See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

See What I Have Done is one of those books that gets an awful lot of hype and press, and often this puts me off for some reason – but in this case it is entirely deserved and I couldn’t be happier to see promos and reviews all over social media. I read a proof copy back in November and loved it instantly. The premise alone drew me in: it is the story of Lizzie Borden and the infamous murders of her father and stepmother. I love historical fiction, and I love true crime, so this  was a perfect blend of both. Lizzie Borden is a fascinating character from history that just gets under your skin. She was famously acquitted of the murders, but there remains suspicion that she was guilty, and the mysteriousness of her character is something that Schmidt uses excellently.

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Tinder Press 2017 edition (image via goodreads.com)

The book is narrated by four people: Lizzie herself, the maid Bridget, Lizzie’s sister Emma, and a man named Benjamin who gets caught up in their story. All of them are unreliable, something that becomes more and more clear the more you read. The women are all wrapped up in the strangeness of the household and the family, tortured by the strained emotions and simmering tensions. Lizzie is clearly not an easy person to live with, but she is not the only one guilty of making things difficult. The Borden family are filled with sadness and a longing for the past, for better days. Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden, keeps all the windows and doors locked for fear of criminals, and this literal confinement only exacerbates the feeling of being trapped in their lives that all the characters seem to feel.

The women of the house are trapped in their feminine roles and their corsets, never to be free like men and do as they please. And Andrew, the only one with any real power, keeps them that way. The relationships between the women – Lizzie, Emma, Bridget, and the stepmother Abby – are quietly brilliant and acutely observed. They have no obvious reason to dislike each other, but the oppressive atmosphere in the house brings out the worst in them, even if they do not intend it. Like any family they have a few small disputes, but for the Bordens these become life-changing.

Benjamin is one of the only entirely fictional characters in the book. He turns up in their town of Fall River looking for work, and by chance meets their uncle John. Now I’ve decided not to tell exactly how Benjamin gets wrapped up with the Bordens – but suffice to say he gets quite close to them and, crucially, provides an outside view to the events of the story.

I thought both Benjamin and Bridget were excellent choices as narrators. They are both outside of the family, but still close to it, and they give us a slightly different perspective. Bridget observes the quarrels between Lizzie and her parents, and the effects of Lizzie’s moods and is the unique position of being part of the household but not part of the family, so she observes everything without always knowing what it means. The Bordens are a family full of unexpressed emotions, unfulfilled desires, and stifled arguments. Lizzie is the only one that seems to let anything out, and for this she if often treated like a child by her parents, but particularly by her father. Andrew Borden is very stuck in his ways, and is emotionally closed off and quite cold and hard towards his family, even his wife Abby. He does not deal with Lizzie’s outbursts and tantrums very well, and I think he makes her feel even more trapped and stifled than she already does.

Living in the 1800s meant that Lizzie could not have an independent life, and is stuck living in the family home. You can see why she is frustrated with her life, but she is also, frankly, quite childish and selfish, and doesn’t always see that life is sometimes hard for the rest of her family as well. She has a push-pull relationship with her sister Emma, and I think though they love each other there is also a lot of resentment and negative feelings.

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Lizzie Borden in about 1890 (image via wikipedia.com)

Schmidt excels at this sort of family psychology, and as a result the entire cast of characters feel entirely real. This is also due to the first person narratives, and the fact that all the events of the book take place over only two days. This means that everything is examined, often from multiple angles, and small events often take on more meaning. The short time frame allows Schmidt to really get inside her character’s heads and examine exactly what happened and when. I felt that the two days covered in the novel are the culmination of a lifetime of family secrets and strong emotions, of dysfunctional relationships, and unfulfilled desires. All the problems and issues within the Borden family are exemplified in those two days, and as we know the results are extreme.

As the book progresses you realise that Schmidt has a clear opinion about whether or not Lizzie is guilty, but this doesn’t ruin anything and I don’t think she is trying to influence the reader. It is still up to you to decided whether you think she really killed Andrew and Abby. She remains a mystery to this day.

