Tag Archives: Women’s Prize for Fiction

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

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

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

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

Demon Copperhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Homesick by Jennifer Croft

This looked like a good book to read. It was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year and the author was known to me as a translator. It is a coming-of-age novel, and its main charm is the depiction of Amy’s childhood, isolated by her sister’s illness and her own precocity that takes her to the University of Tulsa when she is really too young to cope with the student experience. 

What adult doesn’t look back at some aspects of their childhood with feelings of regret and loss? If home is where the heart is, and Amy’s heart was with her sister Zoe, then homesickness was often with her.

Homesick

The novel closely follows Amy as she and her younger sister grow up in Oklahoma and forge a close bond from Zoe’s birth. Their intimacy is threatened by Zoe’s serious illness, which includes a brain tumour, and requires her to undergo extensive hospital treatment. On her return from hospital the necessity and inconvenience of caring for Zoe means that Amy must leave school and the girls are home-schooled. Amy is cut off from her age group as a result. Both girls decide to learn a new language and Sascha is employed to teach Zoe Ukrainian and Amy Russian. Amy, in particular, demonstrates an aptitude for languages. 

The theme of photography weaves its way through the narrative. Amy seems to need to freeze an image or a scene as protection against loss. 

Amy has taken one Polaroid picture of each room at her grandparents’ house, including the garage, the backyard, and the front yard, and two of the staircase, since they don’t have one at home. (9)

In the four years since she’s had her camera, Amy’s taken fifty-one more pictures of her sister, seven of which feature their dog Santa gave to Zoe last year. The dog is a scruffy Scottish Terrier with a black plastic-looking nose … Amy discovers a way of civilizing both creatures, of teaching them to sit still. They even learn to play dead. (9)

Amy becomes a prodigy, attending the University of Tulsa aged 15. After such a cloistered childhood she is pretty naïve about many aspects of student life, not least drink, drugs and sex. Not surprisingly Amy is not good at it, and the first section, entitled Sick ends with her hospitalised.

The much shorter second section, called Home, takes up Amy’s story several years later as she travels around, mostly in Europe. She takes up many jobs and learns more languages. She seems rootless and it emerges that she is rarely in contact with Zoe. But eventually they are reunited, in Paris, where Amy is currently living with her boyfriend Javi. This is how the novel ends:

The last portrait Amy takes of her sister is a picture of some hot pink letters on the thick transparent railings of the Pont des Arts.
Amy and Javi and Zoe are ambling from the Louvre to the Left Bank. Zoe’s health is reasonably good right now, although she is in pain and still has little seizures, along with strange, fiery, snakelike sensations that course through her veins. It is Sunday; it is summer. Glints and reflections scatter out along the Seine. Amy glances back and says, Un Segundo.
Zoe and Javi draw to a pause as Amy removes her camera from its case. Cradling it in her left hand, she takes a deep breath, studies her subject, and then, very gently, she presses the shutter button down. (219)

The format of the book emphasises the juddery nature of Amy’s childhood and early adolescence. Although it the narration is in the 3rd person, it is written in the present tense, and without quotation marks, all of which give it an immediacy and sometimes an urgency. The text is arranged in short sections, usually about 2 pages long, sometimes 3, sometimes only 1. The first sentence of each section is presented in bold like a chapter heading but despite appearances it is part of the narration.

Much of the novel describes the tightness of Amy and Zoe (A to Z), and the angst of watching her sick sister, or dealing with the sudden death of a friend. The detail of the experience of childhood is excellent. The intensity of being a sister to a very sick sibling, of growing up, of losing childhood and childhood relationships, reminds adults that adults don’t see the world from a child’s point of view.

Jennifer Croft was the translator of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk in 2018.

