‘Palace of the Drowned’ by Christine Mangan ****

I very much enjoyed Christine Mangan’s debut novel, Tangerine, and was looking forward to reading her second, Palace of the Drowned. As in her first book, Palace of the Drowned features a female character abroad in a modern historical setting, and an element of taut mystery.

Forty-two-year-old novelist Frances Croy, known as Frankie, is ‘working to leave the previous year behind’, and has escaped to Venice. Here, living in a crumbling but charming palazzo belonging to friends, who turn up some way into the narrative, Frankie ‘finds comfort in the emptiness of Venice in winter, in the absence of others.’ Set during the historic flood of 1966, the worst which was ever experienced in the city, she ‘struggles to make sense of what is and is not the truth, ultimately culminating in a tragedy that leaves her questioning her own role and responsibility – as well as her sanity.’

Palace of the Drowned opens in Rome in the November of 1966, where Frankie has found herself after the events in Venice: ‘She wondered what the guard might see if he were to return her gaze – an innocent tourist momentarily overcome by the beauty of Rome, or something closer to the truth.’ After this short chapter, the narrative shifts back to October in Venice. The sense of place which Mangan builds is striking: ‘It was hypnotic, the lapping of the green water up and over the cobbles, the smell of brine surrounding her, so that instead of taking a step back, she had moved forward, as if to welcome it. The spell was broken only when a local had appeared in one of the windows, calling out something to her in Venetian.’

I really enjoy the attention which the author pays to small details; for example: ‘Frankie felt suddenly prim, older than her years, with her short blonde wisps of hair pinned tightly back, kirby grips scraping against her scalp, her face bare except for some hastily applied eyeliner.’

Soon after she arrives, without her friend who was supposed to be travelling with her in tow, Frankie meets Gilly, who introduces herself as the daughter of a ‘publishing acquaintance’.

As in Tangerine, Mangan builds tension with a great deal of skill. Each sentence is taut and carefully crafted, particularly as the narrative builds to its climax: ‘It happened quickly then. The feeling of something around her throat, the grip tightening so that she could not breathe… She needed an exit – a chance to catch her breath, to let her skin cool, for already she could feel it, the sharp pinpricks of heat as they crept across her skin, first on the inside of her elbows and towards her wrists, and then on her back, her chest, crawling up, reaching for her throat.’

I believe that Mangan is quite an underrated writer. I hadn’t heard anything about this novel until I spotted it on my library’s website, and I remember next to no coverage of Tangerine upon its publication, either. Palace of the Drowned really drew me in, and I was keen to keep turning the pages and uncover the mysteries of this cleverly crafted novel. The characters Mangan has created are excellently developed, and the scenes their actions play out against are strongly imagined. A real strength of Palace of the Drowned is in its immaculate pacing, and it kept me guessing throughout.


‘Charlotte Mew and Her Friends’ by Penelope Fitzgerald ****

Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my favourite writers, and I am sadly reaching the end of her oeuvre. However, there are a couple of titles which have proven themselves rare enough that I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy in the past. Thank goodness that my library’s county store had a copy of the biographical Charlotte Mew and Her Friends!

I have not read a great deal of poet Charlotte Mew’s work – again, it has been rather difficult to find – but I have very much enjoyed what I have been able to find. Virginia Woolf called Mew ‘the greatest living poetess’, and she has been admired by writers as diverse as Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, Edith Sitwell, and Siegfried Sassoon.

Mew was born in 1869, and grew up in ‘genteel poverty’ in Bloomsbury, London. Fitzgerald focuses, in the opening chapter, on her father, Fred, who worked as an architect. As a child, Mew is described as ‘the tiny Lotti, curly, brilliant, irresistible and defiant’. Her life was quite difficult, in some respects; two of her siblings, Henry and Freda, were tormented by mental health struggles, and spent much of their lives in institutions.

Carefully selected quotes and stanzas of Mew’s have been placed throughout. Fitzgerald offers measured observations and clear-eyed assertions about particular poems, setting these against events which Mew experienced. She also masterfully uses wider social context to explore Mew’s choices and lifestyle, writing: ‘She never left home for long, never became – for example – a suffragette or even a suffragist, never made any attempt to claim political or sexual freedom or defend herself either against society or her own nature. On the contrary, with fierce self-suppression she inherited the fate of the world’s minorities and suffered as an outsider, an outsider, that is, even to herself.’ Fitzgerald goes on: ‘Though Charlotte never wanted to get rid of her responsibilities, she preferred not to be answerable to anyone. She needed, in fact, not independence but freedom.’

