I have wanted to read Eley Willams’ debut short story collection, Attrib., since it was first published, but have been unable to find a copy. I was delighted, therefore, when I was able to find her first novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, in my local library.
The Liar’s Dictionary tells two parallel stories, which revolve around the creation and revision of an unfinished dictionary, Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. The first of these stories takes place in 1899, where Peter Winceworth is ‘toiling away’, and has reached the letter ‘S’. He is feeling somewhat threatened by his colleagues, who are intent only upon the ‘regiment facts’, and decides to insert a series of mountweazels, completely fictitious words, into the dictionary.
Such mountweazels are often used to prevent copyright infringement, but Winceworth finds them fascinating, and begins to invent slews of his own; ‘fourteenth-century dignitaries from Constantinople and a small religious sect living in the volcanic Japanese Alps. More often that not, however, these false entries allowed him to plug a lexical gap, create a word for a sensation or a reality where no word in current circulation seemed to fit the bill. This ranged from waxing poetical about a disappointing novel – susposset (n.)… [to] larch (v.), to allot time to daydreaming.’
The present story takes place in the same physical office building which Winceworth once worked within. Here, we follow a young intern named Mallory, who is, in fact, the only member of staff in the office, aside from David Swansby, a relative of the original dictionary creator. Her job is to locate all of the mountweazels in the text, and remove them for the revised edition. As she finds more and more invented words, she ‘has access to their creator’s motivations, hopes and desires.’ She is entirely forbidden from adding modern words into the dictionary, too. Mallory’s narrative begins in a manner which amused and intrigued me: ‘David spoke to me for three minutes without realising I had a whole egg in my mouth.’
Mallory and Winceworth are both fully-formed and fascinating. Winceworth decided, in childhood, to cultivate a lisp, which his mother found ‘endearing’ and his father ‘ridiculous’; this has followed him into his adult life. Mallory is complex, coming to terms with her life, and nervous about whether she should reveal the existence of her girlfriend, Pip, to her boss.
I thoroughly enjoyed the observations which Williams made throughout the novel; David Swansby, for instance, ‘looked like his handwriting: ludicrously tall, neat, squared-off at the edges. Like my handwriting, I was aware that I often looked as though I needed to be tidied away, or ironed, possibly autoclaved.’ As Mallory begins to learn of Winceworth’s story, she reflects: ‘The more I thought about it at work, the more I liked the close-but-unreachable sound of 1900 and its neologisms, the words that entered mouths and ears and inkwells that year. Teabag, come-hither, razzmatazz. 1900 sounds like a lot more fun than 1899, and its note-taking lexicographers.’
The novel’s preface muses about what makes the ‘perfect dictionary’, which would, of course, be tailored to the individual reader. It comments that ‘a dictionary’s preface can act like an introduction to someone you have no interest in meeting’. I found this section relatively humorous, and felt that it nicely paved the way for the two stories to unfold. I very much liked the structural approach which Williams took, too; The Liar’s Dictionary follows the patterns and directives of a real dictionary: it ranges from the chapter heading ‘A is for artful (adj.)’ to ‘Y is for yes (exclam.)’.
Williams’ novel ‘celebrates the rigidity, fragility and absurdity of language’, and she does this so well. It is clear that the author gets such joy from wordplay, and this was one of my favourite elements throughout the entire novel. There are moments of real brilliance here, and a lot of curious observances to be found. The Liar’s Dictionary is a thoroughly engaging, entertaining, and playful read, which I had so much fun with.
Lonely Castle in the Mirror (かがみの孤城), written by the Japanese author Mizuki Tsujimura and translated to English by Philip Gabriel, is a magical and moving coming-of-age story that was published by Doubleday only a couple of weeks ago. The novel won the Japan Booksellers’ Award in 2018 and has been lauded and praised by many since. I was planning on reading it as soon as I heard about it, so when the English translation was announced I was over the moon with joy.
Before we get on with the story and my thoughts on it, it’s worth mentioning that this is a YA novel and its protagonists are junior high schoolers and not adults. It has already been likened with the quirky tales of Sayaka Murata (author of Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings), while the Guardian has called it “the offspring of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and The Virgin Suicides” (cannot find a link, but this quote is all over the internet), but I feel both those comparisons don’t do the book any justice and only serve to mislead and possibly disappoint the reader who comes expecting something along the lines of the aforementioned books. As long as you know what sort of story this is, you will be able to truly enjoy it for what it is.
