Book Review: Winter in Sokcho, by Elisa Shua Dusapin

Located in South Korea, Sokcho is a small city that bustles in the summertime with tourists. It’s the gateway to many areas of natural beauty, including Seoraksan National Park – a small city that is a-thrum and a-hum with the motion of tourists throughout summer. But when the summer disappears, Sokcho empties of the commercial buzz; it loses the boost of transitory, touristy cash. In the winter the city battens down, the cold sweep of ice a constant from the nearby East Sea. And the shadow of North Korea falls pretty close.

It is in this bitterness of cold we meet the
receptionist, half French and half Korean, in her twenties, working in a guest
house, a guest house which still has guests, despite the lack of summer season.
A French guest – Yan Kerrand – arrives,
a graphic novelist, his work in motion. He seeks new ideas as he seeks new
places to travel to. She is drawn to him, and he seems fairly intrigued by her
too. A quiet friendship occurs, and she takes him to see many of the local
tourist sights together. A relationship between the two always feels imminent;
at one point their bedrooms are separated by a thin wall within the guesthouse,
its narrow width separating these two worlds, paper-thin and yet impenetrable.
Two worlds which can’t quite mesh.

Weaved
throughout the story is the heroine’s relationship with her mother, a local
fish woman. Fish feature throughout, literally, the food which feeds the frozen
town through the blast of winter, cooked into various stocks and sauces, fish
like the women, pummelled and pushed into shape, how they should look, how they
should be – indeed, there is a woman recovering in the guest house from plastic
surgery, quite literally pummelled and pushed into how she thinks she should
look. There are octopuses, fish scales, gut and blood, slippery and surreal.

Winter
in Sokcho
reads like
a muted fairy tale. We never quite get under the skin of the main characters,
this girl in her guesthouse who is never named. It’s interesting that Yan Kerrand
is a creator of other worlds – not quite from this one, not quite from another.
But a creator and a recorder of stories nevertheless. The sex in the book is
cold and clinical, the food constant, sustenance through the cold winter. The
fish. There is no sunshine at any time in the narrative. It’s a cold and lonely
place. And the fact that Sokcho borders the two Koreas – it feels like we’re on
the edge of the world itself, the border of the world.

Winter in Sokcho is a dream novel, a brief glimpse into a young woman not quite coming of age, frozen in the ice of both her home city and her family situation. Her mother kills, chops and cooks fish. The French guest tries to capture the world he sees around with ink on paper. The receptionist is in stasis, trapped in the ice of this winter. Her French father abandoned her at a young age, his existence still a cause of gossip to the local women. A brief dream of a novel, which opens up our worlds.

Winter in Sokcho is published by Daunt Books.




Book Review: Shelf Life, by Livia Franchini

Livia Franchini’s Shelf Life is bookended by
shopping lists. Both written by Ruth, a thirty-year-old nurse working in a care
home. The first comes shortly after Neil, her partner of ten years, abruptly
terminates the relationship, to “share his love with more than one person”. In
the midst of the break-up, Ruth is charged with organising a hen party for her
frenemy Alana, who within hours of Ruth’s split, announces her wedding.

Starting with Eggs, each item on the list provides
a clue as to what went wrong with the relationship, from its inception in Rome
to its demise in a dimly lit west-facing kitchen in England. In Tampons, we
learn Ruth was regarded as an outsider by teenage schoolfriends. In Sugar, we
follow Ruth and Neil’s first meeting. Whole Chicken turns to Ruth’s
relationship with her mother, played out over a truly bizarre chicken supper, where
not a morsel is consumed. Spanning ten years of the relationship, the list
jumps between the distant and close past, switching perspectives from Ruth to
Neil to Alana, interspersed by random email exchanges, sent by the predatory Cumulonimbus to women on his sexual
radar.

Franchini is a poet and translator, with the
originality and skills to whip up lives from the unremarkable and commonplace. Eggs
begins with a lovely contemplation on the nature of weight: “Here are some
things I know about weight. A pound of feathers weighs as much as a pound of
bricks, but a pound of bricks is easier to carry.” She has a keen ear for the vernacular.
And, at her best, is inventive, observant and lyrical: “These days, sleeping
feels like a kind of drunkenness, like travelling at sea.” However, while there’s
lots to admire in Shelf Life, its main character, Ruth, is frustratingly
unsatisfying: who she is, what she loves and hates, her reasons for starting a
relationship with Neil, let alone remaining in it, remain obscure. This may be
a deliberate Deleuzian ploy – a take on identity which suggests personality is
formed through experiences and differences; thus, the reader is never intended
to “know” Ruth, as none of us can truly be “known”. But literature is not life.
And what this means on the page is that we simply don’t know enough about Ruth
to care. Paradoxically, Neil, for all his toxic, sexually aggressive behaviour,
likely to have the #MeToo Gen shuddering in their sleep, offers a clearer semblance
of motive and character. And we are left in no doubt as to why he has too much
love for one person.

