it, the further away the objects moved. The fact that I can locate the part of the brain where memory is stored only answers questions of where and perhaps even how. It does little to answer the why. (183)

We are assured, in the Acknowledgements, that Gifty’s research is modelled after a friend’s doctoral studies. The narrator quotes from several scientific papers which are probably real too. She frequently turns over ideas and problems in the text, making this novel less of a narrative progression, but more a contemplation of issues of choice, addiction, the control of the individual (mouse and man), and the division between heart, soul and mind.

Gifty’s research is an attempt to find whether there are any ways in which the brain can be coaxed into refusing pleasure if it also results in pain: the central problem of addiction. A breakthrough in her research leads to some hope. Her mother also gradually improves under her care.

The novel also considers migration, being Black in a White state, being a Black girl (and therefore unable to be a princess apparently), to be young and exposed to the opiate addiction crisis, and the role of the churches in sustaining people through difficult times. Loss and grief are described as acute states.

Two things bother me about this novel: first, the ethical question raised by using animals in experiments is not acknowledged, let along explored. And then I do not understand the title.

Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 but moved with her family to the US in 1991. Recently she wrote a piece in the Guardian which stung me into replying to her charges in a post called Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine? In that article she refers to her belief in ‘the power of literature to challenge, to deepened, to change’. And she has claimed Toni Morrison as one of her major influences. Both her novels are powerful, in both because, like Toni Morrison, she relates systematic injustice and racism to individuals’ lives.

Related posts

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (June 2021)

Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine? (May 2021)

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi 2020. Published in paperback by Penguin 244pp. Shortlisted for Women’s Prize in 2021

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Some Monstrous Women in Books

Monstrous women appear in many novels, including those written by women. Some are redeemed, and some are defeated and one or two even triumph. A few are the main character. They all help the plot along in some way. I note that men can be monstrous too, but when they behave as these women do it appears insignificant. 

For this post I present some books that include monstrous women, with links to my reviews on Bookword.

Unredeemed

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (1957)

Angel is monstrous; a writer of flamboyant and excessive fiction that is full of errors and anachronisms and other writerly solecisms (such as using real people’s names). The financial success of her novels came from the popularity of her overblown prose and the outrageousness of her style. Angel herself was certain that she should be spoken of in the same breath as Shakespeare and Goethe (whose name she could not pronounce). Her publisher says that she writes ‘with ignorance and imagination’. She has no sense of humour, no self-doubt and no judgement. Angel is arrogant, rude, selfish and opinionated, and what she doesn’t like she ignores (such as her aunt, the First World War, critics, poverty, people who challenge her).

Flora in The Soul of Kindness, also by Elizabeth Taylor, (1964) has a magnificent unawareness and entitlement that drives people to death, unsuitable marriage and misery. We all know someone like Flora, attractive, without insight or self-awareness, but yet she is everybody’s favourite. Perhaps we even want to be her friend, because some of her lustre might rub off on us. Elizabeth Taylor shows us the damage such creatures can create.

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood (1977)

The narrator is sent to stay with her great-grandmother and finds the experience horrific. The old lady had a toxic upbringing imbued with Victorian middleclass values. She imposes on her young relative the rigid formality, the meeting of the expectations of others, the refusal to express emotions, the belief in her own righteousness, all from that upbringing.

And these get their come-uppance

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

We learn that Lady Catherine de Bourgh ‘was extremely indignant’ at the marriage of her nephew, Mr Darcy, to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, ‘and she gave way to all the genuine frankness of her character’. She had paid a warning visit to Elizabeth in which she told the young woman,

‘Miss Bennet, you ought to know that I am not to be trifled with. But however insincere you may choose to be, you will not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness, and in a cause of such moment as this, I shall certainly not depart from it.’ 

Her abusive language to her nephew severed relations for a while, eventually smoothed over by Elizabeth.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) 335

Few women live in the imagination as strongly as Mrs Danvers, in contrast to the meek second never-named wife of Max de Winter. The housekeeper resents the new wife and seems to own Manderley in the absence of the first Mrs de Winter. As a character she is a brilliant invention. But I wonder how the reader is so easily convinced of Max’s innocence, and how much that is a reaction to Mrs Danvers’s creepy and threatening presence.

Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark (1974) 

Mocking the great, is what Muriel Spark is about in this novel that is a parody of Richard Nixon’s downfall. Sister Alexandra, in white, corrupts and exploits the other sisters, in black. She records everything and is wittily exposed in this novel.

