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‘Apple and Knife’ by Intan Paramaditha ***

The stories in Apple and Knife, the first English collection of award-winning Indonesian author Intan Paramaditha’s work have been drawn from two of her books, and are translated by Stephen J. Epstein.  Paramaditha’s tales are inspired by fairytales, mythological stories, and horror, and this collection promises its readers an ‘unsettling ride that swerves into the supernatural to explore the dangers and power of occupying a female body in today’s world.’  Its blurb also claims that the collection ‘is subversive feminist horror at its best, where men and women alike are arbiters of fear, and where revenge is sometimes sweetest when delivered from the grave.’

9781787301160Apple and Knife is a slim collection of thirteen stories, many of which have quite beguiling titles; ‘The Blind Woman Without a Toe’, ‘Scream in a Bottle’, and ‘A Single Firefly, a Thousand Rats’ particularly caught my eye.  Australian author Emily Bitto writes that the stories in Apple and Knife ‘are raw, fun, excessive, and told with a wink, but they are underlaid with an unsettling awareness of the human fate of “disobedient women”.’

As one would expect, given Bitto’s comments, the collection launches straight into the darker side of life.  The first story, ‘The Blind Woman Without a Toe’, is a retelling of Cinderella (renamed Sindelerat), which is told from the perspective of one of her sisters.  In the story, the narrator recounts, rather graphically, how she became blind to a young child companion: ‘My eyes were pecked out by a bird.  They say it was a dove from heaven, but it was actually a black crow straight out of hell.  I screamed.  I begged it to stop.  But my shrieks were drowned out by its caws.  It got to the point that you could no longer tell what was flowing, tears or blood.  The crow only heeded its owner and she wasn’t satisfied until my eyes were hollow sockets.’

The settings of the stories in Apple and Knife, which range from corporate boardrooms to shanty towns, ‘reveal a soupy otherworld stewing just beneath the surface.’  The majority of the stories are set in Indonesia, but there are a couple which do not explicitly mention their placement, or which are set elsewhere.  Each of the characters, regardless of where they have been placed geographically, is undergoing a crisis or upheaval of some kind, and this becomes the common thread which acts as a backbone for the collection.  The characters in Apple and Knife are all markedly different.  We meet, variously, a woman who is being kept by her husband in a grand house; ‘the most famous courtesan in Esna’; a young woman who interviews a ‘Sumarni’, or witch; and a ‘devil woman’ who pays a man to act out her sexual fantasies.

Whilst some of the stories in this collection did not appeal to me on a personal level, or had rather unsatisfactory endings, I found that others had a real power to them.  They subvert expectation, and turn things on their heads.  Many of the tales take quite surprising turns, and Paramaditha seems to enjoy playing with the expectations which she assumes the reader has.  The stories are sensual, but not in a pleasant way; rather, they come across as an assault upon the senses. One of the elements which I found most interesting in Apple and Knife is the focus which Paramaditha places upon the physical body and its degradation.

I was impressed by Paramaditha’s writing, and the layering effect which she creates in many of her stories.  Her rich descriptions help to achieve this.  In ‘Scream in a Bottle’, for instance, she writes: ‘Rain falls in the yard, soaking the earth.  Not a downpour, but slow, drop by drop.  A long, soft tone, like a bow sliding against a violin string.’  The author is perceptive and descriptive, particularly when it comes to her depictions of characters.  In ‘Beauty and the Seventh Dwarf’, she writes: ‘I pieced together her story based on information that emerged at random, so the tale was incomplete, unsatisfactory.  It didn’t explain the enigma of her hideousness.  Waiting while she bathed one night, I hunted around for further clues.  Her room contained a mirror and a dresser…  Of course she didn’t need beauty products, nothing would redeem her looks. Even the mirror’s presence was odd.  Why would someone with such a grotesque face want to gaze at herself?’

Regardless of the things which I did not like in this collection, or which felt rather repetitive, it is undeniably wonderful that Indonesian literature is being championed at last.  Apple and Knife was fascinating to read, suffused as it is with so much darkness, and a lot of Indonesian folklore and cultural details, which I was unfamiliar with.  Whilst many of the stories are contemporary, I liked the use of historical fiction in ‘Kuchuk Hanem’, which has a representation of French author Gustave Flaubert within it.  The dark humour was also welcome, and worked well with Paramaditha’s storylines, which were, frankly, sometimes quite bizarre.

