Saltwater: Mothers, Working-Class Britain & The Body

I’ve finally finished my exams so it’s time for a review and a very important one at that. If you follow me on social media, you’ll be sick of hearing about this book already, but I’m going to get one (or a few) last words in about it for good measure.

Saltwater is the debut from Jessica Andrews, a writer from the North-East of England. The story follows a girl called Lucy who cannot seem to put her finger on where she belongs in the world. Although not chronologically written, the fragmented narrative delivers her transition from childhood to her teen years, and then her move to a London university and the adulthood that follows. The first thing I must note about this book is the extraordinary style with which the author writes. Everything is so purposeful, poetic and electrifying to read. As I mentioned, the story is fragmented into varying-sized chunks, which each offer a world of depth standing alone or in alignment with the rest of the text. As someone who enjoys reading and writing poetry, I could really appreciate the poetic value of her writing despite it being a prose novel. There was just something about the words and the way they fit together that made every piece string together seamlessly.

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The overarching theme which is weaved throughout the novel is the relationship between mother and daughter. I recently attended an event for this book whereby Daisy Johnson, author of the visceral Everything Under, discussed Saltwater with the author herself. Andrews noted that she wanted the mother-daughter relationship to be central to the story, and was also interested in exploring the link between erotic and familial bonds. The way this is delivered in the text is exceptional, some extracts giving multiplicity to the imaginings which must be deciphered by the reader. Here’s one example of this in action:

“Redness cracking. Fissures forming. You are falling towards us, rich and syrup-soft. Flesh roiling. Bones shifting. Tongues over bellies and fingers in wet places. Salt stains the mattress; seeps into places where hands cannot reach. Tissues twisting and saline dripping into something new. Sink into the thick of us. The peach pit slick of us.”

As I said, the writing is luminous. I thought it was quite appropriate that Dasiy Johnson was discussing this topic with Jessica Andrews, since her book Everything Under also interrogates the strained relationship between mother and daughter. Whilst these writers’ characters have a very different story to tell, they feel the same pain as a result of a shift; the transformation of maternal bonds is something we all have to navigate as we age.

Whilst I found this central theme delightful to read about and to process, the key aspect which struck a chord in me is her discussion of class, which remains the reason why I am still talking about this book incessantly. I grew up in a working-class town by the sea, in a working-class family, much like Lucy. Lucy, I should note, is almost certainly biographical, which Andrews confessed to at the event. When asked about the difficulties of navigating the line between life and fiction, she made the important point that her intention in writing a book was to give herself a voice. She wanted to feel heard, and if she neglected the fact that this story was, in fact, her own, she would be acting dishonestly.

In the novel, she writes a lot about her experiences as a working-class woman, and I think that is so significant in the current climate. Whilst we are seeing an emergence of writers from this group, there are not enough. The thing which I love most about this book is the true portrayal it delivers of working-class life in Britain. It is not a sensationalist story of hardship and hunger that many books (particularly those written by non-working-class writers) depict. It is a story of normality, and all the extraordinarily abnormal things that can occur in this particular sphere. She discusses alcoholism, patrilineal aggression, financial struggle and life in a regional town. But she also writes about fake tan, eating smiley faces, downloading music on Limewire and the simplistic joy of teenage house parties. She writes openly and honestly about what it’s like growing up outside of London and how difficult it can be to navigate the transition to city life. Many people have to experience this, including me, and it was super refreshing to see someone own their story and believe it worth writing about.

“When I was a child, there was a council estate behind our house that was evicted and demolished in order to make way for a new development of identical Wimpey show-homes for different kinds of people. The clapped-out cars and broken bicycles disappeared to make way for diggers and breeze blocks. There was a couple who refused to move and their house stood alone in the rubble, their windows boarded up and a St. George’s flag floating resolutely from their front door.

My dad took me out riding on his motorbike, flying over football fields and turning circles around the abandoned estate. I slotted onto the leather seat and wrapped my arms around him, breathing in smoke and oil laced with Midget Gems.

‘Hold on tight,’ he warned as he started the engine. ‘Whatever you do, don’t let go.’

I loved the way the wind tore my hair from my skull and it bobbed around us like dandelion fluff. We got home full of the sting of it, dirt-piles and goalposts rippling under our skin. My mother breathed through her nose as she dished up potato smiley faces and beans for tea.

‘I don’t want to know about it,’ she said, soaking her cracked hands in the kitchen sink.”

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Discussion of the body runs thick and clear throughout the book’s rhythm too. Skin, hands, skulls and stomachs- all present and growling at the forefront of the story. The narrator seems to feel things deeply and physically, and Andrews describes this with poignant importance. Every feeling is relevant to the experience she is documenting, and I loved reading every account. I felt like I too was in the book, feeling things run deep under my skin and gurgle inside my body.

Thanks for reading this review (if you made it to the end), I hope that it will convince you to read this book. I loved it because it was like someone was finally speaking about my own experience in literary fiction, which isn’t something I’ve ever really seen before. Even if you can’t relate on a personal level, it is so important that people read this story. We should try and listen to more voices that are not the same as our own, and appreciate that people’s lives, particularly writers lives, do not always follow a strict (or middle-class) pathway.

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The Book Everyone Seems To Be Talking About: Sally Rooney’s Normal People

Where do I start with this one? I finished this book in two days at the start of May, and I’m still struggling to find any words for it. As you all know by now, I’m a massive fan of Sally Rooney and her writing. She’s blunt, to the point, and creates the dialogue that I actually want to read- which is quite the task for a reader like me who hates dialogue. After finishing Conversations With Friends and her short story, Mr Salary, I was quickly running out of Rooney to keep myself satisfied. I purposely put this off for a while, but after facing a writing slump myself and feeling pretty isolated from the world, I treated myself on paperback release day. It didn’t let me down.

