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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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Foster and Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan

Last year I was enthusiastic on this blog about a small novel: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan. I was not alone in my enthusiasm. It won the George Orwell Prize for political fiction and was shortlisted for both the Rathbones Folio and the Booker Prizes in 2022. It was a tale of quiet morality, and beautiful writing.

So when I was in Orkney and needed a small book for my flight home, I visited Stromness Bookshop. The bookshop is one of the smallest and best stocked bookshops I have ever been in. Squeezing between the stacks I found a copy of Foster, also by Claire Keegan. It was a perfect choice.

Foster

Foster is short, just 88 pages. It’s a story, set in rural Ireland, about an unnamed girl, the narrator, who gets taken by her father to the Kinsella’s farm one summer. They appear to be relatives of her mother who is expecting her next child. The narrator is not sure why she is there, or how long she will remain. In the short time he is at the farm her Da reveals himself to be a drinker and a gambler.

From such an insecure background, the girl is unsure of what is expected of her and she waits to see what happens. Over the weeks the Kinsellas show warmth, love and affection and she slowly comes out of her shell. We learn that this quiet couple lost their son, who drowned in slurry. The girl is happy at the farm, but the summer must end and she must return home.

It is so moving, so precise in its observations, through the child’s eyes, and a pleasure to read, like Small Things Like These.

Foster by Claire Keegan, published in 2010 by Faber & Faber. 88pp

Walk the Blue Fields

We read Small Things like These in my book group and shortly after I was lent this collection of short stories by Claire Keegan. They are also set in rural Ireland, and concern lonely men, for the most part, men who are inadequate at dealing with women and with their feelings about women. There is a slowness and understatedness about these stories which makes them captivating. The damage people do to their lives through drink, religion, gambling and ignorance is carefully revealed.

I thought that the title story was exceptional, in its subject matter (a priest who agonises as he officiates at the wedding of his former lover) and in how it is treated. It is not surprising that her short stories have also won prizes. 

Walk the Blue Fields Claire Keegan, published in 2007 by Faber & Faber. 183pp

You can find my review of Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan on Bookword blog, at this link.

And good news: So Late in the Day, a new short story by Claire Keegan, will be published by Faber and Faber in September.

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This novel was chosen by my book group to read in June, proposed because it kept appearing in lists of books that everyone should read. Some of us had read it before, but we were all happy for it to be on our list. I was one of the readers in the group who had read it before, probably in the late 1970s (that’s the date of the edition I own). I may have read it before, but I had completely misremembered the second half. I do remember that it made an impact on me the first time, and it certainly did again as I prepared to discuss it with the group.

The Bell Jar

Esther Greenwood narrates the novel, which is based on Sylvia Plath’s own experiences. It begins in New York in 1953.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
I thought it must be the worst thing in the world. (1)

These opening sentences set the tone. Esther doesn’t know what she is doing, and she is thinking about death. She also has a sharp turn of phrase: goggle-eyed headlines; fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway; burned alive all along your nerves.

These themes continue throughout the 258 pages and twenty chapters of this novel: Esther’s lostness; her interest in death and her facility with words.

Esther has a scholarship at her rural college and has won a prize of a month’s internship on a New York fashion magazine with eleven other girls. She is disappointed with the experience, finding more fun in escaping from the group and with Doreen to escape into an ill-advised adventure. On her return home she is devastated to find that she was not accepted onto a writing course she had been counting on, and her life continues to go downhill, as she contemplates and then attempts suicide. Her treatment includes receiving ECT and finding a good psychotherapist which allows her to finally emerge into the world.

The novel was published first in the UK, under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas in 1963. Shortly after its publication Sylvia Plath committed suicide. She was 31 years old. The novel was later published under her own name, finally in America in 1971. She also published several collections of poetry.

It’s difficult to read this novel without thinking about her ultimate death, and without wondering what happened in her life that she found living so hard. 

Here are some thoughts from our book group discussions.

