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‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood ****

Australian author Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things was mine and Katie’s March book club choice.  We were both eager to read it, and whilst I have seen some largely positive, but ultimately rather mixed reviews floating around, I am delighted to say that I was immediately pulled in, and could barely put the novel down.

Let us begin with some of the more positive criticism.  The Economist believes that ‘Charlotte Wood’s writing is direct and spare, yet capable of bursting with unexpected beauty’.  The Sydney Morning Herald deems it ‘an extraordinary novel: inspired, powerful, at once coherent and dreamlike’.  Author Liane Moriarty writes that it gives ‘an unforgettable reading experience’.  It is also the winner of 2016’s Indie Books of the Year prize.

The Natural Way of Things is an incredibly dark novel.  In it, ten young women awake from sedation, knowing not where they are, nor what they are doing there.  They are in the middle of the Australian bush, in a camp; they are stripped of their humanity, with heads shaved, and their own clothes taken away upon admission.  The girls find, after quite some time, that they have been taken to this camp as punishment for being embroiled in sexual scandals; from sleeping with several members of a football team, to having an explicit affair with a man in the public eye.  The girls are all markedly different, but their shameful secrets are what brand them the same.

9781760291877From the first, we feel protagonist Yolanda’s disorientation; we are privy to it: ‘So there were kookaburras here.  This was the first thing Yolanda knew in the dark morning. …  She got out of bed and felt gritty boards beneath her feet.  There was the coarse unfamiliar fabric of a nightdress on her skin.  Who had put this on her?’  Wood allows us to see her dilemma: ‘She knew she was not mad, but all lunatics thought that’.  Yolanda also, rather touchingly, takes an inventory of herself during her first morning in captivity: ‘Yolanda Kovocs, nineteen years eight months.  Good body (she was just being honest, why would she boast, when it had got her into such trouble?). …  One mother, one brother, living.  One father, unknown, dead or alive.  One boyfriend, Robbie, who no longer believed her…  One night, one dark room, that bastard and his mates, one terrible mistake.  And then one giant fucking unholy mess.’

There is a nightmarish quality to the novel, and the reader cannot help but put themselves into Yolanda’s shoes.  Her only company in the compound comes from fellow inmate Verla.  The present of both girls is interspersed with memories from their pasts; in this simple yet effective manner, we learn a great deal about them.  Yolanda particularly uses her memories as a coping mechanism against the uncertainty she feels.

The core plot of the novel reminded me, perhaps inevitably, of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but in a way, I feel that it goes further.  Like Atwood, Wood ‘depicts a world where a woman’s sexuality has become a weapon turned against her’, but there is something darker at play here.  The Natural Way of Things is incredibly tense, and is so horribly vivid in the scenes which it depicts.  Gripping and disturbing, this is a must-read novel, which raises powerful questions.

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‘Wasted’ by Marya Hornbacher *****

Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted, a memoir of the author’s struggles with bulimia and anorexia, was March’s choice for the Mad Woman’s Book Club which I run on Goodreads.  I was quite interested to see firsthand what coping with an eating disorder is like, particularly over such a prolonged period, having never read a book which deals with the issue.

Hornbacher begins with some startling admissions: ‘I became bulimic at the age of nine, anorexic at the age of fifteen’.  Her introduction is insightful; she states that she chose to write the book because, fundamentally, she disagreed with the majority of what had been written about eating disorders prior to 1998.  Hornbacher writes: ‘It is, at the most basic level, a bundle of deadly contradictions: a desire for power that strips you of all power.  A gesture of strength that divests you of all strength…  It is a grotesque mockery of cultural standards of beauty that winds up mocking no one more than you.  It is a protest against 9780006550891cultural stereotypes of women that in the end makes you seem the weakest, the most needy and neurotic of all women.  It is the thing you believe is keeping you safe, alive, contained – and in the end, of course, you find it’s doing quite the opposite.’  She makes clear throughout that Wasted tells of a singular experience, but does hint at its terrifying commonality: ‘So I get to be the stereotype: female, white, young, middle-class.  I can’t tell the story for all of us.’

Hornbacher is incredibly frank, and much of her writing about eating disorders is highly psychological.  She writes: ‘Body and mind fall apart from each other, and it is in this fissure that an eating disorder may flourish, in the silence that surrounds this confusion that an eating disorder may fester and think.’  This, however, is not a memoir written as a coping mechanism from a position retrospect; Hornbacher makes this as clear, as she also does with the way in which she hopes the publication of the book will help others in a similar position to the one she was in.

