I have absolutely loved reading this charming and uplifting debut novel from Lizzie Damilola Blackburn and I already know it’s one I will keep on the bookshelves and read again in the future. It has such charm and a huge heart at it’s centre. Yinka is a 31 year old British Nigerian woman with a degree from Oxford and a brilliant job at an investment bank, but despite all that she has going for her, she hears only one thing from her mother and aunties. Why is she still single? What exactly is she doing wrong? A perfect storm of circumstances affects Yinka’s confidence: her baby sister Kemi is about to have a baby; her friend Rachel becomes engaged and starts planning her wedding; then she expects a promotion at work and is instead made redundant. When her Mum and Aunty Debbie both pray out loud for her to find a man at Kemi’s baby shower, Yinka feels humiliated. Using her project planning skills she decides on a course of action. She will find a man in time to take a date to Rachel’s wedding.
I found the themes of identity woven into the storyline fascinating and complex. At the start of the novel Yinka is wearing her hair short and natural, is more likely to be in jeans than traditional Nigerian fabrics and prefers to eat fried chicken than learn to cook African food. Yet there are so many opinions and judgements, both in her everyday life and on social media, on what it means to be a British Nigerian and an attractive, desirable black woman. The men she meets aren’t short of opinions either. Donovan, who she knows from her gap year working for charity, despairs of her lack of knowledge about hip-hop and music of black origin in general. She accepts an introduction to Alex, a single man at her Mum’s church and they start to chat on social media. He seems to think she should be more aware of her Nigerian culture. He voices surprise, and judgement, that she can’t cook Nigerian food and she doesn’t know many words of the Yoruba language. A Tinder meet up goes horribly wrong when her date makes the assumption she will sleep with him on their second date. When Yinka explains that part of her faith is prizing her virginity and that sex is sacred, something she would only do with her husband. He seems okay about it, but then ghosts her, finally accusing Yinka of misleading him, because this is something she should have made clear up front. Her experience with Emmanuel was the one I found most painful and my heart broke a little for her. He goes to her Mum’s church and she has to swallow her pride just to agree on a number exchange. On FaceTime though he seems disappointed and admits that he agreed to pass on his number, because he thought she was someone else. It’s not his fault, he says, but he does prefer girls with lighter skin. It’s not hard to see how these experiences and opinions chip away at Yinka until she feels like she’s lost herself.
Yinka is constantly receiving messages about the woman she should be, through her experiences, the constant badgering from her Mum, and from social media. The black women society deems beautiful have lighter skin in caramel tones, long and flowing Western hair, and are curvaceous. Yinka feels her skinny body, her J shape bottom and dark skin are not good enough. Even the messages she is receiving from her own family don’t help. Her Mum openly criticises her short Afro hair, it used to be so long and beautiful, how will she get a huzband if she doesn’t make an effort? Yinka has internalised these messages all her life – the lighter her skin, the rounder her bottom, the longer and more Western her hair, the more attractive she will be. She tries a wig for a date then is constantly terrified of the parting being off centre and when her date touches it she knows he has never dated a black woman before – black men know not to touch women’s hair. When she gets a weave and wears one of her friend Nana’s dresses, made from African fabric, her Mum radiates approval – see how pretty she is? My heart went out to her when she remembers her Dad saying to her that the moon is just as beautiful as the sunshine, that midnight has a beauty all of its own. Another problem is the comparisons her Aunties and her Mum make, between Yinka and her sister or her friends, creating division and resentment. Her mum’s constant praise of the beautiful light skinned Kemi, the little sister who has pipped Yinka to the post by getting married and now adding to the family with her new son Chinedu, makes Yinka resent her sister. They become more distant from each other and never talk about the way their mum behaves. Her cousin Ola even laughs when the older women badger Yinka and embarrass her, Ola is married with three children, but is she as happy as her aunties assume she is?
The two aspects of the book I related to so strongly were the culture around Pentecostal Christianity and the role of counselling. Yinka normally attends the Church of England, but her Mum and Aunties frequent the All Welcome Pentecostal church and this felt so familiar to me as I grew up in a New Life Pentecostal Church. I found the scenes with the church so humorous and true to life, especially the constant praying out loud, even at parties. It was a very hard church to grow up in and those teenage years onward when I was single I felt hounded by youth leaders telling me what I could and couldn’t do in a dating situation, that I should only date other Christians and then pushing me towards people I didn’t find remotely attractive. I had a ‘boyfriend’ at church when I was 12 and we only saw each other at youth group and church. It really was more of a friendship, but youth leaders treated it like a serious relationship and when I wanted to break up I was forced to pray about it in a group. The youth leader prayed that God would bring us back together in the future. I felt that single girls were treated with suspicion and that adults were just waiting to matchmake. I rebelled at 16 and walked away, because I felt judged and stifled. It was wonderful though, to read about these experiences and hear certain phrases like being ‘in the spirit’, the endless praying out loud, the sense of having elders to answer to, because it’s rare for someone to understand my experience. It’s even more rare to see it in fiction in a way that acknowledges its drawbacks, but also its benefits and the deep well of humour it provides.
Counselling is something that my church would have been very resistant to, but I am now a counsellor myself and I loved seeing how positively it was portrayed in the book. The use of writing as therapy is something I do with clients and I was moved by Yinka’s letter to her younger self, going back and undoing some of the negative judgements and ideals she had internalised. It was brilliant to see how it took Yinka deeper, into how imbalanced those parental injunctions had become once she lost her father. I wanted Yinka to realise she had two incredible role models to aspire to; her Aunty Blessing who is happy and fulfilled despite having no husband or children and her friend Nana who is simply not bothered with dating and is pouring her energies into building her fashion brand. I loved both of these women and how they really pull Yinka back from the brink, help her untangle the lies she’s told and work out what and where she really wants to be in life. It reminded me of the power of female friendship and how it is most often the women who will hold you up in life. I loved how Yinka’s changes through counselling rippled out to others around her too. Once she has started to talk there are relationships she can mend and maybe others that need some redefining and new boundaries set. Her realisations, about her Mum particularly, are interesting and Yinka’s bravery in trying to address how she has felt made me feel so proud of her. It showed how counselling doesnt just create change in one person, it can change the people around them too. I don’t know if Yinka will ever return, but she was a great character to spend time with and I’d definitely be first in the queue for more. This was a pleasure to read from beginning to end, full of strong female characters, emotionally aware and addressing some really tough issues in a humorous and ultimately uplifting way.
Meet The Author
Lizzie Damilola Blackburn is a British-Nigerian writer, born in Peckham, who wants to tell the stories that she and her friends have longed for but never seen – romcoms ‘where Cinderella is Black and no-one bats an eyelid’. In 2019 she won the Literary Consultancy Pen Factor Writing Competition with the early draft of Yinka, Where is your Huzband?, which she had been writing alongside juggling her job at Carers UK. She has been at the receiving end of the question in the title of her novel many times, and now lives with her husband in Milton Keynes.
There are times when I think I could write a book. Why not? I have a first in English and I’ve been reading voraciously since I was 5. I have even started a memoir. Surely I could do it. They say everyone has a book in them don’t they? Then I read this. This astounding, raw, unflinching and inspirationally creative novel is proof that some of us were born to write. This book, is quite simply astonishing.
I can’t write much about the content of the book without ruining it for others and that’s the last thing I want to do, So I’ll tread carefully…
Our narrator Fern Dostoy is a writer, one of the ‘big four’ novelists of the not too distant future. This is a future where the Anti-Fiction Movement’s campaign to have all fiction banned has been successful. It was Fern’s third novel, Technological Amazingness, that was cited as a dangerous fiction likely to mislead and possibly incite dissent in it’s readers. She had created a dystopian future where two major policies were being adopted as standard practice. To avoid poor surgical outcomes, only patients who are dead can have an operation. Secondly, every so often, families would be called upon to nominate one family member for euthanasia – leading to the deaths of thousands of elderly and disabled people. All fiction authors, including Fern, are banned from writing and the only books on sale are non-fiction. The message is that fiction is bad for you, it lies to the reader giving them misleading ideas about the world and how it’s run. Facts are safe. AllBooks dominated the market for books until it became the only bookshop left, state sanctioned of course and only selling non-fiction. From time to time they hold a book amnesty where people can take their old, hidden novels to be pulped. Fern now cleans at a hospital and receives unannounced home visits from compliance officers who question her and search her house to ensure she’s not writing. Added to this dystopian nightmare are a door to door tea salesman, an underground bedtime story organisation, a mysterious appearing and disappearing blue and white trainer, re-education camps for non-compliant writers and a boy called Hunter. All the time I was reading about this terrible new world, I was taking in the details. and trying to imagine living in it.
