Hamnet

1472223799.01._sx540_sclzzzzzzz_

Read 04/10/2020-09/10/2020

Rating 4 stars

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet imagines the brief life of William Shakespeare’s only son, and the impact his death aged only 11 has on his family. The novel won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction. Continue reading

H(A)PPY

1785151142.01._sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_

Read 12/01/2019-17/01/2019

Rating 5 stars

I follow Nicola Barker on Twitter. She posts infrequently, but when she does it’s usually oddly satisfying pictures of her view from various London public telephone boxes or things she’s found while mudlarking along the Thames. There’s nothing in her feed that suggests she’s an author, and I didn’t know her as a writer until H(A)PPY was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018.

The blurb for H(A)PPY intrigued me. The reader is invited to imagine a utopia in which all knowledge is open, and doubt, hatred, poverty and greed no longer exist. Everyone lives within a System that nurtures and protects, part of a Community that nourishes and sustains. There’s no sickness, no death, no fear.

Sounds good? I wasn’t so sure. I like my privacy. I also like that it’s our differences and individualities that cause the negative things that Barker’s post-post-apocalyptic society has banished. I don’t know that I’d enjoy a world without individuality or opportunities to learn.

This is Barker’s twelfth novel. It seemed like as good a place as any to introduce myself to the writing style of the woman who is mildly obsessed with phone boxes.

It’s slippery at times, the tale she’s written, but it kept me wondering what was going on, curious to find out how it would end. I know how it ends now, of course. I’m saying nothing. I’m glad that I didn’t read any reviews, any judging comments, any opinion pieces before I read it. I imagine it might have spoiled the experience. I enjoyed it greatly. I’d recommend it wholeheartedly. If you want to read it with no prior knowledge, don’t read any further here. My reading experience and my reactions to the book might take the edge off the pleasure of this unusual novel. Continue reading

The Idiot (Elif Batuman)

1910702692-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_

Read 04/06/2018-16/06/2018

Rating: 5 stars

The Idiot was my last book from the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. I didn’t manage to finish reading it before the winner was announced. In fact, it’s a book that I took my time over. I liked its style. The way Elif Batuman writes reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut and Haruki Murakami in the surreal episodes that reveal the oddness of human nature. At times I was reminded of Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. It also made me think a little of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, because it’s about a young woman trying to work out what is expected of her and how to behave around others while maintaining her integrity. Continue reading

Sight

1473652375-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_

Read 03/06/2018

Rating: 3 stars

When I first started to read Sight by Jessie Greengrass, I couldn’t quite get into it, so I put it aside for a week, read some nonfiction, a book I’ll return to and review later.

Attempt two went better, in a way. Better because I was drawn in by the confessional tone of her prose. In a way because I felt an immediate connection with the narrator, and a specific circumstance in her life, that didn’t feel entirely positive and yet carried recognition.

The novel is split into three parts. Each part has its own science story that is metaphor for the events happening in the narrator’s life. Each scientist is someone who sees the unseeable, bringing the hidden into view. Continue reading

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

1911215728-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_

Read 19/05/2018-24/05/2018

Rating: 4 stars

This is the kind of book that is right up my alley. I’m thrilled that it’s on the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. Set in Georgian London, among the members of the city’s merchant class, the blurb promises something akin to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell mixed with The Giant, O’Brien and Slammerkin. The design of the book is in sync with its setting. The cover draws together design elements from the V&A’s textile pattern archive. The frontispiece echoes those of the time. The pages, while not the linen papers used in the 18th century, are thick and smooth, a delight to turn. The typeface is Caslon, named for William Caslon, the English typefounder whose typefaces were celebrated for their clarity. Caslon produced his type from 1720 until his death in 1766.

Imogen Hermes Gowar used to work at the British Museum, which must be fertile ground for literary inspiration. Especially when, like so many people working in museums, you’re over qualified and under utilised in your front of house role. I’m not saying front of house (gallery invigilation in the main) is boring, but standing around waiting for a member of the public to ask you something other than ‘Where are the toilets?’ leaves lots of thinking time. I’m surprised more gallery attendants don’t publish novels.

After When I Hit You, I was in need of something less intense, more escapist, and Gowar’s debut definitely hit the spot. Continue reading

When I Hit You

1786491281-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_

Read 13/05/2018-17/05/2018

Rating: 5 stars

Meena Kandasamy’s fictionalised account of her abusive marriage is on the short list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Knowing what it’s about, in very broad terms, I’ve been reluctant to read it, but a couple of glowing reviews piqued my curiosity.

The book describes four months and eight days of domestic abuse and marital rape. It describes why a woman in that situation might not be able to leave, and might not want to leave. It describes how abused women easily disappear from their social circles because the other people in those circles don’t want to look for reasons why.

I found it eye-opening. It made concrete something that I have only thought about abstractly. I’m thankful that I have never been raped, that the worst things I’ve experienced have been isolated incidents of physical and verbal abuse. I read this book from a relatively safe space. I can’t say whether a woman who has experienced or is experiencing the things Kandasamy describes would find it a help or a source of further distress to read this book. I can say that I found it well balanced and honest. Continue reading

The Trick to Time

024120710x-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_

Read 08/05/2018-12/05/2018

Rating: 3 stars

I loved Kit de Waal’s debut novel, My Name is Leon, so when I heard that she had her second book out and it was on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I slung in a library reservation. I had a bit of a wait. Lots of people wanted to read it before me. Were we all justified in our anticipation? Continue reading