Homesick by Jennifer Croft, published by Charco Press in 2022. 219pp

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Actress by Anne Enright 

I picked up a copy of this novel in my local Oxfam bookshop. I was very impressed by The Green Road which I had read some years ago. I remember being especially moved by the section about the experiences of one of the characters in New York at the height of the HIV/AIDs epidemic in 1991. I found it unbearable sad. And also in that novel an excessive Christmas food shopping trip made a deep impression on me. She does families and Ireland so well.

I was not disappointed by Actress, although I missed its publication. We are again in the territory of families, this time a mother-daughter relationship. As the title suggests, stardom, fame and the commercial value of female sexuality are themes of this novel.

Actress

The novel is narrated by Norah, the daughter of the fictitious great Irish actress, Katherine O’Dell. She is looking back from her middle age, at her mother’s life and death. Norah is a novelist, with several successful books to her name, but she is aware that she has never explored her relationship with her mother in her fiction. From time to time she addresses her husband, but the focus of the story is the relationship between the star, the mother, her social circle and the young Norah. 

This is the opening paragraph of the novel.

People ask me, ‘What was she like?’ and I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person: what was she like in her slippers, eating toast and marmalade, or what was she like as a mother, or what was she like as an actress – we did not use the word star. Mostly though they, they mean what was she like before she went crazy, as though their own mother might turn overnight, like a bottle of milk left out of the fridge. Or they might themselves be secretly askew. (1)

The book is framed by the visit of a PhD student who does indeed want to know what she was like and wishes to explore what she calls the sexual style of Katherine O’Dell. She comes to interview Norah many years after Katherine O’Dell’s death. In later correspondence she suggests that Katherine was the first Irish feminist. The reader is being shown multiple interpretations of a life.

Katherine O’Dell is an actress, and one of her key roles is to act being Irish despite being born and growing up in London in a family of travelling actors. They come to Ireland during the war when she is a young woman, and her career takes off from there. She adopts Ireland fully, performing her Irishness in her Hollywood parts, in the Irish roles that she is given to play such as the young Irish lass selling Irish butter in an iconic advertisement, and she adopts the Irish theatre world and the cause of Irish republicanism. 

Norah is unable to discover the identity of her father. But as she tells the story she keeps circulating back to her happy childhood in Dublin when she is much loved by her mother and enjoys her theatrical circle. When Norah becomes and active teen, Kath is less able to forgive the men she sleeps with, perhaps feeling that they are stealing her away from her mother.

There have many, many men in Katherine O’Dell’s life, both in the official Hollywood version and in the life that Norah experiences. The priest, Father Des, is her psychiatrist, but also her long-term lover. There are producers and actors, and the men who dominate the Dublin literary scene. Some of the events occur during the Troubles, and some into the ‘80s. It is in the nature of stardom, especially sexualised stardom that eventually the fame will recede, the parts become fewer and the audience less familiar with the actor and the periods of resting are extended. 

She was much sought after, until she isn’t. She begins to show some rather manic behaviours, culminating in shooting Boyd O’Neill in the foot. He was one of her mother’s contacts in the film industry, but he does not take her scripts seriously. This was his evidence in court:

All he was doing, he said. All he was doing, with my mother’s idea, or synopsis, or whatever it was she had sent to him, was bouncing the ball. It was a way to keep his connections interested until the right idea came along. […]
He really thought he was doing my mother’s idea a favour by having it himself. When you see this happen, as I did that day, you see it quite a lot, and it remains a very strange thing – the ability of a man like Boyd to assume it is their interest which makes something interesting. As though, if he shut his eyes, the world would be really dull.
Anyway, she shot him for it. There was always that to consider. (239-40)

She is incarcerated in an insane asylum. And dies soon after her release. Norah investigates her mother’s life over the next years, resulting in this novel. It is beautifully written, precise, and with telling details and images that resonate. Picture a mother going off like milk, as in the first paragraph, for example. 

Anne Enright

Anne Enright

Born in 1962 and raised in Ireland, Anne Enright has won some prestigious prizes, including being the first Laureate for Irish fiction 2015-2018. In 2007 she won the Man Booker Prize for The Gathering. She has written short stories, non-fiction and seven novels. She lives in Dublin.