Yet there was a little voice in the back of my mind telling me this wasn’t the real story. I’d figured that out, even though I was confused, this was one of those books where it would all come together and I would understand. I had strange feelings of anger and frustration with the narrative, not because it isn’t brilliantly and vividly brought to life, but because I could sense something else going on underneath. I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of it. As the pressure built and the compliance officers started to push Fern into telling the truth, I inexplicably felt a lump building in my throat. I’d no idea why I was feeling so choked up. I read the final third with tears streaming down my cheeks, followed by full-on sobbing. I hadn’t known my emotions were so engaged with Fern’s story until my husband came home and I couldn’t even speak to explain why I was crying. It was like I’d known this was where the story was going all along.
I want to say thank you to Louise. Thank you for this incredible book and the emotions it unleashed. I can’t even say why the book had this effect on me without ruining it. This is a real work of genius. It shows us how strong our minds can be at protecting us from things we don’t want to face. I understood Fern and her story moved me deeply. This is, without doubt, a contender for book of the year and an unparalleled look at allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and open; to be human. This is an incredibly powerful novel about storytelling, creativity, grief and fear. It also asks the question: who are we when everything that defines who we are, is taken away?
Published by Hodder and Stoughton 23rd March 2023.
Meet The Author
Louise Swanson is the pen-name of bestselling author Louise Beech, who has published seven novels with Orenda Books. Her work has previously been longlisted for the Not the Booker and Polari prizes and shortlisted for the Romantic Novel awards. She also won Best’s Book of the Year with her 2019 psychological thriller CALL ME STAR GIRL. Aside from being a novelist, she regularly writes travel pieces for the Hull Daily Mail, where she was a columnist for ten years. She also recently worked as the Front of House for the Hull Truck Theatre.
Louise Swanson’s debut End of Story arrives in March 2023. She wrote the book during the final lockdown of 2020, following a family tragedy, finding refuge in the fiction she created. The themes of the book – grief, isolation, love of the arts, the power of storytelling – came from a very real place. Swanson, a mother of two who lives in East Yorkshire with her husband, regularly blogs, talks at events, and is a huge advocate of openly discussing mental health and suicide.
Her memoir, Daffodils, was released in audiobook in 2022, and the paperback version, Eighteen Seconds, will be out April 2023.She blogs regularly on louisebeech.co.uk, and is on Twitter under the name @LouiseWriter.
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Normally, I’d say this is the most unusual book I’ve read in quite a while, but in fact it’s been a brilliant month for Orenda Books as both their March releases have been quirky, original and quietly brilliant. It’s no secret that I love Doug Johnstone’s Skelf series and it’s mix of philosophy, astronomy, family and crime. This stand alone novel has some of the same attributes and a whole lot more besides. One night a strange occurrence in the Scottish night sky brings together strangers Ava, Lennox and Heather. Several people see the strange light and sparks in the air and all have severe cerebral haemorrhagic strokes. These are the most rare type of strokes and usually they’re fatal. Ava, Lennox and Heather are the only people to wake up the next day completely unscathed. Each one has their problems: Heather had been wading into the water with stones in her pockets after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis but is saved by something in the water. Lennox is a lonely teenager, bouncing round children’s homes and is being set upon by bullies when he sees the lights in the sky and the stroke hits. Ava is pregnant and desperate to get away from husband Mike, a vile abuser obsessed with power and control. Meanwhile, on the beach lies a strange octopus or giant squid, sprawled on the sand and guarded by police. This cephalopod appeared as these unusual strokes happened and no one knows what to do with it. It’s not the usual octopus as it only has five tentacles and it has strange rippling colours under it’s surface. Police officer Nina is on the case and reporter Ewan is determined to find out the link between the creature and the three disparate people who band together to rescue the creature and have now gone on the run.
None of the three fugitives can understand why the extraterrestrial life form has chosen them. At first their link with Lennox seems most powerful. Despite his background of being let down by others, Lennox is very open to the creature and is the one to name them Sandy. He has even allowed them to form a telepathic connection by leaving a sort of organic hearing aid in his ear, turning them into ‘Lennox-Sandy-Partial’. It’s hard for Lennox to explain Sandy, he immediately uses ‘they’ as Sandy’s pronoun, not because of a dual gender but because they’re a dual person. Lennox thinks Sandy may be part of a larger whole or has a hive mind, one that can link with humans should they wish. For Lennox, being part of a larger whole must sound wonderful and grounding in a way he’s never experienced before.
‘It was weird, having spent his life in the care system, he didn’t have a fucking clue who he really was. The policy preventing you finding out about your birth parents out about your birth parents until you were eighteen was strict, and even then, the chaotic system of records meant you might never find out. Shit just got lost. So he’d drifted rudderless through his early life, with no sense of community or belonging anywhere.’
Ava is the next to connect with Sandy, mainly because she trusts him to tell her whether her unborn baby is okay. Ava is also alone in the sense that she alone knows the truth about her life with husband Michael. Ava was already running when she encountered Sandy, running from Michael and his attempts to destroy her. Michael is the archetypal abuser, who started out by separating her from friends and family then used techniques like gaslighting so she would question herself, even her own sanity. Then the physical and the sexual violence began. Even Ava’s mother has abandoned her, thinking Michael is a lovely man who simply has his wife’s best interests at heart. Ava wants to leave before her baby is born and her decision to flee with Sandy up to the north of Scotland is partly because she hopes Michael won’t find her there. These are the first people to meet Ava and accept her for who she is and they immediately believe her account about her marriage.
The last to connect with Sandy is Heather and that’s because she’s deliberately closed herself off to others. Heather has a terminal brain tumour, something she’s been keeping from everyone including her new friends. She has immediately taken on the role of Mum, looking after all of them and even preparing to deliver Ava’s baby. When they approach Heather’s ex-husband for help, the others are surprised, but Heather assures them he is one of life’s good guys. She is clearly genuinely pleased to see him. However, seeing him with a new wife and starting a family is particularly painful. A terrible tragedy forced this couple apart and seeing him brings it flooding back. Can Sandy approach her now, when she’s at her most vulnerable and what help can he offer? All three are fascinating characters and as a group they seem unbeatable. It’s their very connection that gives them strength. However, they are being pursued; by the police, the journalist called Ewan and a shadowy group of men in black who seem capable of anything if it gets them closer to Sandy.
As always Doug Johnstone is capable of taking several unusual, even improbable scenarios but writing about them in such a clever way you don’t question it. I never once stopped to think it seemed incredible. Similarly, our three main characters never pause or worry they’re doing the wrong thing. There’s one incidence where Lennox stops to question what’s happening:
‘There weren’t many Google hits for ‘telepathic octopus’. Shocker. Lennox looked up from his phone and stared at Sandy. He felt like a different person to the one who walked through the park two days ago. Now he was wanted for murder and kidnapping, sitting in a cheesy brown van with an old woman and a pregnant teacher, and getting psychic messages from a telepathic octopus.’
Usually a story like this would be set in a fantasy or dystopian future, but we’re definitely in the here and now. The settings are so ordinary. I could imagine pulling into a viewing point near Loch Ness and meeting Ava, Lennox and Heather when they’ve broken down and are waiting for a lift. Yet, within moments Lennox has been absorbed by Sandy and is diving through the water like a seal, breathing easily and feeling completely at home. These sequences are fantastical, stunningly beautiful and transcendent. He makes us want to be there experiencing it all. I think the key is that despite the strangeness of a tentacled cephalopod shivering with excitement at the thought of swimming in a loch we’re learning from Sandy. He’s showing us how to love life more, to find the wonder of things, to connect more, grow together and to experience everything:
“Suddenly his host shot upward towards one of the bigger cracks in the ice. A jet stream flowed from a volcano on the seabed, like a fountain through the sea to the opening in the ice. They joined it and shot through the ice shelf into space, surrounded by millions of particles of water and ice. He turned and looked at Saturn, huge and orange in the sky. He realised they were in one of the rings, they were the ring […] floating in space, swaying and drifting.”
As always with Doug’s writing there are literary and philosophical references throughout and I was delighted to find one of my favourite thoughts from Susan Sontag who wrote about illness and disability and their surrounding metaphors. Within the medical model of illness, particularly with cancer and other auto-immune illnesses, the metaphors of battle are commonly used as Heather points out:
“She hated the military terminology that people used around cancer: ‘She lost her brave battle with cancer.’ The cancer was part of you, you created it from nothing, so that language meant you were fighting yourself. Turning everything into a battlefield was a masculine, wrong-headed way of looking at things.”
She hates the assumption that if the cancer has spread or become terminal it’s because she is weak and hasn’t battled hard enough. Sometimes the words we choose are very important.