On the whole, Apple and Knife presents an interesting and multilayered picture of a very diverse nation; there is so much going on here, and a lot of themes have been addressed. The magical realism which is sometimes inserted does work well on the whole, although I found a couple of instances of this unnecessary or somewhat jarring.  Overall, though, the fantastical elements do add an extra layer of interest to the stories.  The majority are quite bewitching.

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‘Diary of an Ordinary Woman’ by Margaret Forster ****

I absolutely adored Margaret Forster’s Have the Men Had Enough? (review here) when I read it back in 2017, and think that her biography of Daphne du Maurier is superb.  It has been a surprisingly long time since I picked up another of her novels, but I selected the rather chunky Diary of an Ordinary Woman as my next Forster because it sounded splendid.  It sounds, on the face of it, as though it has rather a lot of themes in common with Have the Men Had Enough?, and I was intrigued to compare the two.

Diary of an Ordinary Woman spans an entire century, from the birth of its protagonist in 97800994492871901, to her old age in 1995.  It is presented as the ‘edited’ diary of Millicent King, who takes the decision to keep her journal just before the outbreak of the First World War.  In it, she ‘vividly records the dramas of everyday life in a family touched by war, tragedy, and money troubles.’  Of Forster’s decision to include such a vast time period in her novel, The Guardian writes: ‘Not only is the background of social and political change meticulously accurate… but there is everything one would expect from a well-kept diary.  This is fiction, yet it is true.’

The ‘diary’ begins with an introduction written by an overseer, an anonymous author who has been asked to read Millicent’s many diaries by her great-niece by marriage, and assess their literary worth.  The author comments: ‘I pointed out that it is quite dangerous letting a writer loose in a field of very personal material – I might run amok and trample on sensitive areas.’  However, upon reading the earlier diaries, they note: ‘The writing was fluent and lively, and seemed driven by some sort of inner energy which, though the content was mundane enough, gave it a sense of drama…  If she could write with such vigour at 13, how would she write at 23, 33, right up to 93?’

Millicent shows her diaries with some satisfaction: ‘Inside [a cupboard], there were three shelves packed with hardback exercise books, most of them red but some black.  She stood back and surveyed them, telling me that whenever she looked at them like this, she felt her life must, against all the evidence, have amounted to something after all.’  The introduction of this anonymous author-cum-editor ends as follows: ‘… there was nothing ordinary about this woman.  Indeed, I now wonder if there is any such thing as an ordinary life at all.’

To continue with this idea of Millicent’s diaries being edited, entries are sometimes interspersed with comments from the anonymous author, which give more background to the social climate, or which explain why several months – or sometimes years – have been omitted from the ‘edited diary’.  From the beginning, one really gets a feel for Millicent’s quite prickly character.  As a young lady, she certainly feels hard done by, particularly with regard to her position in the family: ‘I am most unfortunately placed in this family, coming after Matilda and before the twins and Baby.  I am special to nobody, and that is the truth.’  Her humour, which is not always deliberate, comes through too in the earliest entries.  When she stays in Westmorland for a family holiday in 1915, she comments: ‘There is no place or time to read and in any case I must be sparing with what I have to read because there is no hope of getting to a library.  I have made Lorna Doone last for ages and I do not even like it.’

I found Diary of an Ordinary Woman immediately compelling.  Forster has perfected an intelligent but accessible writing style, which seems to give us access to Millicent’s every thought, however dark.  Due to the span of almost the entirety of the twentieth-century, Forster has allowed herself to engross one in the details, creating such depth for Millicent and the changing world in which she lives.  There is little which is remarkable in Millicent’s life, but the very fact that such a huge chunk of it has been recorded by herself, is remarkable.