Charlotte Mew and Her Friends is filled with a wealth of such charming details: ‘Certain colours, particularly white and red, always obsessed Charlotte Mew. She was more sensitive to colour than she wanted to be. She “knew how jewels tasted”.’

On reading Charlotte Mew and Her Friends, I am completely certain that Fitzgerald could have turned her hand to any subject and made it incredibly compelling; she handles, marvellously, every character and genre she explored. It perhaps goes without saying for anyone at all familiar with Fitzgerald’s work that her research is thorough, and she weaves everything together so deftly. Fitzgerald was the perfect author to handle this biography, with her clever turns of phrase, and the power of her prose. It feels as though she has such an understanding of her subject throughout.

I read the entirety of this book with such interest. Mew is a fascinating subject for such a character study, struggling with her lesbianism, and turned down twice by women she was infatuated with. Fitzgerald explores these relationships, and others – her tumultuous friendship with author May Sinclair, and gaining an ‘elderly admirer’ from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, for example – with empathy and understanding.


One From the Archive: ‘Lavinia’ by George Sand ****

First published in 2017.


George Burnham Ives’ 1902 translation has been used in Michael Wallmer’s lovely edition of George Sand’s Lavinia.  Sand was an incredibly prolific author; her oeuvre is something which most writers can only dream of.  Her work spans four decades, being published as she was between 1831 and 1876.  Lavinia is one of her earliest books, in fact, and was first published in its original French in 1833.

After a young and rather well-to-do English traveller, Sir Lionel Bridgemont, abandons well-born Portuguese Lavinia Buenafe, he breaks her heart.  She consequently marries a nobleman, and is soon widowed.  Some time later, after asking Sir Lionel – himself just about to be married – to return the love letters which she sent him many moons ago, she finds that they are near one another in the Pyrenees.  They thus decide to meet, and along with their present-day story, elements of their past are revealed.

Lavinia’s cousin, Sir Henry, who has accompanied his friend Sir Lionel to the Pyrenees, adds some humour to the whole.  When Sir Lionel berates him for telling Lavinia that her letters were in his constant possession, he says: ‘”Good, Lionel, good!…  I like to see you in a fit of temper; it makes you poetic.  At such times, you are yourself a stream, a river of metaphors, a torrent of eloquence, a reservoir of allegories…”‘.  Sir Henry has rather an adoring, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, view of Lavinia, calling her: ‘”… as fresh as the flowers, lovely as the angels, lively as a bird, light-hearted, rosy, stylish, and coquettish…”‘.  Sir Lionel is really his antithesis, in speech at least, holding as he does a very conventional, if amusingly relayed, view of womankind: ‘”… In the opinion of every man of sense, a lawful wife should be a gentle and placid helpmeet, an Englishwoman to the very depths of her being, not very susceptible to love, incapable of jealousy, fond of sleep, and sufficiently addicted to the excessive use of black tea to keep her faculties in a conjugal state…”‘.

Lavinia is a slim novella at its modest 71 pages; perhaps deceptively so, as there is quite a lot of depth to it.  The descriptions are perhaps the real strength of the piece: ‘… the lovely valley, bathed in sparkling dew, floated in the light and formed a sheet of gold in a frame of black marble’.  Lavinia is beautifully written, and so well translated; it is a real treat to settle down for an hour or two with.  There are amusing asides which pepper the text, and make it feel far more contemporary than it is in actuality.  There is a wonderful pace to the novella, and the structure of one singular chapter works well with regard to its length.  Strong and thoughtful, Lavinia is perhaps most interesting when one looks at the shifting relationships and passing of time within it.


‘Cold Nights of Childhood’ by Tezer Özlü ****

I borrowed Turkish author Tezer Özlü’s classic novella, Cold Nights of Childhood, from the library. Originally published in 1980, and translated into English by Maureen Freely, the edition which I read also features an introduction by contemporary Turkish author Ayşegül Savas.

The unnamed narrator of Cold Nights of Childhood is a young woman ‘between lovers’, who has spent her recent life ‘in and out of psychiatric wards, where she is forced to undergo electroshock treatments.’ At first, she lives between Berlin and Paris, but decides to return to Istanbul ‘in search of freedom, happiness and new love’. Along with her present-day self, we see her childhood, spent largely in the Turkish provinces, ‘and the smoke-filled cafés of capital cities’.

