Interview with Marjorie Lotfi Gill by Marta Donati

Marjorie Lotfi Gill was born in New Orleans, spent her childhood in Teheran and lived in the USA before moving to London in 1999 and finally Edinburgh in 2005. She is a poet, performer and creative writing facilitator. She runs Open Book, a project that promotes reading groups for the vulnerable and for adults in the community. She also works with schoolchildren and adults in community settings, exploring issues of journey, assimilation, flight and immigration through her initiative The Belonging Project. Her poetry has been performed on BBC Radio 4, has won several competitions and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has recently published a collection of poems, Refuge (2018), based on her experiences in Iran in the 1970s. More about Open Book can be found at: http://www.marjoriegill.com/open-book/ More about The Belonging Project can be found at: http://www.marjoriegill.com/projects/the-belonging-project/

Marta Donati: Your recent collection of poems, Refuge, is a remarkable meditation on the concept of leaving, be it a house, a country or a family. Could you tell me about the genesis of the collection?

Marjorie Lotfi GillGiven the current crisis around refugees and migrants, I’m often asked to read my poems about Iran and my family’s experiences of living through a revolution, loss and assimilation. I thought it would be a good idea to put all those poems in one place, so that reading them together might give you a more complete picture of how those experiences might change a family, or affect your outlook. The sequence of poems “Pilgrim”, which is loosely based on my father’s life and makes up the second half of the pamphlet, was commissioned by the St Magnus Festival in Orkney to accompany some new musical compositions by Stuart MacRae. I decided to include it because it feels a kind of parallel to the other poems in the pamphlet as it follows many of the same experiences through the eyes of one person.

MD: Refuge seems to be concerned with two different kind of ‘spaces’ that naturally influence each other: the space of the self, which is personal and related to family roots, and the space of politics, which is filled with news reports and photographs. How do you navigate this relationship between the personal and the political?

MLG: In short, I don’t. My poem “On seeing Iran in the news” is making that exact point: I wrote that poem because when people ask me what I think of Iranian politics, I never know what to say because my views are shaped by personal experiences. I’m not trying to make a political statement with the poems, but expose the living breathing world that politics impacts. (The most political poem in the book is possibly “Route”, which was written in a fury at the BBC’s suggestion that one might understand the real dilemmas of refugees by playing an online game.)

MD: You often write in response to art. The poem that gives its name to the collection – Refuge – is written in response to ‘Les Voyageurs’, a series of sculptures by French artist Bruno Catalano. Each sculpture shows a person in motion, holding a suitcase, but missing parts of their body. They are, in a sense, characters you can ‘see through’: they blend with their surroundings. There is a tension between the movement of these bodies, and the sense of disembodiment provoked by migration. Could you say a bit more about your encounter with Catalano’s work and why you decided to write a response to it? Does poetry help you understand and relate to other works of art?

MLG: I wrote “Refuge” because when I first encountered that Catalano sculpture, I immediately recognised the life of a refugee. To me, the sculpture is remarkable because it actually stands, despite missing such a large part of the body, and on first encounter I spent time initially trying to figure out how it worked. That puzzle is true for refugees too: despite having lost so much, they manage to hold on to their suitcases and stand up, keep going. The end of that poem refers both to our unwillingness to allow refugees into our societies (written at a time when refugees are often kept in “camps”) and the inability of some refugees to do more that simply make it onshore, and hope for more for the next generation.

I find that artwork helps me express what I’m trying to say in poetry, rather than the other way around. If I’m struggling with a subject that I want to write about, often the form of an artwork will help me. (This sculpture of an oversized rifle by Cornelia Parker, for example, helped me to articulate the way that we’ve grown accustomed to guns in America in this poem – https://www.rattle.com/the-gun-in-its-holster-by-marjorie-lotfi-gill/.) Of course, the act of observing an artwork closely in order to use it in writing does help me to understand the work better, to consider it more closely, and to draw connections between it and my own experiences, so I’m sure that the result works both ways!

MD: Reading your work, I often felt that art and poetry are somehow telling a ‘truth’ that news, television and reportages are not. One of my favourite poems of the collection is Route, which I read as a particularly angry and frustrated piece. In this poem you respond to BBC’s interactive Syrian ‘journey’: ‘if you were fleeing Europe, what choices would you make for you and your family? Take our journey to understand the real dilemmas the refugees face’. Does poetry represent a kind of ‘activist’ counterpart to the rhetoric of television and journalism in your mind? Would you say it is a healing device?

MLG: I don’t think of poetry as much as a device for healing as an expression or revelation of where we are right now. So that poem, for example, was intended to point out the madness in suggesting that anyone, even someone with life experiences like mine, could ever understand the “real dilemmas refugees face” from the comfort of their living rooms. I’m coming to the conclusion that the job or poetry – or at least one of its jobs – is to hold a mirror to the world, unmask what we’re too busy, or tired or distracted to see. It’s up to the reader to do something with that information.

MD: I’d like to speak a bit about your role as a performer. Do you generally write poetry that is already destined to be performed? What kind of layer of meaning does performing add to your writing?

MLG: I don’t think of performance when I write, but I do want the poems I write to be in my voice. Part of the process is reading drafts of poems out loud, to hear what they sound like (where the natural pauses are, where the line breaks could help with a play on language), and to make sure it sounds like me. (The danger, of course, is that you write the same poem over and over again!) Each time you perform a poem, it’s a different poem because the audience is different, is listening for different things; it would be impossible to write a poem with a particular audience or performance in mind. (That said, I did write “Pilgrim” sequence for performance at the St Magnus Festival in Orkney.

The written form in Refuge is slightly different from that performance draft because I knew the audience wouldn’t have a chance to see it again, and would need things to be a little more laid out, a little more joined up.)

MD: Throughout your career, you have worked with women’s charities, refugee groups, LGBTQ+ groups, disadvantaged children. Your poetry is filled with moments of solidarity: the opening poem of the collection, Gift, narrates a beautiful encounter between your Muslim grandmother and your Methodist mother in Teheran. Could you tell me about your work for and with the community and could you share with me a ‘gift’ you have received, a moment that has proven particularly meaningful to you and your writing?

MLG: My aim in writing with these communities of women (whether it’s refugee and migrant women, or those living with domestic violence) is always to honour their experiences. I don’t regularly ask about difficult times (though of course they often come up), but want to know about the other parts of their lives, to let these women know that they are valued, worthy, that their experiences as a whole person matter. We do that often by writing as a group, weaving the offerings of those around a table into a communal poem, which not only allows those who feel less confident to participate, but also brings the group together as a whole. My latest joy is training others to do this work through Open Book, so we can expand how many groups we can support in the long run.