The final shopping list in the book is by far the
most interesting. The devil is always in the detail, and it’s the detail that arouses
our curiosity. This list is proof of Ruth’s recovered self, her identity, now sharply
etched in: Yellow Tail Pinot Grigio, Aussie
Miracle Cure
and Heinz Tomato Soup. Reading this list, it’s impossible
not to think of the late, great sociologist, Erving Goffman, who said: Show me
what newspaper a man reads and I’ll tell you where he lives, how he decorates his
front room and how he makes love to his wife.

A character who’s forged from the neutral labels of
wine or pudding is always going to be a harder challenge than one who can
easily be known through her choice of flavours, brands, and market positioning.
Or, as Goffman might say: Show me a woman with a bottle of Yellow Tail and 2 Gu
Chocolate Puddings
and I’ll tell you whyher relationship started, endured and finally faltered.

Shelf Life is out now in paperback from Penguin.




From Stubborn Archivist

Read Litro’s review of Stubborn Archivist, and Cindy Withjack’s conversation with Yara Rodrigues Fowler.

*

The IBS got her in the morning. She was stuck on the toilet like she often was before work. She brushed her teeth sitting down. It was probably the caffeine, or the dairy. Maybe it wasn’t even IBS. She’d heard a radio programme about bowel cancer the other day, but you had to have blood in your shit for that and she didn’t have blood in her shit. Just water.

She stood up. Her parents had already left the house
for work. She touched her belly over
her blouse and felt
its bubbling. She put on the blazer
with the wide
sleeves. She went down the stairs
and put her shoes on to leave. The thing about dressing like this
and having a face like
this is that
no one thinks you are
the source of the gas on the tube.

Twenty-five minutes later, at the end of the West End street
she walked through big glass doors
and swiped her swipe
card. Standing in the lift she would remember
to feel grateful.

It was unusual
to get a good job like this straight out of uni.

In the lift, she
thought to herself
– It is unusual, and I am very lucky.

Or, as her dad had insisted – But they are very lucky to
have a young kid like you with your languages and your cultural know-how.

Sometimes she got gas in work meetings but so far it had been manageable. She was a researcher for a new documentary about plastic surgery in Brazil. All the women in Rio were getting plastic surgery – in their butts and tits and noses and out of their stomachs.
Her job was to find
potential participants, to make
sure they were the best
ones and then get them to agree to appear on the show. They had given her her own thick plastic landline telephone with the curly wire that called Rio directly and a desk and an email address
and a chair she could swing
her feet under. We want ordinary women, the producer
Fiona had said in the kick-off
meeting. Women who have been saving for months and months,
who are going into debt, you know?

Mmhm.

Her first task had been to use online directories to make a spreadsheet
of all the beauty
salons and surgeons
and pageants and modelling
agencies in Rio. Today she would
begin calling the salons.
She scrolled up and down the spreadsheet. She dialled the number of the first
salon. Typed it in, typed it wrong,
typed it in again. Beep

She waited. She heard a click and an older woman’s
olá bom dia voice on the other end. She took a breath –

Bom dia. Eu sou uma jornalista
inglesa –

She looked around the office. Her feet under the chair. She could
have been saying anything.

Bom dia. Eu sou uma jornalista
inglesa –

The woman on the other end was the owner of the beauty salon. She did not hang up the phone.

So, that afternoon, having spent twenty years spelling
out her foreign name to
English people, she spelt out her foreign name over the phone to the woman
in the beauty salon.

She said – I’m sorry it’s quite long and it’s got an English bit in
it. Sorry –

Her email address was a nightmare. She braced
herself before announcing its
interminable phonemes, steeling herself for the relief of the @.

She was always careful to reassure the participants that they would come off well.

That morning she had come in late (there’s no point you being
in before people are up in Brazil, the producer had said) and so that evening she left the office
late when it was fully dark.

On these
days, when she came home late after calling
Brazil on the plastic landline
telephone, she always got a seat on the tube. She played
tetris. Sometimes she played candy
crush. She had one audiobook
on her phone which she listened to on repeat.

Elephant and
Kennington
This station is Oval (no it’s not)
Clapham
Clapham
Clapham

Clapham

At home at the house,
she found the
bowl of spaghetti with
toma- toes and cheese covered in clingfilm that her parents had left out on the stove
for her. She unwrapped it and touched it with
her finger. She held
it under her nose. It smelt
wholesome with the taste of bay leaves from the garden.

She put the bowl of spaghetti in the microwave. Her
parents had not heard her arrive.
They were still watching
the news on the sofa. She leant on the kitchen
counter with her eyes closed. She heard the ping. She went up the stairs
quietly.

In her room, she took off her skirt and her tights. She ate the warmed up dinner under the covers in her childhood bed. She opened her laptop and turned on a TV series that she had seen before. She closed the curtains. When she finished eating, she left the bowl on her bedside table and opened tetris on a second window on her computer. She closed the curtains. When she couldn’t focus her eyes anymore she turned the volume  low so that the TV voices became speaking sounds with no words or phrases.