On the opening page, the narrator tries to capture her place in time and space, recognising how much has changed for her since childhood: ‘We’re no longer in the provinces. We’ve abandoned these rambling orchards and large wooden houses to their silent towns. And we’ve abandoned those silent towns to the 1950s.’ From the outset, the sense of place is strong, as is the picture we are given of the narrator’s struggles with her mental health. She recalls that when she was young, ‘Thoughts of death chase after me. Day and night, I think about killing myself. My reasons unclear. To carry on with life, or to die – either will do. A vague disquiet, nothing more.’

Cold Nights of Childhood is filled with a cast of curious characters. Of the grandmother, who lives with the narrator and her family, our protagonist recalls: ‘Her eyes are blue-grey. It’s been seventy years since she last slept with a man. She loves life. Nothing interests her more than her own funeral.’

I appreciated the historical context including throughout, and the way in which the narrator interpreted pivotal events during her childhood. She tells us, for example, ‘I’m in the youngest class in middle school. Stalin’s death is celebrated like a holiday. We dance on maps. Plant tombstones for Stalin and the Soviet Union. Eisenhower is an angel.’

This story of Özlü’s is just over 70 pages in length, and was written over the span of a year. It was her first work of fiction, and the second of three books published during her short lifetime. What I most enjoyed about this novella are the blurred lines between the present-day narrator at the end of the 1970s, and her past selves. I also really admired the stream-of-consciousness quality of the writing: ‘This city never ends. I can go for kilometres without seeing anything to mark a beginning or an end. It has to sleep somewhere, somewhere beyond all these woodlands and lakes. I can almost see it. Nights here are like day. At night the sky goes grey, but never darker. Then it’s day again.’

The introduction discusses Savas’ wish to be a writer, and her subsequent exploration of Turkish literature: ‘The reading materials unravelled steadily, each writer connected to the next, building an impenetrable wall of influence and fraternity, in which I had to try and wedge myself…’. Of this novella, Savas writes: ‘… it confirmed for me that [Özlü’s] work didn’t belong to any school or style, that her voice was uniquely her own: consciousness distilled into narrative form.’ Savas gives a good amount of background information about the author, drawing parallels between this fictional story and Özlü’s own life: ‘… the interest of the book is not so much its autobiographical mirror but the way that life is endowed with an electric mutability. Madness, after all, disrupts the temporal narrative. Here, time is broken and reshuffled through the sharp edge of consciousness.’

Despite its brevity, Cold Nights of Childhood offers a rich reading experience. I found the style of the narrative, made up of a lot of interlinking fragments, rather beguiling. This is a novella which I would highly recommend.


‘Reconciliation’ by Naoya Shiga ***

Translated by Ted Goossen, Naoya Shiga’s Reconciliation is considered a classic of Japanese literature. First published in 1917, and written over the course of just 5 weeks, this novella is described as ‘an understated masterpiece of the Japanese “I novel” tradition (a confessional literary form).’ Shiga was the ‘most celebrated practitioner’ of autobiographical fiction in the country, and went by the ‘god of prose’.

The Translator’s Note, written by Goossen, adds a great deal of context, and information about the author himself. Goossen comments that the novella is ‘highly factual, at least on the surface.’ It was written ‘immediately after the culmination of the drama it describes’: the author’s firstborn daughter dying when she was just a baby, the birth of his second child, and the illness of his beloved grandmother.

For Goossen, the novella ‘is charged with an elemental force that renders the distinction between so-called fact and fiction quite irrelevant.’ One of the ‘most striking features’ of this story for its translator is ‘the close relationship between life and art… [It is] a novella about being unable to write, strewn with references to failed or abandoned works.’ He then goes on to speak about the difficulties of translating such deceptively simple prose.

At just 137 pages long, Reconciliation manages to pack in a great deal. It unfolds with the following opening sentence: ‘This July 31st marked the first anniversary of the death of my eldest child – she had lived just fifty-six days.’ At this point in the narrative, his second child is just 9 days old, and he is going to visit his daughter’s grave.

We learn from the outset that the narrator, Junkichi, has a difficult relationship with his father: ‘I personally disliked father. This was more than the inescapable tangle of emotion that binds most parents and children, I felt: at the root of our mutual animosity was a basic disharmony. But although I found it relatively easy to talk about these feelings, I found I couldn’t express them on paper. I didn’t want to use my writing to emotionally purge myself.’