Actress by Anne Enright, published in 2020 by Vintage. 264pp. Actress was longlisted for Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.

Related posts

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Bookword, February 2016)

Actress by Anne Enright review – boundless emotional intelligence, by Kate Kellaway (The Guardian, February 2020)

Actress by Anne Enright review – the spotlight of fame, by Alexandra Hass (The Guardian, February 2020)

Reviewed on Jacquiwine’s Journal blog (July 2020)

Reviewed on Kate Vane’s blog (February 2020)

In January 2020 Anne Enright was a guest on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs.

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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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The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

Division of countries is seldom a permanent solution to internal conflict. I came to understand this through the study and teaching of history. Look at Ireland; and the division of the Indian Empire into India and Pakistan and later Bangladesh; and Berlin and Germany after the Second World War. And look at Cyprus, which is the island of the title of this novel.

I have visited Cyprus twice. First in June 1967 when it was not a divided island, but a troubled one.  I had been airlifted by the RAF out of Israel (more of this adventure another time perhaps). We stayed in Nicosia and while waiting for transport back to England spent some time on the ravishing empty beach of Kyrenia. This was the landing point for 6000 Turkish troops in 1974.

I returned thirty six years later in 2003 to Nicosia to work with some teachers. While the division of the Green Line was easing slightly, the huge Turkish flag, painted onto the mountainside, was still visible from Nicosia. And evidence of the violent division was still present in the severed streets and memorials for the dead. Everyone knew someone who had property in the north, or lost family members. While in London Greek and Turkish Cypriots got on fine, as I knew from my school, it was not so easy on the island that still bears the evidence of violence and division.

The Island of Missing Trees

The island is Cyprus. The narrative is spun around a Turkish woman and Greek man and their love affair in the middle of the island’s bloody civil war. We read of events in three time zones: violent unrest in 1974, the return of Kostas in the early 2000s and the effect on their marriage and their daughter in the present time. 

The effects of the political tensions and conflict on the natural world is also captured in this innovative novel: the loss of trees, the entrapment of migrating birds, the mosquito and other life. Much of this narrative comes from the fig tree that Kostas brings to England. The fig tree is being buried for its protection at the start of the novel, but once it occupied a tavern in Nicosia, the only place where a Turkish Cypriot girl could meet her Greek Cypriot boyfriend.

The narrative in these three periods of Cypriot history is interlaced with information from the fig tree. I was not entirely convinced by the tree’s voice, however information provided by the tree is essential for the plot, and for understanding that political violence is also environmental violence.

Kosta and Defne were separated by the war, and by their families’ hostility to a Muslim-Christian marriage. But Defne agreed to return to London with Kostas, and they had a daughter, Ada. The story opens as Kostas and Ada face the first winter without Dafne, who has died. Their isolation from their Cypriot connections is made clear when Ada is asked to do some homework, over the holidays, based on her family’s history.

She had never met her relatives on either side. She knew they lived in Cyprus somewhere but that was about the extent of her knowledge. What kind of people were they? How did they spend their days? Would they recognize her if they passed her in the street or bumped into each other at the supermarket? The only close relative she had heard of was a certain aunt, Meryem, who sent cheerful postcards of sunny beaches and wildflower pastures which jarred with her complete lack of presence in their lives. (12-3)

Ada is grieving for her mother, Defne. The only light in the lives of father and daughter comes from the arrival of Meryem, visiting them in London for the first time. Ada begins to understand her family’s history, her mother’s struggles, from this vibrant character, who cooks and shops and tells stories from Cyprus with gusto.

The story of her parents’ relationship is told from the perspective of each character and of the fig tree against the backdrop of the history of the troubled island. We learn of the brutality of those times, especially as, in the second timeframe of the novel, Defne works in a team of archaeologists who are investigating mass graves. Both Kostas and Defne want to find out what happened to the gay owners of the Fig Tree Tavern, who disappeared in the war. Through this story we also learn about loss, and about the experiences of exile and migration.

