Non-Fiction, Reviews

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor (2011)

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image via goodreads.com

She-Wolves was one of those books that I had heard about for ages, and kept meaning to read, but for some reason never got around to – laziness, too many other books to read, a million reasons. So I decided to put it on my wish list for Christmas and birthday books last year, and luckily I received it for Christmas. I’d been meaning to read some more about Elizabeth I (I also asked for, and received, Helen Castor’s biography of her), so I particularly liked the idea of reading about some of the women who came before her, especially as I had little knowledge of that period of English history.

I had heard of some of the women covered in this book, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, so it was wonderful to actually learn some details about their lives and especially their roles in the politics and rule of England. Castor makes it clear throughout that what we know of these women comes largely through the fact that they were associated with famous and powerful men, as mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters. She makes it clear there are limited sources of information on these women and so you have to make the most out of what is available, and link it to the extensive sources on the men and the wider history in order to get the full picture. There are also plenty of gaps in the narrative when nothing ‘important’ was happening in these women’s lives. I loved this exploration of how we learn about historical figures, and women especially, and what the historian has to do to piece together a story. Castor readily acknowledges that it is particularly difficult to get a real picture of any of these women’s personalities as they left little or no writings of their own, especially nothing personal, and reports of their behaviour or actions might be tainted by opinions and hearsay. So while we can learn about the bigger picture, it is harder to dig down into the personal, smaller details of relationships and individual experiences.

This is true of a lot of history, especially of certain periods, but for me it became more of an issue with She-Wolves because because by the time I got to Isabella of France, all these women started to sound rather similar. I can appreciate the difficulty of getting a complete picture of personalities, as Castor explains, but I think this was compounded in She-Wolves by the fact that the book tells the stories of four different women – so the same problem occurs each time. The scant information means that while there are some small differences, each woman is described in much the same way, as ‘strong’ and ‘fierce’, protective over their children and homelands. The biggest changes between each story were the circumstances and the relationships with men. It is also inevitable that the men’s stories take the foreground sometimes, as they were the ones making the decisions and affecting change (with a few exceptions).

So while I did enjoy She-Wolves, I found it a bit frustrating and almost wished that Castor had published four short books about each of the women rather than putting them all together in one volume. Nevertheless I very much appreciate that it’s an important book and it’s wonderful that that these women have been given the attention they deserve. Castor is an excellent writer and I will certainly be reading her biography of Elizabeth I, which I’m sure will be brilliant.

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Published in 2011 by Faber & Faber (paperback edition pictured above). Purchase from Wordery, Blackwell’s, and Foyles.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (2018)

As soon as I heard about this book I wanted to read it. It was published in February 2018, and just two months later its subject, the Golden State Killer, was finally captured. His first recorded attack was in 1974, and he had finally been identified and caught. It was a big moment for all involved, to say the least, and I had to know more.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer is a brilliant mix of reportage and the author’s account of her own experience trying to identify this man. By the end we feel that we know Michelle McNamara as if she had been talking to us the whole time.

The Golden State Killer case was, as the title states, her obsession and it filled her life for several years. In Michelle’s writing as well as the afterword and the section completed by her colleagues, we see that she worked tirelessly to acquire huge amounts of information relevant to the case, however tangentially, and that she was nothing if not thorough in her research. I am in awe of her dedication and attention to detail.

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It becomes clear throughout the book that Michelle’s interest in the case is driven not only by her interest in its subject (and his unknowableness) but also by her sincere desire for his victims to be honoured, and for him to pay for his crimes. She had a deep interest in true crime cases (as documented on her blog True Crime Diary), but this was the one that she devoted the most time to, and the one she will be remembered by. Michelle passed away in 2016, before she could finish I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. 

Luckily, two of Michelle’s colleagues in her investigation were able to go through her files and write a concluding section for the book. This section, Part Three, is therefore lacking Michelle’s engaging writing style, and her personal touch, but it in still incredibly detailed and demonstrates the level of work that went into this amateur investigation – and how closely it ran alongside and often intersected with the official police work. Michelle was often in touch with several investigators and shared evidence with them, working together to solve this mammoth case.