And in the night images of the pink and yellow shapes slotted and reslotted in her mind and when she went to sleep they covered the faces of all the people in her dreams.

*

The above is an extract from Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler, which was nominated for the 2019 Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award.

For more on Stubborn Archivist, visit Little, Brown.

Read Litro’s review of Stubborn Archivist, and Cindy Withjack’s conversation with Yara Rodrigues Fowler.




Book Review: Pharricide, by Vincent de Swarte; translated by Nicholas Royle

Pharricide has taken me ages to review, partly because I couldn’t stop reading to make notes. That’s how good it is. I didn’t want to stop and question or think about the story as I read. I wanted to linger in the protagonist’s lighthouse, watching him, being him and seeing the world through his eyes. I read it once and had to reread it, but I didn’t read the blurb.

(I never read book blurbs until I’ve finished reading a book. They give
too much away. I have to make sure I don’t leave a book upside down anywhere. I
don’t want catch a few words of blurb inadvertently as I’m getting into bed.)

So here’s my recommendation: don’t read the blurb and stop reading this
review now. Take it on trust. If you love cleverly constructed mind-bending
literature, you’ll appreciate Pharricide. Buy it. Or pick it up at the
library.

Or you can carry on reading the review. Up to you. But don’t say I didn’t
warn you.

Geoffroy Lafayen is a lighthouse keeper. At first, he seems sympathetic,
even warm. We learn he was bullied as a child, a bit of an outcast. There are
hints of a tragic past. While he says he’s “not particularly sociable,” he
confesses to being kind – “I feel it warming me from inside, this kindness” –
and describes himself as “a big soft doggie”.

You’d have to be a monster not to feel some affection for a big soft
doggie, wouldn’t you?

His past emerges in his random thoughts and memories throughout this
first-person narrative, and with it his tormented and complex character. Details
are drip-fed in throwaway phrases, bracketed in explanatory asides: “(who
looked after me after my mother was sectioned)”. This understatement and lack
of drama make the narrative all the more haunting.

But even Geoffroy’s fondest memories, like eating crayfish with his
mother as a child, are tainted. And slowly the threads of the story are woven
together and the terrible truth is unlayered, so that the reader faces a
reckoning.

Pharricide is Geoffroy Lafayen’s diary, so as he shares his story,
he assumes the reader sees the world the way he sees it. I’d like to call him
an “unreliable narrator”, but then again, he’s far more honest than many
fictional narrators. He’d pass any lie-detector test. This story is his truth
and while you might not want to find yourself alone in a lighthouse with him,
he is strangely likeable.

His steady uncluttered description of what happens means that when
Geoffroy behaves badly, it’s all the more shocking.

(I won’t go into detail here on how badly Geoffroy behaves, let’s just
call it “badly”. I feel uneasy about giving that much away, but then again, I
did warn you not to read the review.)

Geoffroy is not responsible for what he does. He has no control. “It was
as if I had been taken over by my actions,” he tells us. And later, “The great
mass of the lighthouse wrapped me in its blackness.”

There’s a deliberate blurring of the lines between creativity and
destruction, the artist and the psychopath, life and death, that makes Pharricide
much more than a crime novel.

Nicholas Royle’s translation is vivid and raw, and it’s wonderful that
he’s brought this exquisite novel to an English-speaking audience.

When it was first published in France in 1998, it was awarded the Prix
Charles Brisset by the Association Francaise de Psychiatrie – testament to the
authenticity of Geoffroy’s state of mind.

There are layers of significance to explore, not least the symbolism of
the “lighthouse”. This edition includes an interesting afterward by Alison
Moore, which examines that. And there are many questions to ask about recurring
themes in the book: Egypt, for example, or eyes, or two Geoffroys, two Rogers.
What’s that about? But I don’t want to give away too much. I’ve already said
enough.

Pharricide is out now from Cōnfingō Publishing.




Book Review: Map of Another Town, by M.F.K. Fisher

Best known for her food writing, in Map of Another Town the American writer M.F.K. Fisher takes us on a virtual tour of the French town of Aix-en-Provence. She first moved there not long after the Second World War, taking her two young daughters with her, and this book covers two periods of the family living in Aix.

Fisher
covers many aspects of living in Aix and paints a vivid portrait of the town
and its inhabitants. We meet various people, from her inimitable landlady
Madame Lanes and her head servant Fernande, to the stately waiter Ange, who
works at The Glacier where Fisher and her children often eat. Mary and Anne,
her daughters, are ever present in the book and we see them growing up through
the two periods of residence, which took place some years apart. When the
Fisher family first moved to Aix the effects of the Second World War were still
being keenly felt, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the townspeople.

