Emma and Clem are approaching the end of their 20s and are less than impressed with their lot. Emma works in a corporate hellscape for an advertising company and inevitably finds it to be awful, especially as she wants to write novels for a living. Clem has just returned from a top film school in NYC with a broken heart and a shitload of debt. They envy aspects of each other lives: Emma longs to be as free and daring as Clem, while Clem would like to not be skint. Both women are ultimately scrappy and independent, and eventually find a middle ground and play the game in their respective writing careers.
This was a funny and insightful debut novel from Berry, editor of satirical feminist blog KnockBack. I’m obviously the target demographic for this book in more ways than I care to publicly admit. This is a quick and dirty read for people like me and, I quote, “no-one else”. For that reason, I forgave the often ridiculous characters – ridiculous in the purest sense of the word – and tenuous plot and let myself get comfortable at the end of the day with Emma and Clem.
That’s not to say I didn’t flinch at some of their bizarre escapades. They often seemed younger than their age, especially when it came to frenemy-style relationships with other women. Clem’s blind date with a smarmy older man had me begging her to get up and run away.
However, this was saved entirely by the sensitivity with which reproductive rights were addressed. Emma and Hilary’s problems were a timely look at what women face in the workplace and in their personal relationships in a time of gender-related upheaval. These parts were a pleasure to read and would resonate with women of all ages.
On a flight to Helsinki to receive his long-awaited prize for literature, Joseph’s wife Joan decides definitively that she wants to divorce him. She reflects on their relationship, which appears to be an endless showreel of poor behaviour on his side, and quiet acquiescence on hers.
At times, I found the Joan hard to sympathise with. I obviously sympathise greatly with women of her generation who were elbowed out of the workplace and back into the home; it saddens me that there are so many women whose husbands sidelined their desires and wore down their brightness. Joan, however, had a chance. She went to university and left to elope with a married professor with a newborn baby – then she’s surprised that he continues to cheat? I’d still have sympathy if his first indiscretion of their relationship happened before they were married, but she walked down the aisle knowing full well he sleeps around without even bothering to cover his tracks properly.
At this point it’s a choice. It’s not even a choice made out of desperation – she’s from a wealthy Upper East Side family. Maybe I’d understand her motivations as a wife more clearly if Joseph was a genius or if he ever treated her particularly well to start with. The only kind words she ever recounts him saying to her was a compliment on her writing skills, though he had no interest in putting her in the limelight. She could have shined on her own.
Of course, the generational gap between our experiences grants me the privilege of balking at her passivity over the years. It certainly got a reaction from me, and Wolitzer’s writing shone through a plot I found frustrating.
SUCH SMALL HANDS BY ANDRES BARBA (TRANSIT; 2017)
Her father died instantly, her mum in the hospital.
What an opening line! Not a word is wasted in this haunting novella by Spanish author Andrés Barba. Marina moves to an orphanage after the car crash that took her parents, and her arrival causes excitement in the dormitory. It seems all of the other girls have been residents of the home for as long as they can remember. It’s difficult for only-child Marina to adjust to a life of constant scrutiny by peers; perhaps it’s even harder for the other girls to become accustomed to a sister whose life has been so much richer in experience.
The climax of the story involved a game of Marina’s creation. She hints at the importance of the game earlier in the day while the girls are on a trip to the zoo, but refuses to give any further details until they are in their shared dormitory after hours:
“Tonight we’re going to play a game,” she said.
“What game, Marina?”
“Just a game I know.”
“How do you play?”
“I’ll tell you tonight.”
“Can’t you tell us now?”
The game changes the relationship between the orphans; the power dynamic shifts every night as the play their grotesque game by torchlight. Barba’s portrayal of young female friendship is uncanny, and chilling because of it. This is a classic ghost story of living dolls and haunting schoolhouses – I’d advise against reading before bed.
Set in Russia and spanning from 1930s then-Leningrad to 2010 post-Soviet, post-Chechen War country, The Tsar of Love and Techno feels more like a novel than a collection of short stories.
Of the many lives depicted in this book over several generations, the theme of family and how intrinsically it shapes all of us runs through. The clumsy, beautiful girl who strives to follow in her prima ballerina grandmother’s footsteps. The brothers whose space-obsessed father will always come back to them in their thoughts. The censor’s nephew who needs to make his mark on the world. It’s a reminder of how – usually embarrassingly – we have a need to prove and identify ourselves.
Easily my favourite read of 2018 so far, it’s a story I couldn’t wait to get back into at every chance I got. I’ll always be a fan of fiction with an intertwined-story structure (shout out to Love Actually, the greatest movie of all time) and they’re even better when every single character is so rich in detail and honesty. I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of the history of the Soviet Union is average at best, but it’s Marra’s knack for making the political personal means it didn’t really matter.
