Timepiece

Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan, Faber 2018

Hannah Sullivan’s T. S. Eliot prize-winning debut collection comprises three long-form poems: You, Very Young in New York; Repeat Until Time, and The Sandpit After Rain. Her ambition in the age of the 9-second attention span is commendable. Likewise the confidence to allow the long lines of these poems their elbow room.

She says her aim with You, Very Young in New York ‘wasn’t to write a “poem” but a kind of essay in verse.’ Yet there’s plentiful poetic form on display, shape-shifting between terza rima and rhyming couplets amongst others.

She addresses her younger self in an unflinching, documentary style, capturing a particular, privileged, young life, oblivious to the luxury of ‘waiting to get older’, the impatience for things to ‘happen’ even in the expected excitement of New York.

Nothing happens. You try without success
The usual prescriptions, the usual assays on innocence.
I love you to the wrong person, I feel depressed,

… But the senses, laxly fed, are self-replenishing,
Fresh as the first time, so even the eventual

Sameness has a savour for you. Even the sting
When someone flinches at I love you
Is not unwelcome, like the ulcer on your tongue

Her self-exposure can make for uncomfortable reading. At times it resembles the kind of thing teenaged girls are warned against posting on social media, for fear it will show up years later and scupper their careers:

You are thinking of masturbating but the vibrator’s batteries are low
And the plasticine-pink stick rotates leisurely in your palm

There is a whiff of ‘too cool for school’, a passive-aggressive showing-off, which may indeed be the preserve of a privileged twenty-something:

Your psychiatrist said it would help your productivity,
But it feels like drawn-out sex on coke, like something dirty.

When she stands outside herself and considers the world of which she is a part/apart, this brittleness comes into its own and flowers into beauty:

Overripe in September they need to rest in the icebox, sitting with their bruises.
All summer you have been dreaming of Fall and its brittle confection of branches.

From peaches to novelists in Starbucks

Picking like pigeons at the tail of the morning croissant,

Shifts in tone accompany shifts in form, turning deftly from the wryly pertinent description of an ex-lover’s foreplay as ‘like someone testing the grass for a picnic’ to the bluntness of ‘trying out the bad banana taste of Durex on your tongue’.

Likewise from the height of self-absorption to what is surely a riff on T. S. Eliot’s ‘April is the cruellest month’:

Now plans have changed, it is April, and the first hot day of the year
Has exploded from nowhere. Skin is as profuse and white as funeral flowers.

Subtitled The Heraclitus Poem, Sullivan calls Repeat Until Time ‘an essay on repetition and history’. It is still personal, but there is a shift towards the philosophical. This is the hinge of the book. The theme, the familiar idea that one never steps twice in the same river, is addressed head-on in the opening lines:

1.1
The picked mosquito bites scab over, resin sap.
The bites are as itchy as ever, and the anaesthetic river
Still concentrates its cold, but the ankles are different this summer,
Less lean, veinier, slower in the river.

The poem includes within its scope pollarded trees, cats auditioning for a movie based on Poe, Henry James at the start of WW1, theories of the nature of the universe, the first atomic detonation … a potentially huge territory, but it is grounded in the particulars of the everyday:

2.1
Days may be where we live, but mornings are eternity.
They wake us, and every day waking is absurdity;
All the things you just did yesterday to do over again, eternally.

But, forever fumbling for the snooze button, the gym is there
Forever, and the teeth silt over yellow to be flossed, and there
Will be, in eternity, coffee to be brewed…

It is also the most poetically self-referential of the three poems:

3.3

Some words have also lost their pairs:
Some rhymes are only painful memories,
Recycled like family sagas at Christmas, cliches.
The almost-instincts of minor poets.

3.31
What will survive of us?
Larkin thought the answer might be ‘love’,
but couldn’t prove it.

There are intriguing ideas to consider:

1.2
When things are patternless, their fascination’s stronger.
Failed form is hectic with loveliness, and compels us longer.

With the suggestion that it is this, its limitations, that lies at the heart of linguistic compulsion:

4.2

Language with its simple action words, verbs:

Language with its ‘past’ and ‘future’ and ‘present’,
Pointing to what it doesn’t know, I love you, now, babbling of unicorns.

Meanwhile (in the shadow of the detonation of the first atomic bomb)

4.4

Now nothing will ever be the same again.
And everything will be as it always was.