I found the protagonist unlikeable, prone as he is to cruel outbursts, most of which are directed toward his wife. He shouts things like: ‘“If I were the kind of man who meekly gave in to whatever his father said, I’d never have married you!”’

The prose style is easy to read, as is the first person perspective. There are some distressing scenes here; there is a lot of detail, for instance, about his daughter’s illness and passing, and later his grandmother’s illness. Reconciliation is filled with rumination, but there is far less emotion on display than I would have expected. There are moments of care and sorrow, as displayed here, but these are few and far between in the narrative: ‘After the baby died, our house suddenly became very lonely. When we took our chairs out to the garden to enjoy the cool night air, the distant cries of forest birds drifted across the lake to us… Moments like this were unbearable.’ After this, however, the narrator recalls the following: ‘… what my wife had feared most was seeing a baby about the age of our dead child. I myself was quite unmoved by such a prospect. Sometimes when we were out together she would slip away without telling me. I would usually find someone there was holding a baby.’

In this translation, the narrator is very matter-of-fact. This is something I often find with literature translated from the Japanese; it is often stoic, in my experience, and not at all effusive. Whilst I found it interesting to read something from this period, and I did find the family dynamic an interesting element, I lacked a lot of sympathy for our protagonist, and was somewhat glad to see the back of him.


‘The Hero of This Book’ by Elizabeth McCracken ****

McCracken has been one of my absolute favourite authors since I first read The Giant’s House back in 2009. She is sadly not an author whom I hear much, if anything, about from other readers. However, I was thrilled when I heard that she was releasing her newest work, The Hero of This Book.

This short novel takes place 10 months after the death of the unnamed narrator’s mother, at a time when she decides to walk ‘across London on a quiet Sunday’. Set in August 2019, the book opens: ‘This was the summer before the world stopped. We thought it was pretty bad, though in retrospect there was joy to be found.’ The woman, a writer, ‘recalls all that made her complicated mother extraordinary.’

The narrator, a teacher of creative writing, has travelled from her home in Texas to London, one of the places she had previously visited with her mother. In August, ‘a heat wave had bent train rails and shut down art exhibitions and turned the English into pink, panting mammals.’ Her mother’s house, in Massachusetts, is in the process of being sold: ‘Let it disappear without me noticing,’ the narrator pleads. ‘It wasn’t a haunted house but a haunting one. It had haunted me a long time.’

Her mother, although not physically present, peppers the narrative. Our protagonist comments: ‘My mother had achieved a lot in her life, mostly by ignoring the muttering people who suggested that she might be incapable of things because of her body or gender or religion. She was proudly aware of the things she couldn’t do: spell, navigate.’ She goes on to reminisce about the somewhat difficult relationship they shared, particularly with regard to scenes which unfolded in hospital, and her mother’s lack of mobility: ‘Only her wit and her laugh were quick.’

The Hero of This Book is incredibly introspective, frequently exposing the narrator’s deepest feelings: ‘There are certain emotions available to me only when I am alone, minor longings and notions, a wish to filch and misbehave. This is either my truest self or my most artificial, constructed as it is without a fear of contradiction.’ Later: ‘Like many people, I felt most conspicuous when most invisible; the terror of suddenly springing into view.’ I warmed so much to our protagonist, particularly when McCracken gave this considered description of her: ‘I am a short person, like my mother before me, and old, and stout, too short to ride most bicycles meant for adults, too short to reach things off the top shelves in grocery stores, and too short to throw a flank onto a barstool and sit upon it. My mother raised me to be proud of my height in the way other parents raise children to be proud of their heritage.’

The observations which McCracken makes of place particularly are poetic, and London is treated as a character in its own right: ‘All the London visits of my life were layered over one another like posters pasted up on a city wall. As I went through the city, I experienced all of these trips at one time, sometimes worn away so I could clearly see the earliest one, sometimes quite thick so I could feel the buildup of travel, a kind of blurred, accumulated familiarity.’

I sank into The Hero of This Book, savouring every word. This is an incredibly thoughtful character study, and of the somewhat tumultuous relationship between both characters. McCracken’s writing renders her narrative both present and immediate. There is also an interesting exploration of author and character, too, as the book progresses: ‘Why do I write?’ a fictional McCracken asks. ‘To try to get human beings on a page without the use of vivisection or preservatives or a spiritualist’s props, to make them seem lively still.’ If you can, read this in as few sittings as possible; you will not regret being so immersed in this pensive novel.