In the 1950s it was hard to be born female and not to conform to the stereotype of womanhood being promoted (including by women’s magazines) at that time. Esther has a boyfriend, Buddy Willard but it is clear from his first mention that she has little intention of marrying him, despite his prospects as a doctor.

[Because] I did look down on Buddy Willard, and although everybody thought I would marry him when he came out of the TB place, I knew I would never marry him if he were the last man on earth. (54) 

Her impetus towards independence, like her friend Doreen, would have been a struggle even for a bright young girl in the ‘50s.

Another aspect of The Bell Jar is that novels about suicide and the desire to end one’s life were not common in the 1960. At our group we had previously discussed All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews from 2014, another novel based on real experience. It tells the story of a Canadian woman trying to prevent her sister from taking her own life. Reading The Bell Jar today is all the more poignant for knowing that Sylvia Plath did take her own life. The novel does not explain her determination, only chronicle it.

Which leads me to mention another feature of The Bell Jar. It is a novel full of emotion, anxiety and concern, frustration and fury, fear and humour. But the language used is stripped of emotion. All that feeling is expressed through her way of writing. Here’s an example from a moment towards the end of her time in New York.

I also had a dim idea that if I walked the streets of New York by myself all night something of the city’s mystery and magnificence would rub off on to me at last.
But I gave it up.
It was becoming more and more difficult for me to do anything in those last days. And when I eventually did decide to do something, such as packing a suitcase, I only dragged all my grubby, expensive clothes out of the bureau and the closet and spread them on the chairs and the bed and the floor and then sat and stared at them, utterly perplexed. They seemed to have a separate, mulish identity of their own that refused to be washed and folded and stowed. (109)

Later, in a glorious scene the clothes are all thrown out of the window! 

Another feature of her writing style is her imagery, frequently amusing. Humour is present for a good deal of this novel, often in the description of other people. All 12 of the young women who had won the prize to be in New York come down with food poisoning. Esther had been afraid it was caused by her greedy consumption of caviar, but it turned out to be the crab meat. The description of the girls throwing up is both amusing and rather disgusting. 

This extract, where she meets the psychologist Dr Gordon, makes me smile.

I curled in the cavernous leather chair and faced Doctor Gordon across an acre of highly polished desk.
Doctor Gordon waited. He tapped his pencil – tap, tap, tap – across the neat green frilled pf his blotter.
His eyelashes were so long and think they looked artificial. Black plasti8c reeds fringing two green, glacial pools.
Doctor Gordon’s features were so perfect he was almost pretty.
I hated him the minute I walked in through the door. (135)

Eventually the bell jar lifts. The bell jar is her description of the way in which her depression and suicidal wishes are experienced. It’s a compelling and somewhat grim experience to read this novel. It is hard not to regret the loss of such talent when a writer dies so young, with such promise. However it’s a demanding novel that deserves to be read by all serious readers.

You can read my thoughts on All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews – from Bookword in 2015. Click on the link.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, first published in 1963 by Faber & Faber. I used the paperback edition, first published in 1966. 258pp

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Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

In today’s world, where largescale and terrible things are happening (yes, Covid pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine) and where morality and honesty appear to have deserted the government (yes, sending refugees to Rwanda, lying about Brexit and partygate), it’s important to celebrate decent behaviour. There is not a great deal us little people can do, but we can behave with decency and sympathy, even if it risks local condemnation. So it is, in this short novel: a celebration of decent behaviour.

I originally gave it as a birthday present to a reader-friend, and she lent it to me having greatly enjoyed it first.

Small Things Like These

Set in 1985 in the small costal town of New Ross, in Wexford, Ireland. Christmas approaches and Bill Furlong is busy with fulfilling the winter orders for fuel. He runs a successful business supplying coal, wood and anthracite to the town, despite starting out as the illegitimate son of a single woman, now dead, and an unknown father. When she became pregnant, his mother was not thrown out by her employer, or sent in shame to a mother and baby home. Instead, Furlong grew up in Mrs Wilson’s house and was well treated.