Historic moments are as tiresome as first nights,
All lines to fluff, after being cooped up,
The meaning eroded by gabbling in rehearsal.

Contemplating the birth of her child and the death of her father, The Sandpit After Rain is the most personal of the poems. It is arguably the most accessible but not for that reason so much as for the clarity of its compelling imagery:

how the foetus lolls in the womb
swelling like a wine cork left out on the counter

how he wasn’t himself
why the new waxwork lolls in the bed,
the colour of A4 rubbed with Nescafe,
the distressed colour of fake parchment;
blank, dismayed, the worn-off face
of a cloth doll a girl is bored by

Here is the realisation that ‘birth and death happen on adjacent wards’, no respecters of our notions of proper sequence, ‘that both are labour, halting and starting’.

Three Poems covers a lot of ground from ‘belly of the beast’ autobiography from the perspectives of both a young self-involved woman to a more mature one whose experience and identity is inevitably bound up with others: the loss of a father, the birth of a child. The philosophical breathing space of Repeat Until Time acts as a bridge between the two, leading to the book’s closing lines (surely with a further echo of Eliot’s Four Quartets):

A mother and the child you were.
You have been among the living twice,
And loved both times.
You have fallen in the lurid air.

There is a sense of constant movement in terms of both restless formal variation and subject, and the seeking of an ongoing forward momentum with the acknowledgement that such is largely illusory. It is a book I admire rather than love (one for the head rather than the heart, perhaps) though it repays re-reading and thinking about as there is indeed much to appreciate.

Afterword
I regret to take issue with the cover blurb’s assertion that Three Poems offers the ‘unique perspective of a brilliant, new female voice’. If Sullivan’s perspective is unique, why is it immediately generalised (and simultaneously limited) to ‘female’? Can a woman who writes not simply be called ‘writer’ or ‘poet’? It is an unfair burden of responsibility to place upon her: the implied assumption that for a woman to write is to represent all women and not only herself.

The Ballad of Suburbia

It’s two hundred years to the day since the Peterloo Massacre, on the occasion of which Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy. So here is something from my own archive, for the ‘interesting times’ in which we’re living. (I’m not all bards and blackbirds, either.)

The Ballad of Suburbia

A salesman came to suburbia –
nothing unusual there
except every household invited him in:
he was so softly spoken and woefully thin,
sipping tea on the edge of his chair.

His business was life assurance,
he’d not give them the hard sell:
he could see they lived life by the book,
had never once leapt before they had looked;
oh, he knew their kind only too well.

They got on like a house on fire,
he put one and all at their ease
while he fed them tales of fire and flood,
and other such things as chill the blood
like (perish the thought!) disease.

Now these were ordinary, neighbourly folk,
the proverbial salt of the earth.
They listened politely and offered more tea
While he warmed to his theme of the agony
Of under-insuring their life’s true worth.

***

No-one recalls quite how it occurred
that he bought a house in the street,
became a pillar of the neighbourhood,
a breath of fresh air that did them all good –
how he swept one and all off their feet!

He ferried the local kids to school
in a top of the range 4×4,
stopped on the yellow zigzag lines
before waving them off at the door.

He shopped online and ran errands
for those who were not so able,
filled tax returns, asked Alexa,
got broadband and installed cable.

He alarmed the car, rewired the house,
he put up security lights.
He chaired the local neighbourhood watch
and ran popular self-defence nights.

He was, they agreed, a real treasure:
how had they managed before?
So many years deaf and blind to the dangers
posed by plausible-sounding strangers
who go selling from door to door!

They felt, to a man, so much safer
now they never went out after dark,
shaking their heads at the state of the nation
while their kids went AWOL inside Playstation
and the swings turned to rust in the park.

‘You cannot be too careful these days –
Don’t you watch News 24? –
terrorists, knife crime, asylum seekers,
the selfish gene, the pound getting weaker.
Not us though: we’ve never been more secure.’

***

Soon, their greetings were clipped like their hedges
on the few times they happened to meet.
Meanwhile, indoors their curtains twitched,
friendships were ended, allegiances ditched
as a cold war broke out in the street.

So the people live in the shadow
of the deathly fear of fear,
see its likeness in all they encounter
and its whisper is all that they hear.

Tell a lie three times, it’s as good as true:
who needs proof when they’ve got Twitter?
No, you haven’t a right to a different view;
get over it, loser. It’s a joke you’re so bitter.

