Tag Archives: women's prize 2021

fashionistas of dubious morality

Review: Consent by Annabel Lyon

Women’s Prize progress: 9/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Consent

In this novel, two sets of sisters have grown into adulthood in imbalanced sibling relationships. Sara and Saskia both knew from young ages that their respective sisters were not neurotypical, resulting in higher levels of care and consideration- and lower expectations of achievement- from their families. Later in life, Sara and Saskia both find themselves (independently) in caregiving roles of greater primacy, having to attend to and make choices for their sisters in ways that their parents can’t or won’t. Both situations are further complicated as Sara and Saskia each pursue someone she believes to have taken advantage of her sister in some way, all while questioning whether she shares the blame for her sister’s fate. At this point, the two parallel narratives collide.

“‘You were her better self,’ David says. ‘And she was yours.’ / Sara hangs up the phone. I was her punishment, certainly, she thinks, taking the empty suitcase out from under the bed. As she was mine. But remind me again of our crime?

Consent is a juicy little book that delves into various forms of consent through two complicated sister relationships. Lyon beautifully demonstrates how sisters- even twins- can be simultaneously alike and unique, how they can need each other and loathe each other, how they can get things wrong and still remain inextricably bonded together. (I do not have a sister, but Lyon made me feel as though I did.) With this setup, she explores that connection of sisterhood in parallel with the question of mental capacity for consent- what can a neurodivergent person consent to practically, sexually, medically, legally? What if they are not officially diagnosed? Whose word can be trusted when claiming consent was obtained? If consent cannot be given, who then will make the choice? What if that mediator (inevitably) has motives of their own?

We always knew something was wrong, but the doctors wouldn’t diagnose her until she was an adult. They said she might outgrow her symptoms. She never cared about other people, about pleasing them or hurting them. She stole both my high school boyfriends just because she could.

While this book is very focused on two very specific cases of sisterhood and consent, and is more of a multiple-character study than an “issues book” dripping with direct social commentary, there’s clearly plenty of thematic depth to give this story some heft. Lyon’s crisp and direct prose certainly bears weight as well.

What really won me over though, is that on top of the literary strengths of the novel, Lyon also offers a fun mystery/thriller-esque element to the plot for a bonus dose of drama. Readers who like thrills and surprises may appreciate that Consent skews this way, though I wouldn’t recommend this book as a mystery/thriller because the twists are more like icing on top than the main dish here. The thrill also doesn’t quite land perfectly- the pacing is off, especially in the final section of the book when the reader is suddenly excluded from Sara and Saskia’s interiority in a way that belies the rest of the book, and the final events do seem a bit convenient and far-fetched, but (fictional) murder always keeps things interesting.

The other area in which this story faltered for me harks back to the title of this review- where you may have noticed that I have referred to the main characters of this book as “fashionistas,” an aspect of their characterization I’ve not mentioned again thus far. The crux of the matter is that while I found the dialogue and anecdotes around the art of fashion in this book fascinating, I also thought this passion felt completely irrelevant to the rest of this story. It is possible I’m missing something, I know that as a reader I tend to struggle with books about art- especially visual art- so this is something of a blind spot for me. There are certainly a few key moments where the treatment of clothing or perfume tells us something crucial about Sara and/or Saskia and their closest relationships, because fashion is their language, but somehow their love for fashion never feels properly coupled to the rest of this story. They could have been into gaming or artisanal cheese and it would have fit the book just as well, is what I mean- the dedication to clothing specifically struck me as somewhat lifeless and arbitrary, for the sake of shoehorning in some personality. Though the fashion focus never exactly feels insincere, and can be incredibly interesting, I was never fully convinced this book needed it at all, despite the impressive amount of page space Lyon dedicates to it. An interest in reading about art or fashion in particular is going to be a must for prospective readers, I think.

“Anyway, she did not have so many clothes. She curated and edited her collection relentlessly.”

It’s also worth noting there’s some repeated racism against a Korean man throughout this book, from one particular character, which I believe is meant to reflect poorly on the character speaking this way and to demonstrate the effect such a mannerism can have on a neurodivergent character who hears it often and doesn’t have full grasp on the concept of racism, but whether the slurs crop up more often than strictly necessary to make the point is debatable.

CWs: racism (including anti-Asian slurs), murder, death of a loved one, alcoholism

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. There were a few ups and downs here for me, but on the whole I was pleasantly surprised, found the read enjoyable and memorable, and am glad that the Women’s Prize longist nudged me to pick this one up. If you’re a prize reader who tends to like the more literary-leaning options from the lists regardless of how far they advance with the judges, this would probably be a great title to pick up.

The Literary Elephant

the generational impact of trauma

Review: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

Women’s Prize progress: 8/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, the worlds of wealthy tourists and impoverished locals collide in historical Paradise, a beach-side Barbadian village. When a robbery goes wrong on the night that Lala’s daughter is born, it sets in motion a string of devastating events. …Or does it? As the story unfolds, rippling out from Lala’s perspective to touch on all of those ensnared in the fallout, the reader learns just how deeply ingrained the roots of this problem lie, how easily perpetuated by the wealth gap between the summering tourists and struggling locals, and we begin to understand that Lala’s pain is not new, but rather a fresh iteration of tragedy and misogygny inherited by generation after generation in Paradise, nearly impossible to escape.

“She did not understand that for the women of her lineage, a marriage meant a murder in one form or the other.”

Right off the top, I have to warn you this is a bleak book. Personally, I don’t mind reading bleak fiction, and coming on the tail as this one did for me of an extremely bleak nonfiction read, I had a very positive experience here, though I understand others may want to skip this one for its difficult themes and content. I’ve rounded up some CWs at the bottom of this review, and am mentioning that list now in case anyone wants to check before reading further.

What makes this book so dark and haunting is the relentlessness of the trauma, the Point of the book being (in my view, as you may have surmised from the title of this review) being that in a place with such imbalances of justice and privilege, pain begets pain; that misogyny, abuse, and injustice are a breeding ground for more of the same, internalized by perpetrators and victims alike, to be passed down from one generation to the next to such a point that even a newborn doesn’t seem to stand a chance. Almost every chapter reveals some deeper layer of despair in this story as the narration flits between linked characters, exploring past ghosts that persist as present motivators. Though this book covers a specific incident, in a specific family, it speaks to a much larger societal problem in which trauma is the norm, she who can’t take it with dignity is further punished and ostracized, and there are very few viable avenues for recourse or even exit.

“And she leaves Lala in the cold quiet room on her back with her legs still splayed and no feeling at all at the intersection of her thighs and it is nothing like the bliss on the posters in the clinic or on the TV ads or the faces of the wealthy tourist women who walk with their newborns on Baxter’s Beach. Instead, she realizes that she has now brought another person into the dark, that birth is an injury and having a baby has scarred her and when the nurse asks her if she wants to go with her to see her baby in the ICU she shakes her head No...”

While the painting of this unhappy picture is the book’s strength, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House also meets its primary downfall in this dogged focus on trauma through the ages; the narrative becomes so focused on what seems an exhaustive list of tragedies that the characters have little personality beyond their particular pains. Some characters want to leave Paradise, some want to rise above, some want to come back to experience it with better fortunes, but these longings are all tied to what has happened to the local characters here, reactions rather than innate ideals. They don’t have dreams or quirks that make them unique- they could all be anyone, dropped into the events that happen to them. Only their situations set them apart.

For example, it’s eerie to see that Lala could read exactly like her grandmother does, with only a number of years separating their fates; sure one earns her keep making dresses and the other braiding hair, but neither skill is mined for character depth and both cater in the same way to the tourists- this similarity makes the generational span of the family’s trauma abundantly clear, but it also, regrettably, comes across as though all of these characters exist not to represent people but to be vehicles of pain, suffering, and violence, first and foremost. If I could’ve changed one thing about this book, it actually wouldn’t be any of the tragedy in these pages, brutal though that can be; I would wish rather that the reader be allowed to know these characters a little better as individuals.

But even with this flaw in view, I think How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is still fully worth the read. I was immediately gripped by the writing; for such a tragic tale, Jones delivers a compelling narrative with plenty of momentum, the writing smart and artfully circular, spiralling around its points in a way that builds up dread and anticipation before honing in for the kill. Every twist feels both surprising and inevitable- the perfect combination I’m always looking for in fiction. I also found the use of multiple POVs engaging and well-utilized; Jones allows us to see most of her characters at first from a distance, through someone else’s eyes; she piques our curiosity with circumspection and only then allows us a close glimpse into each new perspective, which expands upon or challenges what we’ve learned from other characters in a way that makes each new piece vital in its own right. The shifting narration gives the book a fluid, communal feel, though Lala is always at the center. Other characters include Lala’s grandmother, mother, husband, friend, the police officer who questions her, and the woman involved in the botched robbery. All of these perspectives add their own flavor to what is clearly a larger societal issue, though they also all feed into that single common thread- Lala.