One is really given a feel for the huge shifts which occurred during the twentieth century, and the impacts which this could, and would, have upon one individual.  Her life unfolds against the century; her childhood lived in the First World War, the role of fascism in Italy where she later works as a teacher, the Mass Observation Project which she takes part in, and the Korean War, amongst others.  In many ways – having a career, deciding not to get married or have children, and even wearing trousers in the early 1930s – Millicent subverts what was expected of a well-bred woman.

The element which I found a little tiresome in this novel is the emphasis placed upon Millicent’s romantic conquests.  Whilst mildly interesting at first, these soon begin to follow the same pattern, and the men whom she falls so wildly for become quite similar figures.  This detracted somewhat from my enjoyment of the novel.  Had this part been more succinct, or less spoken about, I imagine that I may well have given Diary of an Ordinary Woman a five star rating.

Millicent King is a singular woman, but she is also presented as Everywoman here.  Forster makes it clear that Millicent shares a lot of her concerns with women living within the twentieth-century.  Of Forster’s protagonist, the Independent on Sunday stresses the ‘whole-hearted’ belief which we have in Millicent, and the element of heroism within her ‘that George Eliot would recognise.’  Whilst there were some later decisions in which I found myself questioning Millicent’s judgement, I could not help but warm to her.  She feels realistic, particularly for all her foibles and complaints.

In Diary of an Ordinary Woman, Forster has created something quite remarkable.  Whilst in some respects the novel does feel rather long, there is so much within it which both fascinated me, and sustained my interest.  Evidently, to span an entire lifetime, there must be a lot of detail included, and the novel is certainly richer for it.

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‘Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves’ by Rachel Malik ****

I have wanted to read Rachel Malik’s debut novel, Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, since its 2017 publication.  I have seen relatively few reviews of the book, but my interest was piqued by the praise on its cover.  Penelope Lively calls it ‘a skilful recreation of a time and a climate of mind, enriched by persuasive period detail’, and Elizabeth Buchan says that it is ‘quietly gripping and intriguing’.  The novel is loosely based upon the life of the author’s grandmother, who left her family home and three children to become a Land Girl during the Second World War.

9780241976098The protagonists of the piece are two women, Rene Hargreaves and Elsie Boston.  Rene is billeted to the rural Starlight Farm in Berkshire, far from her home in Manchester, in the summer of 1940.  At first, she finds Elsie ‘and her country ways’ decidedly odd.  However, once the women come to know one another, a mutual understanding and dependence is formed.  Their life with one another is quiet, almost idyllic, until the peace is shattered by the arrival on Starlight Farm of someone from Rene’s past.  At this point, they face trials which endanger everything which they have built, ‘a life that has always kept others at a careful distance.’

The prologue, in which the figure of a solitary woman standing at a window is captured, is beautifully sculpted, and sets the tone of the rest of the novel.  Malik writes: ‘Closer, and you would see that she is waiting.  There is something of that slightly fidgety intensity, that unwilling patience.  A good deal of her life has been spent waiting, one way and another. She’ll carry on waiting, but from today the waiting will be different.’  Chapter one then opens with Elsie’s preparations for her new guest, and Rene’s journey.

Elsie has been alone in her familial home for some time; her parents and three brothers ‘died such a long time ago’, and her sisters have variously married and moved away.  The arrival of the Land Girl fills her with dread and uncertainty: ‘She was seeing everything double and she didn’t like it, it put her all at sea.  She pulled off her scarf and and rubbed her hands through her hair, trying to clear her thoughts.’  When Rene arrives, her first impressions of the place leave her a little doubtful too: ‘She found it hard to imagine a woman, or a man, living here on their own.  It seemed a little strange.  Yet she liked the soft red brick of the house, and the orchard with its shrunken fruit trees.’  Interesting dynamics are apparent between the protagonists as soon as they have become acquainted: ‘Rene found herself thinking back to that first afternoon.  She had offered her hand to Elsie, and Elsie had reached out hers but it wasn’t a greeting – Elsie had reached out as if she were trapped and needed to be pulled out, pulled free.’