There are allusions to Alice Through the Looking Glass, to Virginia Woolf in Heather’s method of suicide – wading into water with stones in her pockets. There’s also a hint of Howard’s End in Sandy’s ability to connect with his fellow cephalopods and other species. It should make us rethink how we connect with one another. Howard’s End presents people of different classes who normally wouldn’t associate with each other, but people are really all the same. We should connect with all sorts of people in different age groups, abilities, religions and races. Here Lennox truly understands this:
‘It didn’t make sense to think of himself as Lennox anymore, he was a compound of a million things – bacteria in his gut, microscopic bugs in his hair, Xander’s body passing through his own, Sandy inside his neurons. It finally made physical sense, the idea that Sandy was plural. We all are. And the human idea of being singular, apart, alone, was a ridiculous and lonely way of looking at life.”
In fact what our different characters show us is how strong we can be, if we work together, especially characters with very different skills and personalities. Being part of a whole makes us stronger. Despite the danger and tension of their quest to reach Ullapool where everyone converges on the harbour, I found the ending so positive. Sandy asks us to rethink our lives, let others in and perhaps look at the world in a different way. Why do we think of our planet as ‘Earth’ when the largest proportion of our globe is ocean? We look at everything through the filter of our own class, education, experience and privilege. So, we should take time to view things through someone else’s filter. This was a fascinating, funny and uplifting literary journey that challenges us to move closer and reduce the space between us. In other words ‘only connect’.
Published 2nd March 2023 by Orenda Books
Doug Johnstone is the author of twelve novels, most recently The Great Silence, the third in the Skelfs series, which has been optioned for TV. In 2021,The Big Chill, the second in the series, was longlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. In 2020, A Dark Matter, the first in the series, was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year and the Capital Crime Amazon Publishing Independent Voice Book of the Year award. Black Hearts (Book four), will be published in 2022. Several of his books have been best sellers and award winners, and his work has been praised by the likes of Val McDermid, Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions, and has been an arts journalist for twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with five albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He’s also player-manager of the Scotland Writers Football Club. He lives in Edinburgh.
I absolutely loved being back in the world of Maeve Kerrigan. So much so I read this straight through in one day. The set up was brilliant – a modern slavery racket is suspected and Maeve must get close to one of the conspirators, an unlikely criminal. The mayor of London’s assistant has brought a sad case to their attention. A young man called Davey who died after suffering neglect, starvation and physical abuse. He was the perfect target for slavery, an easily influenced man with learning disabilities but physically strong and capable. Strangely, there have been other young men go missing from the system after using the same address, that of an elderly lady in a normal suburban close. There needs to be close surveillance so Una Burt puts her best officers on it, Maeve must move into the close with Josh Derwent as her boyfriend, pretending to dog sit for the usual occupant. Josh thinks Maeve needs a break from her normal routine, because after the court case convicting her partner of domestic abuse Maeve has been drifting and not herself at all. Similarly, Maeve thinks Josh could do with a break away from his live in girlfriend Melissa. How will they fare as a couple on the close and will they be able to flush out the conspirators in the slavery case?
I loved the tension between Derwent and Maeve in this story, close together in the house and away from all their usual distractions it brings their chemistry into focus. Every time they behaved like a couple it felt completely natural, until it was imagining them going back to colleagues was unthinkable. They have had so many obstacles in their time as friends, always something preventing them from becoming more, so could this be the perfect timing? At times the tension in their house was more unbearable than the tension in the case! There are parts of Derwent that I don’t like, but I can see ways in which he’d be good for Maeve and vice versa. They ingratiate themselves with the neighbours easily because they sense this chemistry, they seem like a real couple. The elderly lady in question is tricky, seemingly an innocent and kindly woman but if she is involved with mistreating these men, her kindness is all a front. She reveals that she does provide a bed for young men with disabilities from time to time, but doesn’t elaborate on whether it’s an official arrangement. When Maeve discovers there’s a oreviously unknown son, whose wife runs a care home, the chain starts to come together. However this isn’t the only crime lurking under the respectability of suburbia. The author uses short chapters narrated by a man who is very unpleasant and possibly dangerous. He lurks after dark watching through the windows of those who don’t close their curtains, even Josh and Maeve. He has a very incel vibe, so could he be a lone male with little female attention and experience, or is he hiding his feelings about women under the veneer of a happy family man?
I enjoyed watching these people through Maeve’s eyes as her instincts are usually spot on and her insight seems to be coming back to her as the novel continues. This break is exactly what she needed. Her interactions with a lady with dementia in the close are brilliant because Maeve doesn’t dismiss what she claims to have seen just because of her illness. Maeve knows there are moments of lucidity and keeps thinking about what she’s said and trying to interpret it. When she goes missing in the dark Maeve is desperate to find her, but so is our unknown man and it’s a real heart pounding part of the book, hoping against hope that Maeve gets to her first. It’s clear that this seemingly happy and respectable close is anything but, with the men hiding all sorts from irritating foibles to murder. Towards the end I was powering through the pages to find out who was hurting girls in the close, whether Maeve’s fire and copper’s instinct was returning, but also whether Josh and aMaeve were going to confront their feelings for each other. This was an addictive thriller, focusing on one of my favourite fictional police duos and I loved seeing them in a different environment, but still flushing out crime.
Published by Harper Collins 2nd March
Meet The Author
Jane Casey is a bestselling crime writer who was born and brought up in Dublin. A former editor, she has written twelve crime novels for adults (including ten in the Maeve Kerrigan series) and three for teenagers (the Jess Tennant series). Her books have been international bestsellers, critically acclaimed for their realism and accuracy. The Maeve Kerrigan series has been nominated for many awards: in 2015 Jane won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for The Stranger You Know and Irish Crime Novel of the Year for After the Fire. In 2019, Cruel Acts was chosen as Irish Crime Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. It was a Sunday Times bestseller. Stand-alone novel The Killing Kind was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick in 2021, and is currently being filmed for television. Jane lives in southwest London with her husband, who is a criminal barrister, and their two children.
The experience of motherhood is such a rich seam of material that writers are always mining it in new and creative ways. Every relationship between mother and child is different and it is one of my favourite subjects in fiction, because of that variety but also because of the emotional complexity. Without my mum I wouldn’t have my love of literature. It was mum who taught me to read. She always had books around the house and took us to the local library to borrow books and explore whatever we wanted to read. I’m so proud of my mum, that despite being unable to finish her secondary education, she has always loved literature and writes beautiful poetry. She introduced me to classics through her book collection and through film adaptations that she enjoyed. I watched D.H.Lawrence adaptations Women in Love and The Virgin and the Gypsy, the Thomas Hardy adaptations of Tess and Far From the Madding Crowd with Alan Bates, and the beautiful 1970s adaptation of L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between starring Julie Christie, which I still love to this day. Thanks to her I was introduced to Du Maurier, Mary Webb and the beauty (rather than the sensationalism) of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. These days she is the first person I would take to see a literary film and the first member of my book club. She is endlessly understanding, encouraging and doesn’t judge me whatever I do. My own experience with motherhood has been a difficult one, so when choosing the mothers for this post I wanted to include the tougher parts of being and becoming a mum. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you mums, step mums, adoptive mums, fosterers and those whose babies have angel wings. I hope you all have a wonderful day celebrating the love you all have for your children and the love they have for you.
The Ideal Mum. Marmee from Little Women.
“Money is a needful and precious thing,—and, when well used, a noble thing,—but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self- respect and peace.”
Marmee is the sort of literary mum who gives the reader a great big hug from within the pages. Yes her Christian values are a little out of step with today’s society, but if you listen to her wisdom such as the quote above there’s still so much to take away from it. She’s teaching her girls that however much you have, you’ll be richer by sharing it with someone else. I love that she allows her girls the freedom to explore who they are, especially Jo who doesn’t dress like other girls, uses slang and is always running, leaping over gates and climbing down the drainpipe. She even allows her a relationship with Laurie from next door that’s very close and ignores the society gossips who think she’s hoping to make a rich match for her daughter. Marmee knows that Laurie respects her and her daughters. She teaches the girls to be charitable, and not just with material things but with time and commitment. She’s incredible with her advice, her time and her love. Most of all though, she influences them by example; one of my favourites is when she tells Jo about her own terrible temper and her attempts to master it. Her relationship with Jo evolves into a friendship as Jo becomes older and has returned home to nurse her sister Beth. They have a frank discussion about Laurie, now in Europe on his Grand Tour, and Jo doesn’t hold back. She admits that were Laurie to return and ask her to marry him a second time she might say yes, not because her feelings for him have changed but because she cares more about being loved these days. Loss and loneliness have made Jo appreciate what he was offering, and I love that the only person she shares this with is her mum.
The Feminist Mum. Pauline Mole from Adrian Mole’s Diaries.
“All under-fives are mad Adrian, you used to talk to the moon. You invited it to your birthday party and cried when it didn’t turn up.” George: “When it went dark and the moon came up, you ran outside and threw a sausage roll at it!”