Tourists who visit the island today are woefully ignorant about its history: violence, partition, the pain of separation, exile, and the natural world in danger. How quickly the world turns away. The division of the island was not a permanent solution to the issues. 

This is a powerful story, and clearly judges of big literary prizes think it is successful in its scope. I enjoyed it and recommend it to readers.

Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a Turkish-British writer, born in 1971. She writes in Turkish and English. She has published 11 works of fiction, some in English. She lives in London, and has lived in many countries, including being brought up in Turkey. She says she carries Istanbul in her soul, and many of her books feature the city. 

This is the first of her books that I have read, and I admire her ability to tell a strong story through some well-drawn characters, including a fig tree! It is a touching story, a reminder that migration is part of the natural order of the world, and a response to the disorder created by humans. But divisiveness is always destructive, of people’s lives and of the ecological order of the world.

On her blog Heavenali tells us that she loved the book, finding it ‘a beautiful read’.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak, published in 2021 by Penguin. 356pp

Shortlisted for Costa Book Award 2021 and the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2022

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Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022

And the winner is …

The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

Congratulations to the winner.

I posted my review of the winning book a few days ago, full of its praises. You can find that post here.

27 years of the Women’s Prize

Here are forty-two brilliant books, all written by women, from the short- and long-list for this year and all the previous winners. I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword Blog. 

The six shortlisted books for 2022:

The sixteen longlisted books in 2022:

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize. 

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)

Here is the link to the website of the Women’s Prize for Fiction: https://womensprizeforfiction.co.uk

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The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

I loved reading this book. Previously I had read and hugely enjoyed A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. It was a great pleasure to settle down with her new novel for hours at a time. But I have been puzzled about how to present it on this blog. It is so full of ideas, of writing skill, of adventurousness, of themes that resonate with our predicaments at the moment that I haven’t known where to start. 

The Book of Form & Emptiness

Perhaps a good place to start is with the story, for the narrative drive is strong in this book, despite everything else she gives us. Benny Oh is twelve when his father dies, killed by a rubbish truck in the alley behind his house. Benny lives in a city near the Pacific coast of the US. Locations in this novel are vague, unlike the timeframe: Trump’s election as President features, for example. But we are never given the name of the city Benny inhabits.

Benny’s father was a Korean-Japanese jazz clarinettist. His mother is Annabelle, who works as a scissors woman, clipping newspapers for a media organisation. Benny is mixed race, and one theme of the novel is how he negotiates this in present day America. 

Grief overcomes mother and son. Benny hears voices, or rather voices speak to Benny, things speak to Benny, but he resists them. The scissors that tell him to stab his teacher, for example, he can only resist by stabbing himself. This reaction brings Benny to the attention of his school’s mental health services.

The significance of things, what they mean to us, their existence, their connection to the environmental problems of our world, these are also important themes of this novel. Annabelle becomes something of a hoarder, packing her news clippings in plastic bags, keeping Kenji’s shirts to make a memory quilt, storing her craft materials in the bath until the flat is stuffed with things and the only tidy space is Benny’s bedroom.

Then a little book, Tidy Magic: The Ancient Zen Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life, jumps into her shopping trolley one day, and leads her, and us, into a different world of ideas about things, especially domestic possessions. Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest. 

Meanwhile Benny’s behaviour having attracted the attention of child psychiatrists, means he spends time in a Pedpsych ward where he meets the Alef (see Jorge Luis Borges’s short story) who is following in the path of the Fluxus avant-garde art movement. I looked that one up too. One of the Alef’s messages takes Benny to the Library, where much of this novel is located. Here he meets the B-Man who is a Slavic poet in a wheelchair, the small librarian, and even Ruth Ozeki who is typing away in a remote corner of the library. 

