‘The Breaks’ by Julietta Singh ****

I spotted Julietta Singh’s memoir, The Breaks, whilst browsing on Daunt Books’ website, and just had to read it. The book has been published by Daunt as part of their Originals list, and it has been incredibly well received. In its blurb, reviewers compare it to James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew, and herald it a tender, and ‘beautiful’ coming-of-age story.

The Breaks is an extended letter, written by Singh to her young daughter. Her aim is to ‘write towards a new vision of the world, inspired by her child’s radical embrace of possibility as a model for how we might live’. Wrapped up in the entire narrative is a commentary on the climate change which threatens our existence, and which she believes her daughter will experience the full effects of during her life. She says: ‘I am writing to you, and to future you. I am writing to the six-year-old girl you are now… I am writing to the becoming-being that you are, the one who will face a world in ruin and undoubtedly wonder over my place in all this destruction.’ Singh believes that if we are able, globally, to ‘survive the looming political and ecological disasters, we must break from the conventions we have inherited and begin to orient ourselves towards more equitable and revolutionary paths.’

Along with the ever-present threat of climate change, Singh also examines ‘the violent legacies of racism, patriarchy, and colonialism’, and the effects which all of these have already had in her daughter’s young life. The narrative opens with an account of her daughter being taught ‘a whitewashed story at school about how the first people of this land were happy to give their sacred spaces to the consumptive force of European men in the name of civilisation and progress.’ She proceeds to tell her daughter this story rather differently: ‘I will never forget the way you looked at me then, your head slightly tilted to one side, your eyes wide in bewilderment… This is not what my teacher told us, you said with unmistakable agitation. I know that for the first time you were confronting the existence of conflicting worldviews, a vital gulf between your formal education and your maternal one.’

Throughout, Singh has a real awareness of what ties herself to her daughter. She reflects, for instance: ‘Our blood is laced with modern histories of unbelievable violence. It is a strange and hybrid brew that you will feel in your body across your life, as I have always felt it in mine.’ Throughout, I really enjoyed her discussions about the physical body in the world, and the differing versions of history which can exist everywhere – in textbooks, in films and cartoons, and in the education system, to name just a few examples.

Another of the real strengths in The Breaks is the commentary Singh gives to the meaning of identity, and how difficult this can be to pin down. Her own family history is rich, and complicated. ‘Being as diasporic as we are,’ she says, ‘I find I have no traditional knowledge to bestow upon you, no single spiritual or cultural heritage that will reach back to precolonial ways of being and knowing.’ She writes about the ‘stolen lands’ where she was born, her father’s Indian heritage, her mother’s European one, and her experiences of growing up in Canada, before moving to the United States. For Singh, home is a concept which she has not often experienced; until she begins a deep friendship with a queer man, Nathan, who will become her daughter’s father. They live together, in a house converted to have two separate living spaces, and coparent. She writes: ‘I have only just begin to feel this home-feeling with you, with your father, in our everyday acts of collective world-making. For the first time, I wonder whether I need to stop drifting, not so much in body as in spirit… To live here, right where we are, and to articulate that living by learning who and how and when and why we have all come to live here, to belong here.’

Singh is open about the challenges of parenting her young daughter in their home in Richmond, Virginia. Early on in her memoir, she comments: ‘Learning to mother at the end of the world is an infinite toggle between wanting to make you feel safe and needing you to know that the earth and its inhabitants are facing a catastrophic crisis.’ She is also aware that one day, her relationship with her daughter will shift, inescapably; she writes: ‘It is less the inevitability of our break than it is the shape and force of it that haunts me. I know it is not just me you will need to break from, but the entire way of life that I represent… More than any other time in history, what you choose from the past will need to be meticulously studied and selected.’

These breaks which Singh talks about also manifest literally. Whilst writing her memoir, she was recovering from major surgery, when doctors found that the discs between her vertebrae had begun to ‘explode, making it appear… as though my body is being subjected to high-impact collisions.’

The Breaks is ‘both a celebration of queer family-making, communal living and Brown girlhood and a profound meditation on race, inheritance and queer mothering at the end of the world.’ Singh, as this quote on the book’s blurb suggests, encompasses so much within her book, but she does so with intelligence, and captures everything in beautiful, contemplative prose.