Beowulf

Grendel’s mother in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is portrayed as an ignorant hag-like creature, living in a pool of water-snakes, scarcely able to communicate with her son. Maddened by the death of her son at the hands of the first superhero, she is defeated in turn in her own cave. There is an alternative feminist version to this misogyny: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847) 

Jane’s aunt, Mrs Sarah Reed, resents the necessity for her orphaned niece to join her household and treats her very badly and banishes her to Lowood Hall School.

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple (1943)

Three sisters are contrasted in this novel. One of these is Vera who is so beautiful that every door is opened to her, all difficulty smoothed out of her way, all misdemeanours forgiven, until she becomes middle-aged. She treats her husband with flagrant unkindness, and when he leaves her, looks round for another admirer. Her nemesis is age, and she is forced to face her weaknesses when her niece replaces her in a young man’s attentions. Vera is too weak to give up the young man and they run away to a life of more unhappiness in South Africa.

Hidden Qualities

Some apparently horrendous women are revealed to have hidden qualities.

 

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008) 

In the first volume of short stories of Olive Kitteridge, the former schoolteacher is revealed as a very flawed individual. But in the second volume, Olive, Again (2010), she has become quite sympathetic, perhaps because we understand her more. Is this the Dirty Den syndrome, whereby the audience loves a baddie if they experience enough of them?

The Door by Magda Szabo (1987) 

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix

Emerence acts as housekeeper to a novelist, choses her clients and behaves in what appears to be a high-handed even predatory manner, intimidating her clients and her neighbours. She is not so much redeemed as explained in this magnificent Hungarian novel. 

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)

Mrs Fisher is definitely saved in this much-loved novel about four ill-assorted women who spend a month together in an Italian castle. She is saved through Italian sunshine and the sunny disposition of Lotty.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré (2020)

And now, meet Big Madam as 14-year-old Adunni meets her in Lagos.

The cool air inside the car is escaping with a strong flower smell as somebody is climbing out. First thing I am seeing is feets. Yellow feets, black toes. There is different colour paint on all the toenails: red, green, purple, orange, gold. The smallest of the toes is having a gold ring on it. Her whole body is almost filling the whole compound as she is coming out. I am now understanding why they are calling her Big Madam. When she come out, she draw deep breath and her chest, wide like a blackboard, is climbing up and down, up and down. It is as if this woman is using her nostrils to be collecting all the heating from the outside and making us be catching cold. I am standing beside Mr Kola, and his body is shaking like my own. Even the trees in the compound, the yellow, pink, blue flowers in the long flower pot, all of them are shaking. (122)

Big Madam enslaves Adunni, to work in her house, and to live in a shack in the compound. Adunni is valued by many of the people she meets, who help her achieve her ambitions – to do with the ‘louding’ voice – and to which Big Madam must eventually accede. 

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky (2010)

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky (2019)

Both novels were translated from the German by Tim Mohr

In both books there is a monstrous, interfering and overwhelming grandmother. Both behave in underhand and shocking ways, with lack of consideration for others. They are stories about unconditional love that is expressed in curious and sometimes hilarious ways.

Not yet categorised as monstrous

Guard your Daughters by Dorothy Tutton (1953)

The mother in this novel exerts control and limits her five daughter’s experiences to her own advantage. Is she monstrous?

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen (1969)

The main character challenges many conventions about women, maternal feelings, obsession with appearance, desire to marry, and independent wealth. I am not sure I understand what the author was doing with this unlikely character, but I believe she is not monstrous.

You may have your own suggestions of monstrous female characters to add to this list?

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Kindred by Octavia E Butler

Every now and again someone I respect recommends this novel. It has a reputation of being a sci-fi story, and indeed Kindred is based on time-travel. Dana, the main character is a Black writer living in Los Angeles in 1976, who finds herself pulled back into Maryland in the years before the US Civil War. The story is narrated by Dana, and the reader follows her story as she tries to negotiate her way back to 1976 from the experiences of the Weyland Plantation on which she finds herself. Her colour determines her fate.

I delayed reading it because it was labelled as sci-fi, but I should not have delayed. It is a convincing and fearsome exploration of the practices and tools of enslavement and racial inequality.