He married Eileen and they have five girls. They are a loving family and are just about able to afford to have a decent Christmas, getting the presents that the girls have requested. Some of the most satisfying scenes are those spent with his family, for example when Eileen and the girls make the Christmas cake, and the girls write their letters to Santa. Such scenes, however, remind Furlong of the disappointments and poverty of his youth.

One of his deliveries is to the local convent. Furlong makes an early start and discovers a girl locked in the coal shed. Although the nuns treat her as if she has accidentally spent the night there, Furlong is uncertain.

As the days pass, he is increasingly uneasy. He must face the truth of his own origins, the silence of the town about the inhabitants and purpose of the convent, and the warnings that the convent nuns have power that could compromise Furlong in New Ross. Finally, he takes action.

The small things of the title include his marriage and daughters, their preparations for Christmas, his decency towards his workforce and generosity to his customers. It also includes the townsfolk turning their backs on whatever is happening in the convent, and generally ‘minding their own business’. Expectations and tradition keep everything in its place, and he is warned off tangling with the Convent. He defies this tradition.

Moral, moving, very quiet and short.

Claire Keegan

Although she has lived in other places, Claire Keegan was born in Ireland in 1968. She has previously published 3 collections of short stories, winning prizes and accolades for them: Antarctica (1999); Walk the Blue Fields (2007); Foster (2010)

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, published in 2021 by Faber & Faber. 166pp

Related Posts

In her review Kate Vane is frustrated that the story did not include the implications of Furlong’s action for his family and business. But she has strong praise for the novella. Kate Vane Blog October 2021.

Susan, on A Life in Books blog also praises this short book, and expects to delve into more writing by Claire Keegan, November 2021.

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Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

It is a very significant conjunction of women’s lives, social change and geography that are linked in this absorbing account of five women who lived in Mecklenburgh Square, not all at the same time, from the years after the First World War and into the Blitz. They were pioneers in their own literary fields and also in the way they chose to live their lives. 

I loved this book, for the details of the five lives:

  • HD (Hilda Doolittle), an imagist poet and novelist;
  • Dorothy L Sayers, one of the first Cambridge graduates and mostly known for her mystery novels;
  • Jane Harrison, a classicist and scholar in Cambridge who revolutionised idea about women in the archaeological past;
  • Eileen Power, who became a historian of the Middle Ages, specialising in the economic and female histories of that time, a professor at the LSE;
  • and Virginia Woolf, bombed out of Tavistock Square, an important novelist, essayist and publisher.

Further, the manner in which Francesca Wade brings the lives together in this one London square enriches the account. The subtitle of this book reveals something of its contents: Square Haunting: five women, freedom and London between the wars.

The women in this book were hungry for knowledge in all its forms: knowledge of history and literature, knowledge of the wider world, and self-knowledge, no less difficult to obtain. A drive to expand ‘the province of women’ into new realms characterised all these lives, manifesting in their search for education, in their travels, their friendships, their work and in the way they made their homes. Their pursuit of a fulfilling way to live has resounded through the twentieth century. (337-8)

We read of their struggles to  be treated on an equal footing with men in educational institutions, as students and teachers. We read of their passionate involvement in issues of the day, especially in securing a lasting peace after the end of the First World War. And most poignant perhaps, their attempts to find relationships with men that did not subsume their independence or their careers. All of the women, except Jane Harrison, married but often late in life, after negotiating terms that would allow them to continue their fulfilling lives. One thinks of Harriet Vane’s struggles with Lord Peter Wimsey’s regular marriage proposals in Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers.

Each of the women lived for a time in Mecklenburgh Square, with its mixed housing, including boarding houses, near to Bloomsbury. They were each seeking freedom from expectations of dependence in marriage and they enjoyed the intellectual society which allowed each of them to find a way to live. They struggled with the Victorian messages of their childhoods, and they tried to carve out more satisfying approaches in their personal lives as well as in their different literary and professional spheres.