As time goes on, and their anxiety settles, Malik writes of the women’s growing relationship with one another: ‘Elsie wasn’t quite like other people, but that didn’t matter to Rene.  Elsie, who had been to the pictures only twice, so long ago, and hated it; Elsie, who didn’t know how to gossip, who had never been to a dance or ever seen the sea; none of it mattered to Rene one bit, because she had fallen hook, line and sinker for Elsie’s lonely power.’  The friendship between Rene and Elsie grows quickly; they come to reveal things about themselves in embarrassment at first, and then with real feeling.  Both characters are unusual and believable.

Throughout, I enjoyed Malik’s writing; in the early few chapters, many of the gloriously structured sentences are filled with curious information about her characters.  I really liked the gentle way in which she introduced new topics into the story, particularly when these connected with the problems in the wider world.  She writes, for instance: ‘As is common when fates are being decided, the two women had no sense of gathering storm clouds.’  The sense of place which Malik crafts, and the way in which this has been woven throughout the novel, feels almost like a point of anchorage: ‘Elsie had known the canal all her life.  It was already falling into disrepair when the Bostons came to Starlight.  Now, for long stretches, the canal was a memory, an imprint: some overhanging branches where shape suggested a curve below, a patch of bricked walkway of a sudden uneasy flatness in the view ahead; Rene could pick out the weeping willows. And then you came upon the soft red curve of a broken bridge, a sudden hole-punched hole of black water, visible only for a moment.’  Malik’s authorial touch is gentle at times, and firm at moments of crisis; there is a lovely balance struck between the two.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a novel which has a quiet power.  A few reviews have mentioned that it starts almost too slowly, but I did not personally feel that this was the case.  Malik simply takes a great deal of care in setting her scenes and building the complex relationships between her main characters.  I found Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves a lovely, thoughtful, and immersive novel.  It is not a happy book, and it took a series of turns which I was not expecting, but this made it all the more compelling.

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One From the Archive: ‘Despised and Rejected’ by Rose Allatini *****

Rose Allatini’s 1918 novel, Despised and Rejected, is one of Persephone’s new titles for Spring 2018.  Allatini was an highly prolific author, publishing books under several pseudonyms; Despised and Rejected was first released under the name of A.T. Fitzroy.    Rereleased in Persephone’s distinctive dove grey covers a century after its original publication, Despised and Rejected is set during the First World War, and is described as a ‘gay pacifist novel’.  Persephone have highlighted its importance, calling it ‘one of the pioneering gay novels of the twentieth century.’  39693554

Despised and Rejected takes two characters as its focus: ‘a gay conscientious objector and his relationship with a young woman who (as he realises but she does not) is a lesbian.’  Composer Dennis Blackwood is the former of these, and Antoinette de Courcy, a young woman of French descent, the latter.

Of course, to the queasy and old-fashioned men of yesteryear, Despised and Rejected was deemed scandalous, although for its anti-war stance rather than its depictions of homosexuality.  Upon its publication, the novel sold eight hundred copies before it was deemed ‘morally unhealthy and most pernicious’.  The publisher, C.W. Daniel, was put on trial, fined, and ordered to surrender the remaining print run of two hundred copies.

The novel is constructed using a three-part structure; the first of these takes place just before the war, and the second and third during it.  Despised and Rejected opens in the Amberhurst Private Hotel in an undisclosed location; here, the Blackwood family are holidaying, and their son Dennis meets Antoinette.  The two are drawn together almost immediately, although Antoinette’s focus is firmly placed upon a secretive woman also staying at the hotel named Hester.  Like Dennis, Hester realises that Antoinette is sexually attracted to women, but Antoinette herself is naive in this respect.  Antoinette is just twenty-one.  As with Dennis, we are given hints and clues that she is attracted to her own sex, but she is unaware that there is a reason for her gravitation toward them, and the lack of feeling which kissing men inspires within her.