I have been so lucky with gifts – I am regularly given the gift of trust, when women I’m working with tell me their stories, and trust me to use them wisely. I’m also often thanked by participants for this work, for listening and valuing where they come from, rather than their difficulties – and each one of those bits of feedback feels a gift to be treasured. To offset this kind of intense work, I was exceedingly lucky to be offered the Poet in Residence role at Jupiter Artland, where I was given the precious gift of time, silence and space for two years to walk alone in their woods and write whatever I wanted. Most importantly, I’ve been given the gift of encouragement by my husband, who suggested I return to poetry rather than law when my youngest child went to school, and has made space for my work ever since.

MD: Finally, I am curious to know about the poetry that inspires you and that you would recommend to others. Do you have a favourite poet and a favourite poem?

MLG: I have loved the work of Adrienne Rich since I was in my early 20s – and since then have added others like Sharon Olds and Sinead Morrissey. Philip Levine’s poems, particularly the close up look at the every day, stay with me wherever I go. John Glenday’s poems have a stillness with depth that I admire and return to again and again. And last but not least are the poems of John Burnside; I almost always carry his poems with me because his poems are a good reminder of the duality of our daily life, the inward and the outward.

One favourite poem?! Really? It would have to be an Adrienne Rich poem – maybe “Roofwalker” or “Prospective Immigrants Please Note” or likely “What is Possible (for its lines “If the mind were clear/ and if the mind were simple you could take this mind/ this particular state and say/ This is how I would live if I could choose: /this is what is possible.”). The last lines are a challenge to myself that I carry with me

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Feel Free by Zadie Smith

Review by Amber Lascelles

Review: Zadie Smith, Feel Free: Essays (St Ives: Penguin Random House, 2018)

Zadie Smith’s latest essay collection, Feel Free, accompanied me on the train to London en route to a Black British Writing conference at Goldsmiths. Opening its azure blue cover, I read ‘North-west London blues’ as the train sped through Watford Junction into the centre of the city. How fitting, then, were Smith’s wistful words about gentrification in the London borough where she grew up, writing about Willesden Bookshop, soon to be turned into a block of luxury flats. She assuredly states that the owner (a formidable book-worm named Helen) ‘gave the people of Willesden what they didn’t know they wanted’. For Smith, the bookshop’s carefully curated collection of ‘radical’ ‘weird’ and ‘classical’ fiction was an antidote to the market-driven logic of neoliberal capitalism currently driving small, community-focused businesses out of London. Smith is masterful at stressing the local and the personal whilst mapping her thoughts onto a global world of shifting politics, economics and injustices. Indeed, this first essay is reminiscent of a blues song; an elegy dedicated to the ghosts of Britain’s state-supported libraries and independent businesses buried in the graveyards of inner city London which luxury apartment blocks and Instagrammable cereal cafés perch upon. Gentrification is certainly bleak, but Smith suggests we can find glimmers of hope if we look closely enough. Above the tiny library that replaced the Willesden Bookshop a beautiful local museum has taken up some of the property developers’ precious space. For culture to survive within the consumer-materialism logic of late capitalism, we must advocate its value and its relevance. This is what Feel Free seeks to do, carefully considering the value of cultural forms in the world and in our lives.

Feel Free.jpg

Although Feel Free is Smith’s second authored work of non-fiction, she remains best known for her novels. Her award-winning debut, White Teeth (1999) is a tale of multicultural Britain that draws inspiration from Greek epics as it chronicles the intertwined lives of a Bangladeshi and a mixed Jamaican-English family. In the early 2000s, White Teeth propelled Smith to the centre stage as the young voice of multicultural Britain. This label has remained problematic for Smith, particularly in light of Britain’s constant denial of its imperial history in tandem with a diversity agenda which obscures the realities of life for people of colour, especially under its pro-Brexit Conservative government. In Feel Free, Smith subtly challenges the fiction of Britain itself. The essays are organised under fitting sub-headings. In Part I (‘In the World’) Her meditations on Brexit and the ‘fencing off’ of communities as the nation continuously erects borders in both public and private spaces, and the Wordsworthian language considering England’s changing seasons due to climate change, lament what modern Britain seems to have lost. But this is Smith, and the hopeful, convivial vision of White Teeth is not yet lost, even within the decidedly bleaker genre of critical non-fiction. Part of Feel Free’s redemptive vision of the world lies within Smith’s attention to beauty, to art, and to reimagining the everyday spaces and places we inhabit. Notably, Smith quotes quotes Zora Neale Hurston in the epigraph: ‘People can be slave-ships in shoes.’ Feel Free is a container, a mass, and a plethora of ideas with the ability to spark infinite possibilities in the mind of its reader.

Throughout the essays, Smith crosses genres effortlessly to explore what seemingly disparate art forms can learn from another. In Part II (‘In the Audience’) Smith considers the relationship between writing and dancing, and the lessons of ‘position, attitude, rhythm and style’ that writers can learn. If Fred Astaire portrays the aristocracy and Gene Kelly represents the proletariat through their specific styles of dance, this appears to Smith as a choice between ‘the grounded and the floating’. Here dance sets up a dichotomy between the ‘commonsense’ language of the everyday, loaded with intent, versus the language of the surreal and the transcendent, which leads us to questions rather than answers. Whilst Beyoncé commands armies of fans with her covetable brand of female empowerment (her body obeys her, like her male dancers and her fanbase), Prince appears like a mirage on the stage, fleeting and mysterious like a secret. It is interesting that different responses to culture, positionality, place and space breed different forms of creativity.

At times, the essays in part III (‘In the Gallery’) feel a little idiosyncratic due to their particularity; some pieces are perhaps most relevant to the direct consumers of the particular painting or film the essay focuses on. Speaking personally, I found some of the essays about books I have not yet read or films I’m not familiar with slightly alienating. However, the range of the collection means there is something everyone can engage with. It is also worth noting that whilst care has been taken to make the essays flow coherently, the constraints of certain writing styles are sometimes evident. The Jay-Z interview, published in The New York Times, is one example of this: we miss Smith’s presence in this piece, and we are left wondering if the rap mogul was indeed able to reach Smith’s high expectations as a self-confessed ‘hip-hop head’. A stand-out essay is Smith’s response to American photographer Jerry Dantzic’s photographs of Billie Holiday. She chooses a form of ventriloquy to interpret an image of Holiday in lipstick and pearls, adorned in a fur jacket outside a grocery store. Holiday reads like a captivating fictional character. Smith’s words, in the second person, are simultaneously dark, satirical and playful (‘You boil an egg in twinset and pearls’) as she attempts to articulate the black pain and joy in Holiday’s music. Yet, she is still illusive to us, and Smith obscures as much as she reveals, just like the photograph.