Virginia Woolf permeates this account, setting the tone with the title which comes from her diary:

I like this London life in early summer – the street sauntering & square haunting. (20th April 1925)

She famously argued that women needed a private income and a room of their own in order to write. 

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. [A Room of One’s Own, 1928 (6)]

Mecklenburgh Square was Virginia Woolf’s last London home. It is pleasing that Francesca Wade did not define Virginia Woolf’s life by her death (suicide), but shows us how her life interacted with so many literary people of the time, and how her work as a publisher was important in promoting their writing. 

Their stories are well told, especially Virginia Woolf’s. And I was presented with some surprising information about Dorothy L Sayers’s life in the square. We learn of their contribution of all five women to the emancipation struggle, and to women’s literary achievements. An excellent book. 

Square Haunting: five women, freedom and London between the wars by Francesca Wade published in 2020 by Faber & Faber. 422pp

Related posts

An excellent review of Square Haunting by Karen Langley (of the blog Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) can be found on the Shiny New Books review site, in which she points to the research that enriches Francesca Wade’s accounts of the lives of these women by relating it to the history of the square.

I reviewed Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers last year on Bookword, asking whether it is a who dunnit, or a romantic novel, or a feminist book? 

Another look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf was posted on Bookword in March 2018. 

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Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Does Unsheltered live up to the high standards of her previous books? We have come to expect a great deal from Barbara Kingsolver following the success of the novels she has published since The Poisonwood Bible. In particular, Flight Behaviour was considered a great success by my reading group. We all found something to admire in the story of Dellarobia and her family’s struggle against rural poverty. And in the warning of the changed behaviour of the monarch butterflies.

We discussed Unsheltered recently and some of the group were disappointed; it was too dry, too close to home, they found splitting the stories across two time zones was irritating, and some of the characters were like cardboard cut outs … And because there was also plenty to like and admire, we had a good discussion.

Unsheltered

The title seems awkward, Unsheltered, but this is new condition that requires a new term. At least it is new to the ordinary middle classes in the US, Barbara Kingsolver suggests. Both sets of characters, present day and in the 19th century, were finding themselves without protection in Vineland, Pennsylvania. Both lived in unsafe houses that were falling down. They were literally threatened with losing their shelter. But they were also unsheltered, unprotected from irrational beliefs, irrational policies, and new conditions. For me, the dual timeframe provided hope. However strange and dangerous our world today we should take some courage and hope by remembering that in times gone by people have coped with this kind of threat, not always well, but they coped.

The two stories, two timeframes intertwine. In the present day Willa and her family have been forced to move into a house that is falling down in Vineland. They find themselves challenged on multiple levels. Willa’s husband Iano had finally achieved tenure, permanent employment much sought after in American academia. But his college closed. He has to take a demanding but less intellectual post in Philadelphia. 

Willa lost her job in journalism and is finding freelance work beyond her because of other family needs. These include a house that is falling apart. Her son Zeke, in Harvard, is a new father but his wife commits suicide and Willa must help with the care of the baby and the recovery of her son. Tig, her daughter has returned from time spent in Cuba but she is a mystery to her parents and seems not to have found her way in suburban life. Willa’s father-in-law is staying with them, sick with diabetes, a stroke and revolting opinions. The family dog is also approaching her last days. There appears to be no solution to the multiple complications being experienced by this family. Traditional resources for middle class families have been eroded: access to affordable education, steady employment, secure accommodation, health insurance, career paths for the young. All gone.

The second story focuses on Thatcher Greenwood who is a teacher in the 1870s in Vineland. He is newly married to a beauty, Rose, who is not interested in his scientific pursuits. He meets (the real life) Mary Treat, next door, who is in contact with Darwin and other evolutionists. Vineland has been set up as a model town but is in the clutches of its founder Landis. Although Landis claims that he had created a utopia, its rotten core is revealed when Landis is acquitted of the murder of a prominent critic of his controlling practices. His acolyte the headteacher rejects evidential science and makes life difficult for Thatcher in the school where he teaches. The parallels with today are obvious and real. 