I don’t think we can call Pauline Mole an ideal mum, but she is more realistic and probably one of the funniest mums in literature. Adrian despairs of his parents, in fact at one point he’s so disillusioned that he observes he wouldn’t be surprised if his father turned out to be a Russian agent and his mother ran off with a circus knife thrower. I always remember when Adrian’s father George gives him some sage advice about matters of the heart. He suggests that before he even thinks about marrying a woman, he should live with her and if she leaves her knickers on the floor for more than three days not to bother. There are the romantic entanglements, first with Mr (Ratfink) Lucas and then with Ivan Braithwaite father of Pandora. However, she does end up in a cottage caring for George after he’s had a stroke. She has a feminist awakening in the 1980’s when she organises a trip for ladies in the close to Greenham Common. They come back awakened and are keeping Adrian awake singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ till the wee small hours. She even names Adrian’s baby sister Rosie Germaine Mole after reading The Female Eunuch. Despite having an ideal son called Brett Mole in her head she does love her son and is there whenever something goes badly wrong. She collects him when everything goes wrong after his brief stint as a celebrity chef. When Adrian is ill in the final diary of the series, she is the one who drives him to hospital every day and nurses him at home too after his wife leaves. Despite making mistakes with each other, mother and son do stick together.
The Unexpected Mum. Marilla Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables.
I loved Anne of Green Gables when I was younger and even now, if this particular adaptation of the books is on I do watch, because I love this depiction of the rather severe Marilla, a woman who never expected to be a mum. Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert are brother and sister, running a farm together on Prince Edward Island in Canada. They decide to apply for an orphan, a boy who will be able to help them with the farm work as Matthew gets older. Yet, when Matthew goes to the train station to collect their new charge he finds a freckle faced, red headed girl with two pigtails and a hot temper. Being soft hearted and not knowing what to do, he takes her home to Marilla. I love how Marilla has no idea what to do with Anne Shirley, in fact at first she wants Matthew to return her, but she slowly thaws towards this unexpected girl who tries her patience terribly. Marilla is an old maid so has never expected to be a mum, especially not to the dreamy and clumsy Anne. Marilla can seem harsh and has just as hot a temper as Anne does, but slowly she learns to love the girl she wanted to send back and watching Anne love Marilla, knocking off her harsh edges, is so heart-warming. As an unexpected step mum myself I do have a soft spot for this particular woman, who it turns out had missed her one chance of love and a family many years before.
The Mum Who Will Do Anything. Veronica Murphy from This Is How We Are Human.
Louise Beech’s novel was one of my favourite books of last year and the story has stayed with me, because its hard not to fall in love with Sebastian Murphy and the lengths Veronica will go to for her child are incredible. As mum to a son with autism, Veronica is used to having an unconventional relationship. She knows everything about her son: his schedule, favourite music, the way he likes his eggs. She expected questions about relationships as he got older, but is a bit shocked when he tells her he’d like to have sex. She’s helped him negotiate everything else in his world. Should she help with this and how would she go about it? This is a mum who has tried to insulate her son from all the difficulties he might face in the world. He loves swimming and he still goes to the same swimming group he did when he was eight. He doesn’t like change so Veronica fixed it for him, so how is she going to cope now he’s entering into an area of life there’s no control over? Her solution might shock some people, she decides to meet with a sex worker with the name of Violetta. Violetta is working to pay for student loans and for her father’s care. He is affected by a stroke and wanted to rehabilitate at home rather than a nursing home. Veronica makes an agreement: a set time every week for Sebastian to spend time with Violetta. However, Veronica is worried about him becoming too attached, what if his emotions bleed into the arrangement? These three people will affect each other in unexpected ways and its just possible that Veronica has underestimated her son. A beautiful, moving story about the things we do for people in the name of love, and a depiction of a mother who’s far from conventional, but is determined that her child will be happy.
Mums in Waiting. Zoe Baxter from Sing You Home.
Zoe and Max Baxter are having problems in their marriage, after a ten years struggle with infertility. They have frozen embryos stored at a medical facility, but since every attempt has so far failed they are left heartbroken. They are struggling to grieve together and with heavy hearts agree to separate. Max finds consolation in God and joins an evangelical church, soon making friends and finding support. Zoe’s life starts to change unexpectedly when a new colleague starts at the school. Zoe works with the students using music therapy, so she works in close contact with the new school counsellor Vanessa. They form a friendship, but much to Zoe’s surprise their feelings start to deepen. Zoe finds herself falling in love and coming into conflict with her ex-husband’s new born-again Christian views. So, when Vanessa and Zoe discuss starting a family, and she approaches Max about their remaining embryos, it’s no surprise to find he’s resistant to the idea. Those three embryos are Zoe’s final chance to have her own biological children and her desperation is understandable. However, doesn’t Max have a right not to become a father, especially in circumstances he doesn’t agree with? As the two become embroiled in a court battle for rights to the embryos, Max makes it clear he believes Zoe and Vanessa’s relationship to be an aberration. Zoe is not going to give up her right to be a mother without a fight. As a woman who has Hughes Syndrome, I know the heartbreak of being unable to have your own children. The treatment for Hughes meant given up a lot of the medication for my Multiple Sclerosis and then medicating to thin my blood for three months before any attempt to conceive. I decided with a heavy heart that perhaps motherhood was something I wouldn’t experience. Twenty years later I’m an unexpected step mum and love the challenge of helping to raise two teenage girls. I believe motherhood is a gift and not a right, and although I don’t agree with Max’s views on same sex relationships, I can understand his reticence to become a father with Zoe after their split. It’s a tough, complicated court case and I seemed to changed my mind with every chapter.
Complicated Mums. Eva from We Need To Talk About Kevin, Sethe from Beloved, and Leda from The Lost Daughter.
Of course all mother-child relationships are complicated, but these are a little more complicated than most. In The Lost Daughter we are on holiday with Leda, who is taking a break alone in Italy. As she lies on the beach reading each day she notices the mother-daughter relationship between young mum Nina and her daughter Elena. Slow and unsettling, her observance of this relationship opens up her relationship with her own daughters. In watching Nina’s motherhood she is taken back to when her own daughters were young. She sees the ideal of motherhood as a performance, a performance she didn’t want to undertake. There are echoes of problematic motherhood throughout this novella. Leda’s own mother threatens to leave her, but is that any better than leaving without warning, like Leda did? When Elena loses her doll, Leda finds it and does perform those simple tasks of caring for it, the washing and drying are soothing when the recipient is silent and lifeless. Leda explores that pull between career and motherhood dragging her in two different directions, but also that feeling of giving herself so wholly to the care of others that she loses who she is. The whole book is claustrophobic, Nina’s family feel threatening but for no specific reason and Leda’s anxious introspection adds to the tension. This is a dark and brutally realistic look at motherhood with an intelligent grasp of intergenerational trauma.
In Beloved we are introduced to Sethe, a freed slave who escaped the plantation named Sweet Home and found a home with her mother-in-law Baby Suggs. Sethe lives with an ailing Baby Suggs, her daughter Denver, the dog and the angry ghost who has been haunting their home for most of that time. Toni Morrison explores so many complex mother-child relationships through Sethe. How do you feel about those children who were taken from you? How do you mother the children forced on you? How do you mother the ghost child whose so angry with you they won’t let you live in peace? Sethe has learned to live alongside the baby ghost and the guilt of killing her with the handsaw from the shed, rather than see her suffer the slavery Sethe escaped. The baby’s headstone simply reads Beloved, but that mother’s love is tested when a young woman turns up at the door claiming that she is Sethe’s lost daughter. This young woman is the embodiment of all Beloved’s fury and she slowly encircles Sethe, demanding her attention and love while excluding her daughter Denver. Beloved ruins Sethe’s fledgling relationship with another escapee of Sweet Home. She is a parasite who won’t be satisfied until she has consumed her mother. This is a genuinely scary ghost story, but the real horror lies in the history of slavery and Sethe’s experiences before her escape. We are never sure whether the young woman is Beloved, a demon or a manifestation of Sethe’s own guilt.
One of the most complicated mother and child relationships I’ve ever read is that between Eva and her son in Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Take About Kevin. The most brilliant thing about this story is how ambiguous it is; is Eva a terrible mother who creates a monster or is Eva correct in her belief that Kevin is born a monster. Shriver brilliantly portrays their relationship from Kevin’s birth onwards, but always in Eva’s voice. As she portrays events from his early years the reader is left to make their own judgement of his actions. Persistent crying is something most parents experience, but in Eva’s eyes this is a battle of wills and Kevin wants to break her. I veer between feeling suspicious of Eva and terribly sorry for her. Even if Kevin is just the average baby, Eva is clearly exhausted and not coping but her husband just doesn’t see it. He believes Kevin is just a normal, exhausting, baby and Eva is overreacting, but never seems to think Kevin might come to harm despite his wife’s feelings about their son. Interspersed with these difficult early years is Eva’s present day situation dealing with the aftermath of an horrific mass murder. Cleverly, Shriver keeps the tension going, in fact it seems to be heightened as Eva takes us back to situations from Kevin’s earlier life that seem to foreshadow his murderous tendencies – there’s a scene with eyes and lychees that completely turns my stomach. Despite being completely unnerved by her son, Eva is constant. Her husband convinces her to have a second child, a daughter who she’s sure will be Kevin’s victim. Yet despite Kevin’s actions she never walks away. I guess its up to the reader as to whether that’s a good thing or not.