Kindred

When Dana finds herself thrown back into Maryland in the years before the US Civil War, she takes with her the experience of racially integrated California in the ‘70s. Much of the novel, therefore, is a contrast between Dana’s contemporary life and the experience on the Maryland plantation in the early part of the 19th Century. One of the first contrasts is the language, for she is routinely described using the N word. The Black people she meets are mostly enslaved, and even the free Blacks are in danger of being forced into slavery one way or another.

I found the first few chapters rather wooden as the scenario was set up. She is at home when goes dizzy and comes round to find herself rescuing a small redheaded boy from the river. She gives him artificial respiration so that he is saved from drowning. She returns to 1976 when the boy’s father is about to shoot her. Not long after, she returns to find the same boy, but older, in mortal danger from a fire. And so it goes on. Dana – and on one occasion her husband – spend longer and longer in the past saving Rufus. As a Black woman with no papers she is assumed to be a slave as she repeatedly visits the Weyland plantation and treated as such. 

No explanation or mechanism is ever revealed to explain this time travel, but the first few chapters must convince the reader that Dana is going back in time. As the story progresses, we get more caught up in Dana’s experiences and her time on the plantation. After a few visits to the Weyland Plantation, Dana realises that her visits are arranged to keep Rufus Weyland from death. Dana realises that one of Rufus’s slaves, Alice, may be her ancestor. She also must keep Alice alive to ensure that she will be born. The mechanics of her travel became less important than seeing slavery through the eyes and experiences of a woman from the ‘70s. 

Her contact with the Black Power Movement led Octavia E Butler to investigate why the black people of the past apparently acquiesced to their enslavement. One of the strands of the novel is to show how different characters made choices which meant adapting to the conditions to avoid whipping, sexual assault, their family being ripped apart, or being sold to passing traders: choices for their survival. 

Kindred is a searing explanation of how the slave economy was maintained, highlighting the violence, dehumanising violence, and for Black women there was the added threat of sexual violence. Slaveholders were not required to pay any attention to family ties, and children and partners could be sold away from the plantation to coerce or to punish or for economic benefit. 

Another form of control was to keep enslaved people in ignorance, prohibited from learning to read or write. Dana, as an educated woman, in ante-bellum South posed a great threat to the white masters. In secret she taught some of the children to read.

Octavia E Butler’s sources for Dana’s experiences were the many accounts by enslaved people who escaped. She felt she had to tone down these narratives to make it more believable to her readers.

Eventually Rufus is killed, and Dana loses an arm in her final return to 1976, which reminds us of the physical danger that reaches out from the past. Today’s readers have to add their own present day to their understanding of Dana’s time travel. How much have things changed for Black people in the half-century since 1976? The past continues to provide a legacy of physical damage and social and economic inequality. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is a testament to that. What this novel said to me so bitterly was that those instruments of enslavement and repression were still employed in the US in the ‘70s are still used today. The violence, the sexualisation of black women (and men in a different way), the economic differences (starkly revealed by the Coronavirus epidemic) still exist. Poorer housing, poorer health care, poorer education and violence. 

Octavia E Butler

Born in California in 1947, Octavia E Butler was raised in Pasadena, Ca which was racially integrated, although the lives of the inhabitants were very different based on race. Her mother worked as a maid, and her father died when she was eight. She was a shy child and took to writing and visiting the library. She had early success as a writer and met both encouragement and challenge. 

One of her achievements was to widen the scope of sci-fi stories to include the experiences of woman and people of colour.  She claimed, ‘I began writing about power because I had so little’. She won Hugo and Nebula awards for her novels and short stories, and Kindred, in particular, is regarded as a classic.

First edition cover of Kindred 1979

Kindred by Octavia E Butler, first published in 1979. I read the paperback edition from Headline, published in 2018. 295pp

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The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré 

I have, in previous posts, declared that I would not read novels with ‘girl’ in the title. But I made an exception for this one because it was recommended by readers I respect, and because the main character is a girl. She is fourteen when the novel opens.

And being a girl of 14, it is shocking that the novel opens with the scene where Adunni’s father tells her that he has negotiated with Morufu for her to become his third wife. Her father will receive a generous bride price. This will end Adunni’s ambition to become a girl with a louding voice.