Sarah Schmidt writes a wonderful blog where she often discusses her experiences of writing See What I Have Done, and tells the story of why she chose to write about Lizzie Borden. I would really recommend reading this as it helps to explain some of the reasons why Lizzie remains in the public consciousness and why she is still so fascinating.

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Published in May 2017 by Tinder Press in the UK. I read a proof copy kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

Looking back on the books of 2016

This is another overdue blog post, but one that I’ve really been looking forward to writing. I read 31 books in 2016, of varying quality, but overall it was a good reading year. I tried to branch out, accepting a total of eight review copies from publishers – which is a lot for me these days. Of these the highlights for me were (links go to my reviews):

The last of these is not out until May 2017, so my review will come a little closer to the time. It was offered to me by Georgina Moore at Tinder Press and I am very glad I accepted. It is a wonderful blend of crime fiction and historical fiction based on real events, coupled with multiple narrators (all unreliable) and some really beautiful writing. In case you didn’t know, it’s about Lizzie Borden, and I loved it. You can read more here. And just look at that beautiful cover!

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(image via goodreads.com)

I read a lot of history books in 2016, both fiction and non-fiction. One other historical novel I must highlight is The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. I’d been intimidated by its length (over 900 pages) but finally gave it a go earlier in the year – and I was not disappointed. It is a fictional autobiography of a former Nazi officer which the author spent five years researching, and it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it brilliantly written but it is deeply philosophical and challenging, and I greatly admire Littell for somehow managing to write it.

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I read a handful of other books about the Second World War and three of the best were written by and about women, real women of the War who faced huge challenges and trials but who remained strong and determined throughout. The first of these was Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon. The book is a compilation of her stories (recorded on tape and put together by her son) from her time living in Berlin during the War as a Jewish woman. She lived ‘underground’, in hiding, using an alias and constantly moving. It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. Similarly, I also read A Woman in Berlin. It is an anonymous account of the last few months of the War by a German woman living in Berlin. She is not persecuted as Jalowicz Simon was, but her whole life is destroyed and she suffers immensely. It is a harrowing but necessary book and shows the cost of the War on ordinary German people that often gets overlooked. I read these two books close together and wrote about them in one blog post (linked above) and they have really stuck with me. I think they are vital reading for anyone considering the experience of women in Europe during the Second World War.

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Another book that fits into that category is If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm. It’s a massive book so I waited until it was out in paperback before I read it, the delay making my expectations quite high – and they were all met. It is the first book dedicated to the story of Ravensbrück, the only Nazi concentration camp built specifically for women, and it was one of the most incredible books I have ever come across. I had read If This is a Man by Primo Levi so I had some idea of what to expect; but of course each story is unique, and these women all had incredible stories. Sarah Helm is to be hugely admired and respected for telling these stories, for doing the research and making sure each name is mentioned, each life is honoured in some way. I will not soon forget this book. I should note that in America the title is simply Ravensbrück.

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Towards the end of the year I wanted to branch out from history, and so I read The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, which was just brilliant. I was already a fan of Jackson’s writing but I’d never actually read any of her short stories. Some of these are still quite fresh in my mind (least of all the title story) and I am desperate to read more. Luckily I was given two more volumes of her short stories for Christmas, so I have those to look forward to. These were Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales.

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The other highlights of my reading year, which I don’t have space to write more about here, were:

I have enjoyed reading other ‘best of 2016’ posts – it was a good year for books – and I look forward to a great 2017 filled with marvellous things to read. I am on my second book of the year at the moment and frankly I am dying to get back to it, so I shall finish here. Happy 2017!

 

Most Anticipated Upcoming Books

I try to read a mixture of old and new books, and often find myself reading ‘new’ books some time after they come out, purely because I always have so many books I want to read that I rarely get to read things when they are really new. Often I just get to look at other reviews and wish I didn’t have so many books to read! There are several books that I am really excited about reading in the next few months – some new and some not-so-new. Here are the ones I’m most looking forward to…

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
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Sept 2016 Picador edition (image: goodreads.com)

I loved Room but somehow didn’t feel the need to pick up Frog Music; but now Emma Donoghue’s new novel The Wonder really appeals to me. I know from reading Room that she is a wonderful  writer, and this story is not like anything I have read before. Kim Forrester wrote a brilliant review of it here. Fingers crossed I’ll get to read it before Christmas!