Describing
Madame Lanes, she writes: “She was on guard when I first knew her, wary but
conscious of the fact that she had survived the Occupation (which was really
three: German, then Italian, then American) and had escaped trouble in sprite
of being such a staunch worker on the Underground for all of its duration. She
was remote and hard … When I saw her next, in 1959, she was younger. A year
later she was younger still.”

The
book is structured into twenty chapters, each of which concentrates on a
particular theme, such as the lively main street in the town, or the two cafés
that Fisher and her daughters frequent. Most chapters are subsequently split
into three or four shorter essays, all loosely linked by the chapter’s theme. I
really like the way the book is structured. The reader is taken back and forth
through time, and is able to wander around the town with certain characters
crossing our paths time and again, like old friends. One minute you are
wandering down the Cours Mirabeau listening to the great fountains, the next
you might be stepping down carefully down the narrow, slightly eerie Passage
Agard, where the daughters think they are being haunted by a gypsy woman.

Regular
readers of Fisher’s work will be used to her delectable food writing and there
are some delightful flashes of it in Map
of Another Town
– she can make even the simplest ham baguette sound
absolutely delicious. Describing one of the great pastry shops in the town, she
writes: “the shop always smelled right, not confused and stuffy but delicately
layered: fresh eggs, fresh sweet butter, grated nutmeg, vanilla beans, old kirsch,
newly ground almonds…” If I close my eyes, I am transported into that bakery
and I can smell it.

What really works for me in this book isn’t just Fisher’s writing (full disclosure: I was already a big fan of hers) but the way she takes us off the beaten track and away from the tourist attractions, really introducing us to the life and the heartbeat of the place. We meet doctors, tramps, priests, neighbours, students, shop owners and more, all of whom are described with intimacy and in Fisher’s trademark style. I have never been to Aix but after reading Fisher’s descriptions and after tracing her own personal map around the city, I would love to visit there myself and seek out some of these places – and ultimately create my own map of this town.

Map of Another Town is out now from Daunt Books.




Book Review: Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile, by Alice Jolly

Many moons ago, at my
special measures secondary school, my love for history was most definitely not
ignited. We learnt by rote modern German history in the main, with a thimbleful
of revolutionary Russian just to mix things up. Fascinating as modern European
history undeniably is, my historical knowledge of the UK was … lacking. Not any
more. Not thanks to novels. So I was at first happy to be reading and reviewing
this book. Having been a fan of historical fiction for many a year now, I was
drawn to its bulk. Nothing like a big, fat story to get lost in. Give me any
era, from commercial to literary, but I love especially the Tudor period, my
biggest loves being Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, different ends of the literary
spectrum. So hurrah to receive a copy of the beautifully packaged Mary Ann
Sate, Imbecile
.

But I hadn’t quite
computed the fact that the 600-odd pages were written in vernacular prose
poetry. I love poetry, but not 600-odd pages of one poem. And I thought: am I
clever enough for this? Can my soggy old brain compute? The literary and
literal heft of the book felt off-putting, the narrative told in the voice and
language of a Victorian orphan in the Stroud Valleys of the 1830s, a plain slip
of a girl with a hare lip. An apparent imbecile. Not Tudor, nor very linear.
Was such a book for the likes of me?

But soon the rhythm and
pace and language of the narrative opened up Mary Anne Sate’s tale, and there I
was in rural Gloucestershire, as if being whispered the story from the
protagonist. Tiny, hare-lipped orphan Mary Ann Sate – persecuted for her “devil’s
mark” and dismissed as a halfwit – is taken in by Mr Harland Cottrell as a
servant in the Stroud Valleys of the 1830s. Living in total obscurity, she dies
without leaving a trace, it seems, beyond a single line in the local death
register: “Mary Ann Sate, 9 October 1887, Imbecile”. But Mary Ann was cleverer
and more observant than those around her credited.

With the inevitable march of industrialist England playing out in the background, the burgeoning trade unionism, the Chartists, the history is very much a minor but important character in the novel. Mary Ann narrates her childhood and adolescence, living within numerous households, experiencing the whims of her masters – sometimes kind, often cruel, her harelip and alleged imbecility often commented upon. But as we learn, Mary Ann is not an imbecile. She is a storyteller, and she is a scholar, a reader, a dreamer, a visionary, though not any of these things openly – someone from her sex and station wasn’t allowed to be any of those things, not in those times, maybe not in ours. She’s not a Christian but she sees angels, like Blake. She writes like Gerald Manley Hopkins, infusing observation of natural world with spirituality. Blake and Hopkins are a potent mix. This is history from the point of view of the forgotten, the unimportant, the millions of people who’ve walked the earth before us who never get the chance to get into history books. Fictional, yes, but upon finishing the book I raised a drink to the many women who worked, mothered, dreamt and died before us, all but forgotten.

Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile is published by Unbound.




Book Review: Trans Like Me, by CN Lester

Ever wondered what life is like for trans people? Trans Like Me will give you an insight into the trans experience, not by rummaging in the voyeuristic detail that delights the tabloids, but because CN Lester gives a frank account of their own life.