Underpinning both stories is the wonder and fragility of the natural world. Thatcher Greenwood and Mary Treat are uncovering the marvel of the flora around them through an understanding of the new theories of evolution and they are also contributing to the development of the new ideas and theories. 

In the present-day story the characters are facing the climate crisis. It is Tig who speaks for the future. She and her mother are sitting in the cemetery where they have deposited some of the ashes of Willa’s dreadful father-in-law.

‘It’s so scary. It’s going to be fire and rain, Mom. Storms we can’t deal with, so many people homeless. Not just homeless but placeless. Cities can go underwater and then what? You can’t shelter in place anymore when there isn’t a place.’ […]

‘I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, Mom,’ she said quietly. ‘You and Dad did your best. But all the rules have changed and it’s hard to watch people keep carrying on just the same, like it’s business as usual.’

All the rules. Really?’ (462-3)

Challenged to describe how people like them might adapt to living in the future, Tig provides some very down to earth examples and I suggest you read them. It’s the core dialogue of the book. Barbara Kingsolver is again warning us about the future towards which our actions and attitudes are impelling us. Our future will be without shelter, unsheltered, unless we change how we live, change the rules, all the rules.

Barbara Kingsolver’s books

I have long admired the writings of Barbara Kingsolver and was pleased to be introduced to her more than ten years ago by my sister. I especially enjoy the variety of locations and timeframes of her writing, which always illuminate pressing present-day problems and issues by reference to history as well as to what we see around us. All this is carried by a strong narrative about very authentic humans who we can recognise and perhaps identify with. It feels like she shares some of this territory with Anne Tyler.

And to do all this she must be an excellent researcher; Belgian Congo for The Poisonwood Bible (1998); Freida Kahlo, Trotsky and post-war America for The Lacuna (2009); the monarch butterfly for Flight Behaviour (2012). In Unsheltered she takes pleasure in revealing ‘a nineteenth century biologist whose work deserves to be better known’. (523) This is Mary Treat who really did correspond with Charles Darwin.

She also lives her beliefs. The book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a year of food life (2007) was written with her family. They moved from Arizona to a farm to live as sustainably as they could in Virginia, learning by working with the community, as well as by drawing on the family’s experiences.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, published in 2018 by Faber. 524pp

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Lanny by Max Porter

My friend texted me:

I finished Lanny. Embarrassingly it brought me to tears on the Eurostar. It’s wonderful, ie full of wonder.

This is a wonderful and a strange book, strange title, strange typography and a strange cover like severed card, stylish, but strange. Max Porter’s first book, Grief is the thing with feathers, was also strange, but in a different way. That first novel had a lot of white spaces, a misquotation from Emily Dickinson as the title, and a focus on Ted Hughes and a Crow.

In his second novel, Lanny, Max Porter also considers loss and nature, but in a completely different way. Lanny is a boy liked by everyone who lives in a village in commuting distance of London. When Lanny goes missing everyone is distressed.

The Story

The story is told in three parts, each structured differently. Throughout the novel villagers’ overheard comments are spread about the pages, like worms or threads. This is the everyday noise, complaints, comments, gossip of village life.

In the first part several villagers speak, mostly about Lanny, a young boy whom everyone likes, and who seems to have an affinity for nature. Dead Papa Toothwort, a kind of Green Man, is also out and about in the village. Lanny’s mother asks an artist, Pete, to give Lanny art lessons every week, although Pete sees it more as two observers sharing what they see. 

In the second part, everything is much more urgent, less signposted. Lanny has gone missing, and everyone is suspected. Pete, his father; his mother, everyone in the village. Lanny has represented some kind of hope for them all and now that is endangered.

In the third part, as if in a dream, the story comes to a conclusion and village life returns to its more even pulse. Everyone is wiser and some characters are dead. We have seen the village torn apart by the fear of the unknown. And healed by patience and grace.

The writing is lyrical, and each voice has its own rhythm and tone.