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
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May 2017 Tinder Press edition (image: goodreads.com)

This is coming out in May 2017 from Tinder Press, and I am really looking forward to it. It is a fictional take on the story of Lizzie Borden and the murder of her father and stepmother. She was acquitted of their murder but of course suspicion remains, and the story is fascinating. This looks like a really interesting and modern interpretation of the story, and I cannot wait to read it.

Labyrinths: Emma Jung, Her Marriage to Carl, and the Early Years of Psychoanalysis by Catrine Clay
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Nov 2016 Harper edition (image: goodreads.com)

I’ve always had a vague interest in psychology and psychoanalysis and the fact that this book focuses on Emma rather than Carl Jung really appeals to me. It just seems like another way of looking at a familiar story, and I hope it’ll be as interesting as it looks! It’s always a pleasure to read about wonderful women from history.

The Good People by Hannah Kent
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Feb 2017 Pan Macmillan edition (image: goodreads.com)

Like many other readers, I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites. It really stuck with me and as soon as I heard she had written a second novel I knew I had to read it. The premise really interests me and I think it will be a great multi-layered book.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
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Sept 2016 Liveright/Norton edition (image: goodreads.com)

I have read three of Jackson’s novels and have The Lottery and Other Stories on my shelf waiting to be read, so I just have to read this new biography of her. New PMC editions mean that Shirley Jackson is again popular, and I am so glad she is – her writing is some of the most beautiful and beguiling I have read in years. Luckily she also seems to have been a brilliant and intriguing person, so I’m really looking forward to this one.

I’d love to hear about books that you are looking forward to – there are always too many to read!

Maggie O’Farrell at Blackwell’s, Oxford

There’s a chance you’re aware that Maggie O’Farrell has a new novel out – I may have mentioned it. She is doing a series of events promoting the books, one of which was a talk at Blackwell’s in Oxford with Sarah Franklin. I hadn’t organised myself to get hold of a ticket, but then my amazing friend Sam ended up having a spare ticket and invited me along – what luck!

I’ve seen Maggie O’Farrell talk about her work before, but it was still great to hear her in conversation about her new book. Sarah Franklin was a great interviewer and their talk was fascinating – I wish it had been recorded so I could share it with you here. Luckily the event was live-tweeted on the Tinder Press feed, so you can get a taste of the conversation there. Maggie talked about her inspirations for the novel, and how a few ideas for it slowly grew over several years, and finally came together to form This Must Be The Place. She is a charming speaker and it was a great relaxed evening; I even summoned the courage to ask a question!

The event started with Maggie reading from the opening of the novel, which was lovely – I always appreciate hearing an author read their work as it was meant to sound. And the evening ended with an informal signing – I got another first edition hardback of Maggie O’Farrell’s signed, which was great, and got to tell her how much I loved the book and the evening. A success!

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Maggie O’Farrell reading from This Must Be The Place
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Another signed Maggie O’Farrell for the collection (of two so far…)

Can We Take a Minute to Appreciate the New Maggie O’Farrell Hardback?!

I recently reviewed Maggie O’Farrell’s new book This Must Be The Place, after the publisher kindly sent me a lovely review copy. It was a very attractive review copy, but my hardback copy arrived today from Wordery, and my goodness it is beautiful. Whoever came up with and executed its design deserves all the awards. Here it is:

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The printed cover is just lovely – it reflects the various countries featured in the novel, but also looks beautiful. Well done Tinder Press!