As well as being an LGBT and transgender rights activist, Lester is an
academic, and a classical and alternative singer-songwriter. They share their
everyday experiences of living and working to illustrate what everyday life is
like living as a trans person, having to navigate between the prejudices and
abuse, and being part of a supportive trans community.

Who knew that if you want to transition, there’s this
jumping-through-hoops process called the Real Life Test? Who’s heard of the
Orwellian sounding governmental Gender Recognition Committee?

Trans people, that’s who! Perhaps largely because – as Lester points out –
there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Trans people and their lives are
“far more likely to be written about [their italics] as an ‘issue’ than
we are to be recording our experiences and insights as equal participants”.

The book goes a long way to changing that and setting the record straight,
debunking pop science – “flawed methodology of all kinds, tiny sample sizes,
incorrect forms of analysis, guesswork and unexamined bias” – to show how
skewed and distorted our everyday assumptions about sex and gender really are.

Maybe it’s because, as a woman, I’ve been getting upset about these
“studies” for decades. But how delighted was I to read what I’ve always
suspected about male and female brains!

“Not only is there generally great overlap in ‘male’ and ‘female’
patterns, but also … Neuroscientists can’t even tell them apart at the
individual level.”

Lester challenges the dull and limiting gender stereotypes that blight
all our lives.

“We need to wake up to the fact that treating sex as a fixed and
oppositional binary is not only a distortion of reality, but is doing active,
extreme harm to a significant percentage of our population.”

Trans people – like so many other groups in the story of humankind – have
been largely written out of history. Lester goes some way to rectify this (while
also being irrepressibly hacked off about the film The Danish Girl, which I haven’t seen).

They detail
stories and writings from the 1900s, and “other” genders featuring in the
Byzantine Empire, as well as Ancient Greek and Roman culture, and the role of
Castrati in European music.

“There have
always been people and categories of people that have troubled and challenged a
strict binary of male and female,” they write. And they ask, “What would it
mean, to trans people now, if our history were common knowledge?”

All of this is interesting and informative, and alone makes Trans Like
Me
worth reading. But even better, the book is very readable even though
the author’s an academic!

There were a few points at which I found the extent to which the word “which”
was overused, very irritating! But Lester more than made up for that with their
conversational tone, friendly, intimate voice, and moments of beautiful writing
like their description of what body dysphoria feels like: “like missing a step
in the dark … It’s not wanting a different body: it’s knowing how your body
should be, and living with the continual pain of discord, as wrong as a broken
bone”.

I hope to read more from CN Lester in the future – perhaps about trans history. And in the meantime very much recommend this book if you enjoy well researched non-fiction that marries facts and data with lived experience.

Trans Like Me is published by Virago.




Book Review: The DNA of You and Me, by Andrea Rothman

The DNA of You and Me is the story of scientist Emily
Aspell as she looks back on her life and beginnings in the world of science
just before she is about to receive an important award for her work in olfactory
research. An award that summarises what her life has been all about, the points
of no return and the choices made along the way.

Smell is an illusion,
my father used to tell me: invisible molecules in the air converted by my brain
into cinnamon, cut grass, burning wood.” And so, it starts. Recently graduated,
Emily moves from Chicago to New York to work in Justin McKinnion’s lab only to
find out she is joining Aeden Doherty and Allegra Meltzer, a team conducting
very similar research on the sense of smell. Aeden almost immediately tells
Emily that she’ll need to find a new topic to research. Let the war begin!

It is here where Rothman, a scientist herself who studied
neurobiology and olfaction, completely submerges the reader in the fascinating
world of microscopes, test tubes, petri dishes and testing mice. She makes the
world of scientific research exciting and accessible to the everyday reader. We
witness tensions among colleagues, the fascinating lab politics, the pressure
of conducting experiments and the need to get results ahead of rival labs. The
novel brilliantly depicts the speed of the race for knowledge that has the
improvement of human health at stake. I have no scientific background at all
but the atmosphere in The DNA of You and
Me
felt real and I think that is a huge achievement.

It is no surprise that Emily and Aeden will move from
colleagues to lovers. Their relationship is far from standard, and it is sometimes
rather uncomfortable to witness. Emily has fallen for him but Aeden keeps the
relationship secret, cold and detached. On their sexual encounters, Aeden
performs some very questionable behaviour, leaving Emily constantly sad, hurt, confused,
and feeling lonely. She is in love, but he is reluctant to take the relationship
outside the lab’s walls. Is this your conventional love story? No. And the
reason it’s not is Emily Aspell and what she represents as a female character.
As the story progresses, Aeden is finally ready to take the relationship to the
next level and settle down. But it comes at a cost. He finds a new job in a new
lab away from New York and wants Emily to come along, to “Choose us”, as he
puts it. In convincing Emily to go with him, there is a serious ethical breach
involved that I will leave to the reader to discover. Emily chooses her work,
her lab and to stay true to herself.