Mums That Make Me Cry. Rachel in Everything Happens For A Reason and Jess in I Wanted You To Know.
In her debut novel Everything Happens For A Reason Kate serves up raw emotional honesty in her character Rachel, whose son Luke was stillborn. When a well-meaning but thoughtless woman tells her ‘everything happens for a reason’ Rachel becomes obsessed with finding that reason. She is deranged by grief and feels that Luke’s death must be her fault, so she fixates on an incident from earlier in her pregnancy, when she stopped a man from jumping in front of a train. What if stopping that man from killing himself meant that her child died? She becomes determined to find him, enlisting the help of an underground worker Lola and her daughter, Josephine. I lost several pregnancies in my late twenties, so this was a tough read in parts, particularly the insensitivity of well meaning family and friends. I remember some of the most painful things said to me, were from people who meant well. I also recognised the endless questions that Rachel subjects herself to and the endless turmoil – marking milestones, imagining her child’s lost future, the complete emptiness and inability to feel or reach him after nine months of him being part of her. There were times when standing a room of people when I wanted to scream out loud. To communicate some of how it felt inside. I was so glad Kate wrote this novel because it made me feel like a mother. Everyone has always thought of me as childless, whether by choice or not, whereas I felt like a mum. A mum who had lost her children.
In her third novel I Wanted You To Know Laura Pearson tells her story in a series of letters, letters written by Jess to her daughter Edie. Jess didn’t expect to be negotiating life as a single mother. She certainly didn’t expect to be juggling a newborn and cancer treatment. This part of life is meant to be a beginning, not an ending. Not knowing how much time she has left and full of all the wisdom she wanted to give her daughter at different times in her life, Jess starts to write letters for Edie. Dear Edie, I wanted you to know so many things. I wanted to tell you them in person, as you grew. But it wasn’t to be. This novel is a real heartbreaker as Jess has to decide who she wants to be there for her daughter and what she would want her to know about school, leaving home, getting her first boyfriend and becoming a mum. Yet, it never feels maudlin, just real, raw and honest. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must be to become aware that the most precious thing in your life will have to grow up without you. What I love most about the book is the way the author avoids making Jess a saintly figure. When I think about the book I’m blown away by this woman’s practicality and courage, but it’s done in such an understated way.
It is 1923 and a country is in mourning. Thousands of husbands, fathers, sons and sweethearts were lost in the war, millions more returned home wounded and forever changed.
Beatrice Cade is an orphan, unmarried and childless. London is full of invisible women who struggle to find somewhere to work through their grief. But Bea is determined to make a new life for herself. She takes a room in a Bloomsbury ladies’ club and a job in the City. Just when her new world is taking shape, a fleeting encounter threatens to ruin everything.
Kate Ryan is an ordinary wife and mother. Following the end of the war, she has managed to build an enviable life with her husband and young daughter. To anyone looking in from the outside, they seem like a normal, happy family. But when two policemen knock on her door one morning and threaten to destroy the facade Kate has created, she knows what she has to do to protect the people she loves. And suddenly, two women who never should have met are connected for ever . . .
I can’t say enough great things about this incredible novel, but I’m going to try and do it justice. It’s a historical mystery, extraordinarily clever psychologically and made me think about feminism, sisterhood and the difference between what society expects women’s lives to look like and the life decisions we make for ourselves. Flint has told her story through the eyes of the Kate and Bea, two women who are strangers, but connected by one man. Bea was an orphan and is now an unmarried woman in her late thirties. She’s the book-keeper for a firm in London who has pretty much resigned herself to being a career girl and living in a woman’s hostel. All this changes when she meets the handsome and charming Tom Ryan, a salesman at her firm. Bea struggles to believe that this man, with his movie star looks, would be interested in a woman like her. She expects him to chat up the young women, who have noticed him and are giggling, but he makes a point of stopping at her desk. He comments on her name, telling her that Beatrice was the great love of a poet. Bea is smitten and agrees to meet him, despite the fact that he is married. She is mentally aware of his wife’s presence, the third person always standing between them. Despite this, will Bea allow herself to succumb to Tom’s advances and can it end any other way but heartbreak or disaster?
Flint’s setting is vitally important to this story. We can draw parallels between contemporary women and these two characters, but they are also very much products of their time. This is a post-war Britain and everything has been changed by a war so terrible it is known as the Great War. Men have come home destroyed by what they’ve experienced physically and mentally.
‘There were empty sleeves and eye patches that one must not stare at or draw attention to; there were crutches and bandages and dreadful ridges of thick pink skin; and sometimes there was simply an absence in a face where a man had left a part of himself – the brightest and most vital part – in a muddy foreign field.’
Whereas women could be said to have flourished. Yes, there’s the ever present weight of grief and loss, but some of the changes in women’s lives had been positive. Both Kate and Bea are working women, and represent the many women who became wage earners during the Great War, plugging the gap in the employment market as more men joined up to fight. This was liberating for many women, who were then reluctant to move back to the domestic sphere after the war. There were also a shortage of men in the marriage market, some women had lost their fiancé or husband but there were others who came of age just after WW1 for whom eligible men were scarce. Having the option of throwing themselves into an absorbing career instead proved very fulfilling for some, like Morley’s office manager who clearly expected Bea to be left on the shelf and had marked her out as a potential replacement. Women being outside the domestic sphere meant that the pre-war rigid barriers of social class started to be breached. Different classes of people mingled in work places and matches that would have been impossible a few years before became more common. Bea still longs for love, but as her personal life becomes complicated and painful she does muse on what she has lost. As a single working woman she had women friends and lived in a vibrant city where she could take herself to the theatre, to a museum or for tea with friends. Now that she can see the reality of a relationship, she wonders was she better off before?
Bea knows there is a difference between herself and the girls who have young men to wait for. These are carefree girls, full of life, ‘neat and slender – sleek hair, dainty ankles, flickering glances and quicksilver laughter.’ She’s of a different sort, in looks and class. Where her married sister Jane looks on career girls as modern, smart and fashionable Bea looks a little closer and sees
‘frizzed modern hairstyles that they’d seen in advertisements and that didn’t suit them; women with lines around their eyes that no amount of cream or powder would cover. And women who, despite the well-cut clothes, had red rough hands and nails cut to the quick.’
Bea is well aware she is plain and there are references to Jane Eyre in the way she sees herself. After talking to Tom, she sees herself in the bathroom mirror and is shocked at the difference between her tumultuous, rich inner life and this pale, plain outside. She feels such overwhelming emotions that she disassociates from her rather normal body; ‘how can all these feelings come out of this plain face and body?’ It immediately took me to the conversation between Jane and Rochester when she challenges him for underestimating her:
‘Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you, and full as much heart!…’
In fact Tom uses the comparison to flatter her, praising her strength and courage in living such a lonely life. Patronised by her sister too, she is full of anger inside and expresses the creeping fear that not only is she without a husband, she’s noticed younger, smarter girls starting to come into the workplace. Bright, young things who might be better at her job and quicker. She admits to being afraid of the day when the axe falls, her clothes become shabbier and she gets more desperate. Yet is it any better to be at the mercy of a man? As Kate’s story unfolds we can see that the state of being a wife, is just as unstable and scary, because where Bea has all the responsibility and makes decisions for herself Kate is powerless, entirely dependent on the whims of her husband. A husband who is capable of terrible things. The more Kate starts to learn about her husband, tiny jigsaw pieces start to slot together in her head. She has to admit to herself that she has always known there was something hidden underneath:
‘Hadn’t I known – hadn’t I always known – that he had something terrible inside him, something that lay rotting under the smooth surface of our normal life? I saw glimpses of it sometimes. I thought of his face as he persuaded me, sweet-talked me, into doing things I did not want to do. I thought of how dirty, how shamed, I felt afterwards.’
Set in the 1920’s, this story is based on the true case of Emily Kaye and her married lover Herbert Mahon. The novel’s aim was to give voice to Mahon’s wife and so Kate’s voice came to life, creating a brilliant interplay between her narration and Bea’s. I loved how well the pace was controlled, from relatively slow at the beginning to a breakneck pace towards the end as Kate makes sense of what has happened and holds the key to solve the mystery. I loved how the author showed us the truth of contemporary attitudes to women, that a man can do something terrible, but it will always be the woman’s fault. How Bea is simply disregarded as shameless, getting old and desperate, brazen and responsible for enticing Tom, despite him being married. It’s quite shocking, but then when I thought about our tabloid’s attitudes to women, I realised that women are judged every day for their appearance, their sexuality, their life choices and if ever there is a marital affair in the papers the ‘other woman’ is always blamed. It’s scary to think how little some people’s attitudes have changed, but thank goodness we can earn for ourselves, own property and have bank accounts. I loved the sense of sisterhood the author brings into the story and it made me think about how it’s the women in my life who have held me up when I couldn’t manage alone. I was on tenterhooks wondering whether Kate would realise that to choose the sisterhood is to change things for her own daughter. To make a decision towards a better world for women. This book was a brilliant piece of historical fiction, an addictive mystery that stirred up the emotions and had me completely hooked. As soon as I’d finished, I wanted to read it again.
Published by Picador 23rd February 2023
Meet The Author
Emma Flint was born and grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne. She graduated from the University of St Andrews with an MA in English Language and Literature, and later completed a novel-writing course at the Faber Academy. She lives and works in London.
Since childhood, she has been drawn to true-crime stories, developing an encyclopaedic knowledge of real-life murder cases from the early 20th century. Her first novel, Little Deaths, was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, for the Desmond Elliott Prize, for the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award, and for The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize.
The drinks glass and flashes of almost neon colour on this book’s cover were striking on NetGalley. To me they signified city living, the bar scene and potential for glitz and glamour – I’ve probably watched too much Sex and the City. However, the women depicted here were a long way from flashy, fashionista, New York City Girls. In fact there are only a couple of nights out in the whole book. This is a different NYC, where real people live and work day to day, just trying to get by in a city that’s exciting, but expensive and tough. In a split narrative, set partly in 1955 and partly in 1975, this is a novel that writes back to women’s history. It opened my eyes to a time when women were persecuted for the way they choose to live their lives. In 1955 Dovie Carmichael and her friend Gillian work together as teachers and share an apartment. The friends have a lot in common: they love jazz, a glass of whiskey at night and lazy Sundays at home. The pair guard their private time very carefully, until one day when the wrong person gets a glimpse into their lives, changing everything. Twenty years later teenager Ava Winter lives in the same apartment with her Mum and her Dad, when he’s around and not with his mistress. Ava’s mum is not well mentally and Ava is struggling to live a normal teenage life, preferring to stay home to keep an eye on her. She becomes fascinated with a mysterious box and letter sent to their address from France. Inside are letters, a butterfly necklace and a photograph with LIAR scrawled across a woman’s face. Ava wants to know the story behind the box. Who was this woman, that lived in her home and what do the letters say?
The theme that stood out to me more than anything was loneliness. I felt a contrast between the huge open city and the small private spaces where secrets are kept. The characters I felt most connection with were Ava and Dovie, both struggling to keep secrets about their living situation. The mistake Dovie and Gillian make allows a very manipulative woman to take advantage of them. Judith works at the same school and does come across as a lonely woman, but has allowed her situation to develop bitterness and envy in her character. In the guise of struggling to find an affordable apartment, she inveigles her way into Dovie and Gillian’s home and relationship. It’s clear she wants friends, but seemingly can’t stand to see two people who are happy in each other’s company and if she can’t have it for herself she might just set out to destroy it. Ava is also lonely and I think she senses a similar feeling in the box of keepsakes she discovers, it’s that connection with the sender’s loneliness that makes her so determined to find the person this box was meant for. It’s also a distraction from how miserable her own life is. With her mum and dad estranged she is often solely looking after her mother who seems severely depressed and liable to harm herself. It’s almost a role reversal, with Ava looking after her welfare instead of the other way round. I felt deeply for this young girl going through the usual teenage phases of a crush on a boy in the neighbourhood, a worry about how she looks and fitting in, and both the anticipation and fear of what comes next in life. On top of this her father uses his precious time with Ava to chat up the waitress in their favourite diner. Her mother is deteriorating, screaming and muttering through the night and Ava is so worried about the neighbours hearing her or her friend finding out what home is really like since her dad left. The scenes of her alone in their cold apartment, willing her mum to settle for the night and wishing her dad was there, were vivid and moving.
Whether in New York or Paris the settings are beautifully evoked and I could feel the change in time period from just a few well written sentences. Even the usually romantic Paris has it’s downsides because this is the reality of living there, rather than the dream. I felt the author really got under the surface of these cities and showed me what it was like to be a New Yorker. I found the LGBTQ+ scene so interesting and the contrast between women who kept their relationships secret, with more openly gay women in NYC or Paris, was beautifully portrayed. Dovie has never ventured into meeting other women and the scene where she visits a club stayed with me. There’s an innocence about Dovie that contrasts sharply with the sophisticated women she sees there, some of whom are scathing of Dovie’s lack of knowledge about being openly lesbian in 1955. I don’t think she really understood the danger she faced which could be anything from losing her job to being arrested or put into an asylum. I was just as shocked to realise that women who were open about their sexuality, or discovered, were subject to arrest and even ECT treatment to curb their ‘unnatural’ activities or desires. The nightclub raid where Dovie is helped to escape through a bathroom window is unbelievably tense and so poignant when we realise it’s link to 1975. The way police manhandle and sexually assault the women reminded me of how the suffragettes were treated so many decades earlier. The idea was to break the women’s resolve and remind them what they were really for – the amusement, desires and dominance of men. Reading these women’s experiences made me so angry, but also opened a door into a world I am ashamed to say I knew little about. At heart this is a love story and all the way through I wanted to know what had happened in that apartment in 1955 and I also hoped that Ava would find the intended recipient of the box from Paris. For me this book had a similar impact to the television series It’s A Sin. This was an emotionally captivating story that’s sure to stay with me and has inspired me to read more about the history of sexuality and the fight LGBTQ+ people still have for equal rights across the globe. It left me with a lump in my throat, thinking about how love can last a lifetime, even beyond separations and loss. I really look forward to reading more from this talented author in the future.
Meet The Author
Julie Owen Moylan is a writer whose short stories and articles have appeared in New Welsh Review, Horizon Literary Review, and The Voice of Women in Wales Anthology
She has also written and directed several short films as part of her MA in Film. Her graduation short film called ‘BabyCakes’ scooped Best Film awards at the Swansea Film Festival, Ffresh, and the Celtic Media Awards. She also has an MA in Creative Writing, and is an alumna of the Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course.
Her debut novel THAT GREEN EYED GIRL was published by Penguin Michael Joseph on May 12 2022.
She is currently working on her second novel SPANGLELAND
I don’t tend to read a lot of science fiction and dystopian novels, often because I find them depressing and life is tough enough at the moment. I often I feel as if the author has become so carried away with world building that they forget the human element of their story. Almost like watching one of those films where the special effects are amazing, but the characters and their dialogue is an afterthought leaving me with an empty feeling. This book sounded intriguing though and once I started reading it I was completely blown away. This is science fiction with a heart and a lot to say about the human experience. Our narrator John is an awkward 17 year old, from a dysfunctional family and with deeply personal body issues. He also happens to be a coding genius, talented in quantum code and greatly in demand by tech companies. He is spending some time in Tokyo while signing a deal with Sony and comes across a small cafe that offers ear cleaning. Inside he finds a huge Japanese man working behind the counter, a quirky dog with a spherical head and his owner, a pretty and rather enigmatic young girl called Neotnia. This chance meeting develops into an incredible journey that will take them from the neon city of Tokyo, to the tragic past of Hiroshima and finally the beautiful mountains of Nagano.
Michael Grothaus also takes us on a journey of genre, starting the novel with a chilled travelogue style, interwoven with a tender story of first love, via body shame and finally becoming a dystopian thriller. The author knows how to build a world that feels dislocated and distant from us with just one simple sentence, such as the description of the night sky with three objects visible from earth. The moon’s light picks out the twin space stations being built by the world’s two superpowers; China and the USA. The author’s journalism background and research into the world of fake video production has helped in creating a believable and brilliant backdrop of warring superpowers in a daily information war. ‘Deep Fake’ videos are used to produce fake news, meaning people must question, not just everything they read, but everything they see. Warfare has become a barrage of misinformation and cyber attacks, at their worst disrupting every aspect of daily life. He also weaves in social issues that are already evident worldwide for us, such as the rapidly ageing population in Japan. People are now routinely living into their nineties, but need care for longer and there simply aren’t enough young people to pay for or provide the care needed. This is a world that’s ours, but not as we know it. I loved how I would be relaxing in a park, looking at a familiar landscape of trees and pagodas and then I’d be blindsided by a tourist information bot. When the group all go on a car journey I couldn’t work out who was driving; the answer was no one. Often I didn’t know where we were going next but I was so bewitched by his writing that I’d have followed him anywhere.