Look at Me by Sarah Duguid

2015 proof copy
2015 proof copy

The premise for Look at Me is simple but effective; and in fact I’d describe most of the book that way too. Our central character Lizzy and her brother Ig discover that their father has a daughter they didn’t know about. They find out by chance after coming across a letter from said daughter, and are rightly shocked and outraged that they did not know anything about this. They go for lunch with their new sister, Eunice, and their father, which is expectedly awkward and weird – and then Lizzy decides to invite Eunice to stay with them for a while so they can all get to know each other…

From this I wasn’t sure whether to expect a psychological thriller or a family melodrama, and Look At Me is somewhere in between. There are moments of ordinary family life, past dramas, and plenty of time devoted to Lizzy’s relationship with the director of a play she is in; but there is also an unnerving undercurrent of something not being quite right. Eunice is neurotic and needy, and you can’t quite tell if she is very naive, or actually scheming and calculating. At first the family are happy to welcome her into their home, but soon she starts to wheedle her way further into their lives. She outstays the initial weekend proposed for her visit, and a convenient split from her husband means she has to stay with them even further. She even ends up sleeping in Lizzy’s room.

While Eunice creates much of the plot in Look At Me, the book is really about Lizzy. Over the course of the novel her perspective develops nicely, as she works on her new play (she is trying to salvage her acting career), embarks on a fling with the director, and deals with the arrival of Eunice in her life. Lizzy and Ig’s mother has died a few years before the story starts, and as the novel goes on you realise that Lizzy and her family are still mired in their grief. Eunice suggests clearing out some of their mother’s clothes from the guest room, where she is sleeping, and suffice to say this does not go down well. As a reader you are angry at Eunice for interfering and for the disruption that she causes, but at the end of the book you’re not so sure. She is an antagonist for Lizzy and is certainly flawed, and does not always behave appropriately; but towards the end I wondered if really she helped Lizzy to move on, whether intentionally or not, by jolting her out of her complacency. It isn’t a pleasant experience for any of them, but Eunice stirs up the family in a fundamental way. And, in the end, I think this does them some good.

I found Lizzy to be an interesting central character, and enjoyed her development over the course of the story. She is flawed, and feels like a real person. At times Eunice also develops well, despite the fact that you never really feel like you know the real her. The world they inhabit is vivid and tangible, very ordinary and believable. I have to day I didn’t much like the character of Lizzy’s father Julian, but I’m not sure you’re supposed to.

At times I felt that Look At Me could have been a little grittier and psychological, but the tone throughout works very well. It is a sensitive and emotionally intelligent examination of what it means to be a family, to grow up and move on, and to accept the bad with the good. While not perfect it is a very accomplished debut novel, and I look forward to what comes next from Sarah Duguid.

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Published in February 2016 by Tinder Press. My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Buy your copy from Foyles here.

 

Kind of a random blog post that’s kind of related to Christmas

Hello all, my apologies for not posting for almost a month! I have been busy at work which = super tired, plus I have been reading quite slowly recently for some reason, so I haven’t had many books to review. I did finish Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood the other week, and have a brilliant (ha!) blog post on it planned out, but haven’t had the time to sit down and write it. I’m aiming to do that this weekend, promise.

I’ve also had some non-serious health issues that have kept me from the blog. So there’s that.

Luckily, I am super excited about Christmas and going on holiday to Copenhagen just before (woohoo!) so I will be sure to blog about that and post some photos, which will hopefully be good and christmassy.

For my Christmas reading, I’ve got the second half of Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon to read, and then I think it’ll be on to some more of The Early Stories of Truman Capote, which I’ve dipped into but not really spent that much time with. I have, as usual, quite a few unread books, so I’ll have to take some time to choose the next book to dive into!

Reviews-wise, I’ll soon be revieweing Look at Me by Sarah Duguid, which is a Big Title for Tinder Press next year. Learn more about it here. I’ll also post about Lady Audley and those early stories from the young Truman – they are very interesting indeed.

I’ll try to post as much as I can over the Christmas holidays. Are you all as excited about Christmas as me?!