Pete: My father would have me count his coppers on a Sunday morning. Memory swings like a hard dirt rudder then slips up with a boom and a crack and catches the wind. (38)

Lanny’s Dad: I woke up fists clenched and buzzing, certain of someone downstairs. Someone in the house. I used to get this a lot, but I’m more accustomed to the sound of the village now. I know a hedgehog making its way along the planted borders, I know the postman’s early footsteps on the gravel. I know the alien hum of Mrs Larton’s late-night tumble-drying. This isn’t that. This is a human body moving. (92)

Lanny’s Mum:

In came the sound of a song,

Swarm on his creaturely breath,

And he snuggled against me, climbing up on my lap,

Wrapping himself around my neck. (17)

We never hear directly from Lanny. His absence reinforces the notion that the idea of Lanny can be filled by people in different ways.

The invention of Dead Papa Toothwort is a great achievement. He is a kind of greedy green man, primitive, lumbering, an accretion of all the rubbish and dead foliage around the village. He sees the villagers from the perspective of centuries.

Max Porter’sprevious book was beautifully produced, and the publisher has again ensured all the aesthetic aspects of the book have been thought through: paper quality; cover design, end papers, page layout. The quirky feature of the villagers’ comments works beautifully.

Highly recommended. 

Lanny by Max Porter (2019) Faber & Faber. 213pp

You can find my review of Grief is the thing with feathers  by Max Porter here.

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Outline by Rachel Cusk

I’m in a phase of rereading books, and I’m really enjoying it. There are still lots of new and unread books I want to read, but they can wait. I first read Outline when it was published in 2014, but it was recently recommended to me by a friend who writes and it received more attention when Rachel Cusk added the second and third volumes to the trilogy: Transit and Kudos. The rereading has led me to appreciate the writerly intelligence of this novel even more.

Outline by Rachel Cusk

The novel is described as ten conversations. It is narrated by a writing tutor who flies to Athens to provide some classes for aspiring writers. Just about everyone she meets tells her a story about themselves, either because they meet her – sitting next to her on the plane, or socially for dinner, for example – or because they are students in her class. The narrator’s own story is not explicitly told, but the reader must divine her responses and her situation from what is not said. The ten conversations create her outline.

Most of the stories are presented in reported speech, with occasional direct speech. Most of the people she meets are concerned with the failure of intimacy and the difficulty of coping with change. We are given details about their physique, clothes, how they interact with waiters, the sea, other students. There appears to be little direct engagement by these people with the narrator. When one of the students complains bitterly about her lack of direction in the lessons, or when a man tries to kiss her, her emotional reactions are only relayed to us later. Everything seems to be mediated.

So the outline of the title is what surrounds Faye, but who Faye is she does not tell us. Even her name is only revealed casually towards the end of the ten chapters. We know she is a writer, has a son and needs money and she is trying to borrow more. We get a sense of great sadness and recent loss. Even to achieve that outline we must pay attention to the text, to what is and to what is not said. The novel, then asks, some important questions about what we call identity and the place of telling our story or stories in the forming of our identity for ourselves and for others.

This form is daring, experimental, challenging to the reader. There is little story here, at least in the usual sense of a narrative beginning, middle and end. Yet the attentive reader is rewarded with a view of the world that is moving and intelligent. I plan to read Transit and Kudos, the next parts of the trilogy, over the next few months.

This review by Shoshi Ish Horowicz on Shiny New Books blog in 2018 extols the novel’s writerly value.

Outline by Rachel Cusk, published in 2014 by Faber & Faber. 249pp

Shortlisted for Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction 2015.

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Tell me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen

A woman who is old is not merely an old woman. She is all the people she has been in her life. Tillie Olsen tells us that Eva has been a revolutionary, a prisoner, an immigrant, a mother and now, at 69 she wants to live in her own way. She rejects being defined as a grandmother. This is the significance of the title. She refuses to amuse the young, she will not tell a riddle.