One Author, Two Books: ‘The Adversary’ and ‘Other Lives But Mine’ by Emmanuel Carrère

The Adversary ****
I really enjoy true crime as a genre, and after reading Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, I have been making more of a concerted effort to read it. I was swept into Emmanuel Carrere’s The Adversary immediately. Throughout, the author recounts the case of Jean-Claude Romand, a pathological liar, who masqueraded as a doctor for 18 years. He killed his wife, Florence, and children, Antoine and Caroline, before going on to murder his parents and their dog, in the Alps in January 1993, just as his deception was about to be found out. He also tried to kill his mistress.

I read a great deal of this whilst sitting in the sunshine, which seemed an odd contrast to the dark and complex story which Carrere unwinds. The information here has been well handled, and the whole is translated wonderfully. Carrere throughout is an observer; he writes about how the case makes him feel at different points, and how he views Romand. His account is a human and an open one, and he pulls together a timeline of Romand’s crimes, as well as his trial as it unfolds. The Adversary is a great example of the true crime genre, and a highly recommended read.

Other Lives But Mine ***

Emmanuel Carrère and his partner, journalist Hélène, were on the verge of separating when they travelled to Sri Lanka over Christmas 2004. With their two small sons in tow, they were taken aback when the tsunami struck, taking with it their friend’s young daughter, Juliette. At the same time, Hélène’s beloved sister, back in France, has been given a terminal cancer diagnosis.

Translated from the original French by Linda Coverdale, Other Lives But Mine begins with the shock of the tsunami, ‘documenting the dramatic effects that [both] deaths have on those around them.’ The author goes on to chart several different elements, such as the legal practice of Hélène’s sister’s colleague, which I personally found less interesting.

I appreciated the author’s descriptions, which are striking in their poetry. He captures the brooding seconds before the tsunami strikes vividly: ‘The next scene: a small gathering of guests and staff on a terrace at the end of the hotel grounds, looking out over the ocean. Curiously enough, nothing seems amiss at first… Then you start to notice how strange things really are. The water seems so far away… There is no sound; no breath of air rustles the fronds of the coconut palms.’ After the water has struck, wreaking its havoc, he notices: ‘The moment we pass the hill and reach the plain, we discover that to one side everything is normal – trees, flowers, low walls, small shops – while on the other it’s sheer devastation, a mire of blackish mud like a lava flow.’

Other Lives But Mine depicts, of course, an important and quite poignant reflection of an horrific natural disaster. Had the prose focused solely on this, I would have found it far more engaging. However, despite the breadth of topics here, Carrère is undoubtedly skilled at linking together quite different topics, and moving between them.


One From the Archive: ‘The Body: A Guide for Occupants’ by Bill Bryson *****

First published in 2021.

Like many readers, I very much enjoy Bill Bryson’s non-fiction work.  I picked up his newest publication, The Body: A Guide for Occupants having not read any of his writing for such a long time, and was so pleased that I did.  I was reminded once more of how warm his prose is, and how fascinating his subjects.


Many of Bryson’s books are essentially travel writing, in which he writes about countries and regions which he has lived or travelled within – the United States, United Kingdom, and Africa are just three examples.  The Body is something a little different to these personal geographies, though.  It is far more science-based than much of his work, and does not include many personal stories, something which his books tend to be built upon.  It looks inward, trying to decipher what really makes a human being.

The Body has been split into many chapters, each of which focuses upon a distinctive part of the human body.  These range from ‘The Immune System’ and ‘The Brain’ to ‘Into the Nether Regions’.  These chapters are incredibly thorough; there is not an element of the body which has not been explored in some way.  He moves seamlessly from one topic to another.  With his chapter on the skin, for instance, he moves from bacteria found on the skin to the phenomenon of itching, and then the reasons as to why we lose hair as we age, all in less than two pages.

Bryson writes about so many things here, including the beginning of forensic science; microbes and proteins, and their functions and uses within the body; viruses; advances in medicine; evolutionary changes within human anatomy; how different parts of us age, and the consequences felt; the myriad benefits of exercise; and the wonder found within the structure of our bones.  He writes about so many things that are known about the human body, and also the surprising number of elements which remain a mystery.  Bryson introduces several medical conundrums, interesting cases which cannot be solved.