An older woman sat in the other [carrel], typing very fast on her laptop computer. She looked to be in her fifties or sixties, part Asian like him, maybe, with black-framed glasses and gray-streaked hair. She must have sensed his presence, because she lifted her head and looked at him, and all the while her fingers typed on, never pausing. (141-2)

And now a word about one of the narrators

Some of the story is told by an omniscient narrator, where it concerns Annabelle’s actions, or slips into the concerns of the doctors, or librarians, or retells the life of the Zen Buddhist priest Aikon, who wrote Tidy Magic.

But Benny’s story is told to him by his Book. Benny introduces it:

Shhh … Listen!
That’s my Book, and it’s talking to you. Can you hear it?
It’s okay if you can’t, though. It’s not your fault. Things speak all the time, but if your ears aren’t attuned, you have to learn to listen.
You can start by using your eyes because eyes are easy. Look at all the things around you. What do you see? A book, obviously, and obviously the book is speaking to you, so try something more challenging.  … (3)

And the Book continues to tell Benny’s story, from Kenji’s death to the final pages which are a collaboration between Benny and his narrator some 500 pages later.

The novel is full of ideas about books, quotations from Walter Benjamin, including the story of his final, lost book as he fled from the Nazis to Spain; about the physicality of ‘real’ books; about writing and the writer (think the woman in the carrel in the library) and the reader; and about finding one’s feet in a shifting and dangerous world.

For example, Slavoj, the Slavic bottle-man ,who is writing an epic poem called Earth, tells Benny about writing poetry:

“Let me tell you something about poetry, young schoolboy. Poetry is a problem of form and emptiness. Ze moment I put one word onto an empty page, I haf created a problem for myself. Ze poem that emerges is form, trying to find a solution to my problem.”: He sighed. “In ze end, of course, there are no solutions. Only more problems, but this is a good thing. Without problems, there would be no poems.” (276-7)

We have taken in some jazz, some theories of poetry, the randomness of Fluxus, ideas about connectedness, and the ecological dangers we have created for ourselves. And I haven’t even mentioned the crows.

Ruth Ozeki has explained her title by reference to impermanence and interconnection in this interview extract:

The phrase “form and emptiness” comes from the Heart Sutra, one of the core Mahayana Buddhist texts. The line we chant is “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Emptiness, in this sense, refers to impermanence, and the way all things, all beings, are impermanent and exist in a perpetual state of interdependent flux, or dependent co-arising. None of us—human beings, animals, insects, books, stones, trees—has a fixed, essential self or identity independent of everything and everyone else, and this sense of interconnectedness is, I think, what Benny comes to appreciate in the novel. His relationship with his mother. His relationships with his friends. His relationship with his book. [From the Lion’s Roar, Buddhist Wisdom for our Time, an interview with Nancy Chu. September 2021]

There is so much in this book, so many ideas, such a call for the recognition and importance of difference and connection that I would like to encourage readers to pick it up and enjoy it as I did. This generous novel seems to be bursting out of its pages. 

Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki: WikiCommons LMU Library: 2016

Born in 1956, Ruth Ozeki was brought up in Connecticut. Like Benny she has mixed parentage. She has worked in film and has now published four award-winning novels and a short memoir. Since 2010 has been a Zen Buddhist priest. She teaches creative writing at Smith College.

The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki published in 2021, by Canongate. 546pp

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.

Related post

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (November 2013)

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A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

I seem to be in the middle of a spate of novels about the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is such an interesting period. I was fortunate enough to study the 1790s under the late EP Thompson at the University of Warwick, when I specialised by studying Mary Wollestonecraft. At that time there was no biography of her.

A Room Made of Leaves had several things to recommend it. In the first place it was given to me by my dear friend Sarah. Her recommendations are always interesting. Second, the author was known to me as the writer of The Idea of Perfection (2001) which I remember won the Orange Prize for Fiction, as the Women’s Prize was then called. It made a strong impression on me at the time. Then the cover is splendidly exotic, designed to reflect the lush vegetation that settlers found when they arrived in Australia. And finally, it set in the period of my interest, beginning in Devon, and moving to the other side of the world to the new penal colony of Australia.