Lives are lost in endless un-newsworthy wars
and jobs in a global recession.
Wives lose their husbands to work and TV
and husbands their wives to depression.

This, all this, must be somebody’s fault –
there must be someone to blame!
Are you at a loss for whom to accuse?
The tabloids will readily give you some clues
and your scapegoat a chant-able name.

‘Cause each of us would rather forget
the dark we keep inside –
the heart of every fear: the fear in every heart –
that softly, quietly, bides its time
and takes love and life apart.

So beware, good people of suburbia –
forget all else but remember this please!
Beware the blue-eyed charmer
who offers to sell you rogue warnings like these.

every morning, whether or not

As though asking me to witness a gruesome miracle, a domestic Turin Shroud, Bee holds up the sheet of kitchen roll with which she has blotted the grease from her cheese on toast. She says that dairy is bad for her skin. I probably shouldn’t be eating the cheese either. It’s the tasty Mexican one with the peppers, left over from chilli night. I weigh the likelihood of a flare of indigestion against the savour of it. I eat the cheese. In the category of items likely to unsettle my stomach, spicy cheese barely makes the long-list these days.

Is it weeks now or only days that it’s been raining? The sky has become a vast warehouse of marked-down stock rapidly approaching its expiry date. We sit snug in our houses, waiting it out, with only the News for news and the endless scroll of status updates to connect us to each other. An inscrutable algorithm judges us, determines which of our prayers will be seen and heard, by whom and how many. See how we bait our hooks! See how we shower each other with glib hearts! Today I cannot stomach any more. We venture out for a quick pond and Tesco’s combo-outing. At the petrol station Tesco’s we buy milk and haribos. I shouldn’t eat the haribos either, because of the gelatin, but just this once I want the delivered promise of empty sweetness.

Walking around the water we see that, improbably, the little egret is still there, looking wholly misplaced in this scruffy, suburban overflow pond. I struggle to reconcile myself to its presence. The swans flew off months ago and haven’t been seen since. I am glad it is there. But I do not trust it to be all right. The pond is scuzzy; the water level dropped significantly over the spring, transforming the moat between the shore and the willow tree island into a sucking mud-wallow and, despite the heavy rain since, the water at the pond margins has a flocculent and fly-blown, jellied look to it.
‘I don’t know why he stays, Bee,’ I say. ‘Perhaps it’s just his home.’

Emergency sirens scream at us on our way back. Nothing out of the ordinary. The shopping bag is heavy on my wrist. I rub it tenderly, nursing a soreness from weeding out the front at the weekend. This rain has turned the lawn into a meadow. Next door complained about the weeds, airing to visitors his genuine bafflement that we do not jump to it with alacrity now he has expressed his wish that we do something, ‘take action’. I do something. I stroke the grasses gone to seed. I admire the clover and search for, and find, the leaves of self-heal. If the rain ever stops I will mow the lawn, but not yet. I want a moment’s peace with the world in which I live. Is it too much to ask to feel at home here, to be allowed sufficient room as I am, without meeting anyone else’s expectations? I want to be able to drink my mug of tea in the morning and read my book and watch the small grey-brown slug abseil down the rain-beaded window and not need to justify such small pleasures to others as an acceptable response to this world, at least for this moment. I would like to find the courage to be happy, even (especially!) amidst the many things about which I cannot possibly be happy.

*The title is from ‘Morning Poem’ by Mary Oliver, from her collection Dream Work.

A Heaviness Inside Each Feather

Falling Awake by Alice Oswald
Jonathan Cape 2016

T S Eliot Prize shortlisted
Costa Poetry Award 2016

Backlist reader that I am, over the past year or so Alice Oswald has become my favourite contemporary poet. I appreciate never knowing where she will lead me in a poem whilst trusting that something astonishing will be revealed which will raise questions that refuse an easy answer. She is erudite and intelligent, with an instinctive eye for the visionary within the ordinary, especially with regards to the natural world and our relationship with it.

My willingness to trust her comes from a sense of her poetic integrity, the feeling that she herself is discovering the poem as she writes it: I don’t imagine her composing a killer last line and reverse-engineering the poem in order to get there. This focus on process rather than destination results in a sense of continual unfolding/enfolding. Her subject becomes the inevitable changing of mortal forms when acted upon by time, within time.

