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.

Review of the CWWA’s 10th Anniversary Conference: ‘Legacies and Lifespans’

 

By Jessica DayScreen-Shot-2015-07-07-at-18_55_56

On Saturday, 17th October 2015, the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association welcomed an international audience of academics, writers, and postgraduate students to the University of Brighton to celebrate their 10th anniversary conference aptly named ‘Legacies and Lifespans.’ Whilst considering this thought-provoking theme in relation to contemporary women’s writing, the delegates explored the evolving spirit and concerns of women writers from the 1960’s and 70’s onwards through a range of interesting topics, genres, and theoretical analyses. Featuring not only three keynotes from leading scholars Professor Mary Eagleton, Professor Lucie Armitt and Patricia Duncker, but also the launch of The History of British Women’s Writing, 1970-Present (2015) and seven panel sessions, the diversity and insightfulness of the conference was truly beyond measure – and, so too were the stimulating discussions which were generated. Now, with the impossible task of capturing the full breadth of activity that the conference emanated, I will focus this review on the keynotes and overall sentiment that the conference inspired.

For those eager delegates that were able to arrive a day previous on Friday, 16th October 2015, this is when the initial considerations of the legacies and continuities of contemporary women’s writing began. Having received a warm welcome and opportunity for delegates to acquaint themselves with one another, Professor Mary Eagleton proceeded to introduce the conference with her paper ‘Chance and Choice: the Literature of Women’s Upward Mobility.’ Whilst analysing the implications of using the terms ‘chance’ and ‘choice’ in relation to the mobility of the ‘Scholarship Girl’ (a term formulated by Eagleton in order to accommodate for Richard Hoggart’s lack of attention to the ‘Scholarship Boy’s’ counter-part) Eagleton examined the transition of women in higher education since the 1950’s. It soon became apparent that, for women, the neoliberal ethic of the “self-made effect” relied upon a sociology of gambling, as well as upon the notions of choice, hope and serendipity, more than it did on the prospect of choice. Eagleton’s historical account of women’s upward mobility continued until the focus became the situation of mobility in today’s society, and concluded by drawing on Lauren Berlant’s notions of ‘cruel optimism’ and ‘depressive realism.’ Which, considering that much work from the weekend focused on writing in an age of crisis, were certainly themes that lingered in the minds of delegates the next day.

At first glance, the agenda for Saturday’s programme looked not only impressive but also rather fast-paced. So, following a relaxed introductory tea and coffee session, the energetic and animated tone with which the programme demanded of the day was quickly realised. Yet, this lively momentum in no form took away from the dazzling success of the conference, as instead it only matched the passion for the subject matter at hand and led to a continuous flow of spirited discussions to fill the day until the very end.

Patricia Duncker was the first keynote speaker to initiate this vigour, as her enthusiasm for contemporary women’s writing was discussed from her position as both academic scholar and novelist in her paper ‘Historical Figures and Fictional Lives.’ In reflection of her own fiction, particularly her recent novel Sophie and the Sibyl: A Victorian Romance (2015), Duncker examined the traditions, rules and customs of creating historical fiction. To example but a few of the many areas that Duncker addressed, the main thinking at the heart of her paper stimulated from a critical examination of the implications and possibilities of “playing” with historical time; the dichotomy between what is myth and historical fact; as well the role of paratexts in historical fiction. Duncker interlaced this critical insight of the genre by looking at the self-imposed limits of fiction from her perspective as a writer, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the broader traditions and situation of women’s writing in the last few decades.

Having received such an engaging introductory paper, the delegates then began to disperse to the various panel sessions that took place for the majority of the morning and early afternoon. With panel sessions focusing on topics such as ‘Legacies and Dis/continuities’ or ‘Popular Fictions and Cultures’ right through to ‘Social Institutions and Feminist Strategies’ it was apparent that there were few aspects of contemporary women’s writing not accounted for and discussed. As for the panels that I attended, there was certainly an identifiable echo amongst the papers in that most not only engaged with how the legacy of contemporary women’s writing had developed in the last forty years, but, more predominantly and specifically, questioned what may define contemporary women’s writing in the future.

Following on from these seven panel sessions, as well as an exceptionally poignant presentation by Jane Anger (one of the co-founders of Silver Moon Bookshop) on Women’s publishing, Professor Lucie Armitt was the final keynote and speaker of the day. Despite being proceeded by such a varied array of work, Armitt’s keynote on ‘Unspeakable Seas: Flooding, Climate Change and Kate Mosse’s The Taxidermist’s Daughter’ could not have produced a more fitting manner with which to conclude the overall sentiment of the conference. The true interdisciplinary manner of Armitt’s paper accentuated to what degree contemporary women’s writing is produced from and should be assessed through an innovative, experimental, and speculative lens. Her paper pushed the analysis of contemporary women’s writing into new territory, almost literally, by examining the encroachment of the sea upon the British coastline as an area for twenty-first century Gothic Literacy exploration. Thus, not only did the audience leave questioning ‘the role that twenty-first century literature might play in helping us negotiate our shared cultural anxieties about encroaching seascapes’ from a geographical and literary point of view, it emphasised the imaginative and innovative essence of contemporary women’s writing itself.