It is heartbreaking to know that Michelle did not live to see the case solved; but it is gratifying to know that her dedication and incredible hard work obviously contributed to it being solved. In Part Three, Michelle’s colleagues discuss how she and other investigators (both professional and amateur) were using the killer’s DNA profile to look for matches on genealogy websites such as Ancestry and 23andMe. We now know that this exact method, looking up possible matches to his DNA and then following the family tree to a possible suspect, was successfully used on the website GEDMatch to identify the man who had been haunting California for 44 years. After reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, it is even more amazing to learn this, and to see the coverage of the arrest, and the court dates so far, and to learn more about this man. Plenty of people involved in or connected with the case are sharing their stories, and you can feel the relief – and how angry they still are. Even if a killer is captured, the anger and sadness don’t necessarily go away.

I would honestly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in true crime, but also anyone who likes thrillers and crime fiction. Michelle McNamara’s writing and storytelling is as gripping and engaging as the best thriller and crime fiction writers. I read her book in four days and wish she would have been able to write more.

Now that the Golden State Killer (aka the East Area Rapist or the Original Night Stalker) has been identified and caught, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a more redemptive story than it would have been otherwise. Even though he is older now, in his 70s, wearing a prison jumpsuit, behind bars or in handcuffs, it is still terrifying to look into the eyes of Joseph James DeAngelo and remember all the terrible things he has done. Reading this book, you realise the darkness that can live inside people, that pain and fear can be twisted into motivation to attack, to rape, bludgeon, and kill. It is hard to think about. For while we are fascinated and gripped by I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, we must remember the pain he caused, and the suffering of these people. Michelle McNamara helped to solve the puzzle that lead to his capture, and for that we are all grateful.

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Published in 2018 by Harper and Faber & Faber. I read the F&F paperback edition, pictured above.

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Articles, Comment

In Praise Of: Sad Stories

When we learn about trauma, we also learn about catharsis, about ‘getting it out’ and finding closure. About having a cathartic experience. This is why we read books about war and suffering, why survivor testimonies are always popular books in whatever form they may take – from the wonder of writers like Primo Levi, to the tawdriness of abuse memoirs. We read sad stories out of curiosity, out of a desire to know how bad things can be in order to appreciate the true goodness of our own lives. We need to remember that it can always be worse, that there are and were a lot of people a lot worse off than us. But, we must not be negative, we must not focus on sad things to the point that they bring us down and we see sadness in everything.

I chose to praise sad books in this post partly because I have realised that a lot of the books I read have sad stories. One in particular that I read very recently was a memoir by journalist Emma Brockes in which she investigates her mother’s dramatic life after her death. She Left Me the Gun has been described as a misery memoir, unfortunately, but that was not what it was for me. For one thing I started reading it without any knowledge of the darkness it held, and I was not in any way intrigued or scandalised by the disturbing nature of the revelations.

(Faber 2014 cover. Image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

It is a very intelligently written book, a woman taking the time to examine her mother’s life and the history of that part of her family, and to lay it all out before her like a jigsaw – to piece it together and see a whole. But Emma Brockes does not dwell on negativity or unpleasant memories. She recounts everything as unfortunate matter-of-fact, as ‘this is what happened’ and little else. She of course examines its ramifications and the ways in which the suffering of the past has filtered into the present, but again it is not depressing or sensationalist. The fact that she is a journalist, and that it is her own family, means that she is very respectful and never veers towards vulgarity or luridness. She takes everything as it appears to her and rationally recounts it to her readers in a way that is not heavy-handed or grim.

Though I didn’t enjoy learning of her family’s pain I did enjoy She Left Me the Gun for the fact that Emma Brockes’ mother had an incredible life, and she tells it wonderfully. I learned about South Africa, and the difficulties of coming to England, and I read charming and funny anecdotes about family life, and I liked Emma Brockes and her mother very much. All life has sadness in it, and to deny it is to be unrealistic. So there is nothing wrong with reading sad stories, and they can be read out of something other than morbid curiosity – but most importantly, for me, ‘sad stories’ contain so much more than sadness. Often they serve to highlight the areas of life without sadness, the happiness and light that we so need. We must experience the sadness in order to be able to say, as at the end of She Left Me the Gun, ‘enough now.’

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She Left Me the Gun was published by Faber & Faber (UK paperback) in February 2014.

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