A Room Made of Leaves

The novel is framed as the recently discovered memoirs of Elizabeth Macarthur and so is written in the first person. Born in humble beginnings in Devon, Elizabeth became unwanted by her mother, and although devoted to her grandfather, a sheep farmer, she was taken in by the local vicar and made his ward partly on account of her close relationship to his daughter. But her friendship with the daughter ends when Elizabeth unwisely becomes involved with a reckless and volatile soldier John Macarthur. His prospects are poor as he is on half pay at the end of the French wars. A brief conquest beside a hedge leads to pregnancy, marriage and life controlled by Macarthur. 

Elizabeth finds herself to be the wife of a man who is almost pathologically interested in his own advancement, desperate to be recognised as a gentleman. A posting to Australia is one step in his plan for advancement. Nothing will get in his way, not a weak leader, aboriginal inhabitants, even his own temper. In fact, he uses these to his own advantage.

Elizabeth learns to manage her situation as the wife of this very difficult man. She is one of the few women among the military society of the colony. She establishes a salon where she learns to understand and manipulate the men and situations that come to her. She recognises that she had to become as devious as her husband in order to maintain her integrity.

Key to her independence of mind is her affair with the astronomer, Mr Dawes. Men with his skills and knowledge were required by the Royal Navy at this time, to read the stars and navigate successfully across the oceans of the world. Mr Dawes, like Elizabeth, was an outsider in the new colony. He was unlike the other naval officers for he was a man of science, interested in the indigenous peoples of the area around Sydney, and in the fauna of this unknown land. Lessons for Elizabeth in astronomy became trysts for the lovers, meeting in the bower he created that gives the book its title: a room made of leaves.

John Macarthur manages to gain land in the new colony, and after a while his power extends and he is also able to acquire some land in Parramatta, now a suburb of Sydney. The farmland proved excellent for sheep and drawing on the expertise of a convict, transported for stealing a sheep, and her own experience in Devon with her grandfather, they developed an excellent breed of merino sheep. 

As Sarah said to me in an email, 

The thing I loved about the Kate Grenville – well, one of the things – was the way Elizabeth builds a true life for herself out of a very shitty situation

The ‘editor’ of Elizabeth’s memoirs says

Australian history, like most histories, is mainly about men. (1)

She has suggested a plausible alternative to the official history.

Australians of my generation had it dinned into them that ‘our nation rides of the sheep’s back’ – meaning that wool was the basis of our economy – and that John Macarthur was ‘the father of the wool industry’. Streets and swimming pools and parks all over Australia are named after him in gratitude. 
But here’s the thing: the Australian merino – the sheep we rode on the back of – was mostly developed during the years that John Macarthur was in England. It looks very much as though the Father of the Wool Industry must actually have been the Mother of the Wool Industry: his wife. (3)

The book has lots to say about the position of women, and a life lived in the shadow of a bully, and about colonialism and racism and its effects on the indigenous peoples in early Australian history. The descriptions of the countryside in Devon, the landscape of London and the lush area around Sydney are all vivid and enjoyable. 

Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville, WikiCommons Daniel Bagnato March 2017

The author was born in 1950 as is known for her writing about early Australian history. She has won many awards, for her nine novels, and has also written The Writing Book guidance for writers, for example (2010). She had a career in films, which perhaps partly explains her strong visual writing.

My thanks to my friend Sarah, for the gift of this book, and for the many conversations we have had about novels and other writing over the years and those to come.

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville, published in 2020 by Canongate. 321pp

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Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

It’s a good story – a journalist investigates a claim of a virgin birth. It’s 1957 and the world is a different place. There were local newspapers and no knowledge of DNA and no internet to help with research. Everyone smoked. London was frequently obscured by fog. At work it was a man’s world, and the story was seen by the editorial group of the North Kent Echo as a women’s interest item and was therefore given to Jean to investigate. 