In the final section (‘Feel Free’), ‘Love in the Gardens’ comforts us, suggesting that despite the fences being erected across Europe we can still find solace in some public spaces. After Smith’s father died, she moved to Rome in a moment of grief-stricken spontaneity. She meanders through the memories of trips to Italy with her father to deliver a nuanced point: borders can open up to people in the form of public gardens. Smith moves from the impossibly perfect, yet inaccessible beauty of the English country garden, to the Borghese Gardens in Rome where tourists and locals alike abandon Italian sensibilities in a cosmopolitan space. These are her ideas of freedom: ‘In Italy, where so many kinds of gates are closed to so many people, there is something especially beautiful in the freedom of a garden.’

In the foreword, Smith humbly mentions her writer’s anxiety that came with stepping out of her fiction comfort-zone. She is not an academic or a trained philosopher; her ‘evidence’ is ‘intimacy’, the quotidian moments that spark a thought or feeling about the world. There is something tongue-in-cheek in this, as there often is in Smith’s prose: isn’t all writing simply thoughts and ideas on a page? In this sense, Feel Free invites us to think about our own ways of seeing the world. In the foreword, she notes that the essays were written in a pre-Trump world but the book has been published in a post-election landscape. Smith is very much in dialogue with her readers, as she offers a final word: ‘To the reader still curious about freedom I offer these essays – to be used, changed, dismantled, destroyed or ignored as necessary!’ It is this humility, rare to find in writing charged with such political and emotional relevance, that makes Feel Free a blue-sky antidote to these dark times.

Amber Lascelles is a PhD student at the University of Leeds researching neoliberalism, black feminism and the body in the works of four contemporary black women writers.

 

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

Review by Sarah Clouston 

Jackie Kay’s novel Trumpet (1998) takes place in the aftermath of jazz musician Joss Moody’s death.[1] Set in both London in 1997 and Glasgow’s music scene in the 1960s, it moves between the narrative of Joss’ life, and the events following his death. In a eulogistic style Kay’s narrative provides responses from several characters who knew Joss, with each providing different perspectives on his demise once his biological gender is revealed to be female. This revelation causes a media frenzy, and so Trumpet begins with his wife Millie, hiding from the paparazzi. The novel recognizes and explores the separation between a person’s biological gender and their identity. Joss’ adopted son Colman struggles to understand the news that his father was born biologically female and subsequently releases details about his father’s life to an unfeeling, self-serving journalist, Sophie Stones, who is ruthlessly seeking material for her forthcoming book. Meanwhile Joss’ wife, Millie, exhausted from the constant media attention, escapes to their Scottish seaside home to work through her grief alone. Colman ultimately decides to cancel the exposé on his father and finds some peace in accepting his father’s identity.

Jackie Kay Trumpet

Kay has stated that the novel is loosely based on the life of jazz musician Billy Tipton, who like the character of Joss, lived the majority of his adult life as male, yet was biologically born female. Individual cultural identity or heritage is a notable interest throughout Jackie Kay’s work and Trumpet articulates many of the themes prominent in her writing: identity, adoption, displacement, beginnings, and gender. Sex and gender are positioned through the private and public spheres in which the novel takes place. Different accounts of Joss are given from his wife, his son, a journalist, a fellow musician, a doctor, a registrar and an undertaker. These multiple perspectives allow Kay to present opinions from a varied number of narrators, including those who did not know Joss well, in order to consider the reception of transgender persons in British society. Eventually, most of Kay’s characters consider Joss’ sexuality to be separate from his gender and identity.

Joss poses challenges to normative conceptions of gender when a doctor and funeral director both struggle to categorize him on his death certificate. Kay suggests a need to expound the myth that gender and sexuality are co-dependent, using a distinctive jazz aesthetic throughout the novel as a platform to explore the fluidity of gender, suggesting that the creation of identity can be continuously remade and performed. During a solo Joss becomes ‘a girl. A man. Everything, nothing. He is sickness, health. The sun. The moon. Black, white. Nothing weighs him down. Not the past or the future. He hangs on to the high C and then he lets go’ (136).

Questions and concerns surrounding race are also central to Trumpet. Born to a black father and white mother, Joss is disapproved of by Millie’s mother. Joss’ song, ‘Fantasy Africa’ invokes the African diaspora and experiences of displacement. Joss claims, ‘Every black person has a fantasy Africa’, but believes that to visit ‘the real Africa’ would have a significant  ‘affect’ on his music (Trumpet, 34). Kay subsequently situates her readers within Black diasporic communities in twentieth-century Britain but, by connecting Joss’ heritage with jazz music, she suggests an improvisational approach towards identity. She reminds readers of Joss’ Scottishness in an attempt to recalibrate what it means to be Scottish, English, or Black British. Kay focuses not only on the issue of transphobia surrounding these characters, but also the impact of colonial histories within modern Britain.

Kay also explores the effects of adoption on the self, as Colman, struggling with his identity, feels that he doesn’t belong to either Joss, Millie, his birthparents, Scotland or England. Colman subsequently seeks company in the tabloid journalist Sophie Stones, who can only offer insult to both Colman and his father. Meanwhile, his struggles with identity are compounded by similar attempts to understand his own masculinity. Irene Rose identifies Trumpet as a ‘resolutely post-patriarchal display of multiplicity of masculinities’.[2] Joss’ anatomy complicates Colman’s understanding of what masculinity should look like, but in his final acceptance of reading his father’s letter we are presented with how alternative masculinities may be expressed. Importantly, the letter between father and son is the first time Joss is afforded a narrative voice in Trumpet. Kay’s novel ends with a positive, openminded vision for countering social injustice as Joss tells Colman, ‘You will be my father telling my story’ (Trumpet, 277).  Kay suggests the potential and productivity that can arise from both tolerance and creative writing if Colman challenges his energies into generative forms of storytelling, rather than fuelling a tell-all exposé.

 Interestingly, each chapter of Trumpet is labelled after sections in a magazine or newspaper: ‘House and Home’, ‘People’, ‘Interview Exclusive’ etc. Here Kay crosses the boundaries between public and private lives and reflects upon a sensationalised tabloid press culture withinBritain. Constant references to the exposé nature of the novel which Stones intends to write about Joss reminds us of the media’s ability to present fiction as news. Learning about Joss’ life and choices through other characters’ narrative voices offers us, as readers, the opportunity to gain a more nuanced view of Joss’ personality. Kay’s choice of form further inscribes the separation between gender and sexuality as Joss’ sexuality is not connected to his gender until the newspapers tie them together after his death.