Lonely Castle in the Mirror borrows many western fairy tale elements and creates a whimsical and enchanting story that will certainly tag the heartstrings of many readers. If I had to compare it to another novel, that would definitely be The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, although Lonely Castle goes in an entirely different direction.
Set in modern day Tokyo, the novel recounts the story of Kokoro (meaning ‘heart’ in Japanese) Anzai, a 13 year-old girl who, after a rather traumatic event that has left her unwilling to go to school, one day discovers that the mirror in her room is shining in a peculiar way. Upon examining the mirror, she gets transported through it to a castle, where she meets six more children around her age, as well as the Wolf Queen, who seems to be the person in charge. The Wolf Queen gives them about a year to find a key which will grant only one of them a wish. However, after the wish is granted, all of them will forget about the castle, the moments they have spent there and one another. The children can enter the castle through their mirrors at any moment they want, but they are forbidden to spend the night there, although they each have their own rooms in the castle. If they overstay, then the wolf will come out and devour them.
As the story progresses, we learn more about each teenager, all of whom refuse to go to school for their own reasons, and we follow them as they get to know one another and discover that they are not alone in whatever they are going through. The narration is in third person, but we follow Kokoro’s point of view as she reveals more and more about the incidents that made her unable to go to school, and as she unravels the mystery of the castle along with her new friends.
I really loved the fairy tale elements and the magical atmosphere that Tsujimura creates, as well as the way she uses those fantastic elements to talk about real-life problems that many of us will have also experienced as teenagers. Through the themes of friendship, bullying, losing people close to you, social insecurity etc., Tsujimura explores what it is like to be an outsider, to not be able to fit it and to find friendship and meaningful connections even when you least expect it.
There is also the underlying mystery of the castle and its goings-on, which I also found quite interesting (can never resist a good mystery!), although I was able to figure out most of its solution pretty early on. It definitely gave the novel a unique flair, though, engaging the reader and keeping them eager to uncover the mystery. I also really liked the seven teenagers, I thought they were all unique and I was eager to know more about their specific circumstances and what led them to be invited to the castle.
Lonely Castle in the Mirror is almost a 400-page novel, and I have to admit that it does drag on at times, especially during the middle. The writing is simple, as is the case with many Japanese novels, so if you’re looking for flowery and poetic language, this book is not for you. The translation is very well done (as is to be expected by a renowned translator like Gabriel), but there are still some nuances and cultural differences that readers may need to be aware of when reading. For example, in many scenes we see Kokoro or the other children staying silent and not talking back when scolded or reprimanded, even if they are not in the wrong. Although this attitude isn’t very common in the western world, it is quite common in Japan.
According to the Publisher’s Note at the end of the book, Japanese children’s mental health is second to last among 38 developed and emerging countries, a fact that is shocking and alarming, yet one that makes this book even more important for all the teenagers and young adults that are going through difficult times for one reason or another. No wonder, then, that Tsujimura’s novel resonated with so many young Japanese people, and I’m certain it’s going to equally resonate with many young people outside Japan as well.
Literature has the power to pull you out of the darkness, even momentarily, offer you consolation and company, and show you that most problems have solutions. The castle in the mirror was a much-needed escape for Kokoro and the other six teenagers, a way out of their gloomy daily lives and unbearable circumstances, much like what literature and even more so fantasy literature is to all of us. However, while providing this escapist quality, the castle (and fantasy) equips the children with the necessary means to pluck up their courage, face their fears and dispel what makes their reality unbearable. In the end, this is exactly what this book does, too – it works as an anchor, as a speck of light, as a warm hug that gives its readers the necessary courage to fight their own battles and face their own unpleasant realities, creating their own path in life.
Overall, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a wonderful and magical tale, deeply rooted in reality despite its fairy tale and fantasy elements. It’s a heart-warming and touching novel that will resonate with many, regardless of their age, as we can all see a part of ourselves in Kokoro, Aki, Rion, Masamune, Ureshino, Subaru or Fuka, the seven students.
This also serves as my first post for this year’s Wyrd & Wonder, the month-long event that runs through May, celebrating fantasy and the fantastic. If you’d like to learn more about it and sign up, head over to this post.
A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.