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Normal People is the second novel by Rooney and follows the lives of Marianne and Connell, two teenagers growing up in Ireland. They live in a small town where everybody knows everybody, and everybody knows everyone else’s business. The thing I loved most about Conversations With Friends was her portrayals of intimacy and human connection, which carried through straight into Normal People. Marianne is from a rich family of lawyers and Connell’s single-mother works as her cleaner. Whilst they go to the same school, they lead very different lives. When those lives collide and the two protagonists begin a secretive relationship, the pair have to navigate life with and without each other.

‘He makes a facial expression she can’t interpret, kind of raising his eyebrows, or frowning. When they get back to his house the windows are all dark and Lorraine is in bed. In Connell’s room he and Marianne lie down together whispering. He tells her she’s beautiful. She has never heard that before, though she has sometimes privately suspected it of herself, but it feels different to hear it from another person. She touches his hand to her breast where it hurts, and he kisses her. Her face is wet, she’s been crying. He kisses her neck. Are you okay? he says. When she nods, he smooths her hair back and says: It’s alright to be upset, you know. She lies with her face against his chest. She feels like a soft piece of cloth that is wrung out and dripping.’

I love the way Rooney discusses class in this book. One of the things I found quite alienating in Conversations With Friends was the middle-class lifestyles of the characters. Although they were students, their finances seemed to be infinite and their class didn’t seem to have any impact on their decisions or lifestyles at all. Normal People is very different in this way. Connell struggles to accept his working-class roots, highlighted to him by Marianne’s very different way of life, and when they move to the capital for university this only becomes harder to navigate. This is something I found really insightful about the story because I often have the same doubts and anxieties. Coming from a working-class town and then moving to a city for university, where you are often surrounded by the richest of the rich, is incredibly difficult. I went to Edinburgh Uni for a while and met more people from Eton than from Scotland. Now in Manchester, I am surrounded by people who dress like they are poor with the money from their parents’ trust funds. It’s a painful experience when you’re working constantly to survive, and I really liked the way Rooney explored the absurdity of this disparity in Normal People.

‘Connell’s initial assessment of the reading was not disproven. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.’

Friendship is also another key theme in the novel, the characters often finding that their only real friends are each other or the people they grew up with in their hometowns. It can be hard to make new connections in a city, and both Marianne and Connell experience the polarities of this in the narrative. Normalcy looms over the novel, and the people in it are constantly questioning their identities- what does it mean to be normal? They are both desperate to reach whatever their ideas of normal are. Marianne begins the novel enjoying being the outcast. Although she is isolated, she revels in her ability to be different. It’s both sad and intriguing to watch her progression through the book, particularly how she navigates new friendships. Her friends encapsulate the stereotypes we all despise; the rich waxed-jacket jocks, the overbearing gossips, the creepy art boys who think taking pictures of naked girls is a replacement for a personality. Since I’m still at uni, I really enjoyed the way she explored all of these characters who I seem to be surrounded by on a daily basis. My woes were heard, as always, by Rooney’s insightful observations.

I’ll be talking some more about the class aspects of this novel, as they were my favourite, in conversation with some other class-focused reads I’ve got on the go at the moment. Thanks for reading this review. I’m sure it won’t be a necessary factor in convincing you to buy the book and read it since it’s literally the most talked-about book of the year by far. I look forward to seeing what else Sally Rooney has in store for the future. What do I do with my life now?

Here’s some links to previous posts about Rooney’s work if you’re interested to read more:

Conversations With Friends

Faber Stories: Sally Rooney & Sylvia Plath

5 Independent Publishers I’m Loving

Independent publishing houses are really important to the book industry and the kinds of voices we uplift and put out into the world for people to read. Today I thought I’d offer up a variety of my favourites and why they’re standing out to me at the moment!

ABQQ91851. @silver.press is a new feminist publisher, re-releasing titles that deserve a lot more hype than they have received. Some of writers they’ve published so far include Audre Lorde, Nell Dunn & Leonora Carrington.
2. @glagoslav was formed in 2011 and focuses on publishing English translations of literature by Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian authors. I love this concept, and I love their mission to create a dialogue between East and West through a love of literature.
3. @commapress is a Manchester based independent publisher of short fiction. We love a Northern publisher💚 They’ve published all sorts, but I particularly love their city-inspired short story anthologies, from Leeds to Istanbul.
4. @deadinkbooks was voted Northern Publisher of the Year in 2018, and there’s no doubting why. They’re focus is to publish new writers of exciting literary fiction. I’d highly recommend reading My Political Novel by Haroun Khan, which is an intriguing essay available to read on their website.
5. @saltpublishing is an incredible publishing house which turns 20 years old this year, and is based in Norfolk. I love following their journey on twitter, and I can’t wait to see their release of Amanthi Harris’s new book Beautiful Place, which comes out this September, and has the most stunning cover!
I hope you’ll consider buying some books from some of these wonderful independent companies. It’s definitely not the worst way to spend your money, and every penny goes into making sure the industry is as diverse and exciting as it can possibly be

Women’s Prize : Ghost Wall

Last week the Women’s Prize long list was announced, and I was quite shocked that I had only read one of the books chosen. Normally I’m pretty on it with my women writers, and having tackled the Man Booker long list last year, I decided that this time I would read all of the Women’s Prize nominees, having noted that one of my reading intentions for the year was to get through more novels penned by women. So at the weekend I took a trip to Waterstones with the intention of buying Normal People. If you read these posts a lot you’ll know I recently read Conversations with Friends and Mr Salary, and since I enjoyed it so much and read it so quickly, I wanted to get my hands on another Sally Rooney piece. However, when I got to the book shop, I was drawn in by the little hardback Ghost Wall, published by Granta in 2018. In recent weeks, I’d seen a lot of people raving about the beauty of Sarah Moss’s language on twitter, and since I’m currently looking for inspiration to write myself, I decided to go for this instead.