Ultimately, jazz culture binds this novel together. Jazz enables Joss to ‘lose his sex, his race, his memory’ (Trumpet, 131). Despite the unforgiving responses to Joss’ sexuality, his musical talent cannot be denied, and remains untouched by the media. The swinging London music scene of the 1960s provide a crucial setting for the liberation of the self, where identities can be remade and renegotiated. Kay brings jazz and identity most poignantly together when the registrar hands the pen to Millie to complete the ‘gender’ section of Joss’ death certificate: ‘It was as if the pen was asking her to dance’ (Trumpet, 81).

This novel is seminal to transgender thinking. Published just before the turn of the new century, Kay offers us, her readers, new non-binary modes of thinking about identity, sex and gender. Just as her chapters mirror the compositional technique of call and response, Trumpet calls its reader to action their understandings of non-heteronormative sexualities, racial differences and gender constructions. Kay denies any silencing of non-normative identities and in doing so has created a striking, thought-provoking novel.

References

1 Jackie Kay, Trumpet (London: Picador, 1998).

2 Irene Rose, ‘Heralding New Possibilities: Female Masculinity in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet’, in Posting the Male: Masculinities in Post-War and Contemporary British Literature, ed. by Daniel Lea and Berthold Schoene (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003), pp. 144-6.

Sarah Clouston is a full-time postgraduate student at the University of Leeds reading an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature. Her dissertation researches the phenomena of Modernist magazine culture: ‘little magazines’, and the poetry of Mina Loy. Her other research interests include postcolonial Britain, indigenous literature and Modernist poetry. She holds a BA in English Literature from the University of Leeds.

Symposium: Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women’s Writing

An Events Report by Lucy Sheerman

I went to the PGCWWN conference on Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre with a sense of burning shame. I wanted to address a theme from the conference call out that fascinates me – the idea of shame which is so often linked to reading romantic fiction, namely ‘The perception of romance as a low-brow genre, and the extent to which this perception offers critical and intellectual insights into debates about how we define women’s writing and cultural contribution’.

In answer to the question about why romance is so often and so frequently denigrated Sarah Wendell editor of the romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Fiction writes, ‘Are you a woman? Look in your pants. That could be why.’ It is a genre ‘written mostly by women, mostly for women’ with what Nora Roberts calls ‘the hat trick of easy targets: emotions, relationships and sex’.

I had been struck by the descriptions on Wendell’s website of how readers had had their romance books confiscated, thrown away and even burned and the resonance with Charlotte Bronte’s description of how her father burned her collection of ‘foolish love stories’ which had belonged to her mother. It seems that the idea of shame is rooted in the earliest origins of and attitudes to romantic fiction. Later, her husband Arthur Bell Nichols insisted that her friend must ‘burn’ Bronte’s letters to her. According to Bronte their ‘communication’ was something which ‘men don’t seem to understand’ and ‘dangerous as lucifer matches’.

The representation and correlation of sexual desire with both shame and fire is pivotal in Jane Eyre and in its subsequent iterations, Rebecca and Fifty Shades of Grey. In Jane Eyre desire erupts in the flames set by the passionate wife, flames which also threaten to engulf Jane literally and metaphorically. In Rebecca the narrator’s gaze is continually drawn to DeWinter’s compulsive smoking which masks the blaze or blush of his own shame and the experience of repressed and conflicted desire. Fire and burning, the heat and blaze of skin, eyes and touch in Fifty Shades of Grey is figured as sexual arousal and desire without literal fire. No longer a metaphor it is the experience and state of desire and climax. What does such a shift in meaning suggest and what has happened to the representation of ‘burning shame’?

My focus has mostly been on the authorial process at work in romance – I am interested in how writers use the conventions of the form and how these can, in turn, be read. The PGCWWN symposium offered a wide-ranging analysis of romantic fiction with approaches ranging from literary theory to social history and political manifesto.

Amy Burge gave a keynote on the representation of masculinity and nationality in the Mills & Boon Modern series. She looked at how the representation of otherness – foreignness and masculinity – is portrayed in the figure of the exotic Alpha heroes of these books. Her talk included a meticulous breakdown of the frequency of different nationalities for heroes, (how many Italians, Greeks, Sheiks, etc – the made-up tiny European principality had its own category) as well as a rather stunning spreadsheet of the buzzword titles which look like putative and subversive titles in their own right:

His, Billionaire, Millionaire, Boss, Tycoon

Italian, Sicilian, Billionaire, Boss

Greek, Tycoon, His, Boss, Millionaire

Martina Vitackova, by contrast, gave an account of the huge success of a white South African author writing romance novels in Afrikaans which, despite the focus on white protagonists, attracts diverse and widespread readership and sales. In part this must be because, according to Vitackova, it is almost the only contemporary romantic fiction currently available in the language. However the reception resonates with the link between escapism offered by reading romantic fiction and the process of othering or displacing desire which this can also permit implicit in Burge’s work and in Jane Eyre. I’m thinking, in part, of Esther Wang’s article ‘Watching And Reading About White People Having Sex Is My Escape’ about the experience of racial dissonance between the reading and written worlds.       https://www.buzzfeed.com/estherwang/why-i-love-watching-and-reading-about-white-people-having-30?utm_term=.fdDEEQgqPD#.mmz33pwdqa

Many of the papers concerned themselves with the nature of the metaphoric freight which sexual desire carries in romance novels. Political ideology, social and sexual dissonance, the othering of desire onto a foreign, domineering male challenger, the possibility of happiness within a compromised and far from ideal social order, sexual agency and control are played out within the trope of sexual attraction, desire and consummation. Fran Tomlin considered the use of the romance genre in the work of A.L.Kennedy and in particular its negotiation and resistance of the HEA (Happy Ever After) trope. Val Derbyshire discussed how Penny Jordan reflected the social impact of economic recession through characterisation and story arc in two of her Mills&Boon titles. Alicia Williams also took an instrumental view of category romance and the degree to which writers engaged with social issues. She looked specifically at the way in which the ‘Dear Reader’ letters which open many books set up direct communication between reader and author. This gesture, she argued, subverts the assumption that these books are only to be viewed as escapist fantasy and have been abstracted from real-world concerns.

Veera Mäkelä looked at the development of female agency in the novels of Mary Balogh while Deborah Madden, considered novels of1930s Spain and Portugal whose politically engaged heroines subvert the tropes of romantic love and an HEA in narratives which mirror their own resistance of the social and political worlds they inhabit. Fiona Martinez also considered the link between feminism and romance and the degree to which the tropes of romance permit a place to renegotiate and interrogate the feminine.