She herself has said (in BBC Radio 4’s Book Club programme) that a poem on the page is like a musical score: it is a description of a performance, with the words being punctuation for the silence (paraphrasing T S Eliot) which contributes as much as the words do. The book’s final poem, ‘Tithonus: 46 Minutes in the Life of the Dawn’, is a performance piece beginning in darkness (represented in the book by a black page). Immortal but without eternal youth, his is a voice without end: like the dawn it is constantly beginning and is gone without ever quite happening ‘but is always almost’.

The ten rhyming couplets of the opening poem, ‘A Short Story of Falling’, echo Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ (‘To see a world in a grain of sand/ and heaven in a wild flower’) in their apparently simple musicality:

It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall again

Nothing is still. All is in constant motion and transformation:

It is the secret of a summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower

as we move from the natural world to the human realm:

then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience

and back to the natural world to close:

which is the story of the falling rain
that rises to the light and falls again.

This sense of movement/momentum prevails throughout the book: the focus is (paradoxically) fixed upon the process of becoming, rather than upon states of being. In ‘Swan’, a rotting swan lifts ‘from the plane-crash mess of her wings’ to see

how thickly the symmetrical quill points
were threaded in backwards through the leather underdress
of the heart saying…

what a waste of detail
what a heaviness inside each feather

The swan imagines herself as a bride, recalling Mary Oliver’s ‘all my life / I was a bride married to amazement’ (‘When Death Comes’).

The other side of amazement is a bewilderment that results in a fractured or dislocated articulation. Orpheus (‘Severed Head Floating Downriver’) and Tithonus are compelled to speak without ever getting out what they mean. Orpheus’ sense of self is eroding as he floats along (‘the water drinks my mind’) while in ‘Flies’

This is the day the flies fall awake mid-sentence
and lie stunned on the window sill shaking with speeches
only it isn’t speech it is trembling sections of puzzlement

Just as we are standing off at a safe distance, ‘they’ shifts without warning to ‘we’:

there is such a horrible trapped buzzing wherever we fly
it’s going to be impossible to think clearly now until next winter.

It’s intriguing. The flies evidently lack the benefit of the page’s white space, its silence. And yet there is an immediacy here: not ‘thoughts about’ something. What does Oswald mean to convey by foregrounding this insect sound? And how does it relate to expression/comprehension through language, conveyed through the rhythm as much as the understanding of the meaning of words (which is, after all, a large part of poetry)? I need to live with these questions a while.

The beauty and vividness of the imagery holds everything together. Take the badger in ‘Body’ meeting with his body’s death, for instance, who

went on running with that bindweed will of his
went on running along the hedge and into the earth again
trembling
as if in a broken jug for one backwards moment
water might keep its shape

The title Falling Awake evokes the tension between the gravity acting upon our physical being and awareness as the alert mind simultaneously takes flight. Not for her the transcendental ascension narrative: inescapably earthbound, her vision soars yet.

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Harry Ransome, verger of the Church of the Holy Rood, taps on Nan’s window. He’s encased in a wear-shiny three-piece, with a cake tin under his arm.

He folds upon himself, resisting the armchair’s insistence on comfort, knees fretting his elbows. I think of the trestle tables in the church hall.

It’s bread pudding: cool, dense and claggy as Dorset itself.
‘A little dry, I fear,’ his words stridulate, eyes beseeching/bellicose behind their bifocals. He might spring either way.

Does even an insect-man have feelings to hurt? God knows Nan’s one of the village’s blunter instruments, bless her.

‘It’s nice,’ I say. ‘Just right.’

I was stuck. The project I am working on was insisting that I slow down, that I stop grasping for the words but rather let them come in their own good time, and that I practise listening out for them, as I might listen for the returning swifts. I know this, of course, but still… So I did an exercise by Ali Smith in The Creative Writing Coursebook (Edited by Julia Bell and Paul Magrs. Macmillan 2001). The instructions were to write a story of 100 words in ten minutes and then to change the genders, but nothing else, and see how much the story shifts and why. May I introduce you, then, to Harriet, Harry’s identical twin sister:

Harriet Ransome, verger of the Church of the Holy Rood, taps on Grandad’s window. She’s encased in a worn twin-set, with a cake tin under her arm.

She folds upon herself, resisting the armchair’s insistence on comfort, knees fretting her elbows. I think of the trestle tables in the church hall.

It’s bread pudding: cool, dense and claggy as Dorset itself.
‘A little dry, I fear,’ her words stridulate, eyes beseeching/bellicose behind their bifocals. She might spring either way.

