Category Archives: Book Review

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.

 

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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.

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.

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.

Girl at War by Sara Nović

Review by Carly Robinson

girl at warNović’s debut novel is a stunning account of how the horrors and atrocities of war creep into everyday life and slowly tear apart the world of a young girl. Nović skilfully portrays how the effects of the Yugoslav civil war permeate into Ana Juric’s family and home life, affecting her everyday existence, the fabric of her relationships, and resulting in a shocking event which changes the shape of her life forever and sets her on a completely different trajectory to the one she had imagined.  Set in early 90’s Croatia against the backdrop of the atrocities that humans are capable of inflicting on one another, as Ana learns about herself, her identity and what she is capable of withstanding she also learns about the human condition, its capacity for love and kindness as well the darkest forms of torture and genocide. Ana has a lot to deal with from a young age and Nović imbues her protagonist with the best response to the fight or flight dilemma that she is faced with, going above and beyond the self preservation instinct to survive.  Serious feminist icon her character may be, but as she struggles to come to terms with her experiences growing up within her adoptive family and country, Nović subtly traces the unresolved internal conflict which threatens to damage Ana’s hard built outer exterior.

Although the conflict in the Balkans is relatively recent history, you don’t need to know anything about the Yugoslav civil wars to appreciate the war commentary of the novel. This is a story rooted in historical fact, written with the intensity of what feels like personal experience and a deepening knowledge of the human psyche, all from the perspective of a young girl. That’s no mean feat.  Nović deftly explains the racial tensions within Ana’s tight knit community of Zagreb, from the subtle changes in the way neighbours interact with other, to the wider landscape of the shifting Croat/Bosnian borders and the harsh reality and shocking realisation that a surname could mean the difference between crossing the border or dying there.

Ana’s search for her family and friends upon her return to Croatia years later keeps the reader gripped, but Nović does not feel the need to wrap everything up neatly at the end of the novel and this is what makes it sing. Ana has come to terms with what happened but it will always still haunt her. Nović has that rare ability to write stark uncompromising prose about war crimes from the raw view of the victim without letting the narrative dwell in morbid and morose self-pity for her protagonist. She draws out the contrasting experiences of living with war, both in terms of the quotidian food rationing, bombings and blackouts compared with the distant idea of what it means to Americans who have never experienced its harsh reality. Her use of shifting time sequences to engage the reader and almost allow the story to run as a mystery, with the switch in time and place to New York, leaves you reeling from the stark contrast of the previous episode in Croatia. Girl at War has been marketed as a coming of age story, but with its war commentary, diasporic explorations of notions of identity and home, and an insightful exploration of how the father-daughter and mother-daughter dynamics shape the character of Ana throughout the traumatic events that befall her, it is ever so much more.

Resistance is Futile by Jenny T. Colgan

Review by Catherine Paula Han

ResistanceIsFutile_R.indd“Jenny T. Colgan boldly goes where no author has gone before” states the tagline of her latest novel, Resistance is Futile. Coglan has an established reputation as the author of numerous “chick lit” novels, of which the best known are Meet Me at the Cupcake Café (2011), Christmas at the Cupcake Café (2013) and Welcome to Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop of Dreams (2012). She has also written the Doctor Who tie-in novel Dark Horizons (2012) and a Doctor Who short story “Into Nowhere” (2014). Combining these seeming disparate genres, Colgan’s latest novel claims to be “Bridget Jones meets Independence Day”.

A hybrid of science fiction and chick lit, Resistance is Futile features a mathematician heroine named Connie MacAdair who has recently been awarded a prestigious fellowship at the University of Cambridge. At her arrival, Connie realises that something is distinctly amiss when she discovers that all the top figures in her field have also been gathered together.  The eccentricities of these mathematicians are a source of gentle humour throughout the novel, with many jokes relating to the shy but attractive oddball Luke Beith.

Eventually, Resistance is Futile reveals that the university has summoned Connie and her colleagues to solve some mysterious mathematics that have flummoxed the astrophysics department. After weeks of work, Connie realises that the numbers are some form of communication from an alien species. Her discovery, however, occurs at the same time as the revelation that this extra-terrestrial presence has started committing murders on Earth. Complicating the matter, Connie has fallen in love with Luke who has turned out to be a wholly different person than he initially claimed.

Because of its combination of genres, Resistance is Futile could be an interesting example or case study for any researchers interested in contemporary chick lit’s experimentation with its own boundaries and conventions.  Caroline J. Smith groups Colgan amongst other writers who “began to experiment with the conventions of chick lit, particularly in terms of expanding the target audience for the texts and in straying from the previously established narrative structures of these texts” (136). Early on, numerous chick lit writers experimented by featuring protagonists of different races, nationalities and ages. Since then, “writers from all genres have been capitalizing on the chick lit trend, adding a chick lit spin to their narratives” (Smith 2008: 137).  Consequently, we could position Resistance is Futile as part of larger trend in contemporary, genre-blurring chick lit.

Resistance is Futile’s science fiction element does add an unusual spin to the narrative, particularly the romance between Connie and Luke, which does not conform to the expected paradigm of “girl-meets-boy”. Indeed, certain scenes invite a queer(ish) reading and the courtship plot has an unconventional ending. This aspect also means that an undercurrent of darkness runs throughout the novel beneath Colgan’s trademark humour. Though the novel derives much comedy from the threat of an alien attack, Resistance is Futile also repeatedly compares imagined, off-planet wars with real, Earth-bound military conflicts. Though these analogies remain under developed, Resistance is Futile adopts a slightly broader perspective than the often de-politicised, “feminine navel-gazing” associated with chick lit (Whelehan 217). To say that Colgan has “boldly go where no author has gone before” would be an overstatement but Resistance is Futile does exemplify interesting developments within contemporary chick lit.

Works Cited

Smith, Caroline J. Cosmopolitan Culture and Consumerism in Chick Lit. London, New York: Routledge, 2008.

Whelehan, Imelda. The Feminist Bestseller: From Sex and the Single Girl to Sex and the City. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Landfalls by Naomi Williams

Review by Rebecca Gibson

landfalls

It isn’t hard to find a way into Naomi Williams’ debut novel Landfalls, even if you know next to nothing about voyages of exploration or French history, or even if you’ve not read much historical fiction. The novel is based on the true story of the La Pérouse expedition, which left France in 1785 with two hundred men and the great ships Astrolabe and Boussole, only to run into copious hardships and tragedies in its attempt to circumnavigate the globe for the glory of France.

Williams juggles a large cast of narrating characters with ease and has a glorious ability to make you feel connected to them within a few pages, much like Hilary Mantel. I never once got confused over characters’ identities, despite a lot of similar names and roles – after all, pretty much everyone in this book is a French sailor to a lesser or greater degree. All her main characters are so well individualised that it wasn’t a struggle to remember them, and her descriptions of the far off lands travelled by the expedition are so vivid that I remembered the route with little trouble when prompted, despite the sigh I uttered when I saw a map at the beginning of the book (I’m not great with directions). Williams has a light but firm touch, and her awareness of how history can be moulded to the concerns of those who write it makes for a very interesting read.

It is customary to express sympathy and shock when confronted with natural disasters that fell large numbers in the news these days, but they rarely touch us like they would if we knew the dead personally. The numbers are just too big, the loss too much to internalise. I was struck by the way Landfalls brings the reader close to the victims of such a disaster, long before the end arrives. It’s impossible not to empathise with these men, stuck living together in cramped conditions on a dangerous voyage of discovery, who nonetheless bond together tightly, developing close personal ties that reach much deeper than the respect of colleagues. Williams shows us not just the grand ambition of these men but their personal foibles, their small triumphs and their regrets, and in doing so makes the weight of their sacrifice impossible to forget; it’s men like this who made it possible for us to map the globe, and eventually to travel across it in a matter of hours. That privilege had to be earned, Williams shows us over and over again, and at a heavy cost.

My only real complaint about Landfalls is a distinct lack of female voices. Women crop up here and there, but they play unimportant roles and are inevitably defined by their relationships with men, even the chapter narrated by a native Alaskan girl of twelve (the only female narrated chapter in the book). Williams wrote on Twitter that she considers Landfalls to be a feminist work, and I’m not entirely sure why that is. She herself may be a feminist, but perhaps out of necessity considering her subject matter, female representation was lacking in this novel, as thoroughly enjoyable as it was in other respects.

The Other Me by Saskia Sarginson

Review by Jahnavi Misra

the other me

Like her other two novels The Twins and Without You, Saskia Sarginson’s The Other Me is characterised by its eminent readability and easy accessibility. The story is narrated in crisp and fast-paced prose, which hooks the reader almost immediately.