And so back to burning shame. The OED gives the roots of the word shame as ‘infamous man or woman’ and ‘to cover .. covering oneself being the natural expression of shame’. In her paper Elizabeth Dimmock discussed Fifty Shades of Grey in relation to Bakhtin’s theory of carnival. The reception and readership of the book linked to a ritualistic subversion of normative behaviours ‘played out via kindle under a cloak of erotic invisibility’ which reflects that of its protagonist whose sexual contract with his lover specifies ‘no piercing of skin’. Grey masks the redness and soreness he causes by spanking with the application of cream – an act both tender and dissembling as the evidence of his desire and need for control is covered up.

All in all? A shame it had to end so soon. So much to think about – I’m still mulling over the talks and chatting to participants and following up leads that were tantalisingly trailed throughout the day like so many breadcrumbs into the forest. Laura Vivanco gave a detailed review of all of the papers on her blog which is a comprehensive record of an inspiring day: http://www.vivanco.me.uk/blog

I’m enormously grateful for the chance to take part and for the generous award of a bursary which supported my travel and accommodation expenses.

The Photographer’s Wife by Suzanne Joinson

Review by Carly Robinson

The Photographer's WifeThe title of Joinson’s second novel belies the main focus of the story which is essentially the life and experiences of the protagonist Prudence Ashton. Naming the book after one of the key influential but periphery characters is indicative of the evasive and shifting nature of the narrative. Joinson weaves intricate character interactions within a somewhat convoluted plot which make up the complex web of relationships and their subsequent unfolding. Moving through two main time frames, Joinson runs two parallel stories of Prue’s life side by side as the reader skips backwards and forwards between her privileged but lonely childhood in 1920’s Jerusalem, and her starkly contrasted adulthood in an English seaside town, bringing up her young son as a single parent and struggling artist.

We first meet Prue as she encounters one of the pivotal characters of the novel; William Harrington, as he travels to meet his new employer, and Prue’s father, Charles Ashton. This initial meeting where eleven year old Prue deduces Harrington’s identity but is overlooked by him on the train is somewhat indicative of the alienation and distance in operation between all of the characters within the novel. Prue’s father is an architect tasked with a bizarre endeavour to redesign the Holy City and the 1920’s sections of the narrative follow the disparate characters he has drafted together to help him ‘modernise’ the city as well as those opposing his seemingly colonial enterprise; setting the scene of political, social and cultural unrest in early 1920’s Jerusalem.

Prue is the driver through which we meet the other characters and view their interactions, but this presents a challenge to the reader in terms of identifying with the characters and understanding their motives and the interplay of relations. I was unsure whether this tangible distancing was an intentional philosophical commentary on the true nature of the self as a lone survivor of life’s traumas, or a failing to convince of any real connections. Joinson holds all her characters in what feels like suspended animation, moving through a  series of startling and disturbing events, some of which seem thrown in for shock value, rather than adding great character insight or value to the story. This is a real shame as she tackles a vast array of complex issues within the plot; the nature of love both sexual and familial, jealousy and conflict within relationships and the self combines with a social and historical commentary of Jerusalem in the interwar period.

Some of the tensions wrought between these characters have real depth and insight, with the potential to be developed into a stronger analysis of human relations. The divided narrative is a compelling use of form as it does keep the reader engaged to find out what happens in each time frame. Joinson’s insightful portrayal of Prue’s loneliness and lack of confidence as an only child is compounded by the inadvertent neglect by her father, lack of peer group friendships and a series of traumatic incidents throughout her life which leave her a fractured survivor, questioning her abilities as a mother.

Both sections of the novel are pulled together at the end as Joinson employs a mystery style plot structure weaving the past into the present as the reader attempts to understand what Harrington wants from Prue all these years later. Using this increasingly hostile interaction with Harrington as a catalyst, Joinson represents a resolution of Prue’s inner turmoil and conflict in the final crescendo of the plot, as Harrington’s revelation and actions kick start Prue’s maternal protectiveness and enable her to move on with her life through the production of her artwork.

Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

Review by Jahnavi Misra

Rush Oh by Shirley BarrettShirley Barrett is a screenwriter and film director, and Rush Oh! is her first novel. It depicts a small Australian whaling community from the early nineteen hundreds, in the disingenuous and unembellished narrative voice of the protagonist – Mary Davidson. The thrill and the tragedy inherent in traditional, small-scale hunting of a creature as majestic as a whale is vividly brought out through an unobtrusive recounting of whaling incidents. These whaling sequences are accompanied by tiny illustrations that bring the experience to life.

The story is told from the perspective of Mary, who is the daughter of a celebrated whaler, George Davidson. The book is a record of a year of her life as a young girl, growing up in the company of raucous whalers in Eden, New South Wales. While the first part of the book is about her as a young girl, the later chapters reveal to the reader that Mary is now a middle-aged woman, writing this story to better acquaint her nephew with his whaling ancestry. The digressions into Mary’s personal stories through the first half of the narrative – her need for romantic love, her affection and resentment towards her sister, her eulogy for her brothers – have greater emotional impact in the fade-out of the later chapters, when the reader is told that she had simply wanted to write a straightforward record of the whaling culture. It is almost as if the other, more personal parts of the story had furtively found their way into the narrative of their own accord. The reader, thus, not only gets a glimpse of a unique and declining whaling lifestyle, but also becomes privy to Mary’s personal joys and frustrations, especially in relation to her short-lived romance with John Beck – the part of the narrative that she hopes to remove before showing it to her nephew.

The novel portrays a time of transition – whaling is dying out, race relations between the aborigines and settlers is changing, and World War I is breaking out; all of which effects the Davidson family quite directly. These transitions mean that almost no relationship survives without considerable scars – one such relationship that stands out in the novel is between Mary and her sister, Louisa. The pretty and hard headed Louisa is lost to her family and the reader when she elopes with an aborigine whaler, Darcy. She, like John Beck, never returns to Mary, and the reader is left with a tragic portrait of a woman who has constantly been thwarted in her affections, but has never let cynicism get the better of her. Mary, although much older, is still alive and kicking, having thrown herself headlong into church activities, and awaiting the arrival of an exciting new Reverend, to replace the old, boring one.

Rush Oh! is a novel that is full of heart, effortlessly transporting its audience to the small town of Eden, as it was in the year 1908. Mary is a robust and elevating narrator who does not linger on her heart-breaking experiences for so long as to make them seem maudlin, or so fleetingly as to make them seem superficial. Mary strikes a note so exact that the reader comes to trust her implicitly, never questioning her perspective of all the beauty and tragedy that surrounds her.

An Interview with Gail Jones

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Gail Jones is the author of two short-story collections, a critical monograph, and the novels Black Mirror, Sixty Lights, Dreams Of Speaking, Sorry, Five Bells and A Guide to Berlin (longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize). She is currently Professor of Writing at Western Sydney University.