“Mira Whalen closes her eyes. Just yesterday she had ventured outside, just a little walk on the beach, and had seen the neighbor’s dog die, had seen a woman too terrified to report an assault she had suffered. Mira Whalen did not think she could muster the energy to go outside again. Mira Whalen didn’t think she could muster the energy for anything.”

It’s a heartwrenching tale that offers little hope, though the fact that the main thrust of the story is set in 1984 with occasional flashbacks to even earlier years does seem to suggest that living conditions on Barbados beaches may have somewhat improved up to present day. Despite the time jumps and character switches I never had a hard time following along and personally I didn’t find the trauma too difficult to read. The robbery gone awry and segueing as it does into a difficult birthing scene sets up the book’s tone well, so that additional revelations feel somewhat expected, not intended to shock the reader at every turn. And the writing, the writing. Jones’s prose has such flow and rhythm, and the mechanics of her paragraphs continually impressed me. There’s a bit of dialect in the dialogue that’s easy enough to parse. For those willing to take the leap with the content, there really is so much to appreciate here. This is a book that will stick with me, I think.

CWs: murder, rape (including rape of minors), difficult birth, death of a child (infant), incest, physical (domestic) abuse, gun violence, death of a pet (dog), animal cruelty (cats), infidelity, misogyny

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was halfway through this read when I assembled my Women’s Prize shortlist predictions, and that was enough to (correctly) include it on my list; I think How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is fully deserving of its place on this year’s shortlist and well worth the read, for the right audience.

The Literary Elephant

a lit-el forecast

5.1.21

I have a lot to cover here, so this might run a little long. Feel free to skip around for whichever pieces of the post catch your interest. I generally try to bold the subject of each paragraph/section of these weekly updates so that it’s easier for you to pick and choose what you want to read- hopefully it helps!

It’s been a busy week, and either I’ve overexerted or am still adjusting to the vaccine or not quite as healthy post-covid as I thought because I’ve had a flare up with a lot of headaches and fatigue again. I’m lining up yet another appointment to make sure it’s nothing new going on, but other than needing to rest my brain a lot I don’t feel like I’m dying or anything, which truly feels like something to be grateful for these days, so I’m coping all right.

Even though it’s been a bit of a struggle (and my reading has definitely suffered for it but I’ve made my peace with that), there’s been a lot else going on, too. Planting season is in full swing on the farm- all of the corn is in the ground now so we’re onto soybeans. There’s a picture in this week’s 365 updates of the planter being refilled, with my dad making a little bonus appearance.

Also in The 365 is a puzzle I’ve been working on for a while and finally finished this week. It’s a cool concept- the specialized ‘birthday edition’ New York Times puzzle, depicting the NYT front page on the day I was born. I love the idea but unfortunately I got some pretty disappointing content on my front page. The articles include: US effing up in Iraq and fatally attacking own helicopters, mismanagement of a railroad line that left thousands stranded in bad weather, tobacco companies testifying in Congress that cigarettes aren’t addictive, a hospital settling on insurance fraud and patient abuse charges, and a Navy top admiral granted full pension in a 20 to 2 vote after a sexual harassment scandal (only one woman was on the panel). This last one was actually pretty grim to read in 2021; apparently something happened in 1991, when naval aviators sexually assaulted “scores of women” and then the investigation was bungled thanks to this admiral; this article goes on to say that “it was not clear” why the one man against giving full pension voted no. (Like, it couldn’t possibly be that he didn’t want to reward a man for allowing a lot of women to be violated without recourse for justice, right?) There’s also not a single woman in the bylines at all. One piece about the Vatican approving altar girls might seem like a victory, but then the article goes on to note that while the Vatican officially accepts them, many churches still oppose allowing girls this role and ultimately each bishop gets to make the choice for his own diocese. We are also reassured that women are still banned from priesthood. So. It was a thoughtful gift and fun to assemble at least, if not to read. I hope others who try this ‘birthday edition’ puzzle have better luck.

Cat of the Week is actually not my cat anymore; Fran(cis) was born on the farm, and is a brother to Heath (who featured in last week’s update) and Fuzzbutt (who featured several weeks ago), but I gifted him to an irl friend in need a few years ago (he’s 4 and a 1/2 now). They’re a perfect fit and I’m so glad they have each other. I don’t get to see them in person often so when I made contact this week I had to get a picture!

I had a bit of a TV binge while my brain was mush this week; I downloaded all 8 of the Shadow and Bone episodes from Netflix so I could even watch while I was waiting in the fields away from wifi, lol. I’ve actually watched the whole season twice already and can definitely foresee revisiting it again. And thus…

My week in film:

  • Shadow and Bone ssn 1 [2021] – I just loved this. It’s a great watch. It’s not flawless, but it is possibly the best YA fantasy adaptation I’ve ever seen. The acting. The filmography. The plotting! Combining Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy with her Six of Crows duology was the absolute best idea; I liked the Grisha books but loved the SoC duology so I initially wanted to watch this mainly for the crows, but I ended up enjoying every single minute. I was a little disappointed we don’t get to see more of Kaz as an individual yet (he’s my fave character), but Inej and Jesper are absolutely fantastic and so many hints are dropped for deeper characterization and plotting to come that I’m already so excited for season 2! Yes, Alina is still naive and annoying and self-centered, but I do not have a problem with unlikable characters and I find her believable enough that it works for me. She fits the story. And…I’m team Malina, apparently against the grain. To be clear, Malina has nothing on Kanej for me, but I’ve always liked Mal and I think the show does him more justice than the novels. I also (please do not cancel me) like his actor better than the Darkling’s. Sorry, Ben Barnes stans. Barnes is a great actor! And the Darkling is such a fascinating character! I’ve been going around saying “make me your villain” all week! But I have no desire to see Darklina as endgame. Anyway, the first watch was a fun binge and the second time through cemented this adaptation as a real favorite for me. Milo and the crows and Malina (in that order) gave me life this week. I need more. If you do too, you should check out Hadeer’s review, which is more coherent and detailed than my ramblings here and hits the nail on the head about the show’s racism.

My week in books:

  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones – 4 stars. I thought I’d finish this like, last Sunday, but Ive barely been able to read at all and just managed to wrap it up before the end of the month. It’s a tragic historical fiction tale set in Barbados, very focused on generational trauma and class divides on an island populated by impoverished locals and wealthy tourists, with a huge wage gap between the two groups. I’ll have a review coming very soon, but the tl;dr is that while the characterization could’ve used a little work, the writing is sharp and compellingly readable. I think it’s an apt fit for this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist.
  • Consent by Annabel Lyon – ongoing. I’ve barely made a dent, but I already love the way Lyon writes about sisters and I have a feeling I’m going to love the character dynamics and prose going forward.

My week in posts:

Another thing you might have noticed happening this week was the announcement of the Women’s Prize shortlist! In case you missed it, the six books on the shortlist are (with links to my reviews where applicable): The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones, and No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. That’s 3 titles from my wishlist, and a shocking 5 of 6 from my prediction list! The title I guessed wrong was Ali Smith’s Summer, which I haven’t read yet, though I did include the title I missed, Unsettled Ground, as my runner-up guess, so I came very close! This was especially surprising and exciting for me after also guessing 5 of 6 shortlist titles correct last year– apparently I’m on a lucky streak! (Watch me tout this record as proof of my abilities next year only to get every guess wrong, haha.)

In any case, I’m actually pretty pleased with this year’s shortlist. Unsettled Ground is the only title that made the cut that doesn’t necessarily feel like shortlist material to me, though that’s based on reviews as I haven’t read the book yet myself, so that assessment may change. I didn’t especially like No One is Talking About This but I didn’t hate it either and I think it makes a decent, topical addition to the group. I’m thrilled for Transcendent Kingdom and Piranesi and even more eager now to get to The Vanishing Half. I’m disappointed Detransition, Baby (by Torrey Peters) didn’t make the cut as it sounds excellent, though I’m still planning to read and review it regardless. Exciting Times was a longlist favorite for me, and I would perhaps have rather seen it advance than Unsettled Ground, but that may be down to personal taste. Exciting Times didn’t quite make my prediction list either so while I stand by my high rating I can’t say I’m surprised by the snub. I’ll likely have more to say once I’ve completed my shortlist (and longlist) reading, so I’m aiming to continue through the list in May and share a wrap-up post to conclude the whole experience when the time comes.