From the beginning, Allatini demonstrates that Dennis’ relationship with his father is fractious: ‘Dennis said nothing and set his lips tightly, as was his way when Mr Blackwood jarred upon his nerves more exquisitely than usual.  He disliked his father, disliked the whole coarse overbearing masculinity of the man.  There was between them an antagonism that was fundamental, and quite apart from the present source of grievance’.  His mother sets out to protect him at all times, but their relationship too is, in ways, problematic.  Dennis, she writes, ‘was always on the defensive, even with his mother.  Perhaps with his mother most of all, because he felt that she was most akin to him, and might at any moment come to touch the fringe of that secret world of his…  a world that must remain secret even from the mother who loved him as perhaps no other woman on earth would ever love him.’  This is the first hint given in the novel about Dennis’ homosexuality, something which is continually aware of within himself, but which he has never articulated to anyone around him.  Allatini shows that Mrs Blackwood realises there is something a little different about Dennis, but cannot quite connect the dots: ‘Perhaps he had nothing to tell.  Perhaps she only imagined that he wasn’t happy.  Artists were sometimes peculiar – she clutched at that – and her boy was an artist: perhaps that accounted for it.  Her reason, working in a peculiarly narrow despisedandrejected_newspaper_for_websitecircle, round and round, round and round, accepted this as the solution, and was at peace.  But her instinct, less narrow, more subtle, blindingly groping, refused to be thus pacified.  There must be – something.  But what?  What…?’

Dennis is revealed in the fragments of letters which he writes to Antoinette; this use of his own voice adds more depth to the novel.  He is frightfully ashamed of his own difference, and of his desires.  Allatini writes, ‘He must be for ever an outcast amongst men, shunned by them, despised and mocked by them.  He was maddened by fear and horror and loathing of himself.’  This element of the novel, which deals with Dennis’ feelings, is achingly human, as are his convictions when it comes to refusing to fight in the First World War.  With regard to this, ‘The thought of war inspired in him none of those feelings with which convention decreed that ever true Briton should be inspired…  The whole thing was damnable, and stupid, and cruel…  pretended that it was a noble thing, a glorious game, a game which every Englishman should be proud to be playing.’

Allatini’s descriptions are both vivid and charming.  Of a small, unnamed village in which Dennis and his friend Crispin stay whilst travelling through Devonshire, she writes: ‘… it has an old-world triangular village green, planted with giant oak trees, and enclosed on two sides by dear little thatched cottages with trim little gardens; and it has an ivy-clad church and the usual combination of Post Office and all-sorts shop, in which you may revel in the complex odour of boots, cheese, liquorice, soap, sawdust, biscuits, Fry’s chocolate and warm humanity.’  In one of his letters, Dennis writes to Antoinette, ‘We’re zig-zagging about the country in the most amazing style.  And I wish I could collected all the things I’ve loved most and bring them back to you.’

Despised and Rejected is a highly immersive novel, and an incredibly moving one at that.   Allatini’s writing is intelligent, stylish, and heartfelt.  She writes with clarity and sensitivity, in a way which which feels marvellously balanced.  She has such a deep understanding of her characters, and the problems which their true selves cause for them.  Allatini presents an incredibly strong, measured, and rousing argument for pacifism, discussing the horrors and futility which war brings, and the way in which they often create more problems when they solve.

Despite being published a century ago, Despised and Rejected feels like a novel of our time; it, above all, demonstrates the need for equality and understanding, as well as peace, both within the world and individually.  It is a book which we can learn an awful lot from.

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‘Carol’ by Patricia Highsmith ***

I have read rather a few of Patricia Highsmith’s books to date, beginning with her rather fabulous The Talented Mr Ripley series, and moving to her standalone crime novels more recently.  Whilst Carol, first published under a pseudonym as The Price of Salt upon its 1952 publication, has been on my radar for a long while, it was a recommendation from one of my favourite London bookshops, Gay’s the Word, which pushed me to pick it up.

9781408808979Carol felt, on the face of it, like a real step away from what I am used to with Highsmith’s work.  Graham Greene draws parallels between Carol and Highsmith’s more genre-based crime writing, however, stating that the author ‘created a world of her own, claustrophobic and irrational, which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger.’  Val McDermid, who wrote the introduction to the Bloomsbury edition which I read, agrees, writing that Carol ‘has the drive of a thriller but the imagery of a romance.’  The Sunday Times continues this theme, noting that the novel is ‘very recognizably Highsmith, full of tremor and of threat and of her peculiar genius for anxiety.’