Does even an insect-woman have feelings to hurt? God knows Grandad’s one of the village’s blunter instruments, bless him.

‘It’s nice,’ I say. ‘Just right.’

Well! Harry appears to be an ascetic, grasshopperish man who has come to share some cake with his friend. Harry is a widower. He bakes. He’s an interesting specimen of inquiry, maybe slightly repellent but worthy of respect nonetheless. Crucially, his motivations are not up for discussion. His sister, meanwhile, would be pitiable if she were any more than a stock character of ridicule: a dessicated old spinster intent on snaring Grandad with cake and not even a good, rich indulgent cake, at that, but one made from stale bread, Harriet herself being stale bread in female form: past its best, unwanted, surplus to requirement. Why don’t we just rip her to pieces and chuck her in the pond for the ducks? Harry has my slightly uncomfortable regard: the best Harriet can hope for is my pity. She is more likely to earn my scorn.

Does even an insect-wo/man have feelings to hurt? In Harry’s case this is offered as a genuine enquiry. Do I imagine in Harriet’s that I detect a whiff of ‘she’s not a “proper” woman so it doesn’t matter if her feelings are hurt’? Assuming she has feelings. Assuming she has something more than lukewarm tea weakly thrumming in her veins. I fear the blunt instrument that is Grandad is merely the latest blow that’s been dealt her, that she’s been crushed by. ‘Bless him’ confirms we are on Grandad’s side. Harriet is certainly not his equal, as Harry is Nan’s. And ‘my’ comment, that the cake is just right – could that not in this context be interpreted as a patronising knee-pat?

Why do ‘I’ feel that I need to be conciliatory towards Harry, minding his feelings, whereas to say the exact same words to Harriet is to be condescending towards her, implicating me in the imbalance of power? And/or, more worryingly, reveals me to be more akin to her than her twin brother. Turn it about as I might, whichever angle I view this from it looks like the same thing: internalised misogyny. And that is not an easy thing to sit with as a woman in her mid-forties.

Harriet didn’t exist until ten minutes ago but in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s Harry was a real man, made of scant flesh and, to my child’s eyes, improbable length of limb. I was playing on the floor in my Nan’s living room when he tapped on the window. Nan was in the kitchen, slicing spuds to be made into the best chips in the world. He really did remark on the cake’s dryness and I really did want to reassure him that it was nice. I don’t recall what Nan said.

Postscript
In a reverse-Proustian manoeuvre I made a tin of bread pudding a few days after writing this. It was just as I had remembered.

Reading wrap-up: April 2019

Highlights

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Published by Faber, 2018. I read the e-book, borrowed from the library on Overdrive.

Well, this is a conundrum! It’s the second of her novels that I have read and, once again, I might have expected to hate it but actually loved it. Why? I cannot abide being bludgeoned with a lecture in a novel and Kingsolver landed many a hefty didactic punch. And yet, reading her, I feel that I am in a safe pair of hands. I have yet to get to the bottom of why I will allow her to preach so. Is it because of her characters? Is it the satisfying patterning of her prose?

Alternating the chapters through two protagonists runs the risk of disrupting the story’s flow and frustrating (or at least compromising) the reader’s engagement. I quickly became engrossed in both parallel stories: contemporary Willa and 19th Century Thatcher Greenwood both learn that this house they have “inherited” and are living in is literally without foundations. In short order their lives begin to fall around their ears, with their personal catastrophes playing out within the family, the wider community and ultimately on a worldwide scale… and back to the personal again.

To be sheltered is to be safe, or to be protected from harsh realities (which itself may be a culpable privilege). To be unsheltered may be a terrifying and potentially fatal exposure to the elements. Or it could be the source of freedom.

Disappointments

Answering Back: Living Poets Reply to Poetry of the Past edited by Carol Ann Duffy. Published by Picador, 2008. I read the paperback, borrowed from the library.

Fifty contemporary poets respond to a poem of their choice: what a great idea! As with all anthologies there are hits and misses. I regret to conclude that in many cases the original poem was the stronger of the two and the smirking smart-arse school of poetry was over-represented. I found myself thinking of the Salvator Rosa self-portrait whose Latin motto (loosely!) translates as “either say something better than silence or shut the hell up”.