Hornbacher discusses the rigidity of the classification of eating disorders; simply because her father was not ‘absent and emotionally inaccessible’ and her mother ‘overbearing, invasive, [and] needy’, she was not deemed to come from the right family type to develop bulimia and, later, anorexia.  Whilst she says that her home life was relatively ordinary for the most part, as she grows, she realises that, as an only child, she is used as a focus for her parents’ own relationship issues: ‘The child becomes a pawn, a bartering piece, as each parent competes to be the best, most nurturing parent, as determined by whom the child loves more.  It was my job to act like I loved them both best – when the other one wasn’t around.’  She does detail her mother’s own neuroses with eating, determined as she was to stay thin, and never eating more than half of the food on her plate.

One of the most remarkable things about Wasted is that Hornbacher was only twenty-three when it was written; it is one of the most eloquent memoirs which I have ever read.  She is incredibly humble too, despite her own experiences: ‘I do not have all the answers.  In fact, I have precious few.  I will pose more questions in this book than I can respond to.  I can offer little more than my perspective, my experience of having an eating disorder.’

Wasted is a compelling memoir, and a fierce honesty has been stamped onto every single page.  When describing herself as she falls into substance abuse, she says: ‘I was vivacious, rebellious, obnoxious, often sick, sometimes cruel, and sometimes falling apart on the locker room floor, usually seething at something, running away from my house in the night.’  This no-holds-barred approach works wonderfully within Hornbacher’s book; we are simultaneously frightened and repulsed by her graphic descriptions of purging and her body, and want to read on.  There is a fantastic balance between the personal and psychological.  Wasted is intense and important, and a real eye-opener for those who have never experienced the disease.

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‘The Hours’ by Michael Cunningham *****

I first read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours several years ago, and of late have been itching to reread it – partly, I think, because I am focusing upon Woolf in my PhD thesis.  Although The Hours is (sadly) not thesis applicable, it still felt as though I was researching by picking up my beautiful Harper Perennial copy – always a bonus.  Whilst I very much enjoyed it the first time around, I got so much more out of it during my 2017 reread; so much so that it is now firmly nestled amongst my favourite novels.

Beautifully written from the very beginning, The Hours weaves together the stories of three women – Virginia Woolf herself, as she nears the end of her mortality; young wife Laura Brown, living in a Los Angeles suburb in the 1940s, who is yearning to be able to read her copy of Mrs Dalloway away from her motherhood duties; and Clarissa Vaughan, residing in the New York of the 1990s, who steps into the city in order to buy some flowers for a party which she is hosting, thus echoing Woolf’s eponymous character.  These stories are at once separate and connected; a clever technique which gives a marvellous flow to the whole. michael_cunningham_the_hours

Cunningham’s writing is sublime, and the imagery which he presents is immediately vivid, particularly in those instances where he portrays movement: ‘It’s the city’s crush and heave that move you; its vibrancy; its endless life’.  The characters which he presents are vibrant and realistic; his embodiment of Woolf herself as a character has been sensitively and cleverly wrought.  In the single following description, for instance, an ageing Woolf is brought to life: ‘She is still regal, still exquisitely formed, still possessed of her formidable lunar radiance, but she is suddenly no longer beautiful’.  Cunningham captures some continuation of Woolf’s breathtaking prose too, particularly with regard to his presentation of characters: ‘This is one of the most singular experiences, waking on what feels like a good day, preparing to work but not yet actually embarked.  At this moment there are infinite possibilities, whole hours ahead.  Her mind hums’.  When discussing lost housewife Laura, too, Cunningham shows the utmost understanding of her, and her place in the world: ‘… and when she glanced over at this new book on her nightstand, stacked above the one she finished last night, she reached for it automatically, as if reading were the singular and obvious first task of the day, the only viable way to negotiate the transit from sleep to obligation’.

Everything in The Hours loops around Mrs Dalloway; Cunningham’s approach is startlingly simple, yet remarkably clever.  The Hours is, in fact, nothing short of phenomenal.  The prose throughout is exquisite, the characters fully formed, and the sense of place as real as if one was standing in it themselves.  The singular diurnal structure, reminiscent of Mrs Dalloway, is a clever touch.  Cunningham handles everything marvellously, and the flow to the whole is flawless.  Indeed, much of his writing is rather profound: ‘She thinks of how much more space a being occupies in life than it does in death; how much illusion of size is contained in gestures and movements, in breathing.  Dead, we are revealed in our true dimensions, and they are surprisingly modest’.

In The Hours, Cunningham essentially presents a love letter to the utterly splendid novel that is Mrs Dalloway.  At times, it is rendered almost painfully vivid, for instance in those passages which describe the suicide of Woolf.  I shall leave you, dear reader, with Cunningham’s musings upon death: ‘It might be like walking out into a field of brilliant snow.  It could be dreadful and wonderful.’