Jean is the character whose fortunes we follow in this book. Her life has been going along evenly, with considerable boredom, until she has to investigate Mrs Tilbury’s claim of parthenogenesis.

Small Pleasures

Jean is nearly 40 and sees her life slipping away, having failed in the matter of finding a husband and establishing a family and a home. Instead, she looks after her dependant and neurotic mother in their semi in the suburbs south of London. Theirs is a life governed by routine and modest expenditure. Quiet desperation, one might almost say. 

Small pleasures – the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands; the first hyacinths of spring; a neatly folded pile of ironing, smelling of summer; the garden under snow; an impulsive purchase of stationery for her drawer … (328)

And then Jean goes to see the young woman who claims that there was no father involved in the conception of her child. Gretchen Tilbury is an attractive young woman and a competent seamstress. It is unclear to Jean why Gretchen wants her story investigated. Gretchen tells Jean that at the time when the baby would have been conceived she was in a private clinic, St Cecilia’s Nursing Home, being treated for rheumatoid arthritis. Since Margaret’s birth Gretchen had married Howard, who believed her story. Jean decides to visit the husband at his shop near Covent Garden, and to meet with the matron and fellow patients who occupied the ward in St Cecelia’s alongside Gretchen at the time when the baby would have been conceived. 

As the investigation proceeds Jean is befriended by Gretchen and her much older husband. And she finds Margaret, the child at the centre of the story, very appealing too. Jean begins to spend time at the weekend with the family. Gretchen makes her a dress and Jean buys Margaret a pet rabbit in return. She also finds herself being drawn to Howard Tilbury. And it begins to look as though there was a virgin birth.

I love this about fiction: I know that there has been no proven case of a virgin birth, but I was prepared to accept the possibility that Gretchen Tilbury had a good claim, because it was within a novel.

As Gretchen’s claims become harder to dismiss the reader comes to see that trouble lies ahead for Jean: she and Howard fall in love; her mother has a turn and goes to hospital for a few days; the doctors’ tests continue; Jean begins to hope for a better future than one only enlivened by small pleasures. I won’t relate the rest of the story. It is well told, and tension is kept to the end.

There is a lot about duty and decency in this novel, what was expected of people in the 1950s and what had to be hidden. The author shows the sexism of the time, but the most attractive male characters are those that treat women well: Roy Drake the editor of the North Kent Echo; and Howard Tilbury, the stepfather of Margaret. The sexism of the other reporters, the headmaster she meets and the doctors conducting the tests is pretty dreadful, but it reminds us of how much has changed in 50 years.

Small Pleasures has been chosen by my book group for discussion soon. I am sure we will find that there are many aspects of this novel that we can discuss. It was also longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2021

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers, published in 2020 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 350pp

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Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

What is Hamnet, or a hamnet? Is it a small cigar, a misspelling of the title of a famous play, a Persian cloak, the winner of the of Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020? The latter of course. It won from a strong field that included Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo and The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. 

I am not interested in whether this book is better than those others on the shortlist, (which you can find here). I am concerned to look at the merits of this novel and to explore its craft. It is the story of a family, how they are tied together and how those ties are stretched when the son dies aged eleven. 

Hamnet

The family lives in Stratford-on-Avon in the late sixteenth century, the father is away in London where he has success as a playwright. There are three children, Susanna and the twins Judith and Hamnet. The novel starts on a summer’s afternoon. 

A boy is coming down a flight of stairs.
The passage is narrow and twists back on itself. He takes each step slowly, sliding along the wall, his boots meeting each tread with a thud.
Near the bottom, he pauses for a moment, looking back the way he has come. Then, suddenly resolute, he leaps the final three stairs, as is his habit. He stumbles as he lands, falling to his knees on the flagstone floor. (3)

This is Hamnet, desperate to find assistance because Judith is very sick.