Speaking of wrap-ups, April ended this week, which means it’s time to do a quick round-up of my April reading. It was another low month for me, unfortunately. My April stats from Storygraph (you can follow me there @ literaryelephant):

I read 5 books in April, 3 literary fiction and 1 historical fiction all from the Women’s Prize longlist, as well as 1 unrelated nonfiction book. Storygraph is still showing about 100 pages more in my page count than I’ve marked in my bujo page tracker, and I do count the afterword and acknowledgement pages and whatnot if I read them, which I usually do, and I check that I’m logging the correct edition every time, so I’m not sure how Storygraph is coming up with so many more pages than I am. It will be interesting to compare the difference at the end of the year.

The books I’ve completed this month (linked to reviews where applicable) are:

No 5 star reads this month, although Made in China came close.

I completed only 1 book from my April 5-book TBR, though I don’t feel I was off track, exactly. I read three library books this month, which don’t always make it into my TBRs if they aren’t in my possession at the start of the month though I still need to prioritize them, and even though I didn’t stick to my 5-book TBR exactly, it was filled for April with Women’s Prize books and I was definitely reading along that theme so it wasn’t exactly that I lost focus. I still intend to catch up with my outstanding TBR books as soon as I can.

Speaking of catching up…

Because I’ve read only about half as much as usual the last two months, I am now considerably behind on my reading goal for 2021. I’m not too worried, because I’m still hoping my brain health will even out in the not-too-distant future and give me a chance to binge some great reads. Ideally, over the summer. Of course, the number of books anyone reads isn’t isn’t really important for its own sake, though I’m very competitive with myself and would be frustrated to miss my reading target for the first time since I started setting a yearly goal. It’s only May though so it’s too early to get stressed about it, and I won’t beat myself up about failing a target I’m just not capable of hitting at the moment. All we can do is the best we can do.

Looking ahead…

For the upcoming week, I should have at least two posts coming up, and this week I say so with more certainty. I very nearly finished a book tag I wanted to post yesterday, but then was called away to help deal with a flat tire before I could answer the last prompt; expect to see it on Monday. I’ll also have my review of How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House coming up very soon, because I borrowed a library copy and generally prefer to write my reviews before sending back my library books, which helps keep me prompt with those. Whether I manage to post more than that will likely depend on how much reading and writing my brain is up to the challenge of completing. I’ve given up trying to guess what will happen, it’s proven impossible. I’ll do what I can.

As for reading, I’ll ideally be finishing Consent and continuing on with my Women’s Prize reads– I’ve got Unsettled Ground, The Vanishing Half, and Detransition, Baby left, and I’ve not yet decided what order I’ll be reading them in so this week’s reading could include any of the above.

I’ve also not entirely decided on my May TBR, because while I am prioritizing my final Women’s Prize reads those have featured in previous 5-book TBRs (or in the case of Unsettled Ground I just don’t have a way of photographing the eARC into my usual TBR photo setup and am petty enough to omit it for that reason) so I won’t be including those books in this month’s list, and won’t start reading this month’s list until I’ve completed those reads anyway.

Furthermore, May is AAPI heritage month so I want to prioritize some books by AAPI authors in my TBR; I’ve chosen my two May BOTM titles to fit this goal, but of course they haven’t arrived yet, and I’ve got another AAPI-authored title on hold at the library that also isn’t in yet. So while I do have some titles in mind, and a few others on hand if these new ones don’t show up in a timely fashion, my list isn’t finalized yet; I’ll aim to sort this out before my next weekly update (this one’s gotten quite long anyway) and share my May TBR then.

Are you reading or posting about any books from Asian American authors for May? If you’ve read any recently or have an exciting title on your TBR, I’d love more recommendations!

The Literary Elephant

a lit-el forecast

4.24.21

I skipped mentioning a Cat of the Week in my last update because the only cat that featured was Matchy, curled up in a sleepy ball, and it didn’t seem like the best way to introduce her. This week I got a rare lap cuddle with her so she’s making another appearance (legs for dayyyys)! I’ve already talked about how she was named for her matching eye marks (this photo is a bit deceptive, her markings are symmetrical) while her brother Patchy (they’re both 2 1/2) was named for his asymmetrical eye patch marking. At some point I’ll try to get them side by side so that the names will make sense, but Matchy isn’t big on human contact so she’s a bit difficult to grab photos of! Hence needing this documented proof that a lap nap occurred.

And below Matchy is Heath, who has been stripey and cute for 4 1/2 years already; he comes from our era of candy bar cat names. Heath’s funny story is that a couple of years ago he disappeared from the farm- he’s a big tom who thinks he’s the king here and when the weather’s nice he has a tendency to wander and expand his territory, so it’s not unusual for him to go missing for a day or two and I wasn’t worried at first. But he was gone for THREE MONTHS, and then we logged into the local humane society’s website for unrelated reasons and found Heath on their front page! Our local humane society is 20 miles from the farm, and we’ve never figured out how or why he ended up there. Furthermore, it turned out he was only with the humane society for one month, which leaves plenty of his time unaccounted for. He got updated shots and good care while he was gone, seemed totally chill about it all and no worse for wear. But of course instead of roaming free in the great outdoors he was living in a cage while he was with the humane society and they called him Corey, so it’s become a running joke here that we had to break him out of prison under a false name! Fortunately this seems to have curbed his craving for adventure.

In other news, my reading this week has been incredibly bleak:

  • Made in China by Amelia Pang – 4 stars. The only reason this nonfiction wasn’t a 5-star read for me comes down to the fact that it has to cover so much information in such a condensed space, which makes it a bit confusing to follow at times; but a full history of modern Chinese politics and forced labor is beyond the scope of a single work and it’s not Pang’s fault that this is a major issue with so little mainstream coverage, which made it a very difficult book to rate at all. As always though, I rate based on my personal experience with a book, not as a reflection of the book’s merit or importance of the topic. This is an incredibly depressing revelation of human rights violations ongoing today and I’m going to have a ton to say about this in an upcoming review. It’s a very dark and difficult read, perhaps even the most dark and difficult book I’ve ever read, but it should 100% be mandatory for everyone- and especially first world consumers- to know about what is going on with forced labor right now.
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones – ongoing. I’m nearly finished with this one! And it’s also pretty bleak. If not for library due dates coming up, I would not have read these two books back to back. The upside to this one is that it’s fiction. The downside is that it deals with themes of generational misogyny and trauma, to the extent that there’s not much more to these characters than their pain, but aside from this small hiccup in characterization it’s an incredibly well-written and compelling story, and (thankfully) more literary than I’d expected.

Related to reading, I managed to catch up on three review posts this week! Those included:

All three are titles longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize. I am not planning to read all 16 books from the longlist this season, but I’ve got a handful left on my TBR and intend to round up and rank all of the longlisters I’ve read as soon as I finish. I’m expecting to pick up 12 or 13 of the longlisted books in total, though my plans could change slightly once the shortlist is announced- which is happening this upcoming week on the 28th! I definitely won’t be finished with my journey through the longlist before then, and thanks to my health issues this March and April I haven’t been able to be as much a part of the Women’s Prize reading community as I have been in the past. I’ve missed a lot of prize-related content, sadly. Between that and not having finished my longlist reading, I won’t be sharing a separate shortlist prediction post this year, and so I’ll share my few shortlist thoughts here!

From what I’ve read so far, I’d most like to see Transcendent Kingdom, Piranesi, and Exciting Times advance. These have been my 4 and 5 star reads so far. My 3 star reads, Burnt Sugar, Luster, and No One is Talking About This, I wouldn’t *mind* seeing on the shortlist, though I’m not rooting for them. I expect How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House will fall somewhere in the 3-5 star range for me, as well. The only lower rating I’ve had thus far, Small Pleasures with 2 stars, I definitely don’t want to see advance.

There are also a few longlisted books that I have yet to read but have high hopes for, which make up a portion of my shortlist wishlist:

  1. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  2. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  3. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  4. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
  5. Consent by Annabel Lyon
  6. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

But my actual shortlist prediction (and there’s no way I’m going to top last year’s record 5/6 correct guesses) is as follows:

  1. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  2. Summer by Ali Smith
  3. No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
  4. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  5. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
  6. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

I definitely feel a bit out of the loop as far as general public opinion on many of this year’s titles and what the judges might be going for as to overall tone and topics. I just haven’t read enough books or reviews or reactions to have a solid grasp of the whole, but it’s fun to take a stab at it nonetheless. It is perhaps optimistic to hope for half the shortlist to be comprised of writers of color when the longlist didn’t skew that way, but I think these are some really strong books that deserve the recognition. I also wonder if one of those England-set white-authored domestic mystery novels might make the cut since there were three of them on the longlist, but (in my limited view) none of them seem like a good shortlist fit. If I had to pick a runner-up, I suppose it would be Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground by default from those mystery novels, since I didn’t like Small Pleasures and don’t want to support Amanda Craig, who supports she who must not be named. I do still intend to read (and hopefully enjoy) Unsettled Ground, and I know many readers love Fuller’s writing, though personally I’ve not yet dipped into her work.