The novel’s protagonist is Therese Belivet, a nineteen-year-old woman working as a sales assistant in a New York department store during the busy Christmas rush.  This store, Frankenberg’s, was ‘organized so much like a prison, it frightened her [Therese] now and then to realize she was a part of it.’  She is in the toy department one morning when a ‘beautiful, alluring woman in her thirties walks up to her counter.  Standing there, Therese is wholly unprepared for her first shock of love.’   The woman is Carol Aird, a ‘sophisticated, bored suburban housewife in the throes of a divorce and a custody battle for her only daughter.’  McDermid writes of their meeting: ‘There’s an instant spark of attraction between them but neither knows quite how to react.  They’re drawn to each other, trying for friendship, but unable to resist the deeper attraction.  Their flirtation with danger and desire makes for almost unbearable tension.’  Indeed, many of the scenes which ensue, particularly in the second part of the novel, feel close and claustrophobic.

At the moment in time that she meets Carol, Therese is engaged to a relatively sensible young man with prospects, and a wealthy family behind him.  He pales into comparison for Therese with the rather volatile Carol, whom Highsmith describes in the following manner when the women first meet: ‘She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist.  Her eyes were grey, colourless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by them, Therese could not look away…  The woman was looking at Therese, too, with a preoccupied expression, as if half her mind were on whatever it was she meant to buy here…  Then Therese saw her walk slowly towards the counter, heard her heart stumble to catch up with the moment it had let pass, and felt her face grow hot as the woman came nearer and nearer.’

As previously mentioned, Carol was published under a pseudonym as, despite Highsmith’s authorial success, ‘her mainstream publishers Harper didn’t want to because it dealt explicitly with a lesbian relationship’ (McDermid).  The novel went on to sell over a million copies in the United States alone when the paperback version of The Price of Salt was released in 1953.  This success, writes McDermid, ‘didn’t happen by accident.  When Carol appeared, it didn’t so much full a niche as a gaping void.  Back then, the only images of lesbians in literature were as miserable inverts or scandalous denizens of titillating pop fiction.’  The novel, somewhat surprisingly, was not published under Highsmith’s name until 1991.

Highsmith captures emotion and sensation deftly.  On the first meeting between the women outside the confines of the department store, for instance, Therese ‘wanted to thrust the table aside and spring into her arms, to bury her nose in the green and gold scarf that was tied close about her neck.  Once the backs of their hands brushed on the table, and Therese’s skin there felt separately alive now, and rather burning.  Therese could not understand it, but it was so.’  Highsmith writes of Therese’s innocence, and her sexual awakening, with such understanding.  Her prose is, as usual, quite matter-of-fact, but there was some great writing included.  I particularly enjoyed her descriptions of New York, and the attention to detail which she paid to clothing.

Whilst I found the premise of Carol highly intriguing, I do not feel as though my interest in the story was sustained throughout.  The first part of the novel contained some comparatively dull scenes, which contained snatches of oddly stilted conversations, and where the characters felt a little inconsistent.  The second half certainly picked up though, and the tension in this part of the book was heightened considerably.  Indeed, this second part had a better pace to it, and took twists and turns which I was not expecting.  I must admit that I did not really like any of the characters in Carol; the protagonists were too self-absorbed and largely uncaring, and some of the secondary characters felt more like caricatures than realistic beings.  Regardless, Carol is, of course, well worth a read; it is undeniably a pivotal piece of LGBT literature.

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‘Reality, Reality’ by Jackie Kay ***

Of Scottish author Jackie Kay’s work, I have to date read two poetry collections, Bantam and The Adoption Papers.  I liked the core ideas of both collections, but was ultimately disappointed by them.  For me, neither quite came together as well as I was expecting.  I was still keen, however, to pick up some of her fiction whilst still living in Scotland, and decided to get myself a copy of Reality, Reality from Fopp.  This, her third collection of short stories, was first published in 2012.

All of the stories within Reality, Reality focus upon women, and also on variations of loss.  It is, says its blurb, a 9780330515726collection ‘full of compassion, generosity, sorrow and joy’, and brings together fifteen ‘unforgettable stories [which] explore the power of the imagination to make things real…’.  The Observer comments that ‘Existential questions of contemporary life are at the heart of this hilarious, heartbreaking collection that skilfully slots large ideas into small squares’, and The Times calls it ‘spiky’ and ‘off-the-wall’.

