Women Talking by Miriam Toews
“No, Ernie, says Agata, there’s no plot, we’re only women talking.”Miriam Toews
I’m currently working on a novel that features a religious community, so a writer friend of mine recommended I read this book. She told me it was based on the real case of a Mennonite community in which women of all ages were raped in their sleep by some men from the same community who were using an animal anaesthetic to render them unconscious. Their complaints were dismissed by the elders – who went as far as to suggest the women were being attacked by demons – until the truth was revealed.
Toews’ novel focuses on the aftermath of these traumatic events. A group of women meet at a barn to discuss what they are going to do next. The options are to stay and forgive the men, to stay and fight back, or to leave the community. The story is narrated by August, the only man allowed in the barn with these women, who’s taking the minutes of the meeting because none of the women knows how to read or write.
I had a discussion with another friend about fictionalising this kind of real event and if it was a tasteful thing to do. Well, I think novels like this are important. Toews is not interested in the gore or the sexual violence, but in how these women, who are born into a community that defines who they are whilst cutting them off from the rest of the world, process the fact that, as some of them say during the book, they are actually considered less than animals they help take care of. Interestingly enough, the friend who recommended this book was part of quite a religious community herself for a few decades and she told me that nothing she read in Toews’ book surprised her so much. She thought that something like that could potentially happen in religious contexts where women are given fewer rights than men, especially around body autonomy, and sex is considered unholy unless is directly connected to reproduction.
Having a male narrator was something that surprised me at the beginning of this novel, and I wondered why we were accessing the story through August’s point of view, the meek teacher of this Mennonite community. But worry not, August’s controversial past is revealed as the story advances, and by the end his presence is more than justified plot-wise.
It was a very hard read. One-third in, I had to stop and go read something else (Beautiful World Where Are You by Sally Rooney) which is why I didn’t finish this book until February. The whole novel is pretty much the women talking in the barn, and still, the atmosphere, and having to imagine what these women had gone through at the hands of men who were their brothers, husbands, and neighbours was really hard. This is a perfect example of how, sometimes, real horrors surpass anything else we can imagine.
Despite the book being almost exclusively a long conversation between a group of different women, I read it very fast and found it fascinating. This story is also about faith and having to reconstruct your ideas about community and your own self in it. This is also a story about the negative effects of patriarchy on everyone. I was very moved by the ending, which I didn’t see coming. I think this is going to be one of the best books I have read this year.
After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz
A homage to Virginia Woolf and a group of similarly rebellious and fantastic women who lived around her time. By rebellious I mean women who defied the conventions of their time and went on living in ways even today would be considered quite radical. The book is written in a series of vignettes more or less in chronological order. Each vignette focuses on a specific woman’s perspective and is narrated by a sapphic Greek chorus of sorts in the first person plural.
What I loved the most about this book was that it discovered to me women who I didn’t know existed but led fascinating lives at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. Two prominent figures are Sibilla Aleramo and Lina Polleti, both Italian women who were writers and feminists and pushed against the rhetoric that women should only be good wives and mothers. Many of the other women covered in this book – Eleonora Duse, Josephine Barker, Romaine Brooks, to name a few of the ones I didn’t know – did much to fight for our rights. They all also, more or less publicly, loved other women which is yet another way of joyous resistance this book shamelessly celebrates.
The writing style is a stream of consciousness, very much in Wool’s style. Maybe it is the literature student inside me but I embraced it and went with it all the way to the end. There’s something oneiric in that kind of perspective, accentuated by the experimental first-person plural. I can imagine it may put some readers off but I thought it was a good way of writing a polyphonic novel.
It’s interesting to mention that, even though all these women had men present in their lives, Selby decided to relegate them to the edges of the book – more often than not they are mere footnotes. In a section at the end of the novel, she explains that biographies have been traditionally written about the great men in history – with the women that surround them being ignored, made invisible or relegated to those same footnotes I just mentioned. After Sappho looks to challenge those narratives by introducing us to women that made history and yet are not given the place they deserve in it. Reading this book was an education, and made me feel a lot of respect for the women who came before me and fought so I can enjoy the freedom to love other women, to vote, to have children without having a partner, to do whatever I want in life without having to consider wife as the only profession available to me…
Burning Questions by Margaret Atwood
I have always loved Margaret Atwood and I have yet to read a book by her that’s disappointed me. So far I’d say that The Testaments is perhaps the book of hers that didn’t quite impact me as her other ones, but even in that case I devoured it in a few days and had quite an enjoyable reading experience.