It is a coming-of-age story, at the centre of which is a young girl called Klaudia Meyer. The story traces Klaudia’s evolution not only from a child to a grown woman but also from confusion to emotional maturity. Along with Klaudia, there are two other characters who reach a new understanding of life and their place in it by the end of the novel, the brothers Otto and Ernst Meyer. At its heart, The Other Me tackles the question of belonging. Klaudia, Otto and Ernst are the three main characters in the novel, which spans two generations and moves between Germany of the Second World War and England of the late nineteen eighties and nineties. All three characters are on the same quest for belonging and acceptance, although their journeys are completely different from each other. Their stories begin in Nazi Germany; while the brothers live through the war as Nazi officers – Otto as the prisoner of war in Wales and Ernst as a soldier – Klaudia, a generation later, bears the social ramifications of their past. The story offers the reader a happy ending in a way, because the three characters do come to a final understanding. They finally realise that they need to forgive each other, and most of all themselves, to be truly at peace.

Most of the characters in the novel need the plot to come into their own, but Ernst Meyer’s character is so well rounded and fully fleshed out that he pops out of the narrative in a way. The reader is both repelled by him and drawn to him in almost equal measure, owing to his murky but truly tragic past. I felt that Otto’s wife, Gwyn Meyer, is another very interesting character. Her story stays with the reader because of the mystery that surrounds her, reflective of the shadowy place that women occupied in that era. Although the narrative leaves a little to be desired in the delineation of the internal or emotional landscape, which at times come across as a bit superficial, the external landscape of the Second World War and the London of late nineties is precisely drawn and takes the reader by the hand. The descriptions of the Second World War, which the reader accesses through Ernst’s diary, are transporting and truly chilling, displaying the author’s talent and her great attention to detail. The ending of the novel is both moving and happy. It has both a lightness and a heaviness to it.

The narrative style is crisp and entertaining, which makes the novel a very enjoyable read. However, some events that carry the plot forward come across as a bit contrived, one such event is the sudden reappearance of Shane after Klaudia’s burlesque performance, a kind of Diabolus Ex Machina, hampering the imminent reconciliation between Cosmos and Klaudia. In the end, although the novel may not provide any profound or revelatory insights on the human condition, it leaves the reader with a bitter-sweet taste that lingers for a while after the book has been put down.

Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Norah Vincent

Review by Emma Venables

adeline

Norah Vincent’s Adeline is a beautifully written novel about Virginia Woolf. Spanning sixteen years, Vincent explores Woolf’s life: her marriage to Leonard, her writing process, her associations with the Bloomsbury Group and writers such as Yeats and Elliot, her depression, and ultimately her decision to commit suicide by drowning herself in a river.

The novel is split into five acts, each one depicting the events surrounding the writing and publication of one of Woolf’s novels. In this respect, Vincent demonstrates meticulous planning and research. Each of the chapters are multi-layered: something simple like how Leonard touches her hand in the present triggers a memory: ‘And once – she remembers this bit only now for the very first time – just for a moment, their eyes had met’ (p.186). This complex weaving of the present and past works to great effect in creating a well-rounded sense of Woolf’s world, and those who tried to hold her upright.

Vincent delves into the psyches of several people surrounding Woolf, including her sister, Nessa, but perhaps the mostly strongly evocated is her husband’s, Leonard. Vincent puts the spotlight on the Woolf’s marriage and while, of course, we feel sympathy for Virginia’s plight, Leonard’s struggle, his helplessness, to ‘save her life’ (p.177) is heart wrenching to read. Vincent demonstrates his conflict in such a powerful manner: ‘he’d look at her for the first time with that mixture of awe and worry that would cross his face so often over the course of their marriage’ (p.167-168).

The novel’s title comes from Woolf’s given first name. Adeline manifests when Woolf is at her lowest points: ‘[Adeline] is there still, communicating, conjured by this strange Virginia, who is the woman she did not become’ (p.25). The two, woman and child, chat, recalling the past, Adeline’s end and Virginia’s beginning: when Woolf began to menstruate. Adeline represents, not only Woolf’s descent into depression, and obsession with the past, but also her awareness of her shortcomings within society: she never became a mother. Indeed, their relationship is a vicious cycle: Adeline exists to Woolf because she is depressed, and because she is depressed Woolf cannot have children. The hallucination of Adeline, in some respects, provides Woolf with the daughter she never had.

