It has been a while since I posted here, or was able to write anything. I was ill on and off from December through to the start of April, but finally managed to get myself sorted out with a visit to the doctor and a sort-of diagnosis in the form of the fact that my lungs seem to have a ‘post-viral sensitivity’, meaning that if I get a cold or the flu, they don’t heal properly and I get a lingering and terrible cough that makes me feel like I have asthma (which I thought I did). Luckily it’s not asthma, which is in my family, but I do now have to have an inhaler anytime I get a cough. What fun. But luckily now my health is recovered and I’m starting to put things back together again. I feel like I’m catching up on months of missed time, and there’s far too much all at once. Happily I’ve been able to read a bit more. The first three books in this list I read in February and March, and the last two in April and May. According to GoodReads I’m still ‘on track’ for the year but as with everything it feels like I have fallen behind a bit. But I’m slowly getting there.
The Paper Palace (2021) by Miranda Cowley Heller
This was kind of an odd choice for me to read, given that it’s contemporary, the main subject is marriage, and it had (still has now that the PB has come out) a lot of hype around it. But I’d been trying to read some more current stuff, and this had a lot of praise, so I gave it a go. Now that I’ve read it, I feel like it might play a similar role to A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – a book that everyone seemed to love, and I just did not, for similar reasons. Both books have beautiful writing and imagery, masterful structure and plotting, but both are just misery fests. The Paper Palace displays Cowley Heller’s obvious talent as a weaver of stories and as a descriptive, emotive writer, but it is also a warning – a long list of damaged people hurting each other. I was expecting drama and betrayal, within the context of marriage, but this goes way beyond that – there is emotional and literal abandonment between spouses and parents and children, emotional and sexual abuse (which made me feel sick), and lasting trauma through the generations. I’m not sure why people say they ‘love’ books like this and A Little Life. Even with the brilliantly skilful storytelling and structure, the unrelentingly bleak subject matter means I did not enjoy this, and at the end I was glad it was over.
Water Shall Refuse Them (2019) by Lucie McKnight Hardy
It’s funny. This book also contains a family who are a bit awful to each other sometimes, an emotionally absent mother – but it’s a totally different thing to something like The Paper Palace. Here the emotionally absent mother is genuinely psychologically unwell, and it actually serves a purpose in the story rather than just being dark and upsetting for the sake of it. I came across Water Shall Refuse Them via the publisher, Dead Ink, on Twitter, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a mix of family drama, coming-of-age tale, and a sort of occult mystery. At its core, it is pure folk horror. All the classics elements are there from a family being newcomers in a town, to past trauma, mysterious religious practices, and the burning heat of summer. Nif is a vivid and believable narrator, sometimes unreliable and sometimes beguiling. From the start of the novel she is connected with death and the macabre, and there is almost always an edge of tension as you wonder what she might do next. You also wonder how much of what she says and thinks is real. A rare example of a book where I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen at the end until I was confronted with it.
Dead Relatives (2021) by Lucie McKnight Hardy
Having powered through Water Shall Refuse Them I read LMH’s follow up straight away. I sometimes struggle with short story collections because it can feel like you just need more time with each story, and you forget things, but Dead Relatives has a good mix of story type and length, and I found it quite easy to get on with. The title story is the longest and almost a novella. From the off it’s gothic and vaguely reminds us of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but this is very much its own strange beast.There are hints of tragedy and horror throughout that continue to push through as you read, and while you might see the ending coming that doesn’t make it any less traumatic and impactful. The rest of the stories in this collection are at turns surprising, gothic, tinged with darkness, and some are outright creepy. LMH is a truly fascinating writer and even if I didn’t adore every single story I appreciate how original and skilfully crafted they were.
Devotion (2022) by Hannah Kent
I loved Kent’s two previous novels, so I had no choice but to read this one too. Her first novel Burial Rites really made an impression on me and I still think about the incredible imagery and the deep sense of place and reality of feeling that she evoked. Her second novel The Good People was equally vivid and real, but the subject matter was just a little too tragic and upsetting for me to really love it in the same way. But I hugely appreciated what Kent achieved with that novel. With Devotion, she has clearly matured as a novelist while retaining her sheer talent for a beautiful turn of phrase. It is similar to the other two novels in that it’s historical and focuses on the lives and experiences of women who would otherwise have been a bit, if not entirely, overlooked in the historical record. This time Kent has used her native Australia as a source of inspiration, writing about the Prussians who migrated in the 19th century. Her narrator Hanne is a fully realised person with such depth of personality and memory that it’s hard to accept she wasn’t a real person. As with many historical novels that I’ve loved, I relished learning about a part of history that was new to me, and being completely immersed in it. You can hear and feel and see everything that Hanne does, the descriptions and imagery are so beautifully crafted. When she first meets Thea out in a field, they each think each other is a ghost for a moment, and it feels magical. There’s a pivotal moment about halfway through the novel when one of the characters dies, which I thought was going to happen, but it wasn’t the person I expected. From then the tone shifts slightly and the whole thing becomes a little more philosophical and far-reaching – and Kent just manages to succeed. There were a few moments where I wasn’t sure it was working, but by the time you reach the end and see the whole picture, it most certainly does.
A Ghost in the Throat (2020) by Doireann Ni Ghriofa
I bought this slightly at random, finding it on a table in Waterstones, but it’s turned out to be a bit of gem. Like Devotion, A Ghost in the Throat seeks to give due space and appreciation to women from history, but in this case the woman was definitely real. Ostensibly this book is about Ni Ghriofa exploring her love for the poem Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire by Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, a keen, or lament, written by Ni Chonaill for her lover after he is murdered in 1773. I’d never heard of this poem, not knowing much about Irish literature, but the premise fascinated me. Ni Ghriofa starts by stating “This is a female text”, and she talks about how her daily to-do lists are a female text, as is the poem, as is the book you’re reading. The act of writing and reading is examined, mostly through the eye of motherhood and what it means to be a mother, a wife, a woman. She writes about the everyday occurrences of motherhood and housekeeping with such softness and nuance that it elevates the whole thing to a sort of magical state. There suddenly seems to be so much meaning and worth in the daily work of a woman like her. I strongly related to her urge to find time for beauty and art in amongst motherhood, and the desire to tell the stories of women that have been ignored, overwritten, cast aside, lost, and deeply undervalued throughout history. In that way I think you could call A Ghost in the Throat a feminist text as well as a female one. But I strongly hope that people who are not women read this book as well, because she really nails what it’s like to be a woman sometimes in all its beauty and horror.
For the first time ever, I’ve managed to collect together my most recently purchased books onto one shelf, pictured below, so I know exactly what I’ve got coming up and how many. Hopefully this will mean I won’t go overboard buying more until the to-read stack has reduced. I still haven’t got to Betty by Tiffany McDaniel, but I am still very keen to read it. I have a spate of books about families, telling stories, and writing which I might try to read one after the other. I also recently bought Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell after reading about it in the paper. In my third year of university I studied Donne for the ‘special author’ unit and I just loved exploring his work and themes. I haven’t read him or anything about him much since then so I’m very much looking forward to Rundell’s book, and I’m glad he’s getting a bit more attention in mainstream literature.
I’ve also been watching the new BBC adaptation of Conversations with Friends, which I am loving. I’d forgotten how lovely some of Rooney’s images are, and how sharp she is with dialogue. And how much I connected with Frances. Cue a few tears. I’m not sure if I’m going to read Normal People in the end, so I might just watch the adaptation of that as well…
As always, happy reading.x.