Somewhat unusual occurrences happen in some, but not all, of these stories.  In the title tale, the protagonist, Stef, imagines that she has been picked for the semi-finals of a cookery programme, and attempts to cook culinary delights within set time limits, critiquing herself harshly as she does so.  ‘These are not my clothes’ is narrated by a woman living with memory loss, shut within a facility where those around her have faces ‘like the empty bowls, lined and ridged with the remains of things.’  ‘The First Lady of Song’ is told from the perspective of a 300-year-old woman, who has been reincarnated as many different famous female singers throughout history.  As even this short list demonstrates, Reality, Reality comprises some tales which are realist, and others which have a touch of magical realism to them.

Some of the tales here are sad; others are hopeful and joyous.  ‘Grace and Rose’, for example, is a brief story told from the perspective of two women, who have been a couple for twenty years, and are finally being allowed to marry in Scotland.  There are some very thoughtful, considered moments in several of the stories.  When the narrator of ‘The First Lady of Song’ recounts all of her children who have passed away from various diseases over time – ‘typhus, whooping cough, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, cholera, small pox, influenza’ – for instance, she goes on to reflect and lament about the fact that she is still living: ‘It was never for me, death, never going to be handed to me on a lovely silver platter, not the gurgle or the snap or the thud or the whack or the slide of it, death.  No.  I was consigned to listening to the peal of church bells barely change over the stretch of years.’  This was a clever and quite original story.  Sadly, some of the others collected here were less engaging, due to the similar narrative voices which were used, or to Kay’s use of overexaggerated dialects.

Some of these stories I connected with, and others I did not.  Whilst I liked the real variation in plot which Kay gives, I did find the less memorable, realist stories to be quite similar on the whole.  Kay does give a voice to those in the LGBT community, an element which feels so important in this collection, but I did not feel as though their relationships were often explored enough.  I found Kay’s writing a little inconsistent; sometimes, as in ‘These are not my clothes’, it is poignant and beautiful, but at others, it falls a little flat.  Regardless, Reality, Reality is an inclusive collection; Kay has considered women from different walks of life, and who are at different stages in their lives.  There are a lot of themes which can be identified here, from loneliness and ageing to poverty and human trafficking.

Despite the moments of brilliance in Reality, Reality, and a couple of very realistic character creations, I did find the collection a little brief, and on the whole underdeveloped.  Whilst this is by no means a bad short story collection, I failed to connect to many of the stories, and a lot of them simply did not personally appeal.  I do not feel as though many of the tales are going to be at all memorable, and the stories which deal with the everyday just did not stand out for me.  I’m not going to rush out to read any more of Kay’s work, as I feel as though I’ve given it a fair go now.  Sadly, Reality, Reality was, for me, rather underwhelming.

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‘My Sister, the Serial Killer’ by Oyinkan Braithwaite **

Whilst Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer, is not a book club pick of mine until far later in the year, I was intrigued to begin it early after it was longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.  It is also a book which I have seen on so many blogs and BookTube channels, and which is receiving a lot of hype.  The Guardian, for instance, call it ‘a literary sensation’.  To me, the novel sounded very intriguing, and I expected that it would offer a clever blend of contemporary satire and thriller.

9781786495976I enjoyed the opening of My Sister, the Serial Killer, which begins in rather a gripping way.  Set in Lagos, the entirety is told from the perspective of a Nigerian nurse named Korede.  Her younger sister, Ayoola, has had several boyfriends who have met sticky ends.  When, at the outset of the novel, Korede is told that Ayoola has killed her current boyfriend, her reaction is: ‘I had hoped I would never hear those words again.’ She helps Ayoola to transport his body ‘to where we took the last one – over the bridge and into the water.  At least he won’t be lonely.’  Later in the novel, she muses upon why Ayoola feels the need to kill her partners; she pleads self defence, but Korede doubts her: ‘Victim?  Is it mere coincidence that Ayoola has never had a mark on her, from any of these incidents with these men, not even a bruise?’