In recent years, we have been flooded with discourses stating
the importance of empowering young women to take roles that are traditionally
male dominated. Science is just the perfect example. In creating Emily Apell,
Rothman is a step ahead introducing a character that truly reflects the life
choices that women are making in today’s world. Emily is passionate about
science and will eventually face the ultimate question of choosing career vs
family life. I hope women reading The DNA
of You and Me
will be inspired by Emily’s character to take absolute
control of their lives, to think big and find their place in the world. It’s ok
to be unconventional and to not follow the path that society expects women to
follow. It may be a road of tough choices, but it is ultimately a rewarding
one.

A highly entertaining read with the bonus that you will learn a thing or two about research on the all-important sense of smell.

The DNA of You and Me is out now.




Treading the path of loss: Thoughts on A Small Dark Quiet, by Miranda Gold

Psychoanalyst Adams Phillips writes, “Our lives are defined by loss”. For when we lose things they disappear, yet we remember, recall, and, in turn, we become inhabited by that which is no longer there. Lost things live on in us, vacillating between absence and presence.

Set in a crumbling post-WW2 London, A Small Dark Quiet by Miranda Gold is a book about loss, a delicate, haunting meditation on a generation both engulfed and shattered by war. The Allies have been victorious, and everyone should be celebrating, but inside the tiny house in Llanvanor Road, Sylvie has lost one of her twin sons at birth; she seems to be losing her mind. Two years later, Sylvie and her husband Gerald adopt little Arthur, a concentration-camp survivor, as a replacement for their dead baby. The child has been dispossessed of his own identity, is given the name of the deceased twin. He is “someone else’s little someone”. The father, Gerald, has also lost, or is trying to lose, his family’s Jewish identity. The book translates intelligently the unshakable fear Gerald still feels of being Jewish in Europe. His hands shake relentlessly and he is suffering from what we would now diagnose as PTSD. The war is over, yet things for the family will never be the same again. It is, Gerald believes, “tabulae rasae … records had been scattered, blanks left pending…”

A Small Dark Quiet is also the story of how we fill these blanks, how we live with the real and metaphysical horrifying gaps, described by Edna St Vincent Millay as the “hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night.” “Let’s find her smile. Let’s find her smile,” Gerald repeats cruelly to Sylvie in their kitchen, trying to recover, resuscitate, the Sylvie he once knew. “My Sylvie had a nice smile,” he says.

Interweaving scenes from 1950s and 1960s, darting between Freud’s mourning and melancholia, as the book advances, author Miranda Gold reveals the stories the characters have told themselves to make sense of their trauma. Each of them tries to deal with their past selves, those which they have relentlessly tried to get rid of, as Roxanne Gay describes, “I buried the girl I had been because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere.” We follow Arthur through his own attempt to build an adult life, to understand where he belongs. We meet other characters living with “small dark quiets”: a Polish caretaker with a number tattooed on his arm. Lydia, Arthur’s lover, who is repairing her own past by playacting the role of her previous employer, Mrs Simons. Lydia was the Simons’ nanny, and has stolen the family’s two dolls, and now, grotesquely, pretends they are her children.

In the novel, the strongest, most haunting image of loss and its replacement is the infant Sylvie fabricates from twigs and minuscule buds of white flowers to replace (or make living) her dead baby. This “twig baby” encapsulates “the story of the other little Arthur that Arthur never was…” In the novel, Sylvie believes her baby is buried in the park and visits the grave every Thursday, trying to find “a grave that would keep him.” In one exquisitely painful scene, she takes Arthur to the park; they dig in the soil and grass, hands muddy, trying to find the baby. Gold’s visceral image is macabre and tender, frightening and soft. Sylvie clutches a bundle of twigs, placing her hope, her longing in withered ivory petals.

In A Small Dark Quiet, Miranda Gold’s force is her concentration on ordinary darkness, the banal, yet ruthless effects of war and trauma on the everyday. In keeping with this focus on the intimate life of a family, the book takes place in restricted locations: Llanvanor Road, the park, Arthur’s workplace, the squalid room he rents when he seeks independence and meets the unstable Sylvie. Yet, while the cast and places of the book are clearly identified, the writing darts endlessly back and forth in time. Whilst this is in keeping with the effects of trauma, which exists outside of time, the latter part of the book can be confusing to follow.

Overall, however, A Small Dark Quiet is a highly perceptive, beautifully crafted, lyrical book, highlighting aspects of the trauma of WW2 often ignored. Books like this must be written and read, for as the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel warned years ago, “to forget a holocaust is to kill twice.” This is a loss we cannot neglect.

A Small Dark Quiet is published by Unbound.