 

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I do not regret my decision. Considering the book is only small, 149 pages to be exact, it packs a huge punch. There was not one moment of this book that I didn’t enjoy, and at no point in reading it did I zone out, or hope for the narrative to speed up in anyway. It is the perfect size. Moss crafts an intelligent and historically-informed tale, documenting an archaeological field trip from the perspective of Silvie, daughter of a bus driver who is obsessed with the Iron Age period. Her Dad takes her and her mother along on this trip which intends to show a group of students, Molly, Dan and Pete, the ways of Iron Age survival, supervised by a Professor in Archaeology. Despite the small time frame of the story, our perspective spans history, and comparisons between our roles as humanity are constantly drawn upon. I really loved the unique concept of Ghost Wall, and I felt enlivened by the depth and provocative nature of it.

‘I could, after all, be going into the wood to pee, or getting a drink of water. Without a house, it occurred to me, it is much harder to restrict a person’s movement. Harder for a man to restrain a woman.’

One of my favourite aspects of the novel is the way Moss contrasts the beauty of the Northumberland landscape with the haunting undertones of the story, which are intermittently suppressed and released by the narrator. Her perspective is important. She is a woman who wants freedom, wants independence, wants to be liberated in her body and in her life, but is at constant war with an inner conflict she has been conditioned to feel. Familial relationships are complex and difficult for her to navigate, and so we are constantly thrown in and out of a narrative which reflects on everything from violence to historical origins to nationhood, or more importantly to Silvie, regionalism. I loved her as a character. She is sarcastic but insecure, proud yet fearful, and intelligent but doubtful of herself. She knows the landscape better than anyone, but the harrowing nature of that knowledge and how it seems to control her pervades her survival expertise, somehow putting her at risk. The key thing that I took away from Ghost Wall is that patriarchy and violence in women’s history are inextricable — Moss captures its lack of development between the Iron Age and the present, despite her engagement with a vast and seemingly endless temporal stretch.

‘I tilted back uncomfortably, the pool not wide enough for me to lean, but the water stroked my sunburn, soothed away the itchy sand. I crossed my legs, tucked my feet under my thighs where the mud was slick and cool, felt cold water filter through my knickers and right inside me. I looked around again and struggled to undo my bra the way Molly had undone hers, hands behind my shoulders, let it lift away from my shoulder blades, felt my nipples harden like hers as I leant forward and dipped them in the cold marsh water.

‘I thought then about what might be around me, folded in the peat, what other limbs might be held in the same dark water, what other eyes closed, and that’s where I was when Dad and the Prof came striding over the heather.’

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As well as a strong sense of conflict, the book also highlights a very important aspect of women’s writing for me : female friendship. Silvie begins the novel feeling quite alone. Her mother is distant (understandably), and seems weak. Her father is overpowering and aggressive. She doesn’t seem to have friends, and so when she goes on the camp and begins to build a relationship with Molly, something important is born from the text. Molly isn’t perfect, but her morals are intact from a feminist perspective. She plays a key role in provoking thought from the reader on a range of women’s issues, and the way Moss creates that image of her, and constructs her personality so intricately, really affirms the deserving nature of this book and its place on the Women’s Prize long list. It’s frank and illusive discussions of gender, sexuality, nature, history- all combine so effortlessly to make up this dark and delicious read.

The most overwhelming feature of Ghost Wall is the language. It is so !! beautiful !! I can’t express how gorgeous and well thought out every line seems to be. The descriptions of nature were so beautiful and really resonated with me – I could picture the North where I grew up. From moors to marshes, beaches to bogs, Moss creates it all. The images you create in your head could not do justice to the almost-mystical world she describes, but always capturing the dark sensation of something awful lingering behind you.

‘They made drumming, as the eastern sky darkened and stars prickled above the band of pale cloud. They made chanting, and I found myself joining in, heard my voice rise clear, hold its notes, above their low incantation. We sat on the ground before our raised bone-faces, sang to them as they gleamed moonlit into the darkness. We sang of death and it felt true. Away to the south, orange light spilled across the sky from the town, and below us a single pair of headlights nosed the lane.

Why not, after all, make a ceremony for the animal dead, for those we have deliberately killed. There is still a dying.’

As you know, I don’t do star ratings, but I’d give this a solid five if I did. It deserves more. There’s something entrancing about this book that makes you want to switch off the world and devour it in peace and loneliness. I cried at the end, and considering it is so short it really grasps hold of all of your emotions and doesn’t let you go until you’re exhausted. Seems like a very dramatic description of a book but I really loved it and I feel like my perspective on writing and what it means to write a good book have really been refreshed by Ghost Wall.

Thanks for reading this review, I hope I have provided some insight into a book which has really shook me to the core. I think people have a lot to gain from it, and I look forward to reading some more Sarah Moss in future. But firstly I’ll be tackling another from the Women’s Prize list. Any recommendations for what I should purchase next?

Conversations With Friends : A Review

I’ve finally got round to writing this review, although I know for a fact I was writing it down on the inside of my head whilst reading it. Three of the most overwhelming feelings I carried with me from start to finish were : self-awareness, anticipation and fear of the end. I didn’t want the narrative to stop, because I was so emotionally invested in all four characters. What they were thinking, feeling- what they were going to do next- all of these things became my priority.