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V.B.: Over a timespan of twenty-five years you have achieved recognition as an important female author, not only on the Australian but also on the international literary scene. Your fiction has been translated into thirteen languages; it has, among other distinctions, been longlisted for the Orange prize, and has won many prizes including the Nita B. Kibble Award. These two mentioned literary prizes all share a particular interest in work produced by women. To what extent has your increasing international readership, with its specific expectations and demands and also with its diverse national and cultural backgrounds, influenced your own writing as an Australian female author? Has there been any evolution to your views about the role that female writers play, or ought to play, on the literary scene and marketplace nowadays?

G.J.: Imagined readership is not something I attend to in the writing of my fiction. I feel I have a commitment to the integrity of any project – its internal logic, such as it is; its wish to create a vivid and cogent world; its dedication to a spirit of openness in human encounters – these rather abstract principles guide my thinking and writing. The desire to recommend oneself as an exemplar of any kind seems to me a paralysing model of literary production. I also feel very humble about my own work – always hoping simply to “fail better” with each text – and try to detach as much as possible from the peculiar value system of prizes. I’m of course conscious of my role as a woman writer – but also see this more as a ground of possibility, as it were, than a determination of content or a fixed subject position on the world.

V.B.: Your latest novel, A Guide to Berlin, is named after a short story by Vladimir Nabokov. Interestingly, in the last section of Nabokov’s ‘guide’, the narrator, while watching a child observing the inside of a pub, muses in what appears to be a moment of revelation: “There is one thing I know. Whatever happens to him in life, he will always remember the picture he saw every day of his childhood from the little room where he was fed his soup. […] I have glimpsed somebody’s future recollections” (Vladimir Nabokov. 1976. Details of A Sunset and other Stories. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 98). What is it that appeals to you in this idea of future recollections, which seems to crop up repeatedly in your more recent writing – I am thinking in particular of the last chapter of Five Bells, in which this forward-backward movement in time, and the verbatim repetition of the phrase “will remember,” is particularly striking?

G.J.: Yes, you’re right: this is a preoccupation of mine. What moves me about the conclusion to A Guide to Berlin is that the ‘guide’ imagines that the little boy eating soup will remember him, with “(my) empty right sleeve and scarred face”. There’s a lovely tenderness here: the narrator of the story imagines that his own mutilated body will be recalled by the child in the future, registered in its moment and location, preserved in a kind of delayed understanding. This encapsulates one of the truths of our relationships, that we know each other materially, through real-time contact and presence, but also immaterially, in recollection and the mysterious persistence of word and image traces. So this moment at the end of Nabokov’s story captures something essential about the way people matter to each other, and how we must cherish those apparently inconsequential encounters. It’s a small thought which recognizes the capacity of the ordinary to constitute memory and the apprehension that there’s a temporal and even metaphysical dimension in which, as Nabokov puts it earlier in his story, “every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right.” In phenomenological and existential terms we’re always in a forward-backward rhythm, not often fully here in the present moment – or rather our present is inflected and intercepted by the past and the future, pleated and folded. Likewise if we were to see our contemporary world with the eyes of the future, we might see it suddenly aestheticized and made endearingly strange.

V.B.: In some ways A Guide to Berlin can be considered a companion-piece to Five Bells’. Indeed, both novels narrate the coming together in one city of individuals carrying very different childhood stories and national histories. However, whereas (in Five Bells) the five characters meet unknowingly and form a community on the level of discourse, the six international travellers in A Guide to Berlin form a less unwitting literary community, based on a mutual passion for Nabokov’s oeuvre. Significantly, both communities experience a terrible fate, characterised by loss, grief and mourning. In a sense, it is only through your knitted readership that a certain type of community seems to re-emerge in the larger world. Hence my question: what redemptive narrative responsibility does the writer wish to shoulder in the face of this sense of the precariousness and ephemerality of communities in the actual world?

G.J.: That’s a difficult question. Communities are indeed precarious, and A Guide to Berlin is perhaps a pessimistic take on capacity of narrative to establish genuine community. But I hope too it’s affirming random beauty, the mystery of patterns, and a final insistence that we share deep pleasures in language, story and friendship. One of the differences between the texts is the Japanese lovers – they are characters not damaged or enigmatic in the way the others are, but have been rescued by love, and are joyful and artistic. The Japanese perception of the fleetingness of things is for them both an explanatory mode and a sense of meaning –  this is ‘redemption’ on a small scale, if you like. The film theorist Siegfried Kracauer talks about “the redemption of the real” through acts like photographic looking: this was the kind of thing I had in mind. Particularized redemption – and not as a general project. I like to think this book honours the final irreducibility of other people. We think we know the characters in A Guide, because of the candour of their disclosures, but there is always something held back, perhaps even wordless, that lies at the centre of their being. Judith Butler talks (in Giving an Account of Oneself) about how it is the opacity of others that finally obliges us to construct a robust interpersonal ethics: I like this idea.

V.B.: The five characters in Five Bells come to Circular Quay on the same train. In A Guide to Berlin, two characters, the Australian Cass and the Italian Gino, are obsessed with trains, stations, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn. More generally, the characters in your stories travel a lot, not only through space but also through time. To what extent do you see time and space as being interrelated, interwoven, and perhaps even interdependent?

G.J.: I’ve been teaching an MA level course on “time” and reading a lot of philosophy. I’m genuinely intrigued by space-time (Einstein’s formulation of the indisociability of space and time), but also by figures like Michel Serres and Bruno Latour – especially Latour’s mischievous model of the polytemporal. We all exist in many times simultaneously. It seems to me that lyric time matters (the time of stasis in which Being seems to unfold before you), but so does lost time, accelerated or decelerated time, and the various metaphors we engage to try to personalize this experience (rivers, folds, spirals, etc.) also have an effect on our being-in-the-world. Superimposition interests me. Nabokov famously wrote: “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.”

As to trains: in western modernity trains radically over-signify – speed, industrialization, even the holocaust –  and this fascinates me. I like the fact that trains, seen at night, resemble old-fashioned film-strips, an image I discovered Nabokov also loved (the tram on a bridge at night). They carry our seeing, as much as they carry our bodies; and somehow differently to cars, since they’re haphazardly communal and allow us a corridor of to walk against the direction we’re moving in. So yes, interdependence and interrelation is at the base of this kind of knowing, and this principle offers all kinds of poetic and symbolic satisfactions.

V.B.: During one of their meetings, the six international travellers of A Guide to Berlin exchange their views on their favourite places in the city. There is the Berlin aquarium with its jellyfish and Nabokovian tortoise, the fountains, among which the enigmatic Medusa head in Henriettenplatz, the Stattbad, a former swimming pool turned into a club, and the Bebelplatz, which commemorates the book burning of 1933. Interestingly, Cass and Gino respectively choose, as their favourites, the trains (the U-Bahn and S-Bahn), and the ruin of the Anhalter Bahnhof (the former point of departure for Jews sent to Theresienstadt). More generally, your own guide seems to focus more on interstitial places and spaces, as well as on timeless worlds and monuments. Why this particular, non-touristic approach?