First published in 2017
I stumbled upon a Goodreads list – as any user inevitably does at one point or another whilst browsing the vast site – and thought that it would be a perfect one to transcribe for the blog. Whilst I haven’t read many of these books (those which I have read are followed by my star rating), they all sound wonderful, and are undoubtedly perfect choices for this time of year. The following are about the garden rather than the practice of gardening; they evoke old England, and the charm of admiring what one has planted. I have focused only upon the first fifteen (and therefore the most popular) books voted for on this list; you can see the rest of it here. For each, I have added the blurb as shown on Goodreads.
1. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett *****
‘When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors. The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary’s only escape. Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key. One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in. Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life?‘
2. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton *****
‘A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, an aristocratic family, a love denied, and a mystery. The Forgotten Garden is a captivating, atmospheric and compulsively readable story of the past, secrets, family and memory from the international best-selling author Kate Morton. Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra’s life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace—the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century—Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.‘
3. Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce ***
‘Lying awake at night, Tom hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike . . . eleven . . . twelve . . . thirteen . . . Thirteen! When Tom gets up to investigate, he discovers a magical garden. A garden that everyone told him doesn’t exist. A garden that only he can enter . . .‘
4. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
‘Voodoo. Decadent socialites packing Lugars. Cotillions. With towns like Savannah, Georgia, who needs Fellini? Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil takes two narrative strands–each worthy of its own book–and weaves them together to make a single fascinating tale. The first is author John Berendt’s loving depiction of the characters and rascals that prowled Savannah in the eight years it was his home-away-from-home. “Eccentrics thrive in Savannah,” he writes, and proves the point by introducing Luther Diggers, a thwarted inventor who just might be plotting to poison the town’s water supply; Joe Odom, a jovial jackleg lawyer and squatter nonpareil; and, most memorably, the Lady Chablis, whom you really should meet for yourself. Then, on May 2, 1981, the book’s second story line commences, when Jim Williams, a wealthy antique dealer and Savannah’s host with the most, kills his “friend” Danny Hansford. (If those quotes make you suspect something, you should.) Was it self-defense, as Williams claimed–or murder? The book sketches four separate trials, during which the dark side of this genteel party town is well and truly plumbed.‘
5. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen ***
‘Taken from the poverty of her parents’ home, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with only her cousin Edmund as an ally. When Fanny’s uncle is absent in Antigua, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive in the neighbourhood, bringing with them London glamour and a reckless taste for flirtation. As her female cousins vie for Henry’s attention, and even Edmund falls for Mary’s dazzling charms, only Fanny remains doubtful about the Crawfords’ influence and finds herself more isolated than ever. A subtle examination of social position and moral integrity, Mansfield Park is one of Jane Austen’s most profound works.‘
6. Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen ***
‘The women of the Waverley family — whether they like it or not — are heirs to an unusual legacy, one that grows in a fenced plot behind their Queen Anne home on Pendland Street in Bascom, North Carolina. There, an apple tree bearing fruit of magical properties looms over a garden filled with herbs and edible flowers that possess the power to affect in curious ways anyone who eats them. For nearly a decade, 34-year-old Claire Waverley, at peace with her family inheritance, has lived in the house alone, embracing the spirit of the grandmother who raised her, ruing her mother’s unfortunate destiny and seemingly unconcerned about the fate of her rebellious sister, Sydney, who freed herself long ago from their small town’s constraints. Using her grandmother’s mystical culinary traditions, Claire has built a successful catering business — and a carefully controlled, utterly predictable life — upon the family’s peculiar gift for making life-altering delicacies: lilac jelly to engender humility, for instance, or rose geranium wine to call up fond memories. Garden Spells reveals what happens when Sydney returns to Bascom with her young daughter, turning Claire’s routine existence upside down. With Sydney’s homecoming, the magic that the quiet caterer has measured into recipes to shape the thoughts and moods of others begins to influence Claire’s own emotions in terrifying and delightful ways. As the sisters reconnect and learn to support one another, each finds romance where she least expects it, while Sydney’s child, Bay, discovers both the safe home she has longed for and her own surprising gifts. With the help of their elderly cousin Evanelle, endowed with her own uncanny skills, the Waverley women redeem the past, embrace the present, and take a joyful leap into the future. ‘
7. Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim *****
‘“Elizabeth and Her German Garden,” a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, was popular and frequently reprinted during the early years of the 20th century. “Elizabeth and Her German Garden” is a year’s diary written by Elizabeth about her experiences learning gardening and interacting with her friends. It includes commentary on the beauty of nature and on society, but is primarily humorous due to Elizabeth’s frequent mistakes and her idiosyncratic outlook on life. The story is full of sweet, endearing moments. Elizabeth was an avid reader and has interesting comments on where certain authors are best read; she tells charming stories of her children and has a sometimes sharp sense of humor in regards to the people who will come and disrupt her solitary lifestyle.‘
8. A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson
‘All the joys and sorrows, fears and fantasies of an imaginative solitary child are brought together in this edition of a much-loved classic. Stevenson’s timeless verses bear witness to a happy childhood and create a treasure garden for every child to explore.‘
9. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh *****
‘A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past. The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.‘
10. The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre
‘The Constant Gardener is a magnificent exploration of the new world order by one of the most compelling and elegant storytellers of our time. The novel opens in northern Kenya with the gruesome murder of Tessa Quayle–young, beautiful, and dearly beloved to husband Justin. When Justin sets out on a personal odyssey to uncover the mystery of her death, what he finds could make him not only a suspect among his own colleagues, but a target for Tessa’s killers as well. A master chronicler of the betrayals of ordinary people caught in political conflict, John le Carre portrays the dark side of unbridled capitalism as only he can. In The Constant Gardener he tells a compelling, complex story of a man elevated through tragedy as Justin Quayle–amateur gardener, aging widower, and ineffectual bureaucrat–discovers his own natural resources and the extraordinary courage of the woman he barely had time to love. ‘
11. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
‘Every schoolchild learns about the mutually beneficial dance of honeybees and flowers: The bee collects nectar and pollen to make honey and, in the process, spreads the flowers’ genes far and wide. In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. He masterfully links four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind’s most basic yearnings. And just as we’ve benefited from these plants, we have also done well by them. So who is really domesticating whom?‘
12. The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama
‘A 20-year-old Chinese painter named Stephen is sent to his family’s summer home in a Japanese coastal village to recover from a bout with tuberculosis. Here he is cared for by Matsu, a reticent housekeeper and a master gardener. Over the course of a remarkable year, Stephen learns Matsu’s secret and gains not only physical strength, but also profound spiritual insight. Matsu is a samurai of the soul, a man devoted to doing good and finding beauty in a cruel and arbitrary world, and Stephen is a noble student, learning to appreciate Matsu’s generous and nurturing way of life and to love Matsu’s soul-mate, gentle Sachi, a woman afflicted with leprosy.‘
13. The Virgin in the Garden by A.S. Byatt
‘The Virgin in the Garden is a wonderfully erudite entertainment in which enlightenment and sexuality, Elizabethan drama and contemporary comedy, intersect richly and unpredictably.‘
14. The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield *****
‘Written during the final stages of her illness, “The Garden Party and Other Stories” is full of a sense of urgency and was Katherine Mansfield’s last collection to be published during her lifetime. The fifteen stories, many of them set in her native New Zealand, vary in length and tone from the opening story, “At the Bay, ” a vivid impressionistic evocation of family life, to the short, sharp sketch “Mrs. Brill, ” in which a lonely woman’s precarious sense of self is brutally destroyed when she overhears two young lovers mocking her. Sensitive revelations of human behaviour, these stories reveal Mansfield’s supreme talent as an innovator who freed the story from its conventions and gave it a new strength and prestige.‘
15. Villette by Charlotte Bronte *****
‘Arguably Brontë’s most refined and deeply felt work, Villette draws on her profound loneliness following the deaths of her three siblings. Lucy Snowe, the narrator of Villette,flees from an unhappy past in England to begin a new life as a teacher at a French boarding school in the great cosmopolitan capital of Villette. Soon Lucy’s struggle for independence is overshadowed by both her friendship with a worldly English doctor and her feelings for an autocratic schoolmaster. Brontë’s strikingly modern heroine must decide if there is any man in her society with whom she can live and still be free.‘
How many of these have you read? Do any of them pique your interest?
I was not planning on breaking my book buying ban (again…), but I ended up ordering a copy of Bee Lewis’ Liminal, along with Eleanor Anstruther’s fascinating A Perfect Explanation. The publisher of both novels, Salt Books, was asking for everyone to buy one book during the pandemic, as their business was suffering. I set out to just choose one, but could not decide which I would rather read, so both novels landed on my doorstep a week or so later.