However it turns out, there’s a good chance I’ll be reading the shortlist and posting a winner prediction between the shortlist and winner announcement dates! There are only three books from the shortlist that I don’t really want to read- Craig’s The Golden Rule, reasoning stated above, and just because they don’t sound like my type of book at all, French’s Because of You and MacMahon’s Nothing But Blue Sky, though a shortlisting could persuade me on one of those, possibly. I’m also uncertain about my plans regarding Smith’s Summer. I do hope to read and enjoy the entire Seasons Quartet, of which Summer is the fourth and final book, but as I haven’t even started the series yet I can’t say for sure whether I’m actually interested in reading them all or whether that would happen before July 7 (the winner announcement date). I’d like to read at least the first book in the series before then to get a better idea of the set.

And now that I’ve been rambling on about the Women’s Prize long enough that I should probably have just made these remarks into their own post, I’m going to move on to my plans for the upcoming week.

I’m hoping to get at least three more posts shared, ideally my reviews of How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House (prior to the shortlist announcement if possible) and Made in China (because I just really need to talk about this book), as well as a book tag I’ve got pending. Next week’s forecast will probably include a brief round-up of my April reading, since next Saturday is the first of May (how?!). I’ll likely share my May TBR in next week’s update as well; I would’ve liked to include it here, but this post is long enough already and my reading has been erratic enough that my future plans aren’t finalized through May yet.

Even this next week looks a bit hazy- I’m planning to continue my Women’s Prize reading, but that’s all I can say for sure. I suppose top contenders for my next reads are: Annabel Lyon’s Consent, Torry Peters’s Detransition, Baby, and my eARC of Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground. (Please weigh in with recommendations!) Either way, I’m planning to continue my Women’s Prize reads until they’re finished, so these will all be coming up and I want to review as promptly as possible as I work through the rest of the list.

Anyone else getting excited to see what will be on the Women’s Prize shortlist? Which title do you most want to see advance?

The Literary Elephant

talking about things on the internet

Review: No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Women’s Prize progress: 7/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, an unnamed woman of viral tweet fame reflects on life as a minor internet celebrity- the highs and lows of being plugged in to social media sites all the time. This rumination is interrupted, however, when a real life family issue claims our protagonist’s attention. As she learns about the genetic disorder Proteus Syndrome and spends more time logged off to lend support, she realizes that there are some important aspects of human experience that are not encapsulated in the digital archive- at least, not inside the circle of popular trends she’s familiar with- and she’s forced to reevaluate the time she spends online.

“What did we have a right to expect from this life? What were the terms of the contract? What had the politician promised us? The realtor, walking us through being’s beautiful house? Could we sue? We would sue! Could we blow it all open? We would blow it all open! Could we…could we post about it?”

No One is Talking About This is a short novel constructed with brief, fragmented paragraphs. They’re not all of individual tweet-length, and as far as I remember Twitter is never mentioned by name, but the comparison in style is obvious and suits the content. This is a book full of direct references to social media trends and usage habits; to some extent, it’s appeal is going to be proportional to the amount of time the reader spends online. Personally, I am not Online in the way that this protagonist is, so there were some references that I sensed probably had a deeper relevance that was going over my head, though I still understood and enjoyed most of the read- being online 24/7 is not necessarily a prerequisite here. To be honest, the reason I don’t spend more time on Twitter and other social media sites is because I know I have a hard time breaking out of the urge to keep scrolling indefinitely and it becomes a huge time suck; even from that perspective, there’s a lot to relate to in this book, as our protagonist knows perfectly well how ridiculous it all can be. Nevertheless, there’s that irresistible drive to feel more connected to the people of our time.

“When she set the portal down, the Thread tugged her back toward it. She could not help following it. This might be the one that connected everything, that would knit her to an indestructible coherence.”

But while I found a lot of individual statements about the internet spot-on, this wasn’t a novel that worked for me as a whole. No matter how directly some of the one-liners spoke to me, I never felt engaged in the underlying plot. Part of the reasoning for that may lie in the fact that our protagonist isn’t a very active agent throughout this story; she’s commenting on what has become for her a routine, daily existence, and next on something that is happening to a family member, something that she is witnessing but has no control over. It’s all observational. Another downfall is that this is a book in two parts: one about excessive internet (“portal”) engagement, one about Proteus Syndrome, and the connection between the two feels tenuous at best. Both are happening to the same person, essentially, and at that someone who is struggling to contain both experiences in her mind at the same time even while she is living them.

Furthermore, I felt the central message here- that being online is useless in the face of Proteus Syndrome- to be simplistic and somewhat unhelpful. To claim that no one is talking about Proteus is… probably not true. That it’s not a mainstream topic probably is true, but as an extremely rare disorder currently without a cure, I’m not convinced that more people worrying about it out loud on the internet (or elsewhere) would be particularly productive in the first place (which is not to say that no one should talk about it). Furthermore, though viral posts can indeed be shockingly arbitrary, the implication that there is no value to social media while “real things” are happening in the tangible world also feels like an unconsidered, extreme viewpoint. For this particular protagonist, yes, being online all the time and endeavoring to find fame through shitposts like “can dogs be twins” probably is unhealthy, but this is not necessarily the default experience. In fact, I would argue relatively few of us, even those who are Incredibly Online, are unhealthily ignoring real world problems in favor of crafting infamous tweets in the name of digital fame.

“‘I can do something for her,’ she tried to explain to her husband, when he asked why she kept flying back to Ohio on those rickety $98 flights that had recently been exposed as dangerous by Nightline. ‘A minute means something to her, more than it means to us. We don’t know how long she has- I can give them to her, I can give her my minutes.’ Then, almost angrily, ‘What was I doing with them before?'”

But aside from the fact that No One is Talking About This speaks about a very specific experience in a way that seems- perhaps a bit awkwardly- meant for the masses to find relatable, it is arguably an important story. Maybe more people should be talking about Proteus Syndrome, and about the myriad effects (both negative and positive) of modern social media use. Reading this book as an example of reality vs. internet conflict rather than the example allows room for some interesting consideration regarding modern life. If the reason you’re online is to feel yourself a part of the moment, why not read a new book that’s trending thanks to its Women’s Prize nomination and which focuses very intently on the state of our (digital) world at present? Though I felt I should’ve had more of an emotional reaction to the sad content here than I actually did, this read certainly sparked some thought for me about how I use my time online and how I balance internet and tangible-world time; it may do the same for you.

CW: death of a child

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This book certainly had its ups and downs for me, and it’s so current that if you’re going to read it I’d suggest doing it asap (already a few of the references feel dated), but it’s a book I’m glad I took a chance on. I related, I learned, I reconsidered. Though I don’t think this is presented well enough to be a literary masterpiece, it’s one of the most experimental and “of our time” books I’ve encountered so far on the Women’s Prize longlist, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see it advance to the shortlist, and while I’m not especially rooting for that outcome I suppose I wouldn’t mind it.

The Literary Elephant

flashback to the ’50s

Review: Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Women’s Prize progress: 6/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In the novel, Jean typically writes women’s columns for a small newspaper in the London suburbs, but she eagerly takes up a feature project when Gretchen Tilbury writes in claiming her daughter is the result of a virgin birth. Jean takes testimony from the women who were around Gretchen at the time of conception and is surprised to discover that her story holds. Jean enjoys the investigation, but befriending Gretchen’s apparently perfect family is what brings her the most joy and provides a much-needed break from Jean’s normal routine of caring for her elderly- and somewhat difficult- mother.

“‘Do you think it’s possible to hold two contradictory views at the same time?’ / ‘Perfectly. Religious folk do it all the time.’ / ‘So let’s say I think Mrs Tilbury is telling the truth, but I still don’t believe in virgin birth, and I see it as my job to close that gap.'”

Small Pleasures is a book full of potential, and though for me it fell far short of capitalizing on any of it, I can see why readers are loving it. (Or, loving it except for the ending, which I’ll come back to.) Set in 1957, this story follows an unmarried woman nearing 40 who adheres strictly to her duties even while she longs for the more social life she might have had if not for her largely housebound, anxious mother, who relies on Jean’s caretaking. It’s a perspective- especially in this sexist era- often overlooked or stereotyped as pitiable, which makes Jean all the more attractive as a protagonist. And she can be a convincing heroine; Chambers shares Jean’s thoughts and emotions with the reader, making her an easy character to sympathize with.