It is worth reading, though, for the clutch of excellent poems and it is always good to be introduced to poets I would not otherwise have read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Violent and Fragile Mystery

Human Work by Sean Borodale
Cape Poetry 2015

Feeding people, and all that entails: a time-consuming, daily task that isn’t work, that too often takes me away from the work in hand, the attentive simmering of words, such that I rarely pause to consider what may be going on a fingertip’s depth beneath the surface.

Sean Borodale wrote Human Work amidst the pots and pans (it’s easy to imagine the jam- and blood-splashed pages) but while his kitchen is the arena of this work, its subject reads as an enquiry into the nature of the heart(h) of the home, of the fundamental sustaining of our human-animal selves. What are its concerns and its communal purpose (he is feeding family and visitors, not just himself)?

The first thing to become apparent is how violent a process it is. In the opening poem, Stewed Apple, the flesh in the pan ‘bellows and blows’ and he uses the technical term, ‘flensing’: this is not so much cookery as going whaling (with Captain Ahab?).

In Making Apple Juice with Makeshift Apparatus (and what a grand metaphor that is for the making of a poem, pressing out perception from the pulp of experience with the best words one has to hand – never mind for the actual business of living!) the work is revealed to be ‘part violence, part sacrament’.

There is a simmering restlessness throughout. In Apple Jelly (ongoing), the opening line, ‘I was asking is a body ever at peace?’ finds its answer later in Elderflower Champagne: to Serve

… you undress your principles
and expose the constant of you rummaging through perception
for an exit.

Nothing holds steady. Everything is in constant transformation. Life is feeding on life and it is not a delicate business.

the eaters wait:
staring,
sat in the trees of their nerves
like rooks.

Globe Artichoke

There is as much death as life in this book, to the extent of (metaphorical) murder:

Beans I kept

like a killer keeps a corpse –
in the freezer five months.

Broad Beans

Yet this prevalent death proves to be inextricable from birth, or rather from pre-birth:

Each stone opened like a wooden womb
or a small sarcophagus;
the vision – very mute nevertheless –
of the small pip, quite naked, pale:
two white foetal feet pressed sole to sole over each sought tree.

Damson Cheese in Detail (Part 1)

The further into the book one travels, the more the tenuousness of our being becomes apparent. The fragrance of Blackcurrant Leaves Steeped in Cream is ‘like the heat of a body / left in a bed’ while in Pears: to Poach (a Meal for Others)

the vapours climbed unsteady – through the existence of air,
vagrant and stray

even the line is stretched to breaking point.

I noticed that many of the lines that caught my eye were the closing phrases or stanzas of poems, which suggests that I was more taken with Borodale’s conclusions than with the reaching of them. On reflection, that would seem a fair assessment. I would also have welcomed a greater variation of tone and pace at the level of the collection as a whole. It may be concerned with the keeping of body and soul together, but it is to the mind that this book most appeals.

It’s not a comfortable collection, this, and I like it the better for that. This maintaining of our human selves – our tenuous and ultimately futile project – what a violent, bright-dark and fragile mystery it turns out to be, encountered and enacted through the ingredients we have to hand in our daily routine.

Reading wrap-up: March 2019

A month in which my book-buying ban went all to blazes.

Highlight

The Overstory by Richard Powers. Oh, this book! Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it would have been  my winner. Everyone I know who has loved it has said, “I’ll never look at trees the same way again!” I think I will never quite look at people the same way again. I don’t recall my ever being someone for whom humans are the only (or even, at times, the primary) species of interest. This book made me weep with rage, frustration and inconsolable sadness. But that’s not to say I didn’t love it. I enjoyed following the seemingly separate narratives as they came together. I felt for the characters (human and arboreal) through what came next. I appreciated having plenty to think about. It was so worth the four months I had to wait for it from the library.

Disappointment

(Not the book as a whole, which I actually enjoyed, but a particular aspect of it.) Witch Light by Susan Fletcher. Corrag is a solitary girl with a knowledge of herbs. She is also a witness to the Glencoe massacre. Put the two together and she’s set to be burnt for a witch. She is, quite simply, in love with life, however difficult and dangerous, and likewise with the natural world. I loved the vivid descriptions of her moment-to-moment experience of the Highlands. The actual love story felt superfluous, as though the author lacked confidence in Corrag as a sufficiently interesting character without having her sighing over a Jamie Fraser-alike. A disappointment, then, in a book that otherwise has much to recommend it.