Bryson has chosen to begin The Body with rather a fascinating chapter, entitled ‘How to Build a Human’, which calculates how expensive it would be to procure all of the elements which make up the human body – clue: a lot.  This memorable prologue, as it were, sets the tone for the book, and feels perfectly placed.

As ever, Bryson’s writing in The Body is both absorbing and accessible.  He grapples with complex ideas throughout the book, but presents everything in a way which can be read and understood by newcomers to this subject.  He introduces myriad facts in marvellous ways, which really make one think; for instance, ‘In the second or so since you started this sentence, your body has made a million red blood cells.’  One can see from the outset that Bryson clearly has quite a passion for this subject, and this shines throughout, as does his humour.  Throughout, Bryson consults experts in different fields, and also mentions a lot of books which focus upon biology along the way.

The Body is a book which one can learn, unsurprisingly, a great deal from.  I have always been fascinated by biology and the human body, and have read a few books on the subject before, but I found myself learning new facts throughout.  Although there is such a great deal packed into the pages of The Body, and a great deal of impeccable research has clearly been done, it never feels saturated with information, and can easily be read from cover to cover.  The Body is, all in all, a fact-lover’s dream, which demonstrates how wonderful the human body is, in all of its strangeness.

I will end this review with a passage which I, personally, found fascinating: ‘The most remarkable part of all is your DNA.  You have a metre of it packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single fine strand it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto.  Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system.  You are in the most literal sense cosmic.’


‘The Incendiaries’ by R.O. Kwon ***

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon is yet another title which had been buried on my enormous to-read list since its publication in 2018. I finally got around to reading it at the start of 2023… Of this debut novel, Celeste Ng commented: ‘In dazzlingly acrobatic prose, R.O. Kwon explores the link between faith and fanaticism, passion and violence, the rational and the unknowable.’ Lauren Groff calls it: ‘… a God-haunted, wilful, strange book written with a kind of savage elegance.’

Our protagonists are Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall; they meet one another when they have just enrolled in a prestigious college in upstate New York. Phoebe is reeling from her mother’s recent death, which she believes she caused, and is ‘increasingly drawn into a religious group – a secretive cult tied to North Korea’. Will is a ‘misfit scholarship boy’ who describes himself as a ‘juvenile born-again’, and who has transferred from a Bible college; of course, he swiftly falls in love with Phoebe, but ‘struggles to confront the obsession consuming the one he loves and the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape.’ There is a plot twist of sorts, in which Phoebe disappears, and which everyone has to come to terms with.

The Incendiaries is comprised of a series of short chapters, told from different perspectives. In the first of these, Will’s, he says: ‘But this is where I start having trouble, Phoebe… You once told me I hadn’t even tried to understand. So, here I am, trying.’ The second character Kwon focuses on is John Leal, essentially the current ‘leader’ of the cult. Leal was ‘kidnapped by North Korean agents’ whilst helping ‘to smuggle Korean refugees toward asylum in Seoul’, and ‘thrown into a prison camp outside of Pyeongyang.’

Kwon explores some serious topics here, using punchy prose to do so. This worked well at some points; at others, I felt the narrative lacked a little emotion. Where Kwon’s writing really shone was in describing music, particularly Phoebe’s piano playing: ‘Fingers rippled, gaining speed… She came to life… It ached, and I could imagine the walls of this house falling down, Noxhurst flattened, the rest of the world blown to nothing until it was just Phoebe, still holding this single, light note.’

Viewed as a character study, The Incendiaries is a curious book. Will and Phoebe are very different in their characters and temperaments, and I read their interactions with interest. Kwon spends rather a lot of the narrative setting up their relationship, and the major events of the blurb do not occur until over three-quarters of the way through. Kwon is a skilled writer, particularly with descriptions of people and place, but I did not find this novel quite as absorbing as I imagined I would.


One From the Archive: ‘Women Talking’ by Miriam Toews ****

First published in 2020.

I have read, and very much enjoyed, almost all of Miriam Toews’ books to date, and was keen to pick up her newest novel, Women Talking.  Lauren Groff, one of my all-time favourite authors, declares the novel ‘an astonishment, a volcano of a novel…  No other book I’ve read in the past year has spoken so lucidly about our current moment, and yet none has felt so timeless.’