The plot is also layered and conducive of thought; I suspect this story would make for a great book club discussion. In addition to the virgin birth investigation with its foray into 50s medicine, Small Pleasures is also prominently a domestic drama. In an age when appearances and manners are everything, Gretchen (she of the virgin birth) seems to be the perfect wife, mother, and friend, offering Jean a glimpse into the life she wishes she’d been able to forge for herself. While Howard may not be the most attractive man, he’s impeccably kind and gentle, always does right by his family, and seems to Jean the best husband any woman could ask for. And Margaret, their ten year old daughter, is a sweet, funny girl who wins Jean’s heart immediately. As Jean gains faith in Gretchen’s tale, falls for Howard, and dotes on Margaret, it’s hard to mind the switch from mystery to a quiet exploration of love and longing. It’s all very atmospheric and engaging, a quick, easy read to submerse oneself in if this kind of story appeals.

But though it all seemed off to a promising start, my experience went quickly downhill. I might have fared better with the positives here if I’d warmed to Jean more from the beginning, but Chambers seems to take era authenticity seriously enough that instead of pushing boundaries Jean feels like a true product of her generation, the book’s narration offering no retrospective modern reflection. Small Pleasures feels like it could have been written in 1957, which is a testament to Chambers’ skill with language and setting, though it belies all of the progress women have made in the last six decades. Jean has completely internalized the sexism of her day, letting her boss call her ‘old gal,’ bemoaning (privately) her single, childless state and the burden of caring for her mother. Take this example, for instance, when Jean is visiting her mother during a brief hospitalization; between mentioning that her mother seems to be doing worse that day and clarifying that she means her mother’s mental state seems unstable, she makes this disappointed observation about the hospital staff’s beauty standards:

“When she arrived for evening visiting hours after a long day at work, she found her mother slightly worse. Someone had brushed her hair back off her face, destroying what was left of the curl, and giving her a severe and somewhat masculine appearance, which would have horrified her if she had been able to see it. Looking around, Jean noticed with dismay that the other patients had been treated to a similar grooming regime and now looked like members of the same androgynous tribe.”

Dismay! Over the patients looking androgynous! While they all- including her mother- are suffering from physical and mental ailments! Jean fits the 50s stereotype exactly. She’s just as concerned with keeping up appearances and idealizing that picture-perfect housewife life as every other “proper” 50s woman, even though her circumstances haven’t allowed her to achieve the necessary first step of marriage. Of course it makes sense that someone living in this time period would prescribe to the norms of the time, but in failing to challenge any of these outdated norms through Jean or even indirectly through the 3rd person narration, Small Pleasures comes across more like a misplaced homage than a story worthy of the 21st century.

On top of finding the historical perspective unimaginative, I also had a hard time condoning many of Jean’s personal choices. The trickiness of her budding relationship with Howard aside, there are two particular instances in which I think the narration should have suggested some criticism alongside Jean’s actions. One involves her poor response to the revelation of another woman’s trauma, and the other involves herjudgmental advice to a lesbian woman looking to leave her heterosexual marriage in order to reunite with her lover. In the latter instance Jean shows no consideration for the other women’s feelings and her stance seems to imply her belief that a heterosexual marriage is the only adequate environment in which to raise a child. Jean (and Chambers) does not treat the lesbians well in this story, which might have been used to some advantage had any sort of point been made through the women’s suffering, but instead only Jean’s disapproval comes through in the narration, to no good effect.

Granted, I already disliked Jean by the time these controversial scenes arose, and the situations are more nuanced (I’m trying to keep this review spoiler-free)- Jean means to do well by the person she sees as most vulnerable in both of these cases. Painting herself as the martyr when she really is only tangential to a greater problem here doesn’t come across well either, though. For Jean’s dislike of the lesbian relationship to run unchecked while she also upholds the picture-perfect heterosexual marriage as the ultimate goal seems like a sadly missed opportunity for Chambers to comment on how hard it must have been to live as anything other than heterosexual in this time period, or to acknowledge that marriage to a man is not the be-all and end-all for every woman. As I mentioned above, there is so much potential for reflection and commentary in this book, and yet, in my opinion at least, Chambers has chosen to smile and wave as all of those moments pass unacknowledged right underneath Jean’s nose.

However, many readers seem less perturbed about Jean’s behavior than I have been, and a few fumbled handlings and missed opportunities that seem mostly well-intentioned if a bit tone-deaf are hardly reason to advise avoiding this book like the plague. It is a decent read, if Jean manages not to alienate you. But there’s one more issue with this book that’s been generating some discussion: that ending.

Like many others, I disliked the abrupt left turn in the book’s conclusion. While it turns us toward an interesting topic/event, it just isn’t presented in a way that allows it to mesh with the rest of the book. Though this last big event is actually revealed somewhat sneakily earlier on, the book ends with an ominous, open-ended chapter and then requires an afterword longer than the coverage of this event in the novel to explain what has happened and why Chambers has included it. Even this explanation is not enough to convince me that this ending belongs here; it feels grafted onto a completely unrelated story, and without some stronger sense of unity between the two major parts at play, they only detract from each other, leaving the reader to wonder what the intended takeaway is. Should we be left ruminating on the virgin birth mystery that we’ve spent 300+ pages with, or is this other event that got hardly a mention but railroaded over the rest of the plot actually the larger focus? Furthermore, this ending leaves almost all of the main characters’ fates hanging unsatisfactorily. For these reasons, even while I like the idea of this ending, I wish it had been presented differently or omitted.

“She wondered how many years- if ever- it would be before the monster of awakened longing was subdued and she could return to placid acceptance of a limited life. The journey into love was so effortless and graceful; the journey out such a long and laboured climb.”

CW: rape (off page), infidelity, death (implied), abortion leading to medical complications

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There are some cozy mystery vibes here and a solid attempt at a unique and compelling heroine, so I can see why others are having better experiences with this book, but it was all around Not For Me. Personally I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to pick this one up if you’re picking and choosing from the shortlist, and it’s the only longlisted Women’s Prize book I’ve read so far this year that I actively don’t want to see make the shortlist.

The Literary Elephant

a modern love triangle

Review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Women’s Prize progress: 5/16 (though not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, Ava has moved from Dublin to Hong Kong post-university, and is teaching English as a foreign language to local children while she tries to sort out what to do with her life. At a bar she meets Julian, a British investment banker, who likes keeping her around even though he insists she is not his girlfriend. They use each other, and Ava continues living in his apartment while he takes a months-long work trip to London. In his absence, she meets someone else, a Chinese lawyer named Edith, a woman who wants a real relationship and is kind to Ava. But Ava is living in Julian’s apartment and part of her feels the toxic relationship she has with him is what she deserves. Of course, he won’t be away forever, so she won’t be able to hide them from each other for long.

“I told myself: This is why you’re single. This is how you can be having sex with two people, tell neither about the other, be living with one of them, and still be single.”

While Exciting Times focuses on two (very different) romances, it is much more of a literary character study than a romance novel. Ava’s relationships with Julian and Edith represent two sides of herself at a moment when her life is at a crossroads. Her TEFL job is temporary, and she’s landed in Hong Kong not because she has any personal connection to it but rather out of a strong desire to leave Dublin, where she’d felt the need to hide her bisexuality. And despite how easy it may sound to choose the loving relationship over the toxic one, part of Dolan’s brilliance here is showcasing how complex it can be for someone to choose something that might ultimately be good for them- Ava enjoys the detached banter she and Julian have perfected to an art form, feels like she understands him, and, for all his rich male flaws, Julian is easier to talk to her mother about, whereas she’s wary of how her Irish Catholic family would react to being told about her girlfriend.

The book is divided into three sections. The first follows Ava’s developing relationship with Julian, showing the reader how they met, why they seem to tolerate and loathe each other simultaneously, and how Ava comes to be living full time in the guest room of his apartment. The next section takes place while Julian is away on business, focusing on Ava’s budding romance with Edith from those awkward early days of obsessing over the meaning of every little thing she does to how Ava balances this new relationship with her already-established tie to Julian, and how even a good thing can make one feel boxed in and afraid. Finally, in the last section, the inevitable conflict sparked by Julian’s return arises and Ava must face up to the mess she’s made of juggling them both, and decide which path forward she should take.

“At least Julian was honest. He’d never experienced anything but permission, I hated him for it, but all the same I was glad he knew he had it. Most men with permission never realized.”

“Edith was calm about things she couldn’t change. Her firm was full or horrible men and she had to be nice to them. You did in every job, and at least hers paid well.”