Book Review: Punch, by Kate North

Cars, restaurants and foreign
travel feature heavily in Kate North’s new collection of short stories. A mask
on a wall of a rented villa speaks out, a car and van collide on a roundabout,
a couple sit in a Venetian trattoria discussing Pope Pius’s penis. Characters
are routinely displaced and forced to negotiate unfamiliar situations. Over one
third of the stories are set abroad, while those closer to home focus on the
unfamiliar, the sudden losses or discoveries which unsettle and expose the hotchpotch
of emotions simmering below the everyday calm. A few push beyond the
commonplace into the realms of the surreal. In “Fifteen Arthur Crescent”,a couple move into their “bargain” new
house to discover disappearing ladders, walls which stencil themselves and
underwear mysteriously relocated. “Lick”follows
a male protagonist who wakes after his thirtieth birthday to find a lump on his
hand. Embarrassed rather than concerned it may be a symptom of something sinister,
he worries about how he can disguise it as he embarks on an important first
date: “…because the growth was flatish, it lay along his palm like one of those
fortune telling fish you get from Christmas crackers. It didn’t stick out an at
angle or anything.”

The majority of stories in this
collection involve couples, often unnamed and of indeterminate age and gender –
which may be intended as a reflection of our anxieties about gender identity
and politics – but which often gets in the way of the story. Who are these
people? I found myself asking, flicking back over pages to check I hadn’t
missed something. Many of the stories employ the second-person epistolary narrative:
“‘Front, middle or back,’ I asked and you pointed to the front row where there
was room at the edge of the bench. We took our places and you munched on the
almonds.” This device often works in fiction to create a sense of voyeurism or
proximity, yet in these stories it has the curious effect of creating a glassy
distance between text and reader, and this is the problem. Even when characters
are named or appear in third person, they are etched lightly. In “Beaujolais
Day”, we learn that Nick has been with Debbie for a year, has bought an old
chapel, earns enough money to eat at a good French restaurant, and knows his
Bordeaux from his Beaujolais, but when he’s confronted by a waiter who once
bullied him at school, and takes his revenge, instead of rooting for him we
feel so little that we barely care.

North is an excellent social
observer. She ably chronicles a country full of curiosities, ambiguities and
hypocrisies, from our preoccupation with house ownership, cut-price travel and
road rage, to a land of CCTV, polytunnels, and department stores closing down.
She has a keen ear for dialogue, as the opening lines of Punch brutally
demonstrate: “Fat fucking cow. Fat fucking dyke. Your brother’s a spaz,” and is
gifted with a poet’s eye when it comes to detail: “The rain sounds like someone
drumming their fingers softly against a coffee table.”

There are many flashes of
original, incisive writing (“Black & White Buttons”, “The Largest Bull in
Europe”) in this collection, yet too many of these stories left me with a
feeling of: “So what?” It may be fair to say that slice-of-life stories do not
turn on a plot, conflict or exposition, but then they must elevate or
illuminate the everyday to something startling and revelatory; to haunt and
unsettle. In this collection North has created incisively told anecdotes filled
with a sense of anticipation, of something struggling to rise to the surface –
yet it rarely does, leaving the reader instead with a sense of frustration, of
a blow one’s been waiting for which lands wide of the mark.

Punch is published by Cinnamon Press.




Book Review: This Paradise, by Ruby Cowling

This Paradise by Ruby Cowling offers the most original short stories I’ve read in a long time. It’s one of the titles from the newly launched Boiler House Press, based at the University of East Anglia.

The collection opens with
“Edith Aleksander, b. 1929”. It’s one
of the shortest stories but one that will stay with you for a long time. The
narrator, Edith Aleksander, is presented with pair of tiny white doll wings
from her granddaughter. She feels them moving. This gesture triggers a touching
recollection of her life, as she stares at the children playing outside. There
is an element of peace as Edith witness the joy and innocence of childhood that
serves as a mirror of a life that is coming to an end. This story is about the small
things that really matter in life and it’s beautifully wrapped around the
powerful image of those tiny wings. A stunning story, under five pages long,
that deserves to be read and reread.

A display of
extraordinary narrative talent, is found in “The Ground is Considerably
Distorted”. This is the story of a
political scandal, of politically incorrect comments, overheard by a journalist,
that make it into the headlines. I believe this is an astonishing example of a
polyphonic story, a term coined by the Russian literary theorist M. Bahktin. In
“The Ground is Considerably Distorted” we hear the narrator’s voice, a Japanese
journalist; at the same time, and cleverly displayed on the side of the page,
we hear the voice of a newsreader giving the developments in the story. On top
of that, a series of tweets and a chat on a mobile phone are brilliantly intertwined
in the narration. And it works, those dialogues give the story a fresh and
current perspective on the way we communicate with one another, presenting a
very recognisable portrait of our relationship with the news, social media
platforms and overall, human interaction.

The story that gives name
to the collection, “This Paradise”, is one of the most conventional in terms of
structure but touches several topics of how we see one another in moments of
despair. The story starts with an au pair, Cara, looking after two small
children as they are informed of the imminent arrival of a hurricane. Nothing
more unpredictable than the course of nature’s most terrifying and destructive
forces. As everyone prepares for it, the boys grow concerned for the wellbeing
of their Haitian gardener and his family. Suddenly, they are nowhere to be
seen. Once again, Ruby Cowling builds the tension in the story in an incredibly
skilled way: the torrential rain, the missing children, and the very unexpected
ending. Brilliant.