Korede is practical and dependable.  She helps her sister in many ways, from giving her advice about how much of a social media break she should take in order to come across as a grieving girlfriend and not a suspect, to cleaning up murder scenes.  Whilst Ayoola is the dramatic and self-obsessed sister, Korede is calculating, cold, and emotionless.  She demonstrates very little compassion toward her sister’s victims, and seems to almost revel in the fact that she is able to use her handy little cleaning tips and tricks to get blood out of carpets, and the like.  When she turns up to the first crime scene, for example, she reflects: ‘Perhaps a normal person would be angry, but what I feel now is a pressing need to dispose of the body.  When I got here, we carried him to the boot of my car, so that I was free to scrub and mop without having to countenance his cold stare.’  She reveals the levels of pride which she takes in her work: ‘I don’t know whether or not they have the tech for a thorough crime scene investigation in Lagos, but Ayoola could never clean up as efficiently as I can.’

Korede places so much emphasis within the novel about her plainness and her sister’s beauty.  Of her sister, she says: ‘Hers is the body of a music video vixen, a scarlet woman, a succubus.  It belies her angelic face.’  She references how loved her sister is so many times that it begins to get tiresome.  Despite Korede’s respectable job, few people actually seem to respect her.  Her family take her for granted, people at work largely ignore her, and her voice sometimes goes unheard.  I could not warm to Korede at all, and did not find her convincing enough as a character.  Her narrative voice was too ordinary to add a great deal to the story, and those moments in which she did become more interesting due to her actions were not focused upon.

The sense of place created within My Sister, the Serial Killer is a little disappointing.  When Korede is sitting in the doctor’s office, for instance, she says that the doctor ‘rarely puts on the air conditioner and his window is usually open.  He told me he likes to hear Lagos while he works – the never-ending car horns, the shouts of hawkers and tires screeching on the road.  Now Lagos listens to him.’  We are given mainly the sound of Lagos; its smell, and often its sights, have been largely ignored by the author, and thus an important sensory element is missing.  There was such an opportunity to display Nigeria’s capital here, and the way in which Korede and Ayoola have been affected by their environment, but little is explored aside from the confines of their house.

Sadly, the intriguing beginning was not carried through the entire novel, and it became rather staid and stale.  My Sister, the Serial Killer is not quite the satirical work which I was hoping for.  I found both the tone and pacing inconsistent, and it did not capture my attention after the first quarter or so.  The first few chapters held a lot of promise, but I did find that it quickly shifted to the more mundane elements of Korede’s life.  I did enjoy the way in which it was told in very short chapters at first, but after a while, it felt a little too choppy and disconnected in consequence.  It was as though some of the chapters had very little to say.   The prose, too, is a little plain and matter-of-fact at times, and there are no real moments of emotion within it.  Instead, the characters feel largely flat and unconvincing.

The sibling rivalry between Korede and Ayoola has been looked at, but the relationship which both women have with their mother has been left largely unexplored.  I did not learn a great deal about their mother; she is a secondary figure, who is always wafting around the peripheries, but never really becomes solid.  She seems solely focused upon finding a nice, wealthy husband for Ayoola, but gives none of the same consideration to Korede.  I also feel as though there could have been more conflict between the sisters here; their conversations and squabbles often feel a little flat, and there is not as much justification as I would have liked for Korede’s opinions of her sister.

There are no real conclusions drawn here, and in several ways, My Sister, the Serial Killer felt more like a first or second draft than a finished novel.  Some of the tropes which Braithwaite has chosen to use were a little obvious and overdone – for instance, the good-looking younger sibling whom everyone seems to prefer, and the absent father figure.  There is very little focus, too, placed upon the murders, or Ayoola’s motives.  I expected the novel to be far darker than it was.

Had the plot been tightened up somewhat, and some of the more superfluous and repetitive chapters been removed, I feel that I would have had a far more enjoyable, and memorable, reading experience.  My Sister, the Serial Killer had a lot of potential, which I do not feel was fully realised.  Whilst the novel is readable, it felt quite underwhelming, and found myself expecting a lot more from it than it delivered.

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