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Frances, as a protagonist, was probably the biggest reason why I connected so well with this book, and why I felt like I could not put it down until I had read every word. Like me, Frances is twenty-one. She is also a writer. She is also in some state of emotional turmoil- or as she puts it- ‘unemotional’ turmoil. I very rarely show my emotions or tell people how I’m actually feeling, so for this reason me and Frances became the best of friends. I almost felt like I was living through her. She was confiding her feelings in me, and I was confirming their existence in me by reading them. As the narrator, she drove on the plot by revealing more and more about how she was thinking about the world, and how she was interacting with it. I felt like I was right there with her in Dublin, studying, writing, sleeping with a married man (it is that realistic). Sally Rooney has a very special way of making everything feel so real, by striking the perfect balance between mundane conversation and depth of description. This novel was a cathartic journey. I read it, much like how I imagined Frances, with a cold and empty expression on my face. When I was done, I remained expressionless. And then I cried for a few hours and replayed the whole thing in my head and cried some more.

 

‘Inside the kitchen Nick was putting the clean wine glasses away in the cabinet. He looked up at me and said : oh, hello. Instantly, like I was reciting something, I replied : I felt like a glass of water. He made a humorous face, like he didn’t really believe me, but he handed me a glass of water anyway. I poured the water and then stood against the fridge door to drink it. It was lukewarm and tasted chlorinated. Eventually Nick stood in front of me and said, they’re aren’t any more wine glasses, so. We were looking at each other. I told him he was a total embarrassment and he said he was ‘extremely aware’ of that. He put his hand on my waist and I felt my whole body lift toward him. I touched the buckle of his belt and said : we can sleep together if you want, but you should know I’m only doing it ironically.’

 

Conversations With Friends follows a girl called Frances and the relationships she has in her lives, especially the thought processes going on as a result of them. Primarily, there are three people who the narrative revolves around, observes and analyses. First is Bobbi; attractive, confident and anarchistic, her ex-girlfriend and best-friend. Second is Melissa, a successful journalist interested in documenting their partnership as spoken word performers. Third is Nick, Melissa’s husband, a low-key successful actor and, most importantly, the love interest of narrator, Frances. As a reader, you become involuntarily sucked into Frances’s social circle and everything that encompasses it. She and Bobbi enter Melissa and Nick’s world of networking and literary events, resulting in the growth of something with Nick, who seems quiet and distant. It was really interesting for me to see how Rooney constructs a longer narrative, particularly after reading her short story, Mr Salary, which also follows a relationship between a young woman and an older man. I loved how the story moves with such pace, but without missing anything important in between. One of the joys of reading a first person narrative is getting to know the protagonist in depth, and you really get that with this book. As I said earlier, I have a lot in common with the narrator- in both age and her habit of constant self-deprecation- but I think anyone could read this book and become genuinely drowned in the story.

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Another aspect of Rooney’s writing that I’ve enjoyed across her work is the problematic parental figures she often includes. She mentioned that this is something she’d like to stop doing, but feels she cannot as of yet, in an interview after the release of her short story in Granta’s New Irish Writing publication. I found this interesting, because this is one of my favourite parts of how she constructs her characters. Their relationships with their families are always complex, much like any family, and I really enjoy the way she weaves this into the narrative without it becoming a stereotypical story about teenagers and their annoying parents. Her characters are fully formed adults, but the remnants of childhood remains with them and it’s intriguing to see how they navigate this alongside the rest of their lives. Whilst I’ve seen criticisms of the book regarding its discussion of class, based on the complete absence of any financial factors affecting the lives of the characters, I kind of liked this aspect. I worry enough about money as it is, and whilst books have the ability to comment on the real world and the issues in it, I think they also have the power to escape that and become a sort of fantasy. And Frances does incur some financial hiccups later on. This doesn’t take away from her very privileged life, but her background is substantially less wealthy than that of the rest of the characters, and her problematic parental figures add to the depth of this discussion. Rooney touches on some important talking points regarding money and relationships, and especially class and privilege, and so I think it would be a shallow comment to disregard the book as an upper-class, two-dimensional piece as I have seen some people calling it.

 

‘The water was too hot, and I could see when I lifted my hands they had turned a glaring pink colour. I washed the glasses and cutlery first, then the dishes, then the pots and pans. When everything was clean, I emptied the sink, wiped down the kitchen surfaces and swept the peelings back into the bin. Watching the soap bubbles slide silently down the blades of kitchen knives, I had a sudden desire to harm myself. Instead I put away the salt and pepper shakers and went into the living room. 

I’m off, I said.

You’re away, are you?

That bin needs taking out.

See you again, my father said.’

 

As I have been writing this review, I have been very conscious of not giving too much away. I hate reading reviews with spoilers myself, and I’ve been particularly aware of it with this book as it has been so very hyped, and so the likeliness of people actually buying it and reading it is a lot higher. It is one of those stories that unravels slowly throughout, but the fast paced narrative drives the plot forward at such speed that you, yourself as the reader, begin to feel you are falling behind. So I won’t throw you off with too much information. But just know, you should definitely read this book. If you need an escape from the stress of your own life, if you’re feeling emotionally unemotional and need some solace in a friend you don’t know in real life, if you’re looking for a book to suck you back into the world of reading : Conversations With Friends is the book for you.

Fiona Benson’s Vertigo and Ghost : Rape Culture, Greek Myth & Abuse of Power

Amidst my erratic book purchases in January, I picked up Vertigo and Ghost after seeing many people, whose opinions I highly value, screaming about its importance. And after swallowing it up in a matter of hours, I am stunned and also feel I should be screaming about it from the rooftops. Benson has climbed to the top of my poetry-seeking radar and I can’t wait to annoy everybody I know by recommending this collection again and again.

 

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raped Medusa

where she prayed

in the temple of Athena

 

and Athena

cursed the girl

with a head full

of snakes.

 

I came to understand

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rape is cultural,

pervasive;

that in this world

 

the woman is blamed.