Human relations are a
topic that prevails across this collection of short stories. For me, the talent
of Ruby Cowling shines even more in the shorter stories. In “[SUPERFAR]”the atmosphere feels dangerously
current but also completely futuristic. With dashes of sci-fi the reader
becomes a witness to an odd and slightly uncomfortable exchange of cyber
messages as the two characters try to explain to one another the worlds they
live in. Is this virtual reality? Are these parallel worlds? Don’t be surprised
if this short story ends up being made into an episode of Black Mirror, it’s that good.

This Paradise offers an incredibly diverse range of topics, from luna moths, to everyday family life, odd encounters at massage parlours and more. There is something very refreshing about these short stories; they are original, current, entertaining, and relevant. Highly recommended.

This Paradise is published by Boiler House Press.




Book Review: Constellations, by Sinéad Gleeson

At the age of thirteen, Sinéad Gleeson found herself in pain: ‘The
synovial fluid in my left hip began to evaporate like rain. The bones ground
together, literally turning to dust’. She was diagnosed with monoarticular
arthritis and missed months of school, her teenage years marred by long stays
in hospital and numerous operations, including a major one to fuse her hip
joint together with metal plates. Then, at twenty-eight, six months after she
got married, she found out she had leukaemia. Although the outlook was bleak,
Gleeson promised her mother: ‘I’m not going to die. I’m going to write a book’.

Constellations is that book,
a collection of raw, beautifully charged, wide-ranging essays about living in
an imperfect body, specifically a female body in Ireland, where historically
women have been denied their right of corporeal self-governance. Gleeson knows
that ‘the patient is never in charge’, and one feels this is particularly the
case for women in an overwhelming male medical establishment.

When, as a ‘self-conscious girl’, Gleeson was made to wear a swimsuit
while being checked for scoliosis and cried from the shame, her doctor threw
her a towel and asked: ‘“There, is that better?”’ In one harrowing scene, she recalls
how a doctor took a saw to the cast running from her chest bone to her toe tips.
As ‘blade meets skin’ she feels ‘a scald of heat spreading’ but he tells her
she’s ‘overacting’. Her mother, unable to withstand her screams, is forced to
leave the room as ‘this man urges it on, like a horse in a race’. Years later,
after the difficult birth of her second baby, a male surgeon responds to her
complaint of terrible pain in her hips with the suggestion of ‘baby blues’.

Gleeson’s lens is close, intensely intimate, but devoid of self-pity. Her book – entitled Constellations for all the metal in her body, which she sees as artificial stars – is not a lament for her misfortune. Nor is it a triumphant account of recovery against all odds. It’s deeper and more interesting, a memoir of a body that radiates out to discuss politics, literature, art, science and history. Comparisons to fellow Irish writer Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self are inevitable: both books take in birth, death and grief, both writers are brave, wise and true. But Gleeson also sits alongside Maggie Nelson, Siri Hustvedt and Olivia Laing for the rigour of her debate and interrogation of ideas.  

In ‘A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light’, one of the most dazzling essays
in the collection, Gleeson explores the work of three women who transformed
their damaged bodies into art: Frida Kahlo, Lucy Grealy and Jo Spence. She
recalls finding Kahlo – who broke her pelvis, collarbone, ribs and leg in a bus
accident when she was eighteen – while she was in hospital, similarly confined in
a cast as a teen. Although reluctant to equate their suffering, she holds up
Kahlo, alongside Grealy and Spence, as ‘lights in the dark’. Whereas she viewed
her plaster cast as a ‘tomb’, Kahlo decorated hers, creating a language of
beauty in place of sickness and death. Similarly, Grealy’s searing account of
her deformity Autobiography of a Face
and Spence’s unflinching pre- and post-surgery photographs are shown to be powerful
acts of self-assertion and reclamation. By bringing the private world of sickness
into a public space, these women refused to succumb and disappear, showing Gleeson
that ‘it’s possible to have an illness and not to be the illness’.

The quest to find a language to express pain recurs throughout the
book. In ‘Where Does It Hurt?’ Gleeson responds to the McGill pain index, a
vocabulary-based scale developed by practitioners, with twenty poems exposing
her unique, personal experience. One poem on scars depicts ‘a mouth sewn up
with metal’. Another conveys the terrible heartburn she suffered while
pregnant, her throat ‘hotter than coals’. In ‘Our Mutual Friend’ Gleeson
intersperses prose with poetry to describe how her former boyfriend introduced
her to her husband and then, at the age of twenty-four, died after a tragic
fall. One gets the feeling that pain cannot be contained within neat, orderly
sentences. Gleeson quotes from Virginia Woