Tag Archives: Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman

Forget girl in the title, let’s have some women!

I refuse to read books with girl in the title. The titles have become a warning of a genre I will not enjoy – girl fiction. I was reminded of my dislike of the term girls for grown women during the recent world athletics championships when all female contestants were referred to as girls. I ask myself whether we won the battle not to be addressed as ladies (which most of us are not) only to be referred to as girls. Let’s reclaim women and woman for titles. And here are eight titles to start with. And I’ve included one exception to the no-girls-in-the-title rule.

  1. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

We start with a classic whose title doesn’t work if you substitute girl for woman. The girl in white. You have lost a crucial ‘w’.

It is an early detective novel with a terrible villain, Fosco. Wilkie Collins was drawing attention to the practice of confining awkward women to mental institutions in Victorian Britain. It’s still a good read.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859)

And here are two novels whose titles remind you that women are always close at hand.

  1. The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

This is the story of two women in the new South Africa who, despite being neighbours and of a similar age, can hardly speak to each other and their animosities shape their lives until one becomes dependent upon the other. I included this in the older woman in fiction series. You can read my review here.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso, Vintage (2016)

  1. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

This is any woman, angry and isolated. She adopts the Shahid family when they move to Boston, and feels deserted when they leave. Is her reaction over the top or has she been betrayed and exploited by each member of the family?

I reviewed it in March 2016 and you can read that review here.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, Virago (2013)

  1. Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Christine Delius

A nameless young woman walks from her protestant convent in Rome in 1946 to a church to hear a concert. The signs of war going badly, shortages, threat of bombs are everywhere, as is the presence of the German army. She is German, and eight months pregnant. Her husband has been sent to the North African front despite being wounded. She becomes aware of the monstrousness of the world in which she is caught up.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Christine Delius, Peirene (2010) translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

  1. Woman at Point Zero Nawal el Saadawi

Many women have tough lives and none come tougher than this Egyptian woman who has nothing left to loose. I recently included this novel for the 1970s in the Decades Project series on my blog and you can read my comments here.

Woman at Point Zero Nawal el Saadawi, first published in 1975 and in translation by Zed Books in 1983. Translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata.

  1. The Revenge of the Middle-aged Woman by Elizabeth Buchan.

A woman is dumped by her husband for her younger friend, who takes her job and her home as well as her husband. Rose’s revenge is to make a better life for herself than her erring husband and friend manage. The hurt and pain of the betrayal remains but Rose realises that those years with her husband and children cannot be taken from her.

The Revenge of the Middle-aged Woman by Elizabeth Buchan, Penguin (2002)

  1. The Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Another Arabic woman, this time from Lebanon, single and no longer young. Aaliya collects and translates European books despite the troubled times in Beirut. Her situation improves when she accidentally dyes her hair blue and the plumbing in her ancient flat gives up. This novel was also included in my older women in fiction series here.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine published in the UK by Corsair (2013)

  1. Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G Heilbrun

This short book is non-fiction. It explores the ways in which women give accounts of their lives, both literally and unconsciously. It asks the question what influences the way a woman thinks she should lead her life. I reviewed this several years ago but it remains one of my most-read posts. You can read it here.

There are four ways to write a woman’s life; the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write the woman’s life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognising or naming the process. (p11)

Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G Heilbrun, Norton (1988)

And here is the exception to the girl in the title rule.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

This novel was the winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2014. It is narrated in the brilliant harsh inner voice of an Irish girl. Her life is shaped by the misfortunes of her family and by the abuse she experiences and she takes on as she descends into self-loathing. The final line of the novel is ‘My name is gone.’ Her identity has been subsumed in the awfulness of her life. The voice is jagged, speaks in incomplete sentences, confused (words, sentences, capitals and lower case letters) when being beaten up. It’s hard to read but worth it.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride, Faber & Faber (2013)

Over to you

I am sure I have missed lots of books with woman in the title. My daughter spotted one and she has promised to add it in the comments. How about you?

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Mind the gap!

Does this happen to you? I finish a novel feeling satisfied. If the novel is good I can enjoy the feeling of a resolution or conclusion. But if I haven’t really enjoyed it then I am pleased to have got to the end. And then I frequently find myself reluctant to start a new book, even one I want to read or must read or that has been in my tbr pile for months. I don’t want to loose the sensation of being in the mode of reader of the previous book. Does that happen to you?

86 Mind the Gap

I have four strategies for dealing with this.

Strategy #1 Short stories

Short stories often work because they pull me in quickly so that my reluctance is swiftly overcome. At the moment I have two volumes that are working in this way for me:

86 sh st

Dear Life by Alice Munro – the queen of short stories.

Grimm Tales for Old and Young by Philip Pullman. These are short, often familiar and quickly pull you into the tale. ‘There was once a fisherman who …’ ‘A beautiful young girl was imprisoned in a tower …’ that kind of thing.

 

Strategy #2 Novellas

I pick up one of Peirene Press’s novellas and know that I will soon move into some very sharp experiences. The quality of the writing is guaranteed, for the Press specialises in translated novellas by European writers of note. Excellent translations too.

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My most recent that I read was Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch).

A pregnant young German woman, (we never know her name) walks through Rome in January 1943. Her journey takes two hours, 114 pages and only one sentence. Everywhere there are signs of war going badly: shortages, threat of bombs, and the presence of the German army. Her husband has been sent to the North African front. She becomes aware of the monstrousness of the world in which she lives: people are forced into separation from those they love, people are in mortal danger, and living with extreme privation, and her Lutheran beliefs are tested by Catholicism and anti-Semitic ideologies.

And currently in my bag for company on journeys is another novella from Peirene Press, this one French and starting with a bus journey and an atmosphere of dread: Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (translated by Adriana Hunter). Those of us who live in Devon, beyond Dawlish, must be prepared for many long bus and train journeys while they repair the seawall and track, and so journeys, like the reading gaps, need good books.

Strategy #3 Literary Reviews

I subscribe to two journals, both of which alert me to books I do and don’t want to read: London Review of Books and Literary Review. I also always have several back copies of the Guardian Saturday Review waiting to be combed through. After reading a few recommendations I am usually ready to start on my next book.

86 periodicals

Strategy #4 Start a new book anyway!

Sometimes the necessity of getting through a book – for the reading group, for a review, for a library due date – means I must just dive in. Usually that works too.

 

Do you have the gap sensation? What do you do? Any more suggestions?

 

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