 

 

One of the key themes of Vertigo and Ghost stands out very vividly: rape and the culture surrounding it, which has pervaded human society since the earliest civilisations, and still continues to occur violently in the contemporary world we exist in. Benson captures this parallel between history and modernity so intelligently, creating a narrative which personifies rape culture through the character of Zeus. For those unfamiliar with mythology, Zeus is the mythological king of the Gods, god himself of the sky and of thunder, and is often symbolised by a lightning bolt, a motif which Benson capitalises on within her collection. Throughout ancient mythology and the literature that emerged from ancient Greece and Rome, Zeus is famed for his sexual endeavours. He rapes women for all sorts of reasons; pleasure and punishment being two of the most prominent. The way Benson channels contemporary discourse on toxic masculinity and rape culture through the symbol of Zeus, a highly respected and heavily worshipped God, is extremely significant, and is the main reason why I feel I have been eaten whole by it. It really resonated with me, particularly the way Zeus is used in place of names for the violent men she has experienced. Not all men are violent and not all men are rapists, but when you are a woman and you are constantly endangered by the presence, motives and movements of men, it’s hard to differentiate. Zeus is more than just a mythological God, he is an embodiment of the rape culture which pervades the lives of all women, and signifies how patriarchal power has been abused.

One of my favourite things about poetry, particularly the contemporary sort, is the freedom we are beginning to see in poets’ writings to alternate form, subvert sentence structure and transform the way words appear on the page. It not only affects the way we read the text, but also makes us think more deeply about the reasoning behind this. Of course, this is not a modern phenomenon. The Russian futurists of the post-revolutionary period printed poems on discarded wallpaper and subverted everything from word order to font size. But I think what we are beginning to see more of in the last few years is a fearlessness to throw everything out onto the page and allow the reader to absorb it in a way that is acutely personal to them. One of my favourite instances of this in Vertigo and Ghost is this spiralled poem- [transformation: Cyane]- which forces you to physically rotate the book as you read it. It somewhat mirrors the content, subjects so intensely brutal that literally send your head into a consistent rotation to comprehend it.

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Whilst the Part One is entitled Zeus, and focuses very much on the narrator’s relationship with him and all the meanings attached, Part Two is more thematically varied, and features a mass of differing poems. I loved how the first part’s structure and continuity in topic contrasted to the second part, which seems less of a collective and allows the poems to stand alone and provoke individual reflection. Benson covers all the bases of poetic style that I love, is what I’m trying to say. She provides us with a story at first, brimming with mythological references and situational aching which breaks you down and makes you question everything, makes you hurt inside. And then the second part illustrates more erratically the dispersed feelings associated with family life and depression. Benson inserts herself into this collection and it’s very evident how personal this collection must be to her. I’ve never come across anyone who can put feeling into words like she does in this collection. I’m genuinely broken.

 

One of my favourite poem’s from Part Two is this one, entitled Almond Blossom.

 

This morning, love, I’m tired and grave;

I can barely hear the wintered bird’s small song

over the hum of the central heating.

We must trust, I suppose, to the song’s bare minim:

 

that spring will be a green havoc

as the trees burst their slums

and the dirt breaks open to admit

crocus-spear and cyclamen;

 

and though we can’t yet feel it

earth’s already begun

her slow incline, inch by ruined inch,

easing you back from the brink.

 

Something about this one just felt really dark and significant to me. It’s hard to appreciate what’s around us sometimes, in our lives and in the world, and this one just reminded me that it’s okay to feel a bit dead sometimes. I like that her poetry looks into a lot of darker aspects of life that literature allows people to find solace in, and sometimes advice too. She reflects on motherhood, and what its like to have daughters whilst being aware of the dangers posed against women on the outside world. She evokes Zeus again more subtly:

I don’t know who

I’m teaching you to hide from

but look how eagerly you learn.

reminding us that the overarching subject matter of Zeus- or what he embodies- runs throughout the book.

Vertigo and Ghost is by far one of the most compelling and heart-wrenching collections of poetry I have read in quite some time, and I am convinced that everyone must read it and understand how important the voice of Fiona Benson is to modern day readers, and more specifically modern day women. We can learn a great deal from her words, and empower ourselves through the fearlessness that manifests itself in her creative approach.

 

Faber Stories: Sally Rooney & Sylvia Plath

So I saw that Faber was releasing a collection of stories in celebration of their 90th year of publishing and obviously I went and had a browse of the first few available. I decided to tackle Sally Rooney’s Mr Salary because of how critically acclaimed she has recently become for such a young writer- maybe I’m looking for some inspiration. As well as this one, I picked up Sylvia Plath’s Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom. I thought it would be an interesting experience to read the two comparably, as they are both iconic women authors and I’m very much inspired by both of them. Out of the two, I definitely enjoyed Mr Salary more. I was desperate for it not to end. I was very much invested in the romantic on-goings after the first few pages, and although I found it a very reflective and interesting read, I wanted sooo much more. Maybe they’ll be a sequel. As for Plath’s story, I also really enjoyed it. There’s something inexplicably beautiful about the way she crafts a story and I got major Angela Carter vibes from this one, particularly her description of setting and colour. Its one of those stories that provokes speculation but satisfies you without confirming any truths or answers.

As they’re both short stories, I didn’t know whether to write a full review of each, purely in fear of giving too much away and taking the pleasure away from someone who is looking to read them. So I just thought I’d deliver this short and sweet opinion post for now and I’ll write about them in more depth another time. I’d definitely recommend both for anyone who loves dark and gritty introspection. Rooney’s witty and satirical style of writing, as well as her delicious bluntness, (only rivalled by Plath’s similar sharpness), made it a complete joy to spend a bus ride or two indulging in. The voices of both Sally Rooney and Sylvia Plath are very important, from a woman’s perspective as well as an aspiring author. They give their female protagonists / narrators so much complexity and depth, something which I’ve found many authors find trouble doing or miss out on. U go girls.