Here’s a Christmas puppy for you:

#thisbeautiful : Growing Up in the 1970s

Tinder Press 2014 cover. Image: goodreads.com
Tinder Press 2014 cover. Image: goodreads.com

There was buzz around this novel a long time before publication. I started seeing the #thisbeautiful hashtag on Twitter in I think May, a full five months before the publication date. Promotion seems to be starting earlier and earlier for books these days! As long as we keep it up and don’t forget the books by the time they are published…

I am writing the first part (at least) of this review in June, shortly after having read #thisbeautiful. I thought it best to get my thoughts down when the book is still fresh in my mind.

First let’s talk about that title. If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go. Aside from the fact that I keep thinking ‘never’ and ‘would’ should be the other way around, to me it sounds more like the title of a poem than a novel. Or at least a prose poem (does anyone write those anymore?). It is a phrase that the author has clearly pored over and crafted to make it just right – otherwise it wouldn’t be so important to include all of it in the title. At first I just thought it was way too long, but after having read the book I see that it is necessary in its own way. While this is not a long novel it is one that is complex and rambling, filled up with stories and images. It is the story of a group of friends over one summer in the 1970s, and the story of so many other young people living with the presence and aftermath of war.

Katie narrates our story for us. She lives on Long Island, at Elephant Beach. ‘The Beach’ is a place but it is also like another character. It influences everyone that comes to live in it, and while it captures some it drives others away. Katie lives there with her adopted mother, and she feels a great sense of security in the familiarity of life at the beach, of seeing the same people in the same places everyday and always having something to do and people to see. She and most of her friends are in their late teens and are just leaving school. They are simultaneously independent and heavily reliant on their parents, and exist in a strange limbo between childhood and adulthood. Katie recounts memories of growing up with the people around her, and their lives as small children do not seem very far away – but already they are dealing and taking drugs, having sex in cars and falling asleep, barefoot and drunk, on the beach. They are bored and adventurous in the way that most teenagers are, but they are also overshadowed by the war in Vietnam. They all know someone who has been to fight, whether or not they returned. They all know that the war is complicated and morally unstable, and they all yearn for love and stability – though I doubt they would really characterise it that way.

Katie and her friends are essentially hippies – they reminded me a lot of the ‘disaffected’ young people that Joan Didion writes about in her essay ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ (included in the collection of the same name). They live in San Francisco in the 1960s, and though they exist in a very different environment there are stark similarities. Drugs and sex abound, as well as a lack of parental authority and the attitude that everything will be alright if you just ‘go with the flow’. They live in a supposedly amazing and almost idyllic place that should give them a wonderful life, but the reality of that life is almost nothing like the ideal – that applies to both Didion’s subjects as well as Katie and her friends. She tells us about several of them in little ‘vignettes’, a chapter dedicated to each incredible story.

As well as disillusionment and apathy, these young people also have to deal with unplanned pregnancies. There are several of these in the book and Katie relates the tales of three of her female friends, one who has the baby and struggles to cope and eventually moves away from the beach with her boyfriend; one who has her baby adopted and then joins a communal Christian household; and one who has a secret abortion, at which Katie is present. I felt these girls’ desperation and sadness, as well as their guilt at doing things ‘wrong’ and not being ‘good’. It is easy to forget that at this point the pill was not available to everyone, and abortions were illicit (though legal in the state of New York). These girls are not guided by their mothers, sisters, or (it seems) sex education at school, and have to muddle through on their own. There is a relaxed attitude to sex (though Katie and some of her younger friends are still yet to experience it), but no one is prepared for the consequences. To me this demonstrated the importance of not leaving young people like these to entirely fend for themselves – they have no support or help from anyone except each other, and they are all clueless.

This Beautiful is not particularly plot-driven. It is more a portrait of a time, and a group of people, and a place. Katie serves as a good narrator as not much seems to happen to her in comparison to her friends, and she is a good observer of the drama around her. Yet she is still just as lost and naive as the rest of them, and often wonders about the mother who gave her away – particularly when faced with her friends’ impending parenthood. Was her mother also some lost young girl, afraid of the future and growing up? Was she also without guidance and support, left to deal with things on her own? While Katie and her friends are a product of their era, perhaps the youth of every generation cannot escape the confusion of growing up.