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‘Monsters’ by Emerald Fennell ****

I don’t tend to read much children’s fiction nowadays, cultivating the image, as I am, of a sensible PhD student.  Regardless, I really do enjoy it, and every now and then, something aimed at younger readers really catches my eye.  Monsters by Emerald Fennell was such a book.  The sparsity of its blurb made it sound deliciously creepy, and I have seen favourable reviews from a lot of fellow adults who have succumbed to it.

9781471404627From the outset, I was reminded of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks; yes, it is aimed at a different audience entirely, but there are rather a lot of similarities with regard to the narrative voice and the uneasiness which sets in almost immediately.  The matter-of-fact way in which it opens, too, contributed to the comparison for me: ‘My parents got smashed to death in a boating accident when I was nine.  Don’t worry – I’m not that sad about it’.  When her parents are killed, the narrator goes to live with her grandmother: ‘The good thing about living with Granny is that she has no idea about twelve-year-old girls and what they should be reading or watching on the television, so she lets me sit up with her and watch gory films while she picks the polish off her nails and feeds it to her dog, John.  John is permanently at death’s door but never actually hobbles through it’.

Monsters is filled with dark humour, such as the above.  The voice of our unnamed narrator was engaging as much as it was detached from things going on around her: ‘Mummy was obsessed with being thin – it was the thing she was most proud of.  At meal times she only ate peas, one at a time, with her fingers’.  There is a grasp of reality here, but whilst in charge of her own thoughts and feelings, the narrator is very much led.  When she meets fellow twelve-year-old Miles Giffard, who is holidaying in the Cornish town of Fowey where she is staying with her aunt and uncle, another darkness entirely enters the novel.

Our narrator has a vivid, and often rather frightening, imagination: ‘I really like my school but, honestly, sometimes I think it would be better if someone just burned the place to the ground’.  With Miles in tow, she soon has a fascination with murder, which is piqued when female bodies begin to wash up upon the beach.  She and Miles decide to investigate, and churn up horrors from which most twelve-year-olds would run away screaming.

The narrative voice feels natural after the first few pages, but some of the comments which the protagonist makes either startled me, or caught me so by surprise that I ended up snorting with laughter, such as with the following: ‘Sometimes I’m so tired I can barely move or think straight.  But it gets better after I’ve had a couple of strong coffees from the buffet.  Jean doesn’t approve of twelve-year-old girls drinking coffee, but truly, Jean can get fucked’.

Fennell is a talented writer, whose characters – young and old – felt immediately realistic.  She has such an awareness of her narrator, and has crafted a book which is really chilling at times, even to those who fall several (ahem) years outside of her target demographic.  The plot and pace within Monsters are faultless, and the reader is always aware that something sinister is on the horizon.  Monsters is a real page turner, for audiences young and old(er).  I could never quite guess where it would end up, and it kept me surprised throughout, particularly with its clever twists and its fantastic ending.

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Two Reviews: ‘The Tiny One’, and ‘Falling Awake’

The Tiny One by Eliza Minot **** 9780375706332
I love stories which feature child narrators, and Eliza Minot’s The Tiny One was almost perfect.  The book’s blurb ticked a lot of boxes for me, and I was very much looking forward to immersing myself within the story.  Via is only eight years old when her mother is killed in a car accident; her voice from the outset is believable, and has been constructed both with sensitivity and an outpouring of emotion.  She springs to life almost immediately; she is made up of naive quirks and complexities.  The structure which Minot has utilised within her novel is the age-old formula of fragmented memories, which build a full picture of both Via and her mother.  Once I began to read The Tiny One, I could barely put it down.  It is as transportative as Kaye Gibbons’ work, and is a must for anyone who enjoys reading about trauma in fiction, or seeing serious occurrences from the viewpoint of an unreliable or biased narrator.

 

Falling Awake by Alice Oswald ****
9781910702437Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake has one of the most beautiful blurbs which I have ever read; even had I not been familiar with her poetry or output beforehand, it would definitely have enticed me to pick this particular tome up.  I very much enjoyed Dart when I read it a couple of years ago, and have been eager to read more of Oswald’s ever since.  The imagery which she creates throughout Falling Awake is nothing short of beautiful, and her use of mythology is strong and fitting.  The themes of nature and mutability tie the whole together wonderfully.  Oswald’s repetitions are splendidly handled, and there is not a single poem here which falls short of being meaningful or memorable.  Falling Awake is a fluid poetry collection, which I would heartily recommend to any fans of poetry.