The Girl with the Louding Voice

Adunni is a girl of 14, brought up in Ikati, a village in rural Nigeria. She is the narrator of her story. Her mother died and she is left with two brothers and a father. The family are very poor, and Adunni has already had to give up primary school to take on her mother’s domestic duties. She has an ambition: to become a girl with a louding voice. Here louding means something like amplification, but also confidence. She explains her ambitions to her friend Ms Tia.

‘My mama say education will give me a voice. I want more than just a voice, Ms Tia. I want a louding voice,’ I say. ‘I want to enter a room and people will hear me even before I open my mouth to be speaking. I want to live in this life and help many people so when I grow old and die, I will still be living through the people I am helping. Think it, Ms Tia. If I can go to school and become a teacher, then I can collect my salary and maybe even build my own school in Ikati and be teaching the girls. The girls in my village don’t have much chance for school. I want to change that, Ms Tia, because those girls, they will grow up and born many more great people to make Nigeria even more better than now.’ (224)

On her marriage she goes to live in Morufu’s compound, where she finds his two wives and some daughters. Adunni must endure much for Morufu’s wish for a son. She makes friends with his second wife, Kadije. When Kadije is nearly ready to deliver her baby the two younger wives go to a nearby village apparently to consult with a midwife. But here disaster happens and Adunni must escape the village for ever.

She is trafficked to Lagos, where she works for no wages as a house girl for Big Madam. Here is her description of her first meeting with Big Madam as her employer gets out of her car.

First thing I am seeing is feets. Yellow feets, black toes. There is different colour paint in all the toenails: red, green, orange, purple, gold. The smallest of the toes is having a gold ring on it. Her whole body is almost filling the whole compound as she is coming out. I am now understanding why they are calling her Big Madam. When she come out, she draw deep breath and her chest, wide like blackboard, is climbing up and down, up and down. …
She take two step near to us, then I am seeing her face well. Her face is looking like one devil-child vex with her and paint it with his feets. On top of the orange powder on her face, there is a red line on the two both eyebrows which she is drawing all the way out to her ears. Green powder on the eyelids. Lips with gold lipstick, two cheeks full of red powder. (122-3)

At first it seems as if she has escaped from Ikati and the torments of her marriage to Morufu only to experience slave conditions in the household of the wealthy businesswoman. Her life is made more difficult by Big Papa, who tries to rape her. He is the most despicable of all the characters: he betrays Big Madam, even with her friend, seduces previous house girls, lives off Big Madam and has no job.

But while her time with Big Madam is difficult, she is befriended by Kofi, the Ghanaian cook, and Abu the Muslim driver. She also meets the neighbour, Ms Tia, who is not in the same mould as Big Madam and her rich friends. All three help Adunni to enter a competition for female domestic servants to receive a scholarship to study at school. The drama between Big Madam and Papa allows her eventual freedom.

A day will come when my voice will sound so loud all over Nigeria and the world of it, when I will be able to make a way for other girls to have their own louding voice because I know, that when I finish my education, I will find a way to help them go to school. (312)

Adunni’s story is a very engaging one. To start with she is very young and with few resources to face the obstacles to her ambition. But she has determination, and a very likeable honesty and has deeply rooted integrity. 

Additionally, the author has created a very appealing voice for her narrator. The malapropisms in her use of the English language, not her first language, draws attention to her naivety and her clear sightedness. The reader is forced to see the story from the point of view of an ill-educated but determined and intelligent young woman. Her own voice is louding because she describes the misogyny, the exploitation of young women, the lack of integrity she encounters in Lagos and pursues her ambitions with such determination.

Abi Daré

Abi Daré

Abi Daré was born in Lagos, Nigeria and moved to the UK for her university education. She now lives with her partner and children in Essex. The Girl with the Louding Voice is her first novel and has been well received. It was a New York Times bestseller, chosen as a Book at Bedtime for Radio 4. She was included in the Guardian’s list of 10 best debut novelists in 2020.

I look forward to more from Abi Daré.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré was published in 2020 by Sceptre. 314pp

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Some books to help you through the night

As with many people, the pandemic has disrupted my sleep patterns. I often fail to go to sleep or wake at about 2.30am and can’t fall asleep again. I often read at that time (also listen to podcasts, or just fret). For these bouts of insomnia I like books of short stories, or with short sections. I am not trying to be bored to sleep but to occupy my restless mind. These three books have answered the need recently. 