Reading Intentions

Happy New Year friends. 2018 was a wild one for me. Some really cool things happened and some really cool things didn’t happen. I’m not one for resolutions these days and don’t particularly believe the new year culture of leaving everything you want to change until January 1st. You can start making positive changes at any time and I’ll be keeping that thought very firmly in mind this year. The only things I’m really focusing on in 2019 in broader life is to get so qualified for a job that they won’t be able to turn me down after university (even if they try), maybe explore my creativity some more and do some meaningful things with my free time. That being said, I’m also promising to let myself rest more, work less and be better with money. Because I’m the WORST when it comes to money. So anyway, after that erratic out pour of things I’d like to do differently, despite maintaining the (very stable / actually quite fragile) outlook that I’m an alright human, here’s my reading specific intentions for the year ahead.

Books to Fear

(Follow me !!

Books to Fear on Instagram )

This year I’ve decided to reform my bookstagram. I only started it in summer as a way of talking about books without annoying my friends on social media who don’t particularly want to hear about them. However, it’s allowed me to reflect on my reading habits and made me aware of something I’m already doing. Gravitating towards books that empower or books that defy tradition is something I’ve always done. I’m fascinated by inspirational stories and authors who subvert the literary norm. I love to see poetry combined with prose, or crazy use of syntax that revolutionises the way we read. I want to consume more literature that explores the unspoken, or the content that society doesn’t necessarily want us to hear about. Our education system is censored, our online lives are censored, everything is becoming increasingly controlled and I want to actively resist that notion. That’s why this year I’m giving my instagram account a bit more focus. From January, I’m only going to be posting about the books that I think fulfil this criteria. This might mean that my reading lists become catered to finding these books and sharing them with the world, but I don’t think there’s any harm in that.

F**k the reading challenges

I hate reading challenges, always have, always will. I’m sick of seeing people trying to justify why they’re better than someone else for reading a hundred books or fifty books or twelve books. Any reading is good reading. I want to talk about books in a way that makes reading seem the accessible thing that it is. People shouldn’t put off reading because they think it’s some kind of competitive sport. I loooove to read lots but I’m not putting any pressure on myself this year to read anything unless I’m doing it for enjoyment (or study purposes obviously- uni sucks!)

Buy reasonably, borrow frequently and shop independent

As I said earlier, I’m terrible with money. Anything finance related gives me the shivers and I hate looking at my online banking in case I get the fright of a lifetime. I want to be in control of my spending, and whilst buying books isn’t at all the cause of my financial worries, I want to make sure my money is going to the best places. So how am I going to do this? Well, there’s a few rules that I’m promising to stick to.

-NO MORE AMAZON. Amazon is cancelled! Not only do they take massive amounts of money away from publishers and small businesses, they’re also notorious for paying little tax and treating their workers like shit. Thank u, next.

-Shop from independent bookshops when I can, as well as ordering directly from publishers, especially independent ones. Gotta support the future of these amazing businesses (and more selfishly, the industry I want to be a part of)

-Borrow more books from the city library / from friends. I always have people offering me books to borrow but my materialistic brain MUST have it for myself. I’m the worst. I have no room left so this is the perfect escape from suffocation by books.

So yeah, that’s it really. Nothing strict, nothing that’s going to cause pain and suffering. Just small changes in mindset and lifestyle that will hopefully make my reading more enjoyable and make me a better reader too.

Best Books of 2018

It’s time for the obligatory post about which books I have enjoyed most this year. Whilst I don’t particularly believe in books being comparatively better than each other, especially when they’re as far and wide apart in differences as some of these are, I do love to make a list. And making this list allows me to reflect on my year of reading. It has been an amazing year for books. I’ve submerged myself in the online book community, IMG_0607particularly bookstagram, and I’ve followed so many amazing people in the industry on twitter which has provided me with a wealth of great recommendations and literary comedy galore. This year has given me the motivation I really needed to finish my degree, and I’m confident that when the time comes I’ll be more than qualified for my dream job. Okay- let’s get down to the books!

The Mars Room

I posted an in-depth review of this book when I demolished it in a matter of days this summer. If you’re interested in reading that, click here. But oh my- it was so good. I was talking to someone about the book recently and they mentioned it had them feeling conflicted. Torn between rushing to finish, to find out what happens to the protagonist reflecting on her new life in an American women’s prison, and trying to go slowly IMG_0599enough to take everything in, because the style of writing and the content is so delicious. Every interaction and every word seems intentional and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I think the thing which stood out to me was the breadth of thought which this book provoked from me. It left me drained on the sofa thinking about everything that’s wrong with the world (or America more specifically): the justice system, views of gender and sexuality, women’s traumatic experiences- all the stuff that’s very relevant to current on-goings with a certain presidency. The book’s release was perfectly timed and allows crucial reflection on all of this, all curated by Kushner’s eloquence and fearless writing.

The Yellow Wallpaper

Another one which will stick with me for a while. For a review of this one, click here. As a staple book associated with feminist literature, I felt this was a must read for this year. It didn’t fail to meet my high expectations. Although I don’t normally enjoy classics with a very elaborate and flamboyant writing style, I didn’t find this too difficult to contend with and it felt more contemporary than it is. I loved how Gilman presented a very dark and honest situation, frequently experienced by many women, into a sort of satirical masterpiece. It’s about a woman who slowly sinks into insanity after having a baby. Her husband doesn’t help matters, confining her to a room plastered with yellow wallpaper-

‘The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.’

The portrayal of the situation is difficult to read but also sends you into an equal state of delusion as you rush to finish it. The Yellow Wallpaper is a very beautiful piece of writing, years ahead of its time, and I can certainly see why it has made it onto the list of canonical feminist works of literature.