I loved the relationship that builds slowly between Neotnia and John. She has a quiet, calming manner that seems to soothe him and a caring nature that John has never really experienced before. They seem to connect on a deep level very quickly, but there are people around her who are very protective. Goeido is a disgraced sumo wrestler and owns the cafe where Neotnia both lives and works. He doesn’t speak much, but John is aware of his concern because of the barely concealed scowling and head shaking. Neotnia takes John to a nursing home where she volunteers, to meet an elderly American man she has a friendship with. John enjoys meeting him, but also gets a feeling this meeting was some sort of test. Why are these men so protective of her? His relationship with Goeido only improves when they drink sake together and next morning John wakes up still in the booth where they had dinner. They seem to have connected, but John is very confused by a disturbing dream involving a bath and a toaster! Despite this John and Neotnia’s relationship does deepen and I was so drawn into their tender love story. There is something they’re both hiding and strangely it’s the biggest thing they have in common. Then comes the massive twist that I really didn’t see coming. The clues are there but the idea is so fantastical it’s quickly dismissed.
The beautiful backdrop of Japan really brought the place alive for me and made me think deeply about some aspects of it’s history. The city of Tokyo is wonderfully varied with it’s neon signs, bubblegum fashions, restful gardens and kamii shrines dotted everywhere. I learned more about Japanese belief systems, the differences between Buddhism and those who believe in kamii. The history around Hiroshima was so devastating, as was the knowledge that any advance in science seems to be harnessed for the purposes of war. The full impact of the bomb on the population of Hiroshima was devastating as the author tells us about those damaged by the blast, but left with terrible injuries. That complete change of abilities, identity and living standards could be seen as a more terrible end than those at the bomb’s epicentre who were simply vaporised. I loved how philosophies of life were discussed too. In conversation with Neotnia, John explains that her age group’s concerns and anxieties about the space stations and cyber attacks haven’t affected younger generations because they’ve never known anything different. This is probably something we’ve all experienced and it’s interesting to think that a small child now will grow up with the cost of living, climate change and hybrid vehicles as their norm. Whereas someone like me who has lived half their life really feels the changes and is more likely to find them unsettling. I found the end so emotional and I was moved by John’s thought that the common thread of humanity is suffering. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, both in my personal life and in my therapy work. My brother says that I think everyone needs counselling, because I’m a therapist. I always reply that everybody needs counselling at some point in their life. Yet, John’s experience makes him rethink his original statement and this took me from heartbreak to a glimpse of hope. This is a beautifully written story that’s definitely science fiction, but is also a deeply felt love story about difference and human connection. If this isn’t your usual genre, please give it a go. I’m so glad that I did.
Published by Orenda 16th March 2023.
Meet The Author
Michael Grothaus is a novelist, journalist and author of non-fiction. His writing has appeared in Fast Company, VICE, Guardian, Litro Magazine, Irish Times, Screen, Quartz and others. His debut novel, Epiphany Jones, a story about sex trafficking among the Hollywood elite, was longlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger and named one of the 25 ‘Most Irresistible Hollywood Novels’ by Entertainment Weekly. His first non-fiction book, Trust No One: Inside the World of Deepfakes was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2021. The book examines the human impact that artificially generated video will have on individuals and society in the years to come. Michael is American..
I’m sure amongst those who travel a lot, saying that Venice is your favourite travel destination is a bit of a cliché. I’d first wanted to go aged around ten years old, when I first read the children’s book What Katy Did Next. This third book in the Katy series followed the eponymous heroine as she travelled Europe as companion to a woman and her little girl and is lucky enough to be in Venice for Carnival. I first travelled there with my mum as a fortieth birthday celebration and we both fell completely in love. A couple of years later I visited again, this time with my best friend and enjoyed exploring more of the city, beyond the usual tourist sites. Mainly I enjoyed wandering the labyrinthine streets, taking photographs and soaking up the atmosphere. It has a magic that’s part romance and part mystical, with an edgy gothic darkness that can easily unnerve you – especially when the fog comes down, you’ve lost your way and keep finding lonely dead ends. There’s a little maze behind Teatro La Fenice where you can spend untold hours, wondering if you’re stuck in a time loop. It is one of those places where I wouldn’t have been surprised to turn a corner and find myself back in the 18th Century. So it seemed fitting to me that Venice is a backdrop to Anita Chapman’s debut, a dual timeline story with two narrators; firstly in 2019 with Rachel, then back to the late 18th Century with Phillipa. Both women are going through a period of upheaval and change, another uncanny similarity to fit a city that seems to be a ‘thin place’: a city without the normal barriers of space and time.
In the present we meet Rachel who is helping to sort through her grandmother’s belongings while temporarily living in her cottage. She will soon have to make a decision, to share a home with her mother and her horrible new partner, or become homeless. Rachel is feeling a bit lost and displaced, so needs a project to get her teeth into. She certainly gets more than she bargained for! She discovers what appears to be a Canaletto painting in her grandmother’s loft along with a note addressed to Philippa in 1782. With help from Jake at the local art gallery, Rachel endeavours to find out if the painting is an original and uncovers a secret from the past. The painting depicts a view of St Mark’s Square towards the Basilica from one of the south corners of the piazza. It seems to have some provenance and Rachel sets out to discover who painted it and whether it’s really as old as it’s style suggests. It purports to be a Canaletto, but can it really be genuine and if so, what is it doing in her grandmother’s attic? If it is the real deal, it could be the link between Rachel and our 18th Century narrator, Philippa. Phillipa has gone through a huge change in circumstances, following the death of her father who was a preacher. He has left behind a family struggling to make ends meet and Phillipa feels weighed down by responsibility for them. So she takes the decision to become a governess, leaving her family behind in order to earn enough money to keep them. She manages to get a position at the prestigious Chipford Hall, the family seat of the Duke of Oxon, who has two little girls. Yet, it isn’t long before Phillipa is forced on the move again but this time she’s asked to accompany a family friend, Lady Cordelia, on a trip to Venice, researching her latest novel. It was Phillipa’s part of the story that really engaged me as I felt a real kinship with her. She is quite a level-headed and sensible young woman, prepared to take on her father’s responsibilities. There was common sense, but also a deep kindness in her – she’s willing to give up any dreams of her own to keep the family going.
While I enjoyed aspects of Rachel’s story, I didn’t feel she was as strong and her character didn’t quite grab me in the same way Phillipa did. Rachel’s difficulties often seemed to come from her own choices, but I did feel sorry for her. Nevertheless, her sections do hold the story together well and the history of the painting she finds is fascinating and very well researched too. The author has the skill of bringing the historical aspects of the story to life, full of vivid details and characters. For someone who loves Venice, those sections of the story were particularly enjoyable, taking me back to those tiny streets and romantic canals, triggering some incredible memories along the way. I was also interested in the way the author used the figure of the governess, which ever since Jane Eyre has provided rich material for the writer of historical fiction. Governesses are in a position within the house as neither servant nor master, she is rather unique and potentially dangerous. She has access to the centre of the home, working upstairs with the children and often living with the family, rather than in the servant’s quarters. This position allowed the author to really open up the 18th Century for us, particularly in terms of society and it’s hierarchies. The pace is slower at first, but soon speeds up as the clues start to be revealed and we each time we get a bit closer to the truth and the link with Phillipa. We also come closer to the resolution of each woman’s inner journey. Would Phillipa’s be able to construct better boundaries and gain some wisdom in discerning someone’s character before trusting them? Would Rachel learn to stand on her own feet more, despite the difficulties in her background? I loved how we could see the changes in women’s lives since the 18th Century and how we were less at the mercy of the men in our lives, some of whom seemed perfectly happy to sacrifice a woman if it brought them closer to the power they sought. Each part of the story was woven together beautifully towards a satisfying conclusion, ensuring that I’ll be be looking forward to whatever Anita Chapman writes next.
Meet The Author
Anita Chapman enjoyed writing stories from a young age, and won a local writing competition when she was nine years old. Encouraged by this, she typed up a series of stories about a mouse on her mum’s typewriter and sent them to Ladybird. She received a polite rejection letter, her first.
Many of Anita’s summers growing up were spent with her family driving to Italy, and she went on to study French and Italian at university. As part of her degree, Anita lived in Siena for several months where she studied and au paired, and she spent a lot of time travelling around Italy in her twenties.
Anita likes to read journals and diaries from the past, and one of her favourite pastimes is visiting art galleries and country houses. Her first published novel, The Venice Secret is inspired by her mother taking her to see the Canalettos at The National Gallery in London as a child.
Since 2015, Anita has worked as a social media manager, training authors on social media, and helping to promote their books. She’s run several courses in London and York, and has worked as a tutor at Richmond and Hillcroft Adult Community College.