The Breaks is intense, intriguing, and so worthwhile. The narrative, given that it was only published in 2021, is incredibly current; she references other challenges which we face on a global scale, such as the pandemic. The way in Singh she directs her articulate speech to her daughter throughout gives it a further sense of urgency. Singh is articulate, and gives voice to the many difficulties which the next generation are sure to face. The Breaks is heavily rooted in existentialism, and what it means to be alive today. Singh gives just as much thought, though, to how – and if – we can possibly move forwards.

I will end this review with something wonderful that Singh’s daughter said, as quite a young child. At the age of five, she declared: ‘If I was president… I would give everyone a place to live for free. I would make gardens all throughout the city that would grow food to feed us all. I would give everyone enough clothes to wear, and make sure their outfits suited their style. I’d make sure everyone had a friend.’ If the next generation is filled with wonderfully compassionate people like this, perhaps the world does have a chance to save itself, after all.


Dark Academia Books

Dark academia – a subculture quite wonderfully concerned with higher education, the arts, writing, poetry, the pursuit of self-discovery, and Greek and Gothic architecture – seems to have taken over my Pinterest and YouTube feeds over the last couple of years. Whilst this largely appears to be focused on the aesthetic side of the culture, I wanted to make the genre applicable to The Literary Sisters. I have therefore put together a list of eight books – many of which are my favourites – which I would classify as Dark Academia, for your perusal.

  1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

‘Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last—inexorably—into evil.’

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

‘Orphaned as a child, Jane has felt an outcast her whole young life. Her courage is tested once again when she arrives at Thornfield Hall, where she has been hired by the brooding, proud Edward Rochester to care for his ward Adèle. Jane finds herself drawn to his troubled yet kind spirit. She falls in love. Hard.

But there is a terrifying secret inside the gloomy, forbidding Thornfield Hall. Is Rochester hiding from Jane? Will Jane be left heartbroken and exiled once again?’

3. The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde

‘Written in his distinctively dazzling manner, Oscar Wilde’s story of a fashionable young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty is the author’s most popular work. The tale of Dorian Gray’s moral disintegration caused a scandal when it first appeared in 1890, but though Wilde was attacked for the novel’s corrupting influence, he responded that there is, in fact, “a terrible moral in Dorian Gray.” Just a few years later, the book and the aesthetic/moral dilemma it presented became issues in the trials occasioned by Wilde’s homosexual liaisons, which resulted in his imprisonment. Of Dorian Gray’s relationship to autobiography, Wilde noted in a letter, “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.’

4. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

‘Lockwood, the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange, situated on the bleak Yorkshire moors, is forced to seek shelter one night at Wuthering Heights, the home of his landlord. There he discovers the history of the tempestuous events that took place years before; of the intense relationship between the gypsy foundling Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw; and how Catherine, forced to choose between passionate, tortured Heathcliff and gentle, well-bred Edgar Linton, surrendered to the expectations of her class. As Heathcliff’s bitterness and vengeance at his betrayal is visited upon the next generation, their innocent heirs must struggle to escape the legacy of the past.’

5. The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

‘Bright, bookish Oscar Lowe has made a life for himself amid the colleges and spires of Cambridge and yet is a world apart from the students who study in the hallowed halls. He has come to love the quiet routine of his job as a care assistant at a nursing home, where he has forged a close relationship with its most ill-tempered resident, Dr Paulsen.

But when Oscar is lured into the chapel at King’s College by the ethereal sound of an organ, he meets and falls in love with Iris Bellwether, a beautiful and enigmatic medical student. He follows her into a world of scholarship, wealth, and privilege, and soon becomes embroiled in the machinations of her older brother, Eden.

A charismatic but troubled musical prodigy, Eden persuades his sister and their close-knit circle of friends into a series of disturbing experiments. He believes that music — with his unique talent to guide it — has the power to cure, and will stop at nothing to prove himself right. As the line between genius and madness blurs, Oscar fears the danger that could await them all.’