Fathers and Sons

Turgenev wrote Fathers and Sons in 1862, one year after Alexander II enacted the Emancipation of the Serfs in Russia. I loved this book! It was one of the novels on my reading list for the Russian literature module I’m currently studying, and I found it very enjoyable to read as well as to analyse. The period surrounding the novel also sparked my interest, so watch out for a blog post on Russian Realism (real) soon. The story explores the generational conflicts between the men of the 1840s, slowly moving towards more liberal views, and their sons, men of the 1860s, also known as the ‘impatient radicals’. I found this overarching theme interesting to think about because of how applicable it is to our own political climate in 2018. Amidst Brexit and the on-goings in parliament over the last few years, its been hard trying to navigate a politics which suits young and old, and this has definitely caused some division. Get a taste of Russian lit with this classic and I promise you you’ll be reading War and Peace or Anna Karenina in no time.

The Dark Circle

When looking over my list initially, I completely forgot about this book because it was the first one I read in the first week of January. Despite this failure on my part, I really did love it. Its a humorous and intriguing tale of human experience, boredom and friendship between a group of people who have nothing in common. The only thing that remotely links them is that they have all contracted Tuberculosis, and they have all been summoned to the first NHS treatment center. I loved the uniqueness of Grant’s story and the two main protagonists are really likeable and interesting characters. Read this for a glimpse of post-war Britain and what its like to be confined to bed rest with too many people you’ve never met. For a full review, click here.

Summer Will Show

This has got to be one of my top books of the year. Warner’s novel changed the way I see books, and generally inspired me to get the pen out and actually start writing something myself. The story follows Sophia, an aristocratic and privileged English woman. She is managing her country estate whilst her husband parades around Paris with his mistress who Sophia cannot stop thinking about. After a family tragedy, Sophia decides to go to Paris and deal with him straight up, but she arrives during the beginnings of the French revolution. GOD its so good. Every element is perfection. From lesbian affairs to revolutionary action, this book literally has everything. I love a historical fiction that tackles so many issues and this one does exactly that, AND its articulated to perfection. You won’t necessarily love any of the characters, but that’s one of the things I liked most about it.

The Terrible

I literally wrote a review about this one the other day, so to read that click here. I’ll give you a quick summary of why it made it to this list though. The unique combination of poetry and prose orchestrated through this memoir was fantastic. It hooked me in. The narration was sly, introspective and drove me on the find out more about Yrsa Daley-Ward, a black girl growing up in the North-West of England, my home. Seeing her upbringing from her perspective, in conjunction with my own memories of growing up in the same area was really interesting, and I generally just loved how honest and bad-ass it was to read. More Yrsa, please!

How To Be Both

I’d never read any Ali Smith before this year and I’m so glad I took the plunge. She has a very unique voice and its really hard to find a writer who I can pick up again and again and never get tired of hearing from them. The story encapsulates grief, innocence, identity, all built through a complex narrative mirrored in the second half by a completely new one, following a spirit who is lost and inaudible and on show in an art gallery. I’ve heard this book can be read either way round, and some versions of the book are published with the second narrative printed first. I don’t know how reliable this information is but the parallel lives aspect is certainly present. Please read because I don’t think I can explain it any more eloquently than that!

IMG_0627

Women and Power

Mary Beard. A real life babe. She’s had a lot of grief online this year and I just want to profess my support for her right here and right now. She is one of the coolest women ever and I love how she tackles feminist issues from a historical and academic perspective in this book, published at the end of last year. Its just come out in a really pretty paperback copy too if you’re interested, but the hardback is super cute and tiny and perfect for carrying round in your coat pocket in case of emergencies. The book is essentially a mini manifesto which explains what the patriarchy is, and looks into the way its origins are rooted in history, politics and literature. Its a humorous but also a really important read and I highly recommend it for any of my feminist queens out there (or any of you who still say ‘men are equal to women already’- you guys suck!)

Even this page is white

A very powerful collection of poetry from a very important voice in the world right now. Vivek Shraya explores everything from trans rights to black identity to political crisis in this stunning collection and I find myself returning to it again and again. There’s something very dramatic about the simplicity of this poetry. Its not like Rupi Kaur simple though. Everything is intentionally stark and almost empty feeling but then also full of truth and a sense of tiredness with the way things are.

Written in History

This is one of those books that anyone who loves history will enjoy. It’s a gorgeous little collection of letters from and throughout time, from Stalin to Catherine the Great to Rosa Parks and even to literary figures like Oscar Wilde and Pushkin. Simon Sebag Montefiore has a way of making me want to read everything historical, and this was yet another fantastic read that dragged me right into its many historical settings. I’d definitely recommend this book if you like things to dip in and out of too. I’ve loved nothing more this autumn than picking this up at a random page and seeing what era I get transported to. Very unique and memorable read!

Everything Under

Where to begin with this one? I’m surprised I haven’t written a full six page review of this one already, one because its the most talked about book of 2018, but also because I genuinely fell in love with everything about it. Including Daisy Johnson- she is a national treasure. The way her words literally pour out of the pages of this book really struck me. Every word grips you and her writing style is visible from a mile off. I loved all the characters, I loved the retelling of Oedipus, I loved the really crucial issues she tackled. The playful language, the tenderness of the story. So beautiful. I’ve been recommending this to anyone and everyone, but particularly people who don’t read a lot. This is the kind of book that makes you want to read. GOD bless Daisy Johnson. This one is definitely up there with the best of the year.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Another one which has stuck with me over the year and provoked many interesting conversations. I was gifted this book after having an interview at Vintage Books (part of Penguin Random House), very exciting because I got to read it pre-release and I’d been waiting ages for it after seeing the iconic cover. The narrative is a first person account from an unnamed upper class girl in Manhattan. Her parents are dead, her ambitions have faded and she’s lost her purpose. She decides she wants to sleep for a year, facilitated by a concoction of prescription narcotics. It’s a super funny and simultaneously dark read and I highly recommend not reading it if you’re even the slightest bit overwhelmed by life- you might be tempted to ditch your responsibilities for an extended nap.