  • Rose Macaulay: Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life
  • Zora Neale Hurston: Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick
  • Marina Benjamin: Insomnia

Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay

Ideal for dipping into, Rose Macaulay presents sixty essays on a range of topics. She gives us something on Cows, Flattery, Hatching Eggs, Elephants in Bloomsbury, Heresies, Logomachy, Solitude, Reading, Writing and many other subjects. Some are short, less than a page, others much longer or with subdivisions. 

Notice the sub-heading: essays on enjoying life. What is on show is a writer who is confident that she has something to say, and that she can showcase her wit, her love of words and her erudition. She enjoys using arcane words and constructing them as well.

The lightness of touch reflects her position at the time: a respected and confident writer, in a steady if clandestine relationship, and earning enough from her writing to be independent. Personal Pleasures was published in 1935, and much was yet right with the world, or at least not yet of great concern in Europe (although there are several references to the Nazi Party and her objections to their policies and actions.)

Handheld Press has been responsible for reissuing many of her books, some of which I have reviewed on the blog (see below).

Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1935 and a new edition has been issued by Handheld Press (2021). I found the introduction and notes by Kate Macdonald to be invaluable.256pp

Related posts

Non-Combatants and Others: writings against war (1916) by Rose Macaulay

Potterism (1920) by Rose Macaulay

The Towers of Trebizond (1956) by Rose Macaulay

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston

This is such a good title, for it immediately conveys something to be considered, something unexpected. Besides it is much longer than most titles. Genevieve West, who collected and edited these stories, made a good choice there. And it matches the title of her best-known novel: Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The twenty-one stories in Hitting a Straight Lick are told in a mixture of phonetic colloquialisms or dialect and more conventional narrative style. You might imagine that they were difficult to read, but I soon got used to the rhythms of the voices.

Most of the stories feature Black people living in meagre conditions. The women have endless household chores to do while earning money at the same time. The men work in the docks, or in other industrial settings often in very low paid posts. The men woo women, often younger women who are newly arrived in their community, and they try to use violence to discipline and control the women to whom they are married. I enjoyed most the stories when the women get their own back. One character who appealed to me was Caroline Ports in The Country in the Woman. She had some amusing and innovative ways of deterring women from messing with her husband. Here’s the best example:

Delphine Hicks – Caroline had waited for her beside the church steps one First Sunday (big meeting day) and had thrown her to the ground and robbed the abashed vampire of her underthings. Billowy underclothes were the fashion and in addition Delphine was large. Caroline had seen fit to have her pony make the homeward trip with its hindquarters thrust into Delphine’s ravished clothes. (197)

There is genuine tension in Sweat, a story about a man who provokes his wife with a snake. And some stories feature very human situations, such as the older man who marries a much younger wife only to find that his much-loved son and his wife fall in love in Under the Bridge

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891 and raised in Eatonville, Florida. She died in 1960. Her grandparents had been slaves, but she made the best of new opportunities in the 20s and ‘30s. Her name is often associated with the Harlem Renaissance (along with Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes). 

There are some less appealing stories in this collection, but overall it has been a pleasure to share my waking hours with this innovative and witty writer.

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston, her collected short stories, first published together in 2020 by HQ (Harper Collins)Collected and edited by Genevieve West253pp

Related Posts

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston

The first two books were written around the same time but are sharply contrasted. In March last year I wrote a post for this blog on the theme of sleep. I included this slim and invaluable volume:

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin (2018)

Recommend by Deborah Levy:

A sublime view of the treasures and torments to be found in wakefulness. Entertaining and existential, the brightest star in this erudite, nocturnal reverie in search of lost sleep, is the beauty of the writing itself. 

This book sits on my bedside table and I continue to dip into its paragraphs and reflections on insomnia and sleep as required. 

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin, published by Scribe in 2018. 144pp.

You can find the post Sleep in Fiction by clicking on the link.

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The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The writer of Confessions, Sara Collins, came to my attention last year because she presented and interviewed writers in several on-line events that I attended during lockdowns. She interested me because she was chosen to interview some well-known writers. I also noticed that she has been playing a part in the identification of young writers the Futures Award, by the Women’s Prize for Fiction and Good Housekeeping promoting young women writers.

Another reason to read her book is that she is a woman of colour, born in Jamaica, brought up in Cayman. This is her first novel, but not, I suspect her last, because it has already done well, for example winning the Costa First Novel Prize in 2019. And because the screenplay of this novel has already been filmed and released on Disney channel.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

The story has mystery, suspense, and being set in Jamaica and London in the early nineteenth century, has a strong historical background. There is romance, and anger and truly awful physical experiments of which Josef Mengele would have approved. 