6. Frankenstein or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

‘Obsessed with creating life itself, Victor Frankenstein plunders graveyards for the material to fashion a new being, which he shocks into life with electricity. But his botched creature, rejected by Frankenstein and denied human companionship, sets out to destroy his maker and all that he holds dear. Mary Shelley’s chilling Gothic tale was conceived when she was only eighteen, living with her lover Percy Shelley near Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. It would become the world’s most famous work of horror fiction, and remains a devastating exploration of the limits of human creativity.’

7. The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

‘In the late summer of 1913, George Sawle brings his Cambridge schoolmate – a handsome, aristocratic young poet named Cecil Valance – to his family’s modest home outside London for the weekend. George is enthralled by Cecil, and soon his sixteen-year-old sister, Daphne, is equally besotted by him and the stories he tells about Corley Court, the country estate he is heir to. But what Cecil writes in Daphne’s autograph album will change their and their families’ lives forever: a poem that, after Cecil is killed in the Great War and his reputation burnished, will become a touchstone for a generation, a work recited by every schoolchild in England. Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried – until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them.

Rich with Hollinghurst’s signature gifts – haunting sensuality, delicious wit and exquisite lyricism – The Stranger’s Child is a tour de force: a masterly novel about the lingering power of desire, how the heart creates its own history, and how legends are made.’

8. Atonement by Ian McEwan

‘Ian McEwan’s symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness provides all the satisfaction of a brilliant narrative and the provocation we have come to expect from this master of English prose.

On a hot summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses the flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives and her precocious imagination bring about a crime that will change all their lives, a crime whose repercussions Atonement follows through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century.’


Six Books I’ve Enjoyed in 2022…

… but have not written reviews for. Because I read as often as I can, but have a full-time job, there are many books I would like to review, but sadly don’t get chance to. I thought I would collect a few of these together so that they don’t fall through the cracks. Their content is relatively varied, but these are just a few titles which I have thoroughly enjoyed this year, and would highly recommend. As ever, let me know if you have read any of these, or if they pique your interest.

  1. In and Out of the Garden by Sara Midda (1982; non-fiction; gardens and growing; charming illustrations; beautifully put together)

‘Sara Midda’s richly illustrated In and Out of the Garden has delighted readers and critics alike. Diana Vreeland praised it as “delightful and delicious,” and Laura Ashley called it “pure inspiration.”

The most elegant and subtle of books to give and to have, it evokes the English gardens of Sara Midda’s childhood, sowing the imagination with glorious images. Dozens and dozens of illustrations and tender reflections recall a hut in the wood, or a topiary maze, a summer day spent podding peas, or an herb patch that yields Biblical fragrances. Ruby-red radishes are the jewels of the underworld. Myriad colors fall upon warm green moss. Painted with Sara Midda’s fine brush, it is a book of lasting enchantment.’

2. Raising a Rare Girl by Heather Lanier (2020; memoir; illness narrative; rare genetic disorder; heartfelt and honest)

‘Award-winning writer Heather Lanier’s memoir about raising a child with a rare syndrome, defying the tyranny of normal, and embracing parenthood as a spiritual practice that breaks us open in the best of ways.

Like many women of her generation, Heather Lanier did everything by the book when she was expecting her first child. She ate organic foods, recited affirmations, and drew up a birth plan for an unmedicated labor in the hopes that she could create a SuperBaby, an ultra-healthy human destined for a high-achieving future.

But her daughter Fiona challenged all of Lanier’s preconceptions. Born with an ultra-rare syndrome known as Wolf-Hirschhorn, Fiona received a daunting prognosis: she would experience significant developmental delays and might not reach her second birthday. Not only had Lanier failed to produce a SuperBaby, she now fiercely loved a child that the world would sometimes reject. The diagnosis obliterated Lanier’s perfectionist tendencies, along with her most closely held beliefs about certainty, vulnerability, God, and love.

With tiny bits of mozzarella cheese, a walker rolled to library story time, a talking iPad app, and a whole lot of pop and reggae, mother and daughter spend their days doing whatever it takes to give Fiona nourishment, movement, and language. They also confront society’s attitudes toward disability and the often cruel assumptions made about Fiona’s worth. Lanier realizes the biggest question is not, Will my daughter walk or talk? but, How can I best love my girl, just as she is?