Though each section has its own merits, Exciting Times‘s greatest fault may be that it tries to present each portion of the book as though it bears equal weight. While each of the three sections is necessary to advancing Ava’s predicament, the segments looking at Ava’s individual relationships with Julian and Edith feel introductory, and introductory chapters have no business taking up two thirds of a book. The final segment of the novel that brings the three main characters all into the same space at last and pits Edith and Julian against each other is by far the most interesting, though it’s slightly shorter than either of the two earlier segments. The friction between Ava and Julian helps move the first part of the book along, though I didn’t need as many pages as were provided to get the gist of their dynamic, and Ava’s comparatively healthy relationship with Edith in the middle of the book, the longest segment, is so devoid of conflict and surprise that it borders on downright boring. The only tension in this portion of the book is the looming awareness that Ava is lying to both Julian and Edith about what’s going on and will have to face the consequences in the near future- I spent most of these pages just waiting for the expected drama of the final piece.

But despite finding the novel unbalanced, it was overall a fantastic read. Though Ava’s life is nothing like mine, though she can be contrary and cold, I found Ava’s narration surprisingly relatable. Don’t we all feel the urge to self-sabotage sometimes, and get in our own way? I found it easy to sympathize with Ava for getting into a relationship with someone she knew was bad for her, and just as easily understood the craze of finding someone who excites you, stalking their social media (but being careful not to like anything, especially not anything old) and then pretending indifference in front of them so as not to give yourself away. And it’s not only the romances that felt fitting here: Ava is a modern young-twenties woman concerned with feminism, the pitfalls of capitalism, the worsening climate crisis, etc.; she toggles between presenting these views outwardly as part of her identity and realizing inwardly that actually she might be bad at acting out her ideals. And she’s got that familiar 21st century internet-era malaise:

“The trouble with my body was that I had to carry it around with me.”

Throughout the book, the reader also takes a pleasant dive into Ava’s TEFL classes, which prompt her to consider the differences between the English she learned growing up in Ireland, “proper” British English, and the the students’ Hong Kong English, small grammar tics she’s supposed to correct lest they give these children away as non-native speakers. There are English language sounds that she can’t make with her Irish accent and formal grammar rules she’s required to teach that go against what she’s learned as a native speaker. It’s an exploration of language that digs into class, privilege, and communicability in a way I found immensely appealing. Though Ava’s teaching work is more or less routine and has little bearing on the more prominent love triangle plot, the commentary around her language usage does provide further insight into Ava’s societal views and how she relates to (or doesn’t) the people and cultures around her.

And perhaps best of all, this entangled romance is probably the most convincing case for polyamory I’ve ever read, though ultimately it won’t work here. The three main characters make an odd trio and it’s not an entirely healthy relationship for anyone while Ava is seeing both Julian and Edith, but these two relationships fulfill different needs for her such that it’s hard not to imagine a world where she might manage to balance them both. I absolutely loved the excitement and tension of seeing the three of them trying to function together (brief though that portion of the novel is), and found myself frustrated when Ava is eventually forced to make a choice due to logistics and the preferences of her partners.

But this is more of a story about our messy, modern way of connecting to others than about right and wrong, so even when I disliked these characters or their actions I found them believable and had great fun following along.

CW: toxic relationship

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had been wanting to read this book for months and was glad the Women’s Prize nomination gave me that extra nudge to finally pick it up. Though it wasn’t always a smooth read, I thought it encapsulated a bit of the messy drama of exploring one’s social identity, and explored character dynamics in a memorable way. I’d be happy to see this one advance to the shortlist.

The Literary Elephant

long live disaster women

Review: Luster by Raven Leilani

Women’s Prize longlist progress: 4/16 (I am not planning to read all 16 longlisted titles this year but am not sure yet how many I will read.)

Book Cover

In this novel, Edie is a young artist working for a publishing company that won’t put her in the art department. In return, Edie refuses to be the Black hire who works twice as hard and sucks up to her colleagues as though to apologize that she isn’t as white as the rest of them. But anyone could do her job, and Eidie knows it’s only a matter of time before the new Black girl, who is willing to play by white rules, gets her spot. And who can Edie turn to when the going gets rough? The guy she’s seeing is an older white man in an open marriage, and while even Edie knows this is a bad idea she can’t resist. Luckily his wife is willing to hold out a helping hand- such as it is- in Edie’s hour of need, in exchange for Edie’s guidance with the white couple’s Black daughter.

” ‘You noticed our daughter. When you came to the house,’ she finally says, and in this moment it becomes clear to me that despite this evening-long conspiracy, she is moving toward her most natural conclusion, which is to engage me not as a person who has just watched her dissect a man but as a person who is black, and who is, because of that, available for her support.”

I’ve been struggling with this review, because I did not enjoy the read nearly as much as I expected even though on paper Luster is pretty much perfect for my reading taste. It’s one of those messy/disaster woman books in which a young millennial seems to be deliberately tanking her life; in this case, Edie is sleeping around with everyone at the office who catches her eye, putting no effort into staying ahead of the new hire who’s clearly working her way up the office hierarchy. And then there’s Eric, the white guy whose biggest attraction seems to be that he’s significantly older than Edie. She knows he won’t be leaving his wife, and his relationship with Edie is selfish and unhealthy, but maybe Edie is looking to be used. On top of all this are the rejections of her art, the rent increase she can’t afford, the end of her health insurance coverage, a series of increasingly ill-fitting job interviews, and lingering grief over the death of her mother. Edie is down on her luck, a bit lost on her journey of self-discovery, and all she wants is to make bad decisions like the rest of us and scrape by until she stumbles upon something better. Why shouldn’t she have that?

I never tire of this sort of book, and the fact that Leilani is offering a captivating Black protagonist amid a predominantly white category of literature is appealing in itself. Many disaster women books by nature engage in a feminist commentary that challenges the societal expectations regularly placed upon women and the harsh consequences of failing to live up to that model standard; Leilani takes this commentary a step farther by reminding the reader of how much higher that bar of expectation is for women of color, and how any period of complacency- even one justifiably fueled by grief and job frustration- can tear everything she’s built down in a moment and leave her with barely a foothold for finding a next step. It’s a timely and important theme, and for me at least, always a pleasure seeing women be women, in all their flawed complexity.

In addition, Leilani is simply an incredible writer. Her prose is perceptive and bold, making skillful and relatable connections between the tangible, modern world and Edie’s emotions. Even though my circumstances are nothing like any of these characters’, I marked so many lines that reflected a true feeling I’d had and never known how to articulate, which is exactly the sort of sharp, intellectual narration that impresses me most.

“It’s not that I want exactly this, to have a husband or home security system that, for the length of our marriage, never goes off. It’s that there are gray, anonymous hours like this. Hours when I am desperate, when I am ravenous, when I know how a star becomes a void.”

And yet, for all of these positives, Luster focuses so heavily on its main character and themes that I found the overall story to be missing a necessary hook. Surprisingly for a book just over 200 pages, I set Luster down so many times and always had to talk myself into picking it back up. I think the reasons for this are twofold:

First, there’s so little plot to this novel. Such is the case with many character studies, and in Edie’s case in particular I think it’s fair to say that the whole point of the book is the derailment of Edie’s life. She doesn’t know what to do next or how to go about it, so of course her narration wanders uncertainly from one encounter to the next, just waiting for something to happen to give her a sense of direction again. She spends the entire novel trying to rediscover who she is as a person and as an artist. It makes sense , and yet the meandering story line can make for a challenging investment.

“I wake up in the morning and think for a moment that I am someone happier and then I remember where I am.”

Another disappointment for me was Edie’s relationship with Rebecca, Eric’s wife, and this disappointment stems largely from having read too many reviews before picking up this book myself, I think. I knew based on others’ reactions not to expect much from Eric- and indeed, he’s more interesting for the role he plays in Edie’s life than as a character in his own right. He really is just another white guy who doesn’t have much going for him beyond the privilege he’s lived with for so long. In contrast, may reviewers seem to have liked the relationships that develop between Edie and Eric’s wife and daughter. The daughter is a pre-teen, and her relationship with Edie is a bit rocky as the two are thrown together with little more than skin color as a commonality. Even as they eventually grow closer, this is clearly an adult/minor relationship in which Edie cannot voice her woes, and thus I was looking to Rebecca as someone I hoped would be a little closer to a friend for her, a peer.