Vincent documents Woolf’s complexity, the constant internal battle between defiance and depression, using vivid descriptions: ‘When we are not racked in this dilapidated body, leaking through a cracked brain, whirling without sleep, fingers plucking purposelessly at food’ (p.31). However, she also illustrates the external pressures on Woolf: a female writer trying to gain acclaim in a male-dominated world. Descriptions of the Bloomsbury Group and its members illustrate the gap Woolf felt between herself and the men but then, also, as time passes how honoured she was to be praised by them, particularly Yeats: ‘The words, the labour, the pain have not been wasted. God, but he is astounding’ (p.167).  This tension between the external and internal, between depression and hope, results in a rather dense prose which at times can be hard to follow: Adeline is not a book you can put down and get back into easily. However, this density and depth of description, and character, is needed to represent the ingenious, fraught, mind of Virginia Woolf.

At Break of Day by Elizabeth Speller

at-break-of-dayReview by Sophie-Louise Hyde

Elizabeth Speller’s contemporary war fiction has fast-grown to be some of the most talked about new literature in Britain. Her first novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett, published in 2010 and following the return of Laurence Bartram to a world in the aftermath of the Great War, was chosen as the Richard and Judy Summer Pick and shortlisted for the Waverton Good Read Awards.[1] Now, in her latest tale, published in 2013 by Virago, ‘lives cross, dreams are shattered, and futures altered as the hours pass during the first day of the Battle of the Somme.’[2]

At Break of Day, simultaneously published in the USA under the title The First of July, tells the story of the ‘tragedies of war’.[3] When we first meet them, the story’s four central protagonists are living separate lives in different parts of the world: Jean-Baptiste is in Picardy immersed in visions of travelling down sea, whilst Frank has moved to London and dreams of only two loves in life: finding a wife and finding a bicycle. Benedict, on the other hand, is consumed by his troubled relationships with both God and best friend Theo, whilst Harry has flown the nest for a new life in New York.[4] Little do they know that ‘a horror that would have been unimaginable in pre-war Europe and England’ is about to change their lives forever.[5]

Speller’s emotionally-charged tale is in keeping with much of her previous writing and many works of Great War fiction by her contemporaries. It’s moving and fast-paced narrative is full of depth as the overlap between her four male characters and their individual stories comes to light, giving more than just the usual historical or factual account of soldiers at war. There is a sense of fragmentation in the way that Speller’s readers are dipped in and out of each persona’s story, through her manipulation of the text’s structural elements, and this brings to life the broken feeling of war as it manifests itself prominently betwixt the novel’s pages. This somewhat disjointed sensation of conflict shares thematic and gendered concerns with much contemporary women’s war fiction available today. For example, explorations of sexuality in Benedict’s close friendship with Theo – ‘Benedict inhaled deeply. Sat back […] wanting, more than anything, to take Theo in his arms.’ (p.116) – and the gendered considerations of man’s behaviour at war through the portrayal of Harry – ‘For the last few days he and Marina had been travelling ahead of war, or just running away , really, Harry thought […]’ (p.119) – are reminiscent of the concerns demonstrated in Pat Barker’s earlier war trilogy, Regeneration through male characters Siegfried Sassoon and Billy Prior.[6]

Speller’s structural decisions in At Break of Day, can make it possible, at times, for her reader to become lost in the question of which character’s story they are currently submerged in. This is because it is a complex journey for any reader to embark on. Having said that, Speller’s novel is well-written and cleverly-connected, avoiding the overtly obvious idea of cliché, and this is testament, not only to Speller’s courageous male protagonists, but to her own gutsy writing techniques.

 After something similar? Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room (2012) mixes war, art and death through a central female character in a tale that echoes Virginia Woolf’s own Jacob’s Room.[7]

 

[1] For more details on Elizabeth Speller’s first War novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett, please see ‘About’, Elizabeth Speller: Author (2013) <http://www.elizabethspeller.com/pages/about.html&gt; [accessed 30 April 2014].

[2] Quote taken from ‘The First of July (published in the UK as At Break of Day)’, Elizabeth Speller – Books (2013) <http://www.elizabethspeller.com/page15/&gt; [accessed 30 April 2014].

[3] See ‘The First of July (published in the UK as At Break of Day)’ [accessed 30 April 2014].

[4] See front inside cover of Elizabeth Speller’s At Break of Day (London: Virago, 2013).

[5] Quote taken from ‘The First of July (published in the UK as At Break of Day)’ [accessed 30 April 2014].

[6] The texts that make up Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy include: Regeneration (London: Penguin, 1992), The Eye in the Door (London: Penguin, 1994) and The Ghost Road (London: Penguin, 1996).

[7] See Hermione Lee’s ‘Toby’s Room by Pat Barker – review’, The Guardian: Books (2012) <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/aug/10/toby-room-pat-barker-review&gt; [accessed 2 May 2014}.