THE PORTABLE VEBLEN BY ELIZABETH MCKENZIE
The Portable Veblen tells the story of Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, a squirrel-obsessed, Norwegian-speaking office temp as she attempts to transition from an isolated existence to one of attachment. She pointedly makes only enough money to survive and lives by the teachings of her namesake and author of The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen.
Paul Vreeland, her new fiancé, appears to be completely incompatible with Veblen. Dr Vreeland performs neurological experiments on animals (including squirrels) and seems to be majorly into what Thorstein Veblen coined as ‘conspicuous consumption’; the compulsion to buy unnecessary commodities to display wealth for its own sake.
For this reason among a couple of others, I took an immediate disliking to Paul. I thought he was disingenuous and cold, but I eventually came to see him as an antihero who, despite having an alienating family life, had the self-esteem and pragmatism to balance Veblen’s whimsy.
Veblen’s mother, Melanie, is also central to the rifts between the couple. Owing to Veblen’s obvious fear of her in the earlier chapters, I had in mind a maternal character akin to Eleanor Oliphant’s sociopathic mother in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. However, it turns out Melanie is still struggling with her less-than-ideal upbringing and this trauma has manifested in extreme hypochondria and delusions of grandeur. This, paired with Paul’s career, allowed McKenzie to make tactful digs at the American health system. The commercialisation of healthcare is a running theme throughout the novel and highlights the absurdity and power of large pharmaceutical companies.
A sizeable suspension of disbelief is required to get on board with some of the plot devices McKenzie uses (a convenient butt-dial misunderstanding is reminiscent of TV teen dramas) and the pace of the story is a little stop-start. McKenzie’s characters, however, are deep and wonderfully complex and ambiguous.
A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS BY KHALED HOSSEINI
(RIVERHEAD BOOKS; 2007)
Spanning thirty years of Afghan history, Hosseini’s second novel tells the story of the intertwined lives of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Mariam grows up as a shameful harami (bastard) child, born out of wedlock and kept out of sight in a riverside shack built by her rich and powerful father. Tragedy makes her a young wife to a much older man and we see a carefree tomboy from the village forced into obedience.
Laila, the promising only daughter of an academic and a fiery, ‘modern’ Afghan woman, suffers a fate common to Afghan women after the fall of communism in the country in the early ’90s. Necessity and desperation drive her narrative. An unlikely friendship made with Mariam, however, stands to change everything they’ve come to know.
Hosseini’s straightforward prose makes light work of complex situations and steadily introduces the nuances of twentieth-century Afghan history without patronising. The forbidden romance weaved through time and circumstances is sweet and moreish, but something irked about this story. Women’s pain is relentless. Of course, terrible violence has happened and is happening to women all over the world, although Hosseini’s choice to write what must be nearing a dozen scenes in which his protagonists are beaten is gratuitous at best. One well-done scene with implied cruelty would have sufficed.
In a novel ostensibly about women, we only ever see them in relation to the men in their lives. I was thirsty for a breakaway; some unconventional independence in the throes of a brutal regime. This is a novel, not a history book. I was satisfied by the end, and I understood why things had to end the way they did. I just wanted a little more mercy for the characters I’d invested in.
YOU TOO CAN HAVE A BODY LIKE MINE BY ALEXANDRA KLEEMAN
(FOURTH ESTATE; 2015)
In You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, we meet A. A lives with B. A’s boyfriend is C. A is concerned that B and herself are too alike and becoming more so with each passing day, and so is reluctant to allow B and C to meet. TV is God and the strange products advertised on it are their religion.
We are introduced to a world in which consumerism is only a few steps ahead of how most of us live now, but the atmosphere of this place is noticeably colder. A and B appear to live off oranges and ice lollies alone while they are transfixed by the beautiful women they see on TV, we seldom hear of any friends or family of any of the three main characters, and all A and C do together is watch TV in the dark with the A/C blasting (so C can wear his favourite sweater year-round, of course). A begins to show outward discomfort with the status quo and is met with confusion and even contempt. I willed someone to treat her with genuine kindness, even though I was sure she wouldn’t know what to do with it.
Interestingly, though there are one or two indirect references to mobile phones, we hear nothing of the internet throughout the story. The power of television, a staple in American homes for decades, is the prime subject here. Though themes such as subliminal messaging and technology-as-evil are far from new, Kleeman seems aware of this and even relies on our existing knowledge to keep the description sparse and the action immediate.
At times – especially during A’s many recounts of adverts for the completely edible and not at all disturbing Reese’s cup-like snack, Kandy Kakes – I found the prose too dense and repetitive, albeit that being its purpose. Unlike, say, American Psycho, which I physically could not finish because of the incessant and disgusting stream-of-consciousness, the Kandy Kakes sequences only punctuate the action and give us insight into A’s state of mind.
Could You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine be described as science fiction? Or a skewed perspective of our reality?