The Water Cure

And here we are. At the end of the list, with the very best book of 2018. I’m proud of you if you’ve actually read this far by the way. This book convinced me that it was going to be amazing as soon as I read the first chapter. Everything about it makes me want to read it again and again. The way Sophie Mackintosh crafts a story really is beautiful. Her prose is almost poetic, and the wistful and dark journey it takes the reader on is quite like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The Water Cure follows the isolated lives of three sisters and their parents who live on a secluded island, safe from the danger on the mainland- men. When their so-called safety is compromised, we get to watch the girls, their strange rituals and their perspectives of the world shift. It’s a very unique plot and I loved the dystopian aspect, although as Mackintosh said at the book launch I attended, the issues are very present in our lives today and the time of the novel is intentionally left elusive. She’s got a new book coming out in 2020 about motherhood lotteries and I couldn’t be more excited, I feel like I belong to the book community more and more when I see authors grow from their very first debut. I read Sophie’s short story which won the White Review prize and ever since then I have been hooked by both her personality and her art.

So there is it, 2018 is over. Here’s to more reading in 2019, shopping at indie bookshops and supporting indie publishers, and raising awareness for books like these, which leave a lasting mark and change the way we see the world as we know it.

Yrsa Daley-Ward: Memoir & Poetry

Prior to the event I attended last week, orchestrated by Penguin Random House in the hope of expanding accessibility to publishing, I had never heard of Yrsa Daley-Ward or her writing. And boy, have I been missing out. At the event, we had the opportunity to take home a few books, and I coincidentally chose two of her works, not realising that they were both by the same author. I devoured The Terrible, a memoir about growing up as a black woman in the North-West of England, and her poetry collection, Bone, in a matter of days. In fact, I finished The Terrible in less than twenty four hours which is insane for me, considering how much time I usually like to spend getting to grips with a text. Generally speaking, I can always tell if a book is worth reviewing if I found myself turning page after page in a race to get to the end, or if I felt compelled to think harder and understand more about the characters. These books ticked both boxes for me, and so here I am to curate my thoughts.

bpneLet’s start with The Terrible. It’s a beautiful memoir written (almost entirely) from the perspective of a young girl named Yrsa, who delivers her story chronologically with her memories delivered through digressions amidst the main narrative. The style is heavily poetical, and Yrsa’s narration gives a unique take on the themes of the book. She discusses her life from childhood onward, delving into her experiences of being a black girl growing up in Chorley in a single parent family, not far from where I grew up as a child. As a character, she highlights how black women, caught between religious family and a heavily white-washed community, often themselves feel as if they are a contradiction. Her identity is a mass of tension, because she cannot articulate entirely which part of society she belongs to, or who she wants to be. I loved how she explored the generational conflicts in the black community, not dissimilar to how many experience a tension between trying to live up to the expectations of strictly Christian grandparents, and attempting to be part of a more liberated and expressive society.

‘Something is also happening concerning how I feel about mirrors, at precisely the same time. I know what I look like, secondhand. Adults say pretty. I cannot fathom this. My reflection looks to me like lines and circles that can’t work out. Large eyes and too much limb and thickness and black black skin and there are several contradictions in the dark.’

Yrsa is a lovable narrator. You feel everything that she feels- you laugh when she laughs, but you also want to cry for her when you see what kind of experiences she has to face. From the playground bullying which alienates her, or the hypersexualisation she faces throughout her transition into womanhood, her experiences embody too many terrible aspects of the world we still live in today. The way we watch Yrsa navigate her own sexuality and the sense of power she finds in embracing it is another really interesting Untitledand thought-provoking element. One theme I found particularly hard hitting was her discussion of mental health. Whilst it has become a topic so frequently spoken and written about, particularly in the last year or so, I found her account of her experiences to be a drastically unique take on the symptoms she suffers, and it was refreshing to break away from an educational narrative in this shamelessly honest memoir. She lays it out how it is, and we get to follow every step of her journey, including the very first moments of her battle with depression. The theme continues throughout, and her approach to the subject is encapsulated when she is faced with death in the family, as well as a suicide attempt from someone close to her, emphasising how prevalent mental health problems and how they often effect people from marginalised communities. The way the author writes about this topic is so honest and it really struck me as a very simplistic, poetic and emotional, whilst emotionless, account of how it is to experience poor mental health, as well as grief, and learning to support others through their pain.

‘All I can think is,

beauty makes everything bearable.’

In a similar way to The Terrible, Yrsa writes Bone, a stunning collection of poetry which is brutally honest and embodies all that it means to face up to the truth. It delves into the meaning of life itself, and encapsulates the authors experiences from her memoir, but in a more abstract and philosophical direction. I think poetry is definitely harder to talk about, particularly when there’s a sense of absent plot. Some of the overarching themes that are visible include desire, truth, love, faith, loss and understanding the inner self. Rather than obliterate it by trying to explain it to any degree, I’ll just say that I very much enjoyed it, especially when read along side or very near after the memoir aforementioned. She’s a beautiful writer and I really hope I can create anything half as beautiful one day. Here’s a few poems I particularly enjoyed- thanks for reading.


‘If you

were married to yourself

could you stay with yourself?

 

My house

would be frightening and wild.’


body

‘If I’m entirely honest, and you say I must be,

I want to stay with you all afternoon

evening, night and tomorrow

pressed into you so tightly that we don’t

know whose belly made what sound,

whose heart it is that is thumping like

that

until I don’t know if the sweat on my

chest is yours or mine or ours.’

 

 

The Terrible:

Pages 59, 38

Bone:

Pages 58, 66