I was immediately drawn to Liminal when I started to read its Gothic-sounding blurb. I very much enjoy reading deliberately unsettling books, and had not picked one up in quite some time. Liminal, therefore, sounded perfect. It focuses on Esther, a pregnant woman whose leg was amputated after a childhood accident, and her husband, Dan. The pair are travelling from their former home in Bristol to start a new life in the remote Scottish Highlands, restoring a former train station, which has been abandoned for decades.
We follow Esther ‘as her marriage, life and body begin to dramatically change’. Due to her disability, she often feels isolated; this is exacerbated by the rough and uneven terrain around their new home, and its remote position. A deep snowfall, which arrives soon after the couple do, also makes movement more difficult to Esther. Early in the novel, she thinks back to her home in Bristol, uncertain about having left everything which she is so comfortable with behind: ‘The city was her touchstone, its roads were rooted in her veins, its houses in her cells. Yet she’d agreed to leave her sanctuary, trading the strident city streets for the cool mountain air and yawning expanse. She’d heard her rational self trotting out the reasons why: new life, fresh start, fantastic opportunity, support for Dan. But she couldn’t just ignore the small voice deep inside her that invaded her dreams and called her out for the coward she was.’
Lewis’ beautiful prose highlights all that is bleak around Esther: ‘The bone-numbing wind tried to breathe new life into the ancient landscape, but Spring was not yet ready to be roused and instead pulled a cloak of frost around her.’ One of my favourite parts of the entire novel was the way in which the landscape is personified; it is a character in itself, and it lives and adapts throughout the novel. Lewis’ writing is continuously dark, descriptive, and haunting, but never does it feel repetitive or overdone.
Even the elements of magical realism – ‘Gothic fantasia’, as they are termed in the novel’s blurb – blend in seamlessly with the realistic. Esther awakes one morning, for instance, naked and outside, ‘on a bed of bracken’. Lewis describes the experience, with striking imagery, as follows: ‘The metal shaft of her right leg was cold against her skin… This was bad. She had to get back home, back to Dan, back to safety, but nothing looked familiar to her and a growing dread burrowed into her stomach. She ran her hands over her body, checking for injuries as she stood up, hunching her shoulders and stooping low to the ground, conscious of her nakedness. Her moth tasted of iron as the fear she felt fused with her blood. The trees loomed in towards her, closing ranks, surrounding her on every side.’
The span of Liminal, which takes place over a single week, works wonderfully. The atmosphere and pressure grow exponentially. We learn early on that something is not right within Esther and Dan’s marriage, and that it has not been so for a long time. They are grieving both the death of a friend and a miscarriage, and Esther cannot quite believe that she has been given another chance to become a mother.
From the outset, Liminal felt like a novel which I would love. This feeling grew stronger as I continued to read it, and I quickly got to the stage where I could not bear to put it down. I sank into the writing; I was totally absorbed within it. For a debut novel, Liminal is nothing short of a masterpiece. There are so many elements here which soar. Lewis has such an understanding of Esther, and focuses on her strengths whilst also being continually aware of her limitations as a disabled woman. I am so looking forward to reading whatever Lewis publishes next, and am almost certain that whatever her main subject is, it will be handled with finesse and compassion.
Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers ****
I cannot help but feel that British author Salley Vickers is somewhat underrated. I have not seen many reviews of her work online, or on platforms like BookTube, and her works tend to have rather low overall ratings on Goodreads. However, she is an author whose work I have very much enjoyed since first picking up Miss Garnet’s Angel back in 2012.
I picked up one of her novels, Dancing Backwards, when my library first reopened for browsing, having been shut for four months due to the pandemic. Stuck in one place, with little opportunity to travel, I decided that I wanted to read as many books about journeys as was possible. Dancing Backwards, therefore, seemed perfect. The protagonist of the piece, a woman named Violet Hetherington, is travelling to New York by ship, to meet an old acquaintance. Her journey is as much an inner one as a physical one; thus, I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s early masterpiece, The Voyage Out.
As ever, Vickers’ prose is remarkably vivid from the outset. Her writing is intelligent, and it has a lot of depth to it. She never loses the focus of Violet, but is astute at writing about her surroundings, and of the other characters who are taking the same journey. Violet feels wholly realistic; we learn about her past and present, and her hopes for the future, through the many vignettes which make up the novel’s structure. She can be rather an acerbic woman, and I enjoyed her dark humour. Vickers wonderfully charts Violet’s relationships, and deftly handles the way in which the narrative moves back and forth in time. Dancing Backwards is a wonderful novel about taking chances, and being true to oneself.