 

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‘The Virago Book of Women Travellers’, edited by Mary Morris and Larry O’Connor ****

9781860492129‘Some of the extraordinary women whose writings are including in this collection are observers of the world in which they wander; their prose rich in description, remarkable in detail. Mary McCarthy conveys the vitality of Florence while Willa Cather’s essay on Lavandou foreshadows her descriptions of the French countryside in later novels. Others are more active participants in the culture they are visiting, such as Leila Philip, as she harvests rice with chiding Japanese women, or Emily Carr, as she wins the respect and trust of the female chieftain of an Indian village in Northern Canada. Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure or escape from personal tragedy, all of these women are united in that they approached their journeys with wit, intelligence, compassion and empathy for the lives of those they encountered along the way. Features writing from Gertrude Bell, Edith Wharton, Isabella Bird, Kate O’Brien, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and many others.’

I am an enormous fan of Virago, as anyone who knows even a little of my reading habits can probably discern.  To my delight, I spotted The Virago Book of Women Travellers online at a ridiculously low price, and decided to treat myself (another of my favourite things in life is travelling, after all!).  I had originally intended to read it over the Christmas holidays, but true to form at such busy times, I did not really get a chance to do so.  I thus picked it up in February, just before a wonderful trip to The Netherlands.

The selection of extracts here is extensive and varied, and encompasses an incredible scope of geographical locations.  Societally and historically it is most interesting, and some extracts – Beryl Markham’s about elephant hunting, for instance – are very of their time (thankfully so, in this case!).  Some of my favourite authors were collected here – Vita Sackville-West, and Rebecca West, as well as Rose Macaulay.  As ever with such collections, there were several entries which I did not quite enjoy as much as the rest, but each was undoubtedly fascinating in its own way.  I very much enjoyed the ‘can do’ attitude which every single one of the writers had, regardless of circumstance or destination, and very much liked the way in which this singular thread bound all of them together.  The chronological ordering made for a splendid reading experience.

The Virago Book of Women Travellers is a marvellous volume in which to dip here and there, to reconnect with old favourites, and to discover new writers to find, and new women to admire.  I adore the idea of thematic travelogues, and there is something really rather special and inspiring about this one.  It has brought some marvellous women, both in terms of personality and writing ablity, to my attention, and I can only conclude this review by saying that it is a joy for any women traveller to read.

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And Other Stories: ‘Art in Nature and Other Stories’ by Tove Jansson *****

First published in July 2013.

Sort Of Books, who have already published five of Tove Jansson’s adult novels and story collections, as well as several of her Moomin books, have just released this new volume of her short stories, all of which are printed in English for the first time. The entire book has been translated by Thomas Teal, who won the Rochester Best Translated Book Award in 2011. This prize sets him in wonderful stead to translate one of Finland’s finest authors and to introduce more of her stories to a wider readership.

Art in Nature and Other Stories
 comprises eleven short stories, all of which are mesmerising from the outset. The title story, ‘Art in Nature’, tells of a ‘very old’ caretaker who has been put in charge of looking after a large art exhibition when it closes each night. He works alone through ‘the long, lonely evenings’, finding solace in the peace around him. One night he comes across a man and woman who have made their way into the exhibition past closing time. Rather than throw them out as protocol dictates, an impassioned and rather surprising discussion about art ensues.

The stories themselves are all rather varied, but there are many which feature protagonists who are artists or are involved with art in some way – a sculptor, a cartoonist, an actress and a writer of children’s books, amongst others. A story entitled ‘The Doll’s House’ follows an upholsterer with a love of classic novels ‘which enchanted him with their heavy patience’, who constructs an elaborate wooden house, assembling it bit by bit: it ‘would be allowed to grow however it wished, organically, room by room’. The characters in every story are beautifully portrayed. All are well-developed and feel like real, fully fleshed out people, and not a single one feels as though their construction has been rushed. Many touches of autobiography can be found throughout.

Jansson’s prose is absolutely and often startlingly beautiful. She describes everyday scenes with such deftness and skill that it feels as though we are viewing the scenes afresh. The reader is essentially given a new perspective through Jansson’s words, in which the wonders of the world are evident. In ‘Art in Nature’, she describes how the sculptures in the exhibition ‘grew up out of the grass, huge dark monuments in smooth incomprehensible formlessness or in tangled convulsions, challenging and disturbing’. The ideas woven throughout the majority of the stories are just lovely. A group of young people in ‘White Lady’ are described as being ‘like a flock of birds… that settle for a moment, for as long as it suits them’.

Ali Smith, author of novels including The Accidental and There But For The, states ‘that there can still be as-yet untranslated fiction by [Tove] Jansson is simultaneously an aberration and a delight, like finding buried treasure’ – a sentiment which could not be more true. To build up such rich, detailed stories within just a few pages as Jansson does here is masterful, and Teal’s translation of her work is faultless. Art in Nature and Other Stories is a pure delight from beginning to end. It is an absolute joy to read and certainly reaffirms Jansson’s position as a wonderful storyteller and a master of her craft.

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