Many other readers have called Edie and Rebecca’s relationship a friendship, but unfortunately I never saw it as such. Instead, even while they occasionally do nice things for each other, I saw them more as rivals circling each other out of curiosity and a need for validation. It is always an unbalanced relationship in which Rebecca has the upper hand and does not hesitate to exercise the power of that position. Even offering Edie a place to stay at a time when Edie is considering the legality of sleeping in her rental storage unit seems to be a way for Rebecca to show Edie what she, Edie, doesn’t have with Eric, and what Rebecca does. Their actions around each other feel like a performance- even scenes when the two seem to be comfortably spending time alone together feel like a demonstration of tolerance, just two people proving their humanity to each other in resistance of the natural rivalry they feel. It strikes me as no healthier than Eric’s affair with Edie. And while it may seem unfair to criticize Luster for failing to present something it never promised to, something that I only latched on to from others’ (equally valid) impressions, I think one positive relationship in this story might have been enough to draw me back into the plotless wallowing. If not Rebecca, then someone else. I needed something to hold on to while Edie was stumbling around, waist-deep in injustice and negativity. Unfortunately, Luster didn’t deliver that.

“If I’m honest, all my relationships have been like this, parsing the intent of the jaws that lock around my head. Like, is he kidding, or is he hungry? In other words, all of it, even the love, is a violence.”

Nevertheless, with its examinations of race, grief, artistry, capitalism, and modern relationships, this is absolutely a worthwhile addition to the disaster women category (long may it reign) and to the Women’s Prize longlist this year. It’s a strong debut that’s leaving me eager to pick up whatever Leilani will write next.

CWs: racism, police brutality, miscarriage, death of pet (mentioned with the implication that someone has harmed it, but this is not detailed explicitly), physical abuse, grief (relating to death of a parent)

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I don’t particularly expect to see Luster on the WP shortlist in a couple of weeks, but I’m glad to have read it and to see so many others doing the same. Leilani is certainly an author to watch.

The Literary Elephant

into the labyrinth

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Women’s Prize Longlist 2021 Progress: 3/16

Piranesi

In this novel, a man called Piranesi (though this is not his name) lives in a labyrinthine House that consists entirely of elaborate classical Halls that are filled with Statues and washed by the Sea. For Piranesi, this is the entire World. He keeps an extensive Journal, recording both scientific observations and any notable occurrences or day to day thoughts. Through these entries, we learn about his movements through the Halls and his immense Knowledge of them, as well as the Events that begin to unravel his understanding of this World and his place in it.

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

This is a difficult book to talk about, because despite everything I’d like to say, the less you know going in the better. And yet, how do you know if you want to go in unless you have some idea of what the book’s about?

There is a fantasy/sci-fi aspect to Piranesi, which probably narrows the field of readership a bit, but I’d argue that the otherworldly details are more of an intriguing background that won’t necessarily make or break the experience, while the deeper theme of coping with trauma and the driving forces of logic and mystery will more likely be the determining factors for reader appreciation.

At it’s core, Piranesi is a puzzle of a novel; it is a book for those who love inventive (though still very accessible!) structuring and clues. A great fan of mysteries and puzzles myself, I wholeheartedly loved the slow unveiling of subtle hints. Everything we learn about this World opens a door to further questions, many of which are answered through Piranesi’s observations and exchanges with the Other in ways that Piranesi himself does not seem to grasp. The Other is the only other living Person that Piranesi typically interacts with in the House. For a time, the Other and various features of the House itself are the only things Piranesi comes into contact with to provide context of what he is like outside of his own Head.

Because we are learning about our MC through his Journal, it is a very internal story in some ways; luckily Piranesi shares dialogue, movements, and entire thought processes- he places great weight on data, logic, and records. But the reader can learn as much about Piranesi’s circumstances by looking beneath the surface of the stated to note what is and isn’t important to him in these recordings: aided by his tendency to capitalize every significant noun, and his avoidance of certain seemingly obvious questions (if Piranesi meets with the Other twice a week in one specific Room, knows the Other doesn’t venture further into the House, and never sees him in the central Rooms outside of that appointed meeting hour, where does the Other go?).

The downside to this narrative approach is that it is immediately clear that Piranesi’s World is not our world; there is an imbalance of knowledge between character and reader. Thus, certain revelations about Piranesi’s past and present circumstances come as monumental shocks to him when the curious reader has already been able to guess the truth, somewhat lessening the impact of big reveals after all the careful clue-dropping has worked it’s magic. However, the gradual realization that Piranesi’s ignorance is in large part a coping mechanism makes it easy to forgive the novel for occasionally making clear the same point twice. Piranesi’s thoughts, actions, and narrative style are so directly linked and speak so well toward the ways in which a person might react to trauma that it’s hard to ignore the brilliance at work here even when things feel a little too spelled out.

But I’m brushing up against spoiler territory and don’t want to get too close, so let’s turn away from the mystery now and look toward the fantasy/sci-fi element: Piranesi’s World. I want to call it fantasy, because that’s generally what you do with an entire world that is an unending House throughout which Tides and Statues are abundant. It’s an extraordinary place. Beautiful, but also brutal, in a potentially deadly way that makes one respect it all the more. Some of the Halls are derelict, some Tides violent, and classical architecture is not much protection against the elements of the Seasons.

“There is a thing that I know but always forget: Winter is hard. The cold goes on and on and it is only with difficulty and effort that a person keeps himself warm. Every year, as Winter approaches, I congratulate myself on having a plentiful supply of dry seaweed to use as fuel, but as the days, weeks and months stretch out I become less certain that I have sufficient. I wear as many of the clothes as I can cram onto my body. Every Friday I take stock of my fuel and I calculate how much I can permit Myself each day in order to make it last until Spring.”

But this World and… how it works, for want of a better phrase… functions scientifically and logically within the novel, so calling it sci-fi or speculative is just as valid a choice. Classification is up to the reader, really. Whatever you want to call it, this World is lovingly rendered and evocative in such a way that it makes Piranesi a delight to read even when the themes turn dark or the mystery feels too obvious. If you’re looking for escapism, what better than a labyrinth built right on the sea?

If it hasn’t been clear, the only thing that would have improved this read for me further would’ve been a bit more surprise in watching the mystery unfold, but timing with solving the mystery will probably vary reader to reader and in any case there is enough else here to appreciate in depth and detail to make this novel worth recommending. I suspect it will be a polarizing read, but I hope more readers will take a chance on it. I think this is the sort of fantasy/sci-fi that could appeal to readers who don’t normally reach for those genres, because the science isn’t too technical and this world does not involve any supernatural creatures or spells. It’s ambiguous enough that the otherworldly element could be explained away by an alternative explanation, if one really doesn’t like magic as an answer. The mystery is layered and intelligent, but the gaps in Piranesi’s knowledge make it a fair choice even for readers who won’t want to do the heavy lifting of sifting through his clues before Piranesi understands what has happened. You can engage as much or as little as you like- the House has something to offer for all.

CWs: kidnapping, imprisonment, gaslighting, gun violence, death.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. A very strong 4- I loved reading this. Unfortunately it’s too early to say whether I would predict or want this book to advance to the Women’s Prize shortlist, but barring the possibility that there might end up being 6 other longlisters I’m even more attached to, I can safely say I wouldn’t be disappointed to see this one stay in the running!

The Literary Elephant

Women’s Prize 2021: longlist reaction

It’s that time again: Women’s Prize season! The 2021 longlist of 16 books was announced earlier today, and despite the fact that for the first time in a while I’m not aiming to read the *entire* longlist it has, as usual, been a fun reveal. The majority of my reading these days is comprised of women-authored books, so I’m always happy to be given a buzzy list of promising, recent titles.

However, I want to start off with acknowledging (again) that it still feels callous (putting it nicely) of the WP to have ruled prize eligibility for “legal women only,” and going on to check up on authors’ gender status, just another obstacle in the way of non-binary, gender fluid, and transitioning authors being recognized for their work. It is of course the “women’s prize,” but as a prize founded for the purpose of bringing awareness to authors historically overlooked by presitigious lit prizes like the Booker it’s incredibly frustrating to see the WP then turning around and specifically shutting out marginalized groups that may indeed include authors identifying as women and/or writing about lived experience as women. So, to start out here I want to shout out Akwaeke Emezi’s lovely and tragic The Death of Vivek Oji, which I read and loved last year and wanted to see on this list only to discover Emezi had removed themselves from the running in the face of the prize’s gender ruling. Emezi’s Freshwater was a brilliant inclusion for the Women’s Prize in 2019 and The Death of Vivek Oji would’ve been just as well-placed. This is an author on my favorites list that it’s particularly hard for me to see excluded, and they certainly can’t be the only one suddenly finding themselves out of a chance. But we can celebrate seeing the WP’s first transwoman on 2021’s list, at least! Big congrats to Torrey Peters for placing on this year’s longlist!