The story does not unfold in a straightforward chronological way. Not much about the construction of this novel is straightforward. Here are four aspects of the novel worth noting.

First, the family is inspired by Shakespeare’s. But the name is never mentioned. Not even the playwright’s first name. He is always ‘the husband’ or ‘the father’. This emphasises the family relationships and it allows the author some freedom in imagining how this family lived. So few documentary records survive of his life that we have enormous gaps in our knowledge. We know about land purchases, education at the Grammar School and his will in which he left his second-best bed to his wife. (The mystery of this bequest is explained in passing.)

Second, Hamnet died of the plague, or pestilence in this novel. There is, of course, a resonance with our own experience of a pestilence. I found myself comparing symptoms, transmissibility, precautions and so on. It’s like noting that people in films are not wearing masks or observing social distance guidelines. 

Third, in telling the story Maggie O’Farrell leaps from one time zone to another, we go forwards and backwards within the family’s life. This results in the reader knowing more than the characters: about the death of Hamnet, or the father’s success in London, for example. We are not being asked to wonder whether a child will die. Instead, we are asked to focus on the relationships, the strength of the ties and how individuals will deal with the grief. She also tells the story in the present tense, which brings us close to the action and to the characters. 

Fourth, Maggie O’Farrell’s writes exceptionally well about place, and her descriptive powers recreate the Warwickshire countryside, the town and houses in which the family live, even the bustle of London’s Southbank. In my copy (perhaps all copies?) there is an afterword about how a visit to Stratford allowed her to recreate the first scene, Hamnet jumping down the stairs, and the geography of the house informs much of the novel. 

Grief and Loss

Hamnet is about grief and loss within a family. For Judith losing a twin is a special kind of loss. She cannot believe that he will disappear completely from her life, and searches at night, following a suggestion from one of her mother’s customers. Agnes and her husband are both distraught, finding it hard to go on with their lives in Stratford and in London. They have been a strong unit, despite separation, up to this point, but Hamnet’s death nearly breaks their partnership. The novel challenges the idea that when infant and child mortality were high and part of everyday life, death was not as difficult for parents as it is today. 

Agnes

Agnes, the wife and mother, is the spine of the novel. One friend suggested she is a bit too hippy-dippy bare-foot new-age herbalist for her taste. I found her ability to read people and to experience the dead and see the future rather irritating. This kind of mystical otherworld capacity always challenges my belief in a character’s authenticity. 

On the other hand, she is perceptive, strong, individual and rebellious. She is not too bothered by how the people of Stratford see her, nor by her stepmother’s disapproval. She is more discerning than his family about her husband and his talents. He has not distinguished himself when Agnes disappears when she is about to give birth to their first child. He seeks out her brother, Bartholomew who tells the young husband what Agnes had said about her choice of husband.

‘… you had more hidden away inside you than anyone else she’d ever met.’
The husband stares, as if he can’t believe what he is hearing. His face is anguished, pained, astonished. ‘She said that?’
Bartholomew nods. ‘Now I can’t pretend to understand her choice, in marrying you, but I do know one thing about my sister. You want to know what it is?’
‘Yes.’
‘She is rarely wrong. About anything. It’s a gift or a curse, depending upon who you ask. So if she thinks that about you, there’s a possibility that it’s true.’ (162-3)

Bullied by his father, no trade to follow, a family to support, the young man has not demonstrated much potential. We understand that Agnes’s support was crucial.

The playwright

Agnes’s husband is never named and Maggie O’Farrell has had to create his early life from the scant documentary evidence. We know little of how he got on when he first went to London, or how he maintained his relations with his family, nor what he did when the plague closed the theatres in London. 

But there is the play that bears the name of his dead son (Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable in the 1590s, it seems). Her marriage appears to be at breaking point when Agnes finds that her husband has used their son’s name as the title of a play. She travels to London with Bartholomew to confront him about this heartlessness and finds that he has channelled his grief into a recreation of his son. 

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, published in 2020 by Tinder Press 386pp

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