Tell me a Riddle is the 29th in Older Women in Fiction series on Bookword. Tillie Olsen’s short story was originally published in 1961, and has gained the status of American classic.

The Story

Here is the opening paragraph of Tell me a Riddle. Her desire to live in her own quiet and space brings Eva to a serious quarrel with her husband David.

For forty-seven years they had been married. How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say – but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown. (74)

They have raised seven children and never had enough money. They are Jewish immigrants from Russia to US. Eva wants to live in quiet in her own home, to decide on what she does. David wants to sell their house and live in a care home, the Haven. They sink into warfare: she is often mute, he is furious.

Then she becomes ill and it is terminal. He takes her to stay with various children and eventually to California, where they are looked after by a granddaughter, Jeannie who is a nurse. Eva dies there.

Eva and David’s relationship changes: from hostility, to distance and to fear of impending loss, with an underlying love. The love survives even if he has pushed her, as everyone has, into the role they think she should play. It’s a complex and hard story.

The older woman

Eva is a woman who at the end of her life tries to live as she wants after a lifetime of giving to others. She rejects, now, the roles people want to give her. But she must confront the wishes of her husband and is defeated by death.

The history of their marriage is sketched in through the story. It is not unusual. Eva has been defined in her marriage by the needs of her children. Eva’s closed, constrained life emerges in their quarrels. Here, for example, David tries to persuade her with arguments about the leisure that the Haven will offer.

“In the cottages they buy what you ask, and cook it how you like. You are the one who always used to say: better mankind born without mouths and stomach than always to worry for money to buy, to shop, to fix, to cook, to wash, to clean.”

“How cleverly you hid that you heard. I said it then because eighteen hours a day I ran. And you never scraped a carrot or knew a dish towel sops.” (77)

He suggests she would enjoy a book group at The Haven. She reminds him that he never once stayed at home with the children so that she could go to a book club. And that she had to ask for every penny they needed, that she was the one required to manage.

She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others. (79)

This last line is repeated in the story. What is unusual, or was in the 1960s, is the articulation of the deprivation of the years when they had children.

When the family are told that she has at best a year to live, everything changes. We learn that Eva was active in the 1905 revolution, and that David found her in prison. We learn that she still has strong beliefs about how the world should be. She loved her children but no longer frets over their lives. And indeed her children and her grandchildren have become hard to understand. Her life is so different. Here’s a scene from a visit to cousins in California.

Jokes, stories, people they had known, beginning of reminiscence, Russia fifty-six years ago. Strange words across the Duncan Phyfe table: hunger; secret meetings; human rights; spies; betrayals; prison; escape – interrupted by one of the grandchildren: “Commercial’s on; any Coke left? Gee you’re missing a real hair raiser.” (106)

Her experiences include hunger; secret meetings; human rights; spies; betrayals; prison; escape. This is not your typical American housewife. This part of Eva’s life is ignored by everyone, is even unknown to them.

As she becomes more sick, she begins to ramble, to taunt David and to sing the songs of her youth. But when she lies in her hospital bed at night and he sleeps beside her in the double bed, they hold hands. As David observes, she finds it hard work to die.

Eva wanted to reclaim the idealism of her youth, which once she shared with David. She is pained that he has lost this vision for the world and that her children never shared it. In the final scene of the short story, David understands what he has lost by abandoning the struggle of their youth.

All her names

David, Eva’s husband, has developed a habit of calling her by names laden with sarcasm. You can almost follow the story by these names:

Mrs Word Miser       Mrs Unpleasant

Mrs Live Alone And Like It

Mrs Free As A Bird  Mrs Take it Easy

Mrs Excited Over Nothing

Mrs Inahurry                        Mrs Bodybusy

Mrs Suspicious          Mrs Invalid

Mrs Orator Without Breath

Mrs Miserable           Mrs Philosopher

Mrs Babbler              Mrs Live Alone

Mrs Cadaver             Eva

Other people call her Mum or Granny as appropriate to their relationship. Her seven children and husband have defined her. Only as she dies do we find out that she is called Eva and and she can reclaim her name.