For an added measure of fun I’m going to introduce the books in order of my initial excitement surrounding each. This is of course arbitrary and has no bearing on the merit of the books. Now let’s dive in!

Read and Loved

Transcendent Kingdom

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

This was a 5-star read and a 2020 Top 11 Favorite for me, and really the only title I was properly invested in seeing on this longlist. It’s a brilliant character study that looks deeply at depression and addiction while twining science and religion together in fresh and compelling ways. I’m thrilled to see it made the cut and I highly recommend picking this one up!

Already at the Top of my TBR

The Vanishing Half

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I just know I’m going to love this exploration of race in America’s recent past, featuring two sisters from the Deep South who separate in adulthood, one who comes back to raise her daughter in the Black community of her own childhood, and the other who starts a new life elsewhere, passing as white. I’ve been meaning to read Bennett’s work for a hot minute, and have seen rave reviews from friends. I’m aiming to read it alongside Nella Larsen’s Passing ASAP.

Piranesi

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Is it fantasy? Is it science fiction? Is it speculative? I’m not sure, but this book sounds enticingly magical and bizarre and right up my alley. I hear it’s *mysterious* and best not to know too much going in, but that’s exactly what I’m in the mood for at the moment and I love that it’s a break from the ~usual~ sort of WP fare, which shies away from most genre lit. I’m planning for this to be my second-next read, and can hardly wait.

Exciting Times

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

A messy love story in which an Irish girl living in Hong Kong becomes romantically entangled in two relationships at once- one with a (male) British banker and the other with a (female) Chinese lawyer. I’ve been looking forward to this one for ages and finally pulled it off my shelf to fit into my March TBR, so this is another title I’m expecting to get to very soon. Hearing that it’s a novelization of Lorde’s Melodrama album was all the further motivation I needed, and now it’s been longlisted besides.

Luster

Luster by Raven Leilani

I believe this is one of those millennial disaster women books, here featuring a Black artist who becomes involved with a white man in an open marriage, then befriending his wife and their adopted daughter. I’ve heard mixed things about the plot but am so intrigued to see what Leilani will do with these character dynamics, and I’ve not hit my quota of messy women books yet. This one sounds like a must-read from that category.

Wanted to Read Eventually Anyway

Detransition, Baby

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

This sounds incredible. It looks like a character-driven novel featuring a trans woman who can’t make things work in her relationship when her girlfriend decides to detransition and live as a man, their parting further complicated when a woman pregnant with his child seems to present a perfect opportunity to build a 3-parent family that could hold them all together even when romance is dead- that is, if she wanted to keep the baby in the first place. There’s gotta be some fantastic commentary and character work involved here and I’ve just been waiting for a nudge to buy a copy; this is clearly it.

Unsettled Ground

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Here’s a title that’s not quite out yet (UK pub date March 25, US pub date May 18) but sounds appealing- a story of middle-aged twins living in an isolated cottage and beset with mounting troubles following the death of their mother, who’s been keeping secrets. I’ve had Fuller’s debut novel Swimming Lessons on my shelf for years and low-key want to binge her entire catalog of work, so I’m grateful for the extra motivation here driving me to finally dig in.

Summer (Seasonal, #4)

Summer by Ali Smith

The biggest surprise on the list for me- I was under the impression that Ali Smith was satisfied with a previous win (How to be Both, 2015) and had stopped submitting her work to lit prizes, and so I just hadn’t even considered that her latest release might appear here. That said, I’ve long wanted to read Smith’s post-Brexit seasonal quartet (of which this is book 4), and have the first two on hand. I’d been waiting for this final release in order to read them all together, and while I’m looking forward to doing so and happy to see the finale on this year’s WP list, I’m not entirely sure when exactly I’m going to pick up the series.

No One Is Talking About This

No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Lockwood’s memoir Preistdaddy caught my attention a few years ago, and even though I’d not gotten around to picking it up yet I’ve been keen to read something from this author. A new novel about the dark traps of social media colliding with real life crisis sounds pretty perfect. I’ve already put in my library hold.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

A Barbados-set novel in which locals find themselves serving wealthy ex-pats in a supposed paradise with a long legacy of violence. An attempted crime turns everything upside down. This actually sounds like it could be hit or miss for me, but I added it to my TBR a while back when an author whose work I love (I want to say it was Brandon Taylor but cannot remember for sure) made a very positive remark about it on social media. I’m curious enough to give it a shot.

Read and Liked

Burnt Sugar

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

I read this 2020 Booker shortlister last fall, and liked it well enough. It’s a sharp mother-daughter story in which both women are locked into a cycle of loving and harming each other. The biggest hangup for me was simply that I came to it at a bad time, having read more than my share of motherhood books last year and thus finding the themes a bit too tired for me personally even though I thought they were handled well. It was a somewhat disappointing experience, but nonetheless I don’t begrudge this one it’s spot with the WP and loved the Indian setting.

New to Me

Small Pleasures

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Totally new to me, this one’s a London-set historical fiction novel following a local feature writer digging into one woman’s claim that her daughter is the product of a virgin birth. While investigating the miracle/fraud, our writer finds herself fitting in closely with the entire family even as her story about them disrupts all their lives. Sounds like there could be some interesting character dynamics here and who doesn’t love a dark writing story? Consider me intrigued.

Consent

Consent by Annabel Lyon

I actually did see this one on a list of anticipated 2021 releases and nearly added it to my TBR at that time, but apparently did not and it (sadly) fell off my radar. Pleased to look closer now and discover another novel featuring twins (seems to be a trend on this list), as well as a separate set of siblings; both duos face difficulty that leaves one of each duo caring for her sister, and through tragedy the caregivers also become intertwined. This might have passed me by if not for its spot here, but sounds worth a try.

Because of You

Because of You by Dawn French

Is this… a switched-at-birth story? The synopsis tells us that two mothers give birth to similar daughters, one of whom is stillborn, and seventeen years later “the gods who keep watch over broken-hearted mothers wreak mighty revenge.” Based on a quick scan of reviews it looks like race may play a role? I’m getting Jodi Picoult vibes and sensing there could be some worthwhile social commentary here but I can’t say I’m drawn to this one off the bat.

Nothing But Blue Sky

Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon

The synopsis calls this book a “a precise and tender story of love in marriage” which… does not seem like my cup of tea, at least at present. ‘Tender’ is a bit of a turn-off description for me, but it sounds like there are also secrets and uncertainty in the marriage, which at least sounds like something I could sink my teeth into. Another book that doesn’t necessarily sound bad but isn’t really grabbing my attention.

The Unsavory Choice

The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig

A mystery/crime novel in which two women meet on a train and agree to murder each other’s husbands, who’ve proven unsatisfactory. But then one of them meets someone who speaks about the other in a way that throws the whole plan into question. This sounds like a run-of-the-mill which-of-these-characters-is-lying sort of mystery, and I’m relieved not to be particularly interested in it because Craig is one of the authors who publicly signed in support of JKR during her transphobic spree last year. That’s not a cause I want to support in any way with a purchase and/or review, so regardless of my interest level I’ll be skipping this one.

Women's Prize for Fiction Revealing the 2021 Women's Prize longlist - Women's  Prize for Fiction

Tl;dr/current stats: I’ve read 2 (Transcendent Kingdom, Burnt Sugar), have immediate access to 4 more (Piranesi, Exciting Times, Luster, The Vanishing Half), am planning to purchase 1 immediately (Detransition, Baby), and have just placed 2 library holds (No One is Talking About This, The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House [the only two currently available through my library]). There are 3 books I’m not interested in reading at all right now (The Golden Rule, Because of You, Nothing But Blue Sky).

I’m tentatively planning to pick up as many of the 11 books here that I’m interested in and have not read yet before the winner announcement (July 7th)- not necessarily before the shortlist announcement (April 28th), though I’ll likely rearrange my WP priorities at that point to read as many shortlisters as I can before the winner announcement. I don’t have a more concrete reading plan, and while there’s plenty I’m happily anticipating here I think I’ll have a better experience taking the list at my own pace this year rather than rushing through.

And for final notes on the overall list, I am disappointed to see there aren’t more authors of color present (there are 5, only around 30% of the list, meaning a shocking 70% is white), or more countries represented (11 authors here are British or American, accompanied by 2 Irish authors as well as one author each of Canadian, Ghanian-American, and Bajan/Barbadian nationalities). There are 5 debuts (Detransition, Baby, Exciting Times, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, Luster, and No One is Talking About This). – Infinite thanks to Rachel for doing the heavy lifting on digging up these stats!

Tell me below which titles from this year’s longlist you’ve loved or have your eye on, or simply chat initial longlist impressions!

The Literary Elephant