The Word for Woman is Wilderness by Abi Andrews ****
I also picked up Abi Andrews’ novel, The Word for Woman is Wilderness, on the same library visit. It has been on my radar for quite some time, and I was so interested in the plot and somewhat unconventional structure. The novel takes as its focus a nineteen-year-old woman named Erin, who has never strayed too far from her Midlands home. She decides, however, to take an epic journey to the wilds of Alaska, travelling via Iceland, Greenland, and Canada to do so.
Throughout, Erin details her experiences of travelling and living in rather hostile environments, and those who help her along the way. Inspired on her journey by the rather infamous Chris McCandless, she comments: ‘Travelling by sea and land will be an Odyssean epic, only with me, a girl, on a female quest for authenticity.’ She films her own documentary as she goes too, which was an authentic-feeling way for Andrews to shoehorn in a lot of cultural commentary.
The Word for Woman is Wilderness is a fascinating and thought-provoking piece of ecofiction, which held my attention from its very beginning. I loved the numerous different approaches used here, from transcripts from the documentary, to philosophical musings. Erin is a wonderful character, who comes to rely entirely upon herself, and does so with a great deal of realism. There are many moments of profundity throughout, and the originality which Andrews has managed to create in this, her debut, is quite astounding.
Having very much enjoyed Jane Robinson’s Bluestockings some years ago, I felt that it was high time I picked up another of her books. I found the prolific author’s tenth book – Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote – on a jaunt to my local library, and settled down to read it on a grey afternoon.
The idea behind Hearts and Minds fascinated me. I have always been so interested in the suffrage movement, but Robinson had found an element of it which I had never before learnt about. This surprises me, as I have studied it in detail over the years; the Great Pilgrimage just seems to be a largely overlooked event, for reasons unbeknownst to me. I agree wholeheartedly with Robinson’s commentary on the Great Pilgrimage; she calls it ‘one of the most inspiring and neglected episodes in British history.’
In the summer of 1913, the year before the outbreak of the First World War, Britain became ‘gripped by suffragette fever’. This was the year in which the Great Pilgrimage took place. It was planned by the peaceful non-militant suffragist group, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage (NUWSS), who were keen to create as much distance as possible between themselves and the militant suffragettes. The often increasingly violent acts of the suffragettes made them seem a larger group than they were; rather, the suffragettes were a minority, albeit one who gained a lot of attention in the media, and in the country at large. As Robinson writes, the suffragettes’ ‘confrontational approach distracted public attention from the imaginative and quietly courageous work done by tens of thousands of others across Britain… [The suffragists] were just as determined about emancipation… but more persuasive.’ The suffragists wished to set themselves apart once and for all, and planned the Great Pilgrimage to be ‘as much as a march against militancy as it was for women’s rights.’
Thousands of women took to the streets to try to win equal suffrage. These women, from all over the country, ’embarked on an astonishing six-week protest march they called the Great Pilgrimage. Rich and poor, young and old, they defy convention’, and happily gave up ‘jobs, family relationships, and even their lives to persuade the country to listen to them.’ Their journey was at once ‘dangerous, exhausting and exhilarating’, and paved the way to alter the lives of British women forever. Their march was beset by problems from the outset, from vandalism of their property, to physical violence meted out by those who disagreed that women should be given equal suffrage.
The women who participated in the Great Pilgrimage were largely unknown. High-profile suffragists marched amongst them, but for the most part the women left their small towns and villages all over the country to show their solidarity. Of these women, Robinson notes: ‘Many of the people who feature in this book were not thought important enough to record in official chronicles of the fight for the vote, or were too modest to imagine anyone being interested in who they were.’ Robinson also writes, although not always at great length, about the hundreds of men who supported the cause, many of whom set out to march with the women along part of the route.
The march took six different routes from all corners of Britain – Carlisle, Newcastle, Yarmouth, Portsmouth, and Brighton, amongst other locations – converging in a final push upon London. Smaller routes fed into these larger ones ‘like tributaries, all flowing to the capital city.’ It began in the middle of June, and went on until the end of July. The different groups of participants had to stop many times along the way in order to hold meetings with locals, trying to convert the more stubborn to their cause.