Women Talking is a fictional representation of a true and shocking story; it is Toews’ ‘imagined response to these real events’.  In the remote Mennonite community of Melotschina in Bolivia, between 2005 and 2009, more than one hundred girls and women were ‘knocked unconscious and raped repeatedly by what many thought were ghosts or demons’.  The women’s accounts were ‘dismissed as “wild female imagination”.’  Many men accused them of making up stories in order to mask the adultery which they were so obviously committing…  Later, though, it was confirmed that eight men from the closely related gene pool of the colony ‘had been using an animal anesthetic to knock their victims unconscious and rape them.’  In 2011, the men were convicted, but in 2013, it was reported that sexual abuse was still occurring within the community.

As in the real community, Toews’ women are illiterate, and have little to no concept of the world outside of their own community.  Eight women, who represent three generations from two families, the Loewens and the Friesens, ‘meet secretly in a hayloft to decide how to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.’  This concept is a simple yet all-encompassing one.

The minutes of the meeting are recounted by our narrator, a teacher named August Epp, the only male character who features in a positive capacity in the novel.  August, whose parents were excommunicated when he was twelve years old, lived away from the colony for some years, attending school and University in England, and is therefore able to bestow knowledge upon the women.  The use of a male mouthpiece here was a simple plot device, but a remarkably interesting one.  August is both part of the group, working as he does as the women’s scribe, and separate from it, due to his gender.  He is a victim of the colony, but in a very different, and less violent and intrusive, way.

Focus is given to the case throughout; indeed, the novel is set over a two-day period which feels pivotal for the women.  The men were moved, at the insistence of the police, into the closest city for their own protection, and a crucial moment has been reached in the case.  August reflects: ‘And when the perpetrators return, the women of Molotschina will be given the opportunity to forgive these men, thus guaranteeing everyone’s place in heaven.  If the women don’t forgive the men… the women will have to leave the colony for the outside world, of which they know nothing.’

The way in which August relays the case demonstrates its horror.  He says: ‘In the year after I arrived, the women described dreams they’d been having, and then eventually, as the pieces fell into place, they came to understand that they were collectively dreaming one dream, and that it wasn’t a dream at all.’  The horrors do not stop there, however.  The very fact that all of the women were rendered unconscious when they were attacked caused the male elders to tell them there was no need for counselling.  A three-year-old girl, repeatedly violated, is denied professional medical treatment, as the elders are scared about anyone outside of the colony becoming aware of the attacks, and blowing the ‘whole incident… out of proportion.’

The rules of the colony are rigid and unfair for its womenfolk; typically, the men are allowed to do anything that they want to, and rarely come under scrutiny.  It is a typical patriarchy; women are expected to cook, clean, look after the children, and even act as midwives for one another.  They are forbidden to read, denied education, and told not to speak their own minds.  They speak only Plautdietsch, or Low German, a language which has not been favoured since the Middle Ages, and which is now only found in Mennonite communities.  The women have essentially been raised to be helpless outside the colony.  One of the older characters, Agnes, perfectly sums up their vulnerability when she says: ‘We’re unable to read, we’re unable to write, we’re unable to speak the language of our country, we have only domestic skills that may or may not be required of us elsewhere in the world, and speaking of the world – we have no world map -‘.

Women Talking is, as all of Toews’ books are, written with such clarity.  She really brings the culture to life.  The conversations which occur between the characters are thoughtful, provoking, angry, tense.  Toews’ women all have distinctive personalities, and are all strong and determined.  Salome, for instance, who is both daughter and mother in the book, is described thus: her ‘reputation in the family is that of a fighter, an instigator.  She doesn’t react calmly to authority and is often engaged in a battle of wills with other colony members over the slightest of things.’  August comments that he finds it curious that Salome has not been excommunicated.  An older woman, Greta, questions her faith, and declares, in a ‘radical statement’, that she is ‘no longer a Mennonite.’  Another victim, Nettie, ‘doesn’t talk, except to the children, but at night the members of the colony can hear her screaming in her sleep – or perhaps screaming in full consciousness.’

I found this every bit as much a piece of ‘profound, unsettling and virtuoisic work’ as the book’s blurb promises it to be.  Women Talking is a powerful and fitting novel to read in this, the age of the Me Too movement, and Toews has a great deal to say within its pages.  The story of these eight women, talking – although an imagined version of the real – is searing and vital.