What an intricately beautiful and nuanced novel this is! I had expected a story along the same lines as Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine or Meredith Alone at first. The beautiful aesthetics of the setting and glamorous lifestyle dazzle us and everything on the surface seems benign as Sunday and her daughter Dolly start a relationship with their new neighbours. Vita is aristocratic in her manner and comes across as a likeable eccentric, perhaps a little pretentious but as my friend Nigel used to say, ‘a little bit of pretension doesn’t hurt anyone’. They love- bomb Sunday and her daughter with gifts and elaborate Friday night dinners. Vita and her husband Rollo are staying in the house next door while ‘Rols’ completes a plan to buy and convert a large institution for children in care nearby. Until this glamorous pair enter their lives, Sunday and Dolly lead a very quiet life. Divorced from Dolly’s father, they still live in a house on his family estate where Sunday works in the gardens. Sunday isn’t great with noise (especially several at once) only eats white food and struggles to read between the lines with others. She gets on best with David who works in the greenhouses with her and uses sign language to communicate. Extremes of anything, cause panic in Sunday, so the slow rhythms of nature and it’s subtle colouring are perfect for her. Sunday didn’t even know anything was missing in her life until Vita wants to become her friend. However, is Vita a genuine friend or does she have an ulterior motive? This is where the slightness of the story and the details of glamorous clothes, extravagant dinners and endless champagne started to remind me of Virginia Woolf and her clever way of hiding so much beneath a beautiful surface. Instead of being an uplifting tale about someone who struggles to make connections finding a friend and embracing their peculiarities, this promised to be something darker.
I felt a kinship with Sunday immediately and the tone is light at first as she meets new neighbour Vita and her comical little dog Beast. Vita is one of those people who never question themselves or worry about their interactions with others. She simply inserts herself into Sunday’s life, without any of the social angst over whether she’s wanted there. Vita and her husband Rollo are dazzling and disarming, from the clothes they wear to the hyperbole in their speech and the very best delicacies on the dinner table, including the most exquisitely wrapped and coloured petit fours. They are disarming in the way they present themselves, classy but bohemian and often a touch of carelessness like sitting on the front step in a silk kimono and old work boots. Is this nonchalance studied or natural? Conversely, Sunday can’t be what she isn’t and her ‘quirks’ are not affectations. She has learned to be less, to mask and try to make herself acceptable from a young age thanks to a mother who never showed her love. She constantly proclaimed Sunday was an ‘it’, a ‘what’, an unsavoury puzzle to be solved. We learn that this animosity towards her daughter worsened when a terrible family tragedy occurred. I loved how the author layered the voices in Sunday’s head: her daughter explaining that her dad and stepmum love each other so much, it’s just that Sunday is incapable of seeing it; her mother saying ‘you’re not wired right you’; her sister saying ‘I don’t know what you are Sunday’. At first, the friendship of Vita and Rollo soothes Sunday’s soul, because she feels accepted. They always make sure white rolls are available at the dinner table, in case the main course is too colourful or complex for her. They also make sure there is champagne or soda water, because Sunday will only drink cold, fizzy liquids. These attentions are simply there, neither one of the couple mention them, but they mean the world to Sunday:
‘their attention to my preferences touched me. I had not been known in this way before and found acceptable. There I was seen and approved of, even indulged’.
At first, Dolly and Sunday would often stay late next door after dinner, but subtle changes start to occur. Dolly wants to stay over with Vita on Friday nights. One night, after leaving for home, Sunday returns with her daughter’s favourite pyjamas and hears music as well as laughter next door. Yet when Rollo answers the door, he holds it closed behind him as he takes the pyjamas. He is perfectly polite, but does not step back as he once might have done to let Sunday inside. These subtleties make the reader nervous and I felt worse because I wasn’t sure whether Sunday could see what I was seeing.
‘painted subjects are easier to read than their physical counterparts […] in real life the details I am drawn to are often secondary, and these often mislead. That evening when I looked at Vita, I saw her pretty hair, her little wrists wrapped in gold chains, and her welcoming smile. I did not notice the grip of her hand on my daughter’s arm’.
I wanted to put myself between Sunday and these charming people. She recalls jealousy, but was it because she envied Dolly’s easy relationship with Vita or was she jealous of Vita’s relationship with her daughter? The subtle foreshadowing becomes more direct as Dolly relates the story of Vita simply taking a friend’s baby for a walk without telling the mother. Vita seemingly could not understand why the woman was so scared or why the police were called. Slowly, Sunday understands that her new friend is possibly not what she seems, by using a system of observation and noting patterns of behaviour. Yet I was still worried that she might underestimate the extent of Vita’s ability to create chaos. Sunday describes her way of analysing people, to look beyond their ‘fleeting expressions’ to see the repeated pattern on their heart. She looks beyond what they say and instead values and interprets them based on their repeated behaviour. Yet with Vita she declares herself too scared to look, because she isn’t sure whether the tick tock of her heart signifies a clock or a bomb.
Dolly’s changes are also subtle at first, but Sunday notices a new confidence and self-possession that she is acquiring from time spent with their neighbours. Whereas once Dolly might have been reserved with new people, Vita unlocks the young girl who is soon easily pushed to near hysteria over a shared joke. This quantity of feeling makes Sunday uneasy. Yet surely this new ease in her daughter’s manner can only make life easier for Dolly? She won’t share Sunday’s fears and awkwardness. The coming summer heralds a rollercoaster of change and emotions, first Dolly’s accent becomes more cut glass and she starts to dress differently, more like Vita. As exams loom and the renovation of the children’s home comes closer, the couple offer Dolly a job helping out with admin and interior design. She announces she’d like to do it for the holidays, but Sunday reminds her she does not need to work. Her father and grandparents get her everything her heart desires. Yet Sunday feels churlish refusing the opportunity, torn between what is best for her daughter’s future. I felt that Dolly used her mum’s inexperience against her at times, claiming that there were simply so many uses for her on site, but Sunday could never imagine them, because she’s only ever known the farm. If she refuses Dolly’s request to spend time in London with them, will it make Vita and Rollo’s offer even more attractive?
Vita isn’t above manipulation herself : ‘I’m so sorry Dolly, you know we love taking you out. And we had such fun planned in London. But…’
Sunday doesn’t know whether she can or should deny her daughter these experiences. It might help her get on in life. Should she be supporting her daughter to reach for something different? Should she be holding her back? However, some base instinct urges her to say no, to ban the trip and keep Dolly home for the summer, knowing this could backfire completely if their offer is benign, nothing more than a favour for the daughter of their friend. Sunday hasn’t had close friends before so can’t compare the situation. When Dolly receives her exam results, the dam breaks and out comes a voice Sunday has never heard before from her daughter, one filled with scorn, shame and no appreciation for her mother’s years of caring attention. Dolly sees her mother’s life as a failure and she will do anything not to be like her. The author cleverly contrasts this awful evening with the story of a fox that arrived in Sunday’s garden, a little too thin and straggly. It made it’s home under their shed for the winter and every day without fail Sunday would set milk and dog food down. In the spring the fox was sleek and flourishing because of Sunday’s steady and dutiful nature.
One of the most heartbreaking revelations for me is Sunday’s slow realisation that others have quirks and oddities, but it is still possible for people to be fond of them. To love them even. She had always thought it simply a fact of life that anyone with quirks like hers would be impossible to love, but that’s not the truth:
‘My mother could still have loved me had she chosen to’.
To befriend someone who has experienced this trauma, to make them feel loved and accepted, but then manipulate them for your own ends is evil. Yet the author keeps the reader unsure whether that’s what Vita is doing an I was constantly waiting for this ticking time bomb of a woman to explode. Yet whatever the outcome, I wasn’t sure that Vita was consciously acting this way. Her behaviour felt like a repeated pattern, possibly an enactment of her own traumas. Rollo knows though and when the truth starts to emerge he is openly affectionate to Sunday. Instead of serving up the usual air kisses, this is a hug that’s more substantial and perhaps honest. Showing a remarkable insight into his wife’s nature he tells Sunday:
‘It’s not you, darling. It’s Vee I’m afraid. She doesn’t think these things through. It might all change again by tomorrow’.
Yet he is willing to let her continue, to collude in destroying others casually and without consequence. At the very least she will offer friendship and take it away on a whim. They will simply slip into another life, with all the security their money and status gives them. Like Nick and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, Vita and Rollo are careless with other people, content to use others and leave them behind. Yet there are threads of hope in the conclusion, not least in Sunday’s ability to reflect on her own actions and feelings with more awareness. This novel is stunning, beautifully written and has such psychological complexity and insight. I loved it.
Meet the Author
Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Kent. Like her protagonist, Sunday, in ALL THE LITTLE BIRD-HEARTS, Viktoria is autistic. She has presented her doctoral research internationally, most recently speaking at Harvard University on autism and literary narrative. Viktoria lives with her husband and children on the Kent coast.