In Hearts and Minds, Robinson weaves together extracts from diaries, letters, and unpublished accounts, framing these within the wider context of the suffrage movement, and the United Kingdom’s political landscape. She spans a vast period, from the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, and thoroughly explores ‘a story of ordinary people’ who brought about ‘extraordinary change’. In her introduction, Robinson sets out the social constraints of early twentieth-century Britain in a succinct manner, and continually points out the importance of the Great Pilgrimage. It at last gave women, who were denied a voice, ‘the authority to challenge the domestic stereotype’. Although women did not receive equal suffrage until 1928, the Great Pilgrimage was a series of small steps, which made an enormous difference.
Hearts and Minds is incredibly thorough, and so easy to read. Robinson sets out the birth of both suffrage groups in great detail, and also offers biographical information about several of the women who were there from the very beginning. The attention which Robinson gives to setting the scene, indeed, is so thorough, that the Great Pilgrimage is not explored in any detail until the middle of the book.
Hearts and Minds is inspiring, filled as it is with so many selfless women – and men – who advanced a cause of vital importance, and changed Britain for the better. They ensured, en masse, that their voices were heard, and their determination is heartening. This is another highly engaging book from a wonderful historian, and I am very much looking forward to exploring the rest of her oeuvre in the months to come.
I recently came across this very interesting reading list, published by TED in 2018. It is wonderfully varied, and certainly contains quite a few niche genres which I certainly have not read before. Although the list specifies that these choices are aimed at summer reading, I thought that I would look through it and pick out ten titles which I would like to get to over the next year or two.
1. A Lucky Man: Stories by Jamel Brinkley
‘In the nine expansive, searching stories of A Lucky Man, fathers and sons attempt to salvage relationships with friends and family members and confront mistakes made in the past. An imaginative young boy from the Bronx goes swimming with his group from day camp at a backyard pool in the suburbs, and faces the effects of power and privilege in ways he can barely grasp. A teen intent on proving himself a man through the all-night revel of J’Ouvert can’t help but look out for his impressionable younger brother. A pair of college boys on the prowl follow two girls home from a party and have to own the uncomfortable truth of their desires. And at a capoeira conference, two brothers grapple with how to tell the story of their family, caught in the dance of their painful, fractured history. Jamel Brinkley’s stories, in a debut that announces the arrival of a significant new voice, reflect the tenderness and vulnerability of black men and boys whose hopes sometimes betray them, especially in a world shaped by race, gender, and class–where luck may be the greatest fiction of all.’
2. Sophie’s Misfortunes by Comtesse de Ségur
‘Les Malheur de Sophie (Sophie’s Misfortunes) describes the life of Sophie before the events of Les Petites Filles Modèles, when she still lives with her parents in the French countryside. She is a lively, adventurous child who keeps getting into mischief with the critical complicity of her cousin Paul. Each chapter, with a few exceptions, follow a similar pattern: Sophie does something bad or stupid; she is found out or confesses her mischief; and she gets punished –or not – by her mother Mme de Réan, who uses each incident to teach a moral lesson.’
3. Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Eileen McNamara
‘A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist examines the life and times of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, arguing she left behind the Kennedy family’s most profound political legacy. While Joe Kennedy was grooming his sons for the White House and the Senate, his Stanford-educated daughter Eunice was tapping her father’s fortune and her brothers’ political power to engineer one of the great civil rights movements of our time on behalf of millions of children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Now, in Eunice, Pulitzer Prize winner Eileen McNamara finally brings Eunice Kennedy Shriver out from her brothers’ shadow to show an officious, cigar-smoking, indefatigable woman of unladylike determination and deep compassion born of rage: at the medical establishment that had no answers for her sister Rosemary; at the revered but dismissive father whose vision for his family did not extend beyond his sons; and at the government that failed to deliver on America’s promise of equality. Granted access to never-before-seen private papers—from the scrapbooks Eunice kept as a schoolgirl in prewar London to her thoughts on motherhood and feminism—McNamara paints a vivid portrait of a woman both ahead of her time and out of step with it: the visionary founder of the Special Olympics, a devout Catholic in a secular age, and a formidable woman whose impact on American society was longer lasting than that of any of the Kennedy men.’
4. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
‘Poet and essayist Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, she received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal. How does a dying person learn to live each day “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty? How does a young mother and wife prepare her two young children and adored husband for a loss that will shape the rest of their lives? How do we want to be remembered? Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, Nina asks: What makes a meaningful life when one has limited time? “Profound and poignant” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Bright Hour is about how to make the most of all the days, even the painful ones. It’s about the way literature, especially Nina’s direct ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer.’
5. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
‘For readers of Unbroken, out of the depths of the Depression comes an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times–the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant. It was an unlikely quest from the start. With a team composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew team was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler. The emotional heart of the tale lies with Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world. Drawing on the boys’ own journals and vivid memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, Brown has created an unforgettable portrait of an era, a celebration of a remarkable achievement, and a chronicle of one extraordinary young man’s personal quest.’
6. The Overstory by Richard Powers
‘An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These four, and five other strangers-each summoned in different ways by trees-are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. In his twelfth novel, National Book Award winner Richard Powers delivers a sweeping, impassioned novel of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of-and paean to-the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, exploring the essential conflict on this planet: the one taking place between humans and nonhumans. There is a world alongside ours-vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe. The Overstory is a book for all readers who despair of humanity’s self-imposed separation from the rest of creation and who hope for the transformative, regenerating possibility of a homecoming. If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us? “Listen. There’s something you need to hear.”‘
7. No Pity by Joe Shapiro
‘In No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, Joe Shapiro of U.S. News & World Report tells of a political awakening few nondisabled Americans have even imagined. There are over 43 million disabled people in this country alone; for decades most of them have been thought incapable of working, caring for themselves, or contributing to society. But during the last twenty-live years, they, along with their parents and families, have begun to recognize that paraplegia, retardation, deafness, blindness, AIDS, autism, or any of the hundreds of other chronic illnesses and disabilities that differentiate them from the able-bodied are not tragic. The real tragedy is prejudice, our society’s and the medical establishment’s refusal to recognize that the disabled person is entitled to every right and privilege America can offer. No Pity‘s chronicle of disabled people’s struggle for inclusion, from the seventeenth-century deaf communities on Martha’s Vineyard to the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992, is only part of the story. Joe Shapiro’s five years of in-depth reporting have uncovered many personal stories as well. ‘
8. A Kind of Mirraculus Paradise by Sandra Allen
‘Writer Sandra Allen did not know their uncle Bob very well. As a child, Sandy had been told Bob was “crazy,” that he had spent time in mental hospitals while growing up in Berkeley in the 60s and 70s. But Bob had lived a hermetic life in a remote part of California for longer than Sandy had been alive, and what little Sandy knew of him came from rare family reunions or odd, infrequent phone calls. Then in 2009 Bob mailed Sandy his autobiography. Typewritten in all caps, a stream of error-riddled sentences over sixty, single-spaced pages, the often-incomprehensible manuscript proclaimed to be a “true story” about being “labeled a psychotic paranoid schizophrenic,” and arrived with a plea to help him get his story out to the world. In A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story about Schizophrenia, Sandy translates Bob’s autobiography, artfully creating a gripping coming-of-age story while sticking faithfully to the facts as he shared them. Lacing Bob’s narrative with chapters providing greater contextualization, Sandy also shares background information about their family, the culturally explosive time and place of their uncle’s formative years, and the vitally important questions surrounding schizophrenia and mental healthcare in America more broadly. The result is a heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious portrait of a young man striving for stability in his life as well as his mind, and an utterly unique lens into an experience that, to most people, remains unimaginable.’
9. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
‘Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations–those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences. With maturity and sophistication, humor and beauty, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of life inside China yet transcendent in its universality.’
10. Sorry, Not Sorry by Haji Mohamed Dawjee
‘Why don’t white people understand that Converse tekkies are not just cool but a political statement to people of colour? Why is it that South Africans of colour don’t really ‘write what we like’? What’s the deal with people pretending to be ‘woke’? Is Islam really as antifeminist as is claimed? What does it feel like to be a brown woman in a white media corporation? And what life lessons can we learn from Bollywood movies? In Sorry, Not Sorry, Haji Mohamed Dawjee explores the often maddening experience of moving through post-apartheid South Africa as a woman of colour. In characteristically candid style, she pulls no punches when examining the social landscape: from arguing why she’d rather deal with an open racist than some liberal white people, to drawing on her own experience to convince readers that joining a cult is never a good idea. In the provocative voice that has made Mohamed Dawjee one of our country’s most talked-about columnists, she offers observations laced with acerbic wit. Sorry, Not Sorry will make readers laugh, wince, nod, introspect and argue.’
Which of these books take your fancy? Have you read any of them?