Reading wrap-up: February 2019

Highlights

The most magnificent birthday book-haul I have ever received! Many of these came from friends on Litsy.

My most impactful read of the month was Finding Baba Yaga by Jane Yolen. Baba Yaga and I go back a long way. I chose to read this book one chapter at a time last thing at night, so that it could best do its work on me.

On the surface it’s a simple tale but as with all great folktales, it has resonances that grow more pronounced the longer you spend in their neighbourhood. Jane Yolen’s version has themes of female friendship, the parent/child relationship, and the power and policing of the spoken word.

The verse proved to be the ideal form for weaving together the familiar, if strange, world of Baba Yaga and the contemporary story of teenage runaway Natasha’s flight from an abusive/negligent family. I feel prose would have required too much exposition and would have seemed contrived. Poetry gives both stories the space and opportunity to encounter each other and co-exist, enriching one another in the process.

Shot through with barbs of wit and moments of real sadness, I think it’ll stick with me a while, this book.( And, on a personal note, it has shown me a potential way forward with a writing project of my own that stalled when I became afraid of it.)

Reading wrap-up: January 2019

January was a month in which, in retrospect, I could discern neither rhyme nor reason as to the criteria a book or author must meet in order to merit inclusion on various prize lists.

Highlights:

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013. Bright young Dellarobia Turnbow heads off up the mountain to escape from her disappointing marriage by the most banal of means and instead is stopped in her tracks by what she initially thinks is a miracle (the forest green and yet burning) but which turns out to be a disastrously misplaced migration of monarch butterflies. I loved the intelligence of this book, paired with Kingsolver’s respect and compassion for her (not terribly sympathetic, albeit understandable) characters. I enjoyed how a global topic (climate change) was grounded in the everyday struggles of an ordinary woman as out of place in her life as the migrating butterflies. Most of all, I appreciated Kingsolver’s craft. I hadn’t read her before and, while she is didactic at times, it didn’t take long for me to feel that I could trust her as a writer.

How To Be Both by Ali Smith. Winner of various prizes. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014. Comprising the stories of teenager George, grieving for her mother, and 15th Century Italian painter Francescho, two different versions of this book were released: one beginning with George and the other with Francescho. While I was initially wary of the authorial firework display (and didn’t particularly enjoy Autumn either) it remains playful and doesn’t descend into heartless cleverness. I became intrigued by thoughts of how my perceptions of the story might be different had I picked up the other version (mine had George first). There was plenty to think about altogether: art, time, grief, gender. Reading recalled vividly to mind the experience of being engrossed in Peter Ackroyd novels during my A-Levels: there is a similar theme of reality and time being less solid and linear than we tend to perceive. In a sense, I briefly got to “be both”, too!

Disappointments:

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017. Lonely Linda becomes attached to a young family across the lake but suspects that something is not right: is her need to belong stronger than her need to speak up and act on her suspicions? It had a promising theme around beliefs/thoughts and responsibility towards others (and circumstances in which the two become incompatible) and I thought Fridlund captured the sense of place, Linda’s loneliness and the horrible foreboding very well. However, when Something Happened it was all of a sentence and the rest of the book unravelled thereafter. I felt she made inferences at times that her story-craft hadn’t earned and, as a whole, the book read like two or even three novel plots stitched into one. And what the hell was that ending?! Structurally unsound: proceed with caution.

The Power by Naomi Alderman, a Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and Granta Best of British Writer. Girls discover that they have the power to cause electric shocks through touch. They “wake” this power in grown women and, lo and behold, men are suddenly a lot less dominant. I was curious as to where this would go and amused by the sly humour but ended up feeling bludgeoned by the escalating awfulness. It paints a dismal view of human nature: that we inevitably default to shrieking like chimps and tearing each other’s throats out. We have accepted a narrow and dysfunctional notion of what constitutes power (i.e. power over another) and the book reflects that. In short order the women are behaving in all the ways that misogynistic men/ societies currently do and, my word, does it escalate!

It’s easy to imagine there would be a backlash if such a thing were to occur and I’m not suggesting that female dominance would be all cake and cuddles but what’s presented here is a gender-reversed continuation of patriarchal norms. I’m at a loss to understand all the whooping and hollering this has occasioned. And am I the only one cringing at the obviousness of Margaret Atwood’s cover endorsement? “Electrifying! Shocking!” Really?! (How on Earth am I supposed to trust her judgement after that?) I don’t feel shocked: I feel numbed.