It is in the process of writing this report and in reflection of the conference’s success that I wish to say a huge thanks to the CWWA for organising such an insightful, diverse and beneficial event- especially, from my perspective as a PhD student in the early stages of their research- thank you.

EVENT: Feminist writer Erica Jong talks sex, ageing and her new novel – Fear of Dying

Erica Jong – Fear of Dying

Erica Jong

With readings by Sandi Toksvig, Meera Syal and Gemma Cairney; chaired by Southbank Centre’s Jude Kelly.

1 November, 7.30pm, Royal Festival Hall.

Hear readings by Sandi Toksvig, Meera Syal and Gemma Cairney as Erica Jong introduces her new novel, Fear of Dying.

Erica Jong changed the way we look at love, marriage, and especially sex.

Her revolutionary 1973 best-seller Fear of Flying celebrated consequence-free, casual sex at a time when women weren’t supposed to have it, and the book quickly became the ultimate symbol for female sexual liberation.

Now, over 40 years later, Jong returns with Fear of Dying – the story of an older woman who never wants to give in to fear – including that of sex, as her mortality becomes a reality.

These two novels, separated by four decades, show a generation of women as they age in real time. But how much has really changed for them, and the women around them?

The evening begins with Sandi Toksvig, Meera Syal and Gemma Cairney reading from both Fear of Flying and Fear of Dying.

The event concludes with Erica Jong exploring our enduring fascination with ageing, sex and death in conversation with Jude Kelly, Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director and founder of the WOW – Women of the World festival.

For more information and to book tickets see: http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/

CFA: ‘Werewolves: Studies in Transformations’

 (abstracts: 30th November 2015, full submissions: 31st March 2016)

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Dr Janine Hatter and Kaja Franck, ‘Revenant: Critical and Creative Studies of the Supernatural’
contact email:

j.hatter@hull.ac.uk / k.a.franck@gmail.com

‘Revenant: Critical and Creative Studies of the Supernatural’ is a peer-reviewed, online journal looking at the supernatural, the uncanny and the weird. Revenant is now accepting articles, creative writing pieces and book, film, game, event or art reviews for a themed issue on werewolves (due Autumn 2016), guest edited by Dr Janine Hatter and Kaja Franck.

Werewolves have been a consistent, if side-lined, aspect of supernatural studies. From medieval and Early Modern poetry, through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ fascination with the occult and the exotic, to contemporary depictions of werewolves in new media, these adaptable, mutable and ever resilient creatures have continuously transformed body and meaning to reflect social, cultural and scientific anxieties of their period. This special issue of Revenant seeks to examine werewolves from an all-inclusive interdisciplinary angle to allow for the fullest extent of these creatures’ impact on our cultural consciousness to be examined. Articles, creative pieces and reviews may examine any aspect of the representation of werewolves within the context of worldwide literature, drama, fan cultures, film, television, animation, games and role playing, art, music or material culture from any time period. We welcome any approach, but request that authors minimize jargon associated with any single-discipline studies.

Suggested topics include, but are not limited to:

technological metamorphoses, folklore & mythology, allegory, symbolism, aggression, humanity & bestiality, romance, monstrosity, hybridity, lycanthropy, transformation, nature versus nurture, the environment, natural/supernatural, the abject, hunger & desire, teeth & biting, infection & transmission, possession and/or mind control, split personality, disability, power, death & killing, burial rites, occult, religion, superstition, culture, philosophy, psychology, politics, gender, queer readings, sexuality, race and class.

For articles and creative pieces (such as poetry, short stories, flash fiction, videos, artwork and music): please send a 300-500 word abstract and a short biography by 30th November 2015. If your abstract is accepted, the full article (maximum 7000 words, including Harvard referencing) and the full creative piece (maximum 5000 words) will be due 31st March 2016.

Additionally, we are seeking reviews of books, films, games, events and art that engage with werewolves (800-1,000 words in length). Please send a short biography and full details of the book you would like to review as soon as possible.

Further information, including Submission Guidelines, is available at the journal site: www.revenantjournal.com.

Please e-mail submissions to j.hatter@hull.ac.uk and k.a.franck@gmail.com. If emailing the journal directly at revenant@falmouth.ac.uk please quote ‘werewolf issue’ in the subject box.