Some recent non-Women’s Prize reads (the last you’ll be seeing from me for a while!):
One of the February releases I was eager to get my hands on was Jess Kidd’s newest novel: Things in Jars. I picked it up in early March and it took a little work, but I did enjoy this one in the end.
In the novel, an Irishwoman living in Victorian London works as a private investigator. Of course this is hardly an appropriate profession for a woman at the time, but Bridie has a medical background, a gentleman’s disguise, and a connection with a policeman that keeps her in business. Her latest case involves a missing child; the young girl and her new nurse have vanished without a trace, and her father does not want to report the kidnapping through official channels. Bridie learns that the child is suspected of being a merrow, a mythological Irish creature in danger of being “collected” and preserved in a jar, a fate befalling scientific oddities of the time. She also learns that the child is not exactly who the father claims her to be. Between the lies and the greedy anatomists, can Bridie rescue the girl in time?
“Bridie rekindles her pipe, giving it a few rapid drags. She squints at the dead man through the smoke. ‘I’m not in the market for a haunting.’ “
Things in Jars is a genre-bender: I would primarily deem it historical fiction, but it is also a mystery, dips into some science, and contains a few fantasy elements as well. There’s even a hint of romance. In addition, it presents some commentary on sexism and immorality relating to its time period, dealing in themes of scientific progress vs. morality, the divide between wealthy and poor, the truth in and power of folklore. There’s much to enjoy here, and I did actually enjoy most of it. Though it’s hardly a whodunnit, I found the layout of the mystery here particularly effective: alongside Bridie’s search, we are given chapters featuring the kidnappers and their attempt to escape with the unusual child, which means the question the reader is asking of the novel is constantly evolving. There are also flashback chapters woven in, which gradually unveil key moments of Bridie’s past that manage to feel both relevant and well-timed in the larger narrative.
The only aspect I didn’t like- and this was a big hurdle for me to overcome- was the writing style. Kidd employs a very high level of whimsy that I found almost unbearably cloying. In some ways it serves the story well- Bridie is smoking some potentially hallucinogenic drugs, leaving the reader with some uncertainty over whether her ghostly tag-along is present or imagined; the pervasive tone of, well, silliness, makes it easier to roll with some of those more absurd elements, while also softening the horror of others. Kidd isn’t romanticizing this time period, but rather presenting it warts and all to the reader. (If you’re squeamish about historical medical practices enter with caution. Pet lovers should also note that there are a couple of short but grisly scenes where misfortune/abuse to animals is unpleasantly detailed.)
Perhaps it says something about me that I would’ve preferred this book to take a more grave approach to the heavy subject matter it deals with and drop the attempt at lightheartedness, but the constant dramatics really were the only complaint I had about this book. Aside from the pets’ fates, of course.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think Kidd is an excellent writer who clearly put a lot of research into this book and is in full command of the language. Though I did appreciate the plot, as well as the themes and commentary worked into it, I really struggled with the writing to the extent that I’m not sure I’ll ever be willing to try another of Kidd’s novels. Maybe if I give it some time.
Next I reached for my first non-fiction read of the year (yes, it’s been a long time coming), and one of the titles I was most sad not to have picked up in 2019: Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House, a memoir of abuse in same-sex relationships.
In the book, Machado details meeting a charming woman, becoming her girlfriend, feeling increasingly stifled and unsafe in the relationship, and eventually dealing with the aftermath of psychological and emotional abuse.
“It’s not being radical to point out that people on the fringe have to be better than people in the mainstream, that they have twice as much to prove. In trying to get people to see your humanity, you reveal just that: your humanity. Your fundamentally problematic nature. All the unique and terrible ways in which people can, and do, fail.”
Acknowledging that people of the same gender can hurt each other in romantic relationships shouldn’t seem difficult, but Machado uses this book to outline a literary (and actual) history sadly lacking in any evidence of that this is a real phenomenon. She uses inventive structure and imagery to explore the difference between what she wanted from this relationship and what she got, and the resistance she found afterward when trying to tell her story. Each chapter is presented as a facet of the “dream house,” a different side of the relationship that looked like everything the author wanted from the outside but turned out to be something quite different once she found herself stuck inside.