G.J.: These days Berlin is celebrated for its hipster life-style and artistic freedom. It has always been a space of avant-gardist ideas and art movements. But my first impressions of Berlin (and these have in part remained) were of its rubble, its melancholy and its devotion to memorials.  It was enormously moving to contemplate Eisenman’s ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’, which is of course almost entirely abstract, with no figuration, numbers or words.  Moving through obdurate shapes – the 2,711 slabs – obliges solemnity, reflection, some awareness of what eroded or destroyed representation might be, some need to imagine loss in wholly unsentimental terms. This was one of the starting points for my text – the places that exist, in Benjaminian terms, committed to the philosophy of ruins. Wordless places, thinking places: these ought to be especially meaningful to writers and readers. This all sounds rather grim, so I took care to include the spaces that also animate and enliven us – the aquarium, full of visions – those that generate wonder and delight.

V.B.: Quite ironically, A Guide to Berlin is a successful story dealing with “the failure of any tale”, to quote directly from it. It invites its reader to silent propinquity, shared understandings and empathetic imagination, and yet, by the same token, it acknowledges the failure of its extraordinary community of six when it comes to narrativising personal truths and secrets: its quintessence then lies in all that remains hidden and unspoken. Thus, beyond the nod in the direction of Nabokov, A Guide to Berlin includes a reference to itself as a meta-discursive avatar of Gino’s personal, undisclosed guide. To what extent does your novel strive to encapsulate your personal acknowledgment of the failure of words to fully come to terms with traumatic events?

G.J.: Ah, “fail better”, once again! I’m pleased you recognize that there’s a commitment in this text to the principle of silent propinquity – the standing with an other, the sharing of delights and griefs.  But it’s true too that there are many “guides” spiralling in this book, including Gino’s inaccessible text, which may (hypothetically) be the most reliable.  I’m hoping not to stick to Nabokov so much as to ask: what guides us? When we are in a city not our own, what surfaces in us symbolically to make sense of the signs we encounter? And as you state, there’s a space here too for the wordless world of trauma, which does not always enter into linguistic expression. In these ways, yes, it’s a deeply personal book, though I’m not Cass (I’m much more joyful!) and usually retreat – shy and embarrassed –  from autobiographical readings.

V.B.: You seem to share with Cass an obsession with snow. Indeed, “Snow” is the title of the first short story collected in Fetish Lives; there is of course Stella’s recurrent snow dream in Sorry; Pei Xing in Five Bells is mesmerized by snow; and, in A Guide to Berlin, it turns into an obsession for both Cass and Gino. What is it that fascinates you so dearly with snow? Can you comment on your decision to approach it as an “aestheticizing medium”, as you termed it in an interview conducted by Eleanor Wachtel?

G.J.: Yes, I am dearly fascinated by snow. In this text I decided simply to indulge my own enchantment, since the gorgeous transmogrifications of snow still seem a secular magic to me. I didn’t see snowfall until I was an adult, and found the experience crazily exhilarating. Deeply sensual, world-changing, a combination of wholly unanticipated physical and cognitive effects. There’s no doubt a kind of naivety to this response, a daft unworldliness, but I’ve tried to preserve those first immersions in a new sensorium as an experience of the poetic. As a child, swimming in the ocean with snorkel and goggles gave me the same sensory overload and sense of imaginative reconstruction.

V.B.: In A Guide to Berlin, Gino takes Cass along to the refugee-camps on Oranienplatz. One year after your twelve-month stay in Berlin in the context of the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program, the media are certainly arguing that ‘the refugee crisis’ has reached worse than ever proportions in Europe. What role should literature play, in your view, towards reflecting and interpreting the severities and the injustices of today’s world-wide migration phenomena?

G.J.: The plight of refugees today deeply concerns me. Like many readers and writers I consider this one of the great moral challenges of our times: how to be welcoming and open, how to combat racism and prejudice, how to imagine a future in which we better share global resources and opportunities. The distress of refugees is heart-breaking to witness, even televisually. The Oranienplatz camp was a big issue in 2013 (I spent a bitterly cold month in Berlin in March 2013); but was dismantled at the beginning of 2014. So there’s a strange untimeliness and repetition to my writing of this episode: I wanted to emplace a refugee narrative at the centre of the text, but as a kind of provocation, and one unresolved and uncertain. Now, it seems a much harder idea to contemplate, since there’s a different sense of scale and urgency. I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that literature has an ethical charter, and that imagination has a moral dimension.

 

The Narrow Bed by Sophie Hannah

Review by Eve Ryan

the_narrow_bed_jacket__portrait.jpgThe Narrow Bed is the 10th novel in Sophie Hannah’s Culver Valley series, following detectives Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer through plots of suspense and murder. Known for her masterful dealing of the plot twist, Hannah has taken the risky road of implausibility in this latest psychological thriller. The clunky “Billy Dead Mates”, mocked by characters and readers alike, and the eye-rolling appearances of the little white book eventually leads to a neat and technically original conclusion, yet falls far short of inspired.

Despite an encouraging start, the novel loses momentum in the ‘omniscient detective’ chapters and suffers from the (slightly tedious) short story interruptions. Yet what The Narrow Bed lacks in grit and consistency it compensates for with black humour. By far the strongest element of the novel is not the murder revelation, as is typical of Hannah’s writing, but the comic, warm portrayal of protagonist Kim Tribbeck. Through honesty and wit, Kim’s refreshing characterisation displays great literary skill as Hannah convincingly pulls off the comedy memoir genre. A comparison with Sue Perkin’s recently published memoir, Spectacles, is strikingly appropriate; Hannah gets the tone and content of a great female stand-up spot on. Kim betrays frequent comic confessions, such as: “I’d like to die of Too Much Fun, if only to spite Drew. I don’t want to give the bastard any chance to feel sorry for me.” (p. 53) This complex and convincing character makes the alternate chapters that pose as extracts from Kim’s memoir Origami the most engaging, personal and page-turning segments of the novel.

Hannah’s weakness for controversial journalist characters, as in her previous novel The Telling Error, re-emerges through a debate on feminism in The Narrow Bed, as radical feminist Sondra Holliday is fiercely demonised. Easily more unlikeable than the actual murderer, Holliday’s articles on ‘Lifeworld Online’ are predictably excessive and theatrical. Hannah holds this ‘brand’ of militant man-hating feminism up to ridicule yet shies away from presenting a moderate, reasoned engagement with gendered concerns. Instead, we have Simon Waterhouse determined to find a female murderer to blast Holliday out of the water, Colin Sellers joining Weight Watchers for the cleavage and Charlie Zailer neglecting the real case due to her own obsessive domestic drama. Is this a post-gendered world? I think not.