Loving Fiona opens Lanier up to new understandings of what it means to be human, what it takes to be a mother, and above all, the aching joy and wonder that come from embracing the unique life of her rare girl.’

3. Lily’s Promise by Lily Ebert and Dov Forman (2021; memoir; Holocaust; honest, heartwrenching, and hopeful)

‘When Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert was liberated in 1945, a Jewish-American soldier gave her a banknote on which he’d written ‘Good luck and happiness’. And when her great-grandson, Dov, decided to use social media to track down the family of the GI, 96-year-old Lily found herself making headlines round the world. Lily had promised herself that if she survived Auschwitz she would tell everyone the truth about the camp. Now was her chance.

In Lily’s Promise she writes movingly about her happy childhood in Hungary, the death of her mother and two youngest siblings on their arrival at Auschwitz in 1944 and her determination to keep her two other sisters safe. She describes the inhumanity of the camp and the small acts of defiance that gave her strength. From there she and her sisters became slave labour in a munitions factory, and then faced a death march that they barely survived.

Lily lost so much, but she built a new life for herself and her family, first in Israel and then in London. It wasn’t easy; the pain of her past was always with her, but this extraordinary woman found the strength to speak out in the hope that such evil would never happen again.’

4. Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane (2019; novel set in the 1980s; family saga; interesting characters and dynamics)

‘Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, rookie NYPD cops, are neighbors in the suburbs. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne, sets the stage for the explosive events to come.

In Mary Beth Keane’s extraordinary novel, a lifelong friendship and love blossoms between Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, born six months apart. One shocking night their loyalties are divided, and their bond will be tested again and again over the next thirty years. Heartbreaking and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes is a gorgeous and generous portrait of the daily intimacies of marriage and the power of forgiveness.’

5.Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories, edited by Audrey Niffenegger (2015; short stories; wonderfully curated; varied content; great illustrations)

‘Collected and introduced by the bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry–including Audrey Niffenegger’s own fabulous new illustrations for each piece, and a new story by her–this is a unique and haunting anthology of some of the best ghost stories of all time.

From Edgar Allan Poe to Kelly Link, M.R. James to Neil Gaiman, H.H. Munro to Audrey Niffenegger herself, Ghostly reveals the evolution of the ghost story genre with tales going back to the eighteenth century and into the modern era, ranging across styles from Gothic Horror to Victorian, stories about haunting–haunted children, animals, houses. Every story is introduced by Audrey Niffenegger, an acclaimed master of the craft, with some words on its background and why she chose to include it. Audrey’s own story is “A Secret Life With Cats.”

Perfect for the classic and contemporary ghost story aficionado, this is a delightful volume, beautifully illustrated by Audrey, who is a graphic artist with great vision. Ghostly showcases the best of the best in the field, including Edith Wharton, P.G. Wodehouse, A.S. Byatt, Ray Bradbury, and so many more.’

6. The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman (2019; historical fiction; magical realism; creative; beautifully written)

‘In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses; from a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s destined to be.

What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never ending.’


‘The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting’ by Alanna Okun ****

I am a keen crafter, and have had my eye on Alanna Okun’s essay collection, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater, for quite some time. I was grateful to be able to purchase a copy with some Christmas money, and settled down to read about another woman who shares similar enthusiasms to myself. I was in two minds as to whether I should review this essay collection, as it is rather a niche topic, but I do not feel as though Okun’s thoroughly entertaining book has received anywhere near the amount of attention which it deserves, especially in the UK.

Let me begin by writing about the so-called ‘curse of the boyfriend sweater’ of the book’s title. It is a superstition within the crafting community that soon after you begin knitting your significant other an item of clothing – usually a jumper, or sweater – they will end your relationship. I have knitted my boyfriend several things throughout the years we’ve been together, and we’re still very much an item, so I can’t say I believe in the ‘curse’ myself. However, I do find it interesting that it has become such a widespread view amongst knitters, crocheters, and the like. Okun includes an entire chapter detailing different things she has knitted, crocheted, or embroidered, for previous boyfriends.