Burning Questions is a collection of essays from 2004 to 2021. It’s also a pretty massive book so I wondered if I’d read it in one setting or if I’d dip in an out over the period of a few months.
Well, what can I say? I enjoyed being inside Atwood’s brain a bit too much and finished this book quite fast. I absolutely loved it. I learned lots of different things, I gained insights into her novels from this period and I reaffirmed my love for this very intelligent and sharp writer.
An essay about the Franklin expedition and its key role in Canadian imagery reminded me of how I love the horrific stories about the search for the Northwest Passage. The essays about writing – and the process around novels I love such as Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake – were illuminating. Margaret Atwood also struggles with writer’s block, procrastination, and having to start the same novel multiple times until she finds the right voice (apparently, this happened to her with Alias Grace). Glad to see I’m not the only one.
There are many essays here about art and also about climate change and the environment. An essay I particularly loved touches on the figures of the vampire and the zombie and how, in times of economical success, culture seems to favour the first one (as all vampires are rich, maybe aristocratic, and beautiful and decadent) whereas in times of financial crisis culture turns towards the messiness of the zombie. In other pieces, Atwood focuses on her childhood as the daughter of an entomologist who made her love and respect animals and nature. Other essays focus on her life partner, Graeme Gibson, their relationship (he was also a writer) and his struggles with dementia. All in all, an enjoyable and varied reading experience.
New Skin for the Old Ceremony: A kirtan by Arun Sood
I picked this book because it was written by a colleague of mine but also because it’s set in the Isle of Skye and India, so of course I was curious . This is a story narrated by a group of friends. A celebration of friendship in all its rawness and messiness. I don’t think there are enough books about friendship, actually, as authors seem to favour, more often than not, romantic relationships. But I have always thought of friends as chosen family and as important, if not more, than romantic partners.
The story follows Raj, Viddy, Liam and Bobby, four Scottish friends who are meeting again to do a road trip around the Isle of Skye fourteen years after they all travelled to India together. The book follows these four perspectives. After the trip to India, these four friends have ‘grown up’ and settled down in different lives. Raj is about to have his first child. Viddy has had twins and recently lost her partner. Liam travels around the world providing people with experiences at different health resorts. Poor Bobby went to do a PhD and ended up worse than he thought he would (do I know!)
There’s a lot of reflection in this book about the idea of cultural identity, specifically Scottish cultural identity, and also around cultural appropriation and colonisation. For example, Raj is born in Scotland to Indian parents and ponders his own identity in different parts of the book. The trip the friends do to India forces them to challenge their preconceptions about this country (fuelled, to a point, by the British colonisers). A metaphor for this is the motorcycle the friends ride in India first and then Scotland, the Royal Enfield Bullet.
The Royal Enfield Bullet.
Or Anglo-Indian? (…)
That most nebulous of illusions that makes it sound like people across cultures can belong together. But where? The ghosts of those Bangladeshi border corpses might have something to say about the global merits of a machine that buzzed the Border Security around as they papped out rounds and cleansed the new country of veil and scripture and calls to prayer.
Strange how something so British could become so Indian.Arun Sood
The writing style is akin to stream of consciousness, so by the end of the novel you know the darkest secrets of every character (and they can get quite interesting, as it happens with Bobby). This novel can also get playful and comedic, and that was one of my favourite aspects. It’s brilliant that this group of friends chose to ride motorcycles on mountainous Indian roads when they had hardly any experience with this vehicle. Another favourite scene is when they all go to the Mind Healers’ Retreat in the Isle of Skye to take part in an Ayahuasca ceremony which doesn’t quite end as one would have expected.
Sood is also a musician and the whole story is structured around Leonard Cohen’s album New Skin for the Old Ceremony released in 1974. The novel takes its title and its chapter names are inspired by its track titles too. The novel also pays homage to the kirtan, a word from Sanskrit which refers to a form of chanting or storytelling. I found this fascinating because music is an important part of my writing process as well. I have playlists for everything I write and sometimes I associate specific stories to an specific singer or album. For example, I based the structure of my novella McTavish Manor on Midlake’s album Antiphon.
The Doll by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
This, I believe, is the first novel I’ve ever read by an Icelandic author. The blurb at the back and the first chapter seemed to suggest this was going to be a supernatural horror thriller. Well, it wasn’t. It’s a thriller, yes, but very much rooted in dirty realism.
The main characters, detective Huldar and psychologist Freya, are regular in other novels by Sigurdardottir, so in that regard, it felt like being thrown in the middle of their own personal stories. That said, this book can very much be read like a standalone piece. I’m not sure how I felt about these main characters. Huldar is the classic detective stereotype: he works day and night, drinks, never sleeps and is also popular with the ladies. I was more interested in Freya and her work as a child psychologist in a foster care organisation. She has quite an interesting personal life with her brother being involved in some criminal activities, and her little niece, who she takes care of full-time during this book. It was a bit frustrating that we only got glimpses of this.