Hannah is therefore an anomaly within contemporary female detective writers. As The Narrow Bed deconstructs the binary of male murderer and female victim she advocates moderate humanist thinking, gesturing towards gendered debates only to dismiss them as superfluous to her portrayal of crime and storytelling. Yet Gavin argues that feminist crime fiction deals predominantly with violence against women through a “gendered protest” in which “Women are victims: captured, raped, murdered, butchered and in the hands of forensic detectives dissected into evidence” (p. 268). Hannah strongly asserts this is not her literary realm or ambition, yet she does raise one flag for feminism: women are funny.

Engaging though it was for the most part, this does not appear to be Sophie Hannah’s finest work. Luckily The Narrow Bed’s disappointing and unsatisfying conclusion will not dwell long in the mind, unlike my desire to meet Kim Tribbeck.

Bibliography

Gavin, Adrienne E. “Feminist Crime Fiction and Female Sleuths”. A Companion to Crime Fiction. Ed. Charles J. Rzepka and Lee Horsley. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 258-269. Print.

Perkins, Sue. Spectacles: A Memoir. London: Michael Joseph/Penguin Books, 2015. Print.

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

Review by Rachel Hughes

If you venture into any book retailer you will find the striking red cover of The Girl in the Red Coat nestled somewhere between titles Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train under a large sign, which reads ‘Thrillers’. Undeniably, Kate Hamer’s debut novel has all the makings of a good thriller. Eight-year-old Carmel is abducted by a man who claims to be her estranged grandfather, leaving her grief-stricken Mother (Beth) an arduous quest to find her little girl.

girl-in-the-red-coatHowever, for a thriller, The Girl in the Red Coat leaves very little room for guesswork and speculation. The novel is told in the alternating perspectives of the devastated mother and missing child. As a result, the reader is placed in the frustrating situation of having all the answers while being made to watch Carmel and Beth stumble through the narrative with half the story. For me, this narrative structure undermines the climatic revelation of information that defines a successful thriller.

Regrettably, the opening chapters of the novel are saturated with similes and metaphors; the reader must navigate an excess of jarring descriptions before he/she can invest in the narrative. Likewise, in the opening chapters of Carmel’s first person narrative, the reader must accept that this eight-year-old girl has an extremely sophisticated vocabulary for her age. In my opinion, the tensions with the language in the novel arise out of its conflicting ambitions. On the one hand, The Girl in the Red Coat wants to be a bestselling fast paced page-turner. On the other hand, the slow moving descriptive language marks Hamer as a writer who is self-conscious of literary merit. However, if the reader can forgive these initial struggles, they will be subsequently rewarded with an emotive and thought-provoking depiction of the female psyche.

The dual narrative is simultaneously this book’s greatest asset and biggest weakness. Looking beyond the novels shortcomings as a thriller, the alternating structure releases an effective mode of representation for the mother/daughter relationship – the crux of the narrative. The role of the mother, in literature, is often one dimensional and tangential. Yet Hamer’s characterisation of Beth is masterful; she is a mother, but she is given the space and time in the narrative to display the complex and diverse traits that define her character aside from her maternal duties. While I found Carmel’s narrative sometimes far-fetched, I was captivated by Beth and the heart-breaking psychosis of a mother who has lost her child. The real paradox of The Girl in the Red Coat is not, what will happen to Carmel? But rather, what will happen to Beth? Hamer’s brave and authentic depiction of womanhood and motherhood is truly the highlight of this novel.

While The Girl in the Red Coat is a thought-provoking take on the abduction story paradigm, it is not the page turning thriller that the marketing team at Faber & Faber are willing it to be. Instead, it is Hamer’s daringly honest portrayal of motherhood, which will stay with you.

Review of Room (2015): Page vs. Screen

Review by Beth Kelly

In 2010, Emma Donoghue’s novel Room set the literary world ablaze. Quickly shortlisted onto several awards lists – including the Man Booker Prize – it was also included as one of the New York Times’ top six fiction books for the year.

Partially inspired by the kidnapping case of Elisabeth Fritzl and the circumstances surrounding her escape, Room captivated millions of readers with its courageous message of resilience and hope. Now in the news for a second time, the story has made the successful leap from the page to the screen.

Charged with the task of tailoring the screenplay herself, Donoghue worked closely with director Lenny Abrahamson to maintain the emotional tenor of novel. The film, starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, has already received critical praise from festival critics – as well as purported Oscar buzz.

Some aspects of the novel were, by necessity, lost in translation. Ma is now two years younger, making her seventeen instead of nineteen years old when she was kidnapped and placed in captivity, allowing us to see her as a slightly more vulnerable figure. Room the book relies on the narration of five-year-old Jack, played by Tremblay, as the reader’s entrance to their world. Through his eyes, an outsider is slowly introduced to the eleven-square-foot world of “Room.” Room the movie relies on camera angles and set design to present the cramped compartment that holds Jack’s universe, revealing to viewers in a twist the profundity of their situation.

Much is asked of Tremblay, as his character’s perspective is still the driving force of the film. We see through his eyes, with sparse narration in key scenes, how it feels to have your world crack open at the seams. Larsen’s Ma also captures the reality of their captivity with remarkable depth, and the chemistry between her and Tremblay is truly striking. While lacking some of the nuance of the book – the absence of breastfeeding between Ma and Jack as a physical bond, for example – the strength of the actors’ performances enables the story to be successfully condensed.

There are several key alterations that stand out: in addition to the aforementioned choice to remove breastfeeding scenes, Ma is now an only child, and the adventure that Jack has with his uncle Paul and Paul’s family is now gone. While done in the name of cleaner storytelling and run time, this does remove an important aspect of comparison: how a child brought up with Jack’s unique experiences compares to a more “normal” family unit and a child of similar age. But this streamlining does focus more on Jack and Ma’s experiences, and Larson’s range as an actress is allowed to shine through.

Without the direct text of the novel to say what Jack is thinking, the audience can project their own thoughts onto Tremblay and Larson’s own expressive faces. In some ways, this enables the audience to form an even deeper bond with the characters. Tremblay’s wide-eyed fascination in response to the outside world in particular is both heart breaking and a joy to behold.

Produced by A24 Films and DirecTV, Room the film reveals much more than the horrors of kidnapping at abuse. Never saccharine or overwrought in its approach, it makes a concerted effort to show viewers that the limits of the physical realm are inconsequential when our imaginations are allowed to soar.