I am reminded of the doctor in Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, who says of Claudia Hampton ‘that yes, she does seem to have been someone’.

Tillie Olsen

Tillie Olsen by Julieoe via WikiCommons. Tillie Olsen recording Tell me a Riddle and other stories at The Library Of Congress in 1996.

Tillie Olsen was an American feminist who lived 1912-2007. She was born into a family of Russian immigrants and became active in trades unions and the communist party. For much of her life she lived in California. Tell me a Riddle was her first published book, but her output remained small, largely because of her domestic and family responsibilities. She also wrote the non-fiction Silences (1978).

Tell me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen. Published in the UK by Faber & Faber in 1964 in a collection of four short stories. 53 pp

Recent posts in the older women in fiction series:

Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night

Elizabeth Von Arnim The Enchanted April

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Five great covers for five recommended novels

According to Charles Dickens, ‘There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.’ On the whole the best I expect is that a book’s cover does not detract from its contents. But some book covers enhance what lies inside. And a few are works of art on their own. In this post I celebrate some excellent covers together with links to my reviews of the books.

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter

This short but lyrical novel plays with the idea that Crow, from the poems of Ted Hughes, comes to assist a family through their grief when the mother dies. Sometimes it is amusing, sometimes poignant, and everybody I know who has read it has been moved by it.

The sparseness and simplicity of the cover design exactly matches the book’s contents. The cover was designed in-house by Faber using an illustration by Eleanor Crow.

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter, published in 2015 by Faber & Faber 114pp

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Among its many achievements, this classic novel displays Virginia Woolf’s perceptiveness. Here is an example, as Mrs Ramsay concludes the book she reads to her youngest son James.

‘And that’s the end,’ she said. And she saw in his eyes, as the interest of the story dies away in them something else take its place; something wondering, pale, like a reflection of a light, which at once made him gaze and marvel. Turning, she looked across the bay, and there, sure enough, coming regularly across the waves first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke, was the light of the Lighthouse. It had been lit. (71-2)

The cover of the first edition was by Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. It was published by the Woolfs’ own Hogarth Press.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927) published by the Hogarth Press. Available in the Penguin Modern Classics edition (1964) 237pp

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

Not a traditional fairy tale, but The Sleeping Beauty is the story of an awakening. The central characters are not in the first flush of youth but love manages to awaken them from inner deadness. It is set in a seaside backwater and begins with a dreamy walk along the cliff. This cover was an inspired choice for an early Virago edition. By Winifred Nicholson it is called The Gate to the Isles (Blue Gate) and was painted in 1980. It is on display at the Falmouth Gallery until mid-September.

Many readers find the more recent cover designs for Elizabeth Taylor’s novels insipid in contrast to the original Virago choices such as this one.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor was published in 1953, now available in the Virago Modern Classics series.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

It was the cover that first attracted me to this novel. Its intricate, dense and convoluted patterning of natural objects reflects the storyline. It was designed by Peter Dyer, with acknowledgement to William Morris. Morris was contemporaneous with the setting of the novel. It’s a mystery and an investigation about beliefs and science all at the same time.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, published in 2016 by Serpent’s Tail. 418pp

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

I reviewed this children’s classic recently accompanied by a photo of the cover of my copy. Many people commented on it, saying they had read it in a much drabber schools editions. This cover captures the rituals of the Seal people north of Roman Britain. It was also inspired by the mysteries and dark dangers of the ancient world. It is by C Walter Hodges.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1954 by Oxford University Press and still on their list.

Related post

Thinking about … Book Covers was a blogpost from January 2014, which includes more examples and links to archives etc.

A post from Louise Harnby’s blog The Proofreader’s Parlour: The Design Essentials: creating a stand-out book cover. Advice for authors. It draws on work for Salt Books that frequently have captivating covers.

Over to you

Do you have any covers to nominate as adding something to the book? Or is an exceptionally pleasing cover?

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reviews, Virginia Woolf