Published in October 2014 by Tinder Press (UK). My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

You can read more about Judy Chicurel here.

Sex, Lies and Holiday Homes: The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh

2014 Tinder Press cover (proof copy).
2014 Tinder Press cover (proof copy).

We all behave differently when we’re on holiday, indulging ourselves and letting everything go a bit. But does being away from home really make life any different? Does it really change how we behave and how we live our lives?

It certainly seems to for Jenn, the central character in Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove. She is on holiday with her husband Greg, visiting the same villa in Mallorca they always do. Even before the drama that soon arrives on their doorstep, we see a little of what is brewing between them – Greg is distracted over his troubled work situation, and Jenn – well, Jenn is also distracted, but more over her own worries and fixations than anything concrete. She thinks about the past, what might have been, what she wants, and to me she seems obsessed with youth and her own ageing.

This seems a small thing but it remains consistent throughout the book – Jenn’s negative attitude towards the fact that she is ‘older’, and her insecurity about how she looks. Everyone has this, but Jenn sees her own lack of youth to be some sort of failure, like she has to constantly deal with the fact that in reality she doesn’t look as she wishes she does in her head.

Jenn’s issues become heightened when Greg’s teenage daughter Emma arrives with her boyfriend Nathan, a surly, moody teenager who doesn’t say much. He lurks about and keeps touching Emma in a way that seems a purposeful attempt to show Greg and Jenn that they are having sex – or at least to make them think that.

Jenn spends a lot of time being jealous of the closeness between Greg and Emma, resenting her own status as step-parent. She has been Emma’s step-mother for fifteen years, and yet she is still riled when Emma calls her ‘Mum’ – and when she does not. Either way she has a strong reaction and does not seem comfortable with her position, and is embittered by the fact that she does not have a biological child. Her feelings about motherhood are clearly conflicted.

Jenn also fixates on Emma’s youth and cannot accept her getting older and more adult, especially in terms of her having a boyfriend. Ah, yes, the boyfriend – Nathan. He is the ‘he’ in Jenn’s mind, the ‘stranger’ they let in. Jenn begins to watch him, to notice all the details of his body. Her obsession with youth becomes an obsession with him.

In the heat of the summer Jenn lusts after the brooding young man, her thoughts of him a welcome distraction from Emma’s moods and Greg’s sweet but unexciting attentions. Aside from being filled with lust, more than anything Jenn seems to be bored – with the holiday, with the people, with life. Nathan is new and exciting, and Jenn cannot resist. I am not giving anything away by saying that something happens between them.

The sex, the descriptions of Nathan’s body, Jenn alone the bath… all these descriptions are graphic, ‘shocking’, and Walsh is unafraid to scatter her elegant restrained prose with ‘cunt’ and ‘dick’, words that frankly do not sit well with the tone of the language. Personally I found the sex scenes &c graphic but not very ‘sexy’ – they are instead quite matter of fact, and a little lacking in beauty; and entirely lacking in love. Jenn and Nathan act out of lust and desperation.

There is also a moral question here – does Jenn feel guilty? Not only is she cheating on her husband, she is sleeping with her step-daughter’s boyfriend. And yet, she does not brood over her betrayals. She carries them out and then carries on with life. She is so utterly bored she almost seems not to care.

I found The Lemon Grove a slow starter, taking about 50 pages to really get into it. I loved the writing, but you need to spend some time with it for it to flow. I did not, however, like any of the characters – though I’m not sure how much you’re meant to. Jenn is cold and unhappy, unfaithful; Greg is nice but dull; Emma is Teenage Daughter; and Nathan is a bit inscrutable. At times he just seems like a teenager, at others he seems more devious and older than his years. I wasn’t sure what to make of him.

I won’t tell what happens at the end, but it was not what I expected. In a way this was good, but a little confusing. Also I’m not sure why it’s called The Lemon Grove – there’s one at their villa but it didn’t play a role or seem to symbolise anything – maybe I’m missing something?