Machado does an incredible job of conveying the mounting sense of tension and fear pervading this particular relationship without actually describing a lot of specific, personal information. In the Dream House is not a sensationalist cry for attention or attempt to shock the reader with horrifying anecdotes- Machado uses her experiences to talk about domestic abuse and queer relationships more broadly. It’s an exploratory work, a narrative meant to open the eyes of nonbelievers and give those who have seen it firsthand a sense of solidarity.
“Dream House as Epiphany / Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal.”
This is a powerful book that I would recommend to… anyone who’s ever been or will be in a relationship, honestly. I can’t relate personally to much of Machado’s experience, but some of the situations she describes and the commentary she explores surrounding them have made me rethink all sorts of interactions I’ve had in my own life and the ways that society has taught me to view relationships generally. Having read In the Dream House, I feel both more educated about a perspective that doesn’t match mine, and also seen in ways that I didn’t expect to be. (Bonus points for the Iowa City setting, which I always love to see after spending my own college years there. I think I only missed being there at the same time as Machado by three months!)
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Very nearly 5, and I’m not sure if I can explain why it didn’t quite hit that mark for me; I suppose I knew enough about the book going in that it lost its ability to really surprise me in the way that I tend to reserve my 5-star ratings for, which of course isn’t any fault of the book. It’s a brilliant read that I highly recommend and am unlikely to forget.
Last but not least, I finished reading Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies earlier this week, and absolutely loved it!
In the novel, the Norwegian island Vardo is hit hard by a sudden storm in the early 1600s. The storm kills most of the town’s men, who were out on the sea in their fishing boats when it struck. The women left behind must learn to survive on their own, to find their own food, light their own fires, and carry on in a world where women are not supposed to hold any power. Soon after the storm, a new commissioner is appointed to their area; he believes that such a sudden and devastating storm could not have been a natural occurrence, and makes his home in Vardo to root out the witches to blame. In a divided and changing community, the women soon learn that no one is truly safe.
” ‘You’re no witch.’ / ‘It doesn’t matter what I am, only what they believe I am.’ “
Historical fiction is a genre that doesn’t always work for me- I enjoy learning about events from the past through invented narratives, but I dislike romanticizing, sensationalizing, and sentimentalizing approaches, and so I always go in a bit wary that the tone and style just won’t be to my taste. Much to my pleasant surprise, The Mercies drew me in right away, presented zero cause for disappointment at any point, and held my attention rapt until the end. Though it centers around a famous set of witch trials in Norway at this time, the focus is mainly aimed at the distressed community on Vardo. In the wake of such an impactful storm, life has changed drastically; the women argue over what should be done and how to go about it. Old rifts are wedged wider, new rifts form out of the grief and uncertainty that now (in 1618) defines life on Vardo. Into this fraught setting enters an outsider, a man with a singular goal: to hunt witches. In 2020, of course, we know that “witches” were simply social outcasts who couldn’t prove their innocence in a system designed to fabricate guilt. The author does not attempt to surprise the reader with this familiar revelation, but rather to explore the social conditions that make this phenomenon possible.
As such, Millwood Hargrave supplies the reader with very human, very compelling characters, a setting that’s practically a character in its own right, and a tale brimming with tension and emotion. The women feel both like people of their own time and neighbors you could have today (supposing you lived on a very cold and isolated island). They are strong and flawed, just doing their best to navigate life under the rules they’ve been given (as are we all). There’s a great LGBTQ+ relationship in this story, plenty of tragedy, and village’s worth of determination. I found the writing very immersive and enjoyed every page.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This was one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and yet even so I was not prepared to love it as much as I did. I believe this is the author’s first adult novel, but I’ll certainly be picking up more of her work in the future, including some of her YA content.
If you’ve read any of these books, let me know what you thought! If you haven’t, do any catch your eye?
The Literary Elephant