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.

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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.

Thank You & Goodbye

The PG CWWN are saddened to be bidding farewell to two of our steering group members. Our longest serving member Laura-Jane Devanny is stepping down in order to focus on the final stages of her PhD. Since joining the network at the end of 2013, Laura-Jane has been a hard-working and enthusiastic member of the team, and her contribution to all areas of the network will be greatly missed. We are also saying goodbye to Joanne Ella Parsons, who since joining in February 2014 has been key in providing an online presence for the network across a variety of platforms, including social media. On behalf of our members, we would like to wish both Laura-Jane and Jo best of luck for the completion of their research, and every success for the future.

Call for Steering Group Members

We are looking for a new member to join our team!

If you are interested in joining then please send an email with a cover letter outlining why you would like to join the steering group and what you think you can bring to the network, as well as a current academic CV, to info@pgcwwn.org by 11th September 2015.

Please distribute widely. You can download the full call below:

PG-CWWN-Call-for-Steering-Group-Members

Ruth Rendell: CFP for a Special Issue of Contemporary Women’s Writing on Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine. Edited by Ruth Heholt, Fiona Peters and Gina Wisker.

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Ruth Rendell, who has recently died, was one of the most prolific and important female authors of the C20th/21st centuries, achieving many literary awards and honours, plus a Labour peerage. Her literary output, both as Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine, transcended generic boundaries and conventional assumptions about character, the police procedural novel, class and gender, amongst many of her other concerns.

Rendell’s output can be divided into three categories, bearing in mind that these overlap, shift and change over time: The Wexford series (beginning with From Doon With Death in 1964 up until No Man’s Nightingale in 2013), the stand-alone Rendells, and the arguably more psychologically driven Barbara Vines. Running through all her work, certain themes emerge, including gender, sexuality, crime, poverty, origins, pathology and deviance (especially in the domestic, often suburban sphere), fate and inescapable hereditary, both psychological and physical, and human relationships. Val McDermid notes: ‘Never content with mere description, she illuminated the human condition in all its obsessive complexity in a style that was invariably clear and compelling.’

This special edition aims to mark Rendell’s death with a selection of essays which celebrate her achievements and unique talent – as a writer who never shied away from complex or difficult issues, but who instead shifted the entire focus of the crime fiction genre into a complex study of human beings and their interaction with social and psychological forces.

We invite proposals for articles on any aspect of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine’s work. CWW seeks to publish essays that reach beyond a reading of a single text in order to challenge existing thinking or extend debates about an author, genre, topic, or theoretical perspective and relate literary analysis to wider cultural and intellectual contexts.

With this in mind topics may include (but are not limited to):

Gender, Class, Age, Family, Marriage, Violence, Death, Authority, The Police, Detection, The Psychological, Race, Homosexuality, Obsession, Poverty, Deviance, The Domestic, The City, The Suburbs.

The deadline for abstracts is 1st September and completed essays of 8000 words will be due on 1st Feb 2016. All essays are subject to peer review and as such publication is not guaranteed.

Please send 300 word abstracts and a short bio to: ruth.heholt@falmouth.ac.uk, f.peters@bathspa.ac.uk and g.wisker@brighton.ac.uk by 1st September 2015.

All Together Now by Gill Hornby

Review by Ishita Mandrekar

all together nowThere seems to be an unspoken rule when it comes to writing any piece of fiction about choirs – stick to the formula. Usually, the plot comprises of a rebel protagonist who, after being coerced into joining the choir, miraculously gets their act together and steers them towards a happy ending.

In All Together Now this protagonist is Tracey Leckford, a single mother with a dark past and a tongue stud, who goes out of her way to live a hermit life. The choir in question is the Bridgeford Community Choir – most of whom, in Tracey’s words, are ‘ancient’ and ‘certifiable bonkers.’ There is the interfering Annie, who usually takes responsibility for things that no one wants to be responsible for – namely cleaning up and coffee; Lewis, Tracey’s affable albeit slightly bossy neighbour who can’t sing but shows up simply because the choir brings a smile to his daughter’s face; Katie, Lewis’ daughter who is confined to a wheel chair after a car accident; Maria – the fun- loving, hip – swaying carer, and then there’s Bennett, the slightly clueless love interest who starts off on a slight antagonistic note with Tracey but sings like an angel, along with a cast of other odd-ball characters.

The choir is in trouble – the County Championships is around the corner, their leader is in the hospital in a coma and they need a star act to win the competition. Anyone who has watched Glee or Pitch Perfect can more or less guess the plot of All Together Now. This is not a book that wins points in the authentic plot department. Hornby sticks to the formula, choosing to create a variation instead of creating a whole new plot altogether. Perhaps it is a credit to her writing then that she still manages to engage her reader, even when the reader has more or less guessed the plot by page three. Hornby has a knack for finding the beauty in the everyday, and she brings out these details in the lives of the various members of the Bridgeford community. The depiction of small town life is vividly sketched out for the reader, and brings to mind Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy in that respect.

It is no mean task to juggle a large ensemble of characters and their relationships with each other, and Hornby does both beautifully. Depicting the intertwining relationships and various social dynamics at work with intricacy and honesty. The parent-children relationships are perhaps the best examples of this. The father-daughter bond between Lewis and Katie, the friendship Tracey shares with her son Billy, or even the relationship between Bennett and Araminta. Hornby drills to the heart of social appearances and give the reader characters that are both selfless and flawed at the same time. It would be unfair to categorise All Together Now as a feel good book, for despite its flaws in plot, the book gently encourages its reader to take a closer look at everyday life. The kind of life we all live and not notice.