One thing I am sure of is that this is a wonderfully written novel, and deserves your attention. It also has a very striking, beautiful cover. Read it! I’d love to hear what others think of it.

*

Published by Tinder Press, an imprint of Headline, on 27th Feb 2014. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

New Fiction: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

2014 Tinder Press hardback cover. Image: goodreads.com
2014 Tinder Press hardback cover. Image: goodreads.com

On her eleventh birthday Sarah is given her own personal slave as a present by her mother. This slave is Handful, and she is thrust in front of Sarah during her birthday celebrations with a ribbon around her neck. Sarah is horrified that she is expected to own another human being; and she decides to treat Handful better than the other slaves in her family’s household. Sarah is also a real life person, born in South Carolina, where the novel is set, in 1792.

Her father is a lawyer and a plantation owner, a symbol of the freedom Sarah is denied as a girl; and her mother Mary is strange character, simultaneously caring and cruel. They own several slaves and Sarah has grown up with them, but owning Handful herself makes her take a closer look at their role and treatment. Though it is illegal, she teaches Handful to read, and is cornered by Handful’s wilful mother, Charlotte, into promising to free Handful if she can.

They are close in age, have grown up in the same place, and their lives are presented as a sort of parallel through dual narratives. In this way, Monk Kidd demonstrates that Sarah and Handful are ‘connected’ to one another. She succeeds in making their voices distinct, and shows events from their two different perspectives, which illustrates the disparity between their status and experience.

For long periods of the novel, in which years pass, they barely see each other and do not have much to do with one another. It is only at the end of the novel that their relationship is shown to be poignant and meaningful – and I found all this a little heavy handed. Sarah already has doubts about the morality of slavery when Handful is presented to her, wrapped in a bow, and Handful’s wisdom and desire for a better life are with her from the start. Instead of affecting each other’s lives, I think Monk Kidd intended them to keep each other in the back of their minds and remember that slaves and owners are just as human as each other.

Sue Monk Kidd. Image: writers-write-creative-blog.posthaven.com
Sue Monk Kidd. Image: writers-write-creative-blog.posthaven.com

Sarah’s  desire to be more than a wife and mother drive her to explore new opportunities, but other than teaching Handful to read, her mother’s strictness does not allow her much freedom. Later in life she is attracted to Quakerism (despised by her Episcopalian family) and manages to live away from her overbearing mother and does indeed find a path for herself, spreading the word of Quakerism and eventually campaigning against slavery. This is the side of Sarah’s life that attracted Monk Kidd to her story, and what inspired her to write The Invention of Wings.

It was also the brief mention, in old papers, of Sarah’s slave, Handful, though there was barely any information about her (this is mentioned in the Tinder Press press release). Instead Monk Kidd created a life and a personality for Handful, dragging her into the daylight and moulding her into a character. Handful is a spirited girl, resigned to life but with hopes of a better future, but she does not always feel deep enough to be real. And neither does Sarah. For a character based on such an amazing real life women, Monk Kidd’s Sarah is a little flat; she is pious and often sees herself as a victim, which got a little annoying – but her goodness and determination redeem her.

There are moments of brilliance in The Invention of Wings, and several quotable lines, for example:

I saw then what I hadn’t seen before, that I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I’d lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I’d grown comfortable with the particulars of evil.

But as a whole the ‘sweeping’ nature of the novel meant that it meandered and sometimes lost focus.

Sue Monk Kidd’s 2003 novel The Secret Life of Bees was hugely successful and also dealt with civil rights issues, as well as mother-daughter relationships, as The Invention of Wings does time and time again (Handful’s mother Charlotte would warrant a blog post all to herself); but that was a complete fiction, set in the 1960s, and therefore did not carry with it the weight and delicacy of a novel about slavery. The Invention of Wings is brilliant as a concept, as a premise, and does contain wonderful moments; but the end result is not sturdy enough to hold itself up.

*

Published on 7th January 2014 by Tinder Press. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.