Okun is honest throughout, talking about her experiences with mental health. Her crafting has helped her to make it through periods of ‘anxiety, grief, heartbreak, ecstatic joy, [and] total boredom.’ She writes that ‘even when we can’t control anything else, we can at least control the sticks, string, and fabric right in front of us.’ This is exactly the reason why so many of us turned to crafting during the many Covid lockdowns we faced globally in 2020 and 2021; making something is a comfort, and it does give us an element of power, however small and tentative, in such uncertain times. As Okun says: ‘Making anything feels like seizing control, like defiant reversal in the face of grief; this thing is yours, the way you would like it to be, and it exists where before there was nothing.’

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is largely based on knitting, my craft of choice, but Okun does dabble in other things throughout – crochet, embroidery, and dabbling in ‘most fibery pursuits’. In a lovely nod to the craft, the initial chapter is titled ‘Casting On’, and the final, ‘Casting Off’. The feelings which she captures in her opening chapter are so familiar to me: ‘You can’t really know what a project is going to be until it’s done,’ she says. ‘You could start it as a gift only to find you want to keep it for yourself, or the reverse. You could realize it looks nothing like what you intended and either despair or delight. Or, as so often happens, you could reach a place of peaceful ambivalence and decide to just keep pushing through, even though you’re not sure, even though you don’t know what it will be after you’ve invested all those hours and all that yarn. You can trust the project to reveal itself to you, outside of your control.’

I loved the way that Okun spoke about the skill needed to craft, something which I feel is still relatively underappreciated in the wider world. She writes: ‘The fact remains that knitting and its cousins aren’t innate skills. They’re taught and they’re learned and reinforced and passed down, in an interlocking series of leaps that builds and layers just like the crafts themselves.’ This legacy of crafting is so important to me; I was taught to knit by my grandmother and mother, and to sew by my mother. Yes, I have picked up skills in both crafts along the way, many of which have come from practice, or from watching many YouTube tutorials, but the foundations which I had sparked a lifelong interest. Both have been crafts which have ebbed and flowed in my life, but for the last three years, I have always had a knitting project on the go, however big – shawls, jumpers – or small – socks, reusable cotton washcloths. I identified so much with Okun when she described the period after her grandmother had taught her how to knit, and the way in which the craft has been a constant for her in adulthood: ‘I get better, I lose interest, I regain it, I improve. I get a boyfriend, I get into college, I get a job, I knit. I am anxious, I am joyful, I am lonely, I knit.’

Okun writes so honestly about crafting, and the fact that not every project embarked on is a success. Just like the author, I have done my fair share of frogging the initial wonky scarves, and projects where I had little knowledge, and selected a wildly inappropriate yarn for a pattern. As with everything though, confidence grows with skill; the more I have practiced left- and right-leaning increases, Icelandic bind-offs, and German short rows, the better I have become. Okun does not profess to be an expert in anything, which I found really refreshing. The author is the first to own up to mistakes which she has made, and points out things which she does differently to other crafters.

I was internally cheering when reading parts of The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater; for instance, when Okun writes: ‘I want people to ask me about my sweaters and tank tops; I want them to know that’s the sort of person I am, that I have this extremely minor superpower even if they think it’s weird or dorky. This is how I choose to spend my time and my brain space, and I want my physical being to reflect that, at least every once in a while.’

Throughout, I felt as though I was having a conversation with a very like-minded crafty friend. Okun is unfailingly bright, and I appreciated the informal tone which she used throughout. She writes at length about friendships and relationships, to the extent that I think those without crafting backgrounds could still very much enjoy her writing and perspectives.

I shall end this review with a lovely piece of wisdom which Okun imparts in one of her essays. She writes: ‘Projects, even the kind that are not so emotionally loaded, always feel smaller when they’re done, when you’re not obsessing over individual components anymore. The same is true for spans of time: happy periods, mourning periods – all of them flatten when you can look back on them from arm’s length, when you can hold them in your hands and stick them to the wall, when you can look at them in the context of your life.’