Something that this book did very well for me was showing Iceland’s underworld. A portion of this novel is set in a district of Reykjavik where people who struggle with addiction and have become homeless live in reconverted shipping containers. This made me think of the homeless crisis here in the UK – and what I have seen whenever I have travelled to the States. It says a lot about Icelandic society that they are, at least, offering these people the dignity of a home.
Broken families are recurrent in this book, which focuses on the disappearance of Rosa, a teenager in foster care, who was placed there after her mother died in strange circumstances (Rosa had already lost her father years before in an accident). She has been claiming for years that her parents’ deaths are connected to an ugly, decomposing doll she found in the sea during a fishing trip. Of course, no one believes her. The novel briefly touches on those who surround Rosa: Tristan, her friend from the foster care system. Tristan’s mother is an addict unable to take care of herself (or her son) but they both love each other fiercely. Rosa’s grandparents, who could have taken her in after she lost her parents, but were unable to do so because of her grandmother’s alcohol addiction.
I was more interested in all these characters than in the police procedurals so I wished the novel had devoted more time to get to know them, especially in the case of Rosa, who is such a central part of the plot. The revelations that came at the end were surprising enough and as dark as the plot until that point. However, it was all revealed in a few pages through Huldar’s monologue, which I found a tad anti-climatic.
Sealed by Naomi Booth
This is a horror novella that made me sick, which body horror should do, so I’m not mad about it. I devoured it in a few days and thoroughly enjoyed it, as I expected because Naomi Booth is an excellent writer. The story starts in a near future with a couple, Alice and Pete, who are moving to the countryside because living in the city has become unbearable due to the high levels of heat and pollution. Also, Alice is heavily pregnant so both of them are looking for a safe place to start a family.
This strange world (apparently based in Australia) where everything is polluted, including food – so you have to spend a lot of money if you want to purchase ‘protected’ goods, which are supposed to be clean of chemicals – felt very real. Temperatures are also incredibly high which means everyone is living with the constant threat of having to be evacuated because of the fires.
Something terrifying and poignant was the refugee crisis depicted in this book, especially because of the current relevance of this topic. In the reality of Sealed, people are forced to become refugees, not because of war but climate collapse; as parts of the Earth become uninhabitable, humans need to move somewhere else. This is something that terrifies me because I see it as a very real (and imminent) consequence of Climate Change. In this novella, refugees are sent to special camps that are supposed to be a temporary solution – yet they don’t seem to be able to leave them. The way these places are described is chilling and terrifying, and there is a hint of slavery and even the more sinister aura of concentration camps. Alice knows this well since she works for a housing organisation in the city.
‘Of course,’ Linda says. ‘We do have a curfew, for the peace of mind of residents. Generally, we find that residents don’t want to seek accommodation elsewhere, when they understand the situation and what a good deal they’ve got here. The State has provided them with housing here, so they won’t be offered anything in the city. And of course, they’d have to pay back their relocation compensation if they were to leave. And why would you want to leave such a clean an orderly facility? If I’m honest with you, and I know you won’t like this coming from the State side, Alice, but if I’m honest with you these places are better equipped than most of the old public-housing these folk have left.’
‘And how about reintroduction? How do you manage them back into their homes? When the risk of the heat event lessens?
The woman blinks hard a couple of times. The grit is blowing up everywhere into our eyes and our hair. ‘Oh,’ she says. ‘That’s never happened.’Naomi Booth
Ah, and I haven’t gotten to the desease part yet. Because, as if this wasn’t enough, this book is also about the outbreak of cutis, in which the skin of your body starts growing out of control and can create a layer over your eyes, your mouth, your nostrils… until it literally seals you in.
Remember the main character, Alice, is heavily pregnant and due to give birth at any moment? Well, you know where this is going…
This book is a very fine novella, and does what horror should always do: it makes you question things you already worry about and shows you a glimpse into a world that we should all be actively fighting against becoming a reality. It’s also about empathy and community – Alice and Pete are alone and isolated in a small rural community, and their only chance at survival is to connect with other folks because neither the state nor the climate are really there for them. Despite its brevity, this book depicts a world that feels real and characters that are fully fleshed and I found myself rooting for (even Pete, as annoying as I thought he could be at the beginning). Sealed is great body horror with an environmental pandemic twist, and a new favourite of mine.