The story is framed by Frannie’s trial for murder in 1826 at the Old Bailey and told mostly as her deposition in her own defence. Some additional documents and testimony are presented to fill out her story and to give an added perspective.

You could read this book as a mystery, a well told story. But Sara Collins has placed the action at a significant moment, especially for black people in England. The barbarous trade across the Atlantic had been ended for British ships at least, in 1807. But enslaved peoples still provided the labour on the sugar plantations of Jamaica, such as the one Frannie was born on. 

It was also the time of enlightenment, when men with means were pursuing knowledge about everything related to humans. Mr Benham, one of the murder victims, is one of the finest minds in England, writing as a moral philosopher. He is interested in the physiological aspects of blackness, and in the study of the black body. 

While this is the period of Rights of Men and Woman (Mary Wollestonecraft published in 1792) it is also the period of Frankenstein. This is the story of a human being cobbled together from body parts, and then abandoned by its creator, the Frankenstein of the title, when his monster became a liability. Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft published her novel in 1818. The ethics of experimentation and research into humans is a theme of this novel, along with the question, are some humans less worthy of education, position, rights, than others? And is this due to skin colour, gender, sexuality, class or something else? What could possibility justify the enslavement of another human?

Frannie Langton was born in Paradise in Jamaica. Paradise is the plantation owned by Langton. He owns everything, the slaves, the crops, the profits, the house, his wife. You may remember that Paradise was the name of the plantation in Beloved. Frannie is brought by Mr Langton to the house, to serve his wife. She is taught to read, and eventually to help Langton in his experiments, his investigations into blackness and its physiological consequences. Even Frannie’s education, it emerges, is the result of a wager, to see if a black person can be educated. 

Frannie is a mulatta, that is she is mixed race and in the course of the novel she discovers the identity of both parents. Langton brings Frannie to England and gives her to Mr Benham, with whom he is trying to curry favour, his endeavours in Jamaica having collapsed. Mt Benham will no longer support Langton as he suspects his experiments have gone too far. Mr Benham is known for his reformist views on slavery.

Frannie forms a close bond with Mrs Benham, and they become lovers. There are several twists and turns to the plot before Mr and Mrs Benham are found dead. It is not surprising that Frannie is accused of their murder, for she is black, female and a lesbian. 

Reading The Confessions of Frannie Langton

It was a pleasure to read this novel; the story is well-told with pace and wit. There are many characters as suits a novel set in this period in London. There are the other servants in the house, the people on the streets, those who wish to live in the orbit of the Benhams, and the men who make use of the services of the women at the School House. The indolent and luxurious life lived by the Benhams, and people of their class can only be sustained by the poorly paid work of a range of servants, a parallel to the profits that were made on the sugar plantations of Jamaica, which sustained so much of the plantation owners’ way of life.

Frannie has been endowed with a good eye and a ready description. For example, when she is taken into the Langton’s house at Paradise she meets the cook Phibbah and she plies her with questions.

… but Phibbah was caked in the kind of spite that will not hear. (13)

While the story is fictional, the setting and the themes of the novel are not. Black servants were not unfamiliar in London households. For example, Francis Barber was brought to England by his ‘owner’ when he was seven, educated, freed and then he worked as Samuel Johnson’s manservant and companion. Johnson bequeathed Francis enough money that he could set up as a draper in Litchfield. 

It is not quite clear whether Frannie is free or not, and the circumstance of her being given to Mr Benham suggests that the men did not consider her to be free.

Gothic is a word used in the blurb to describe this novel. Lush, lavish, an exposé of the worst of early nineteenth century British society, where behind the ornate and detailed veneer lies a mess of exploitation and sin. The paperback’s cover beautifully captures this masking. Sara Collins takes her time, however, to reveal what lies behind the curtain, the lies, the attitudes, the grimness of life in Paradise or in London for the underclasses and what happened in the coach house.

The manner of the Benhams’ deaths is hardly shocking given all that. And although there is a twist at the end, the verdict is not long in doubt.

I was interested to see a short clip on YouTube where Sara Collins identified three books that had been important to her. They were: Beloved by Toni Morrison, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. You can find my reviews of Beloved and Frankenstein by following the links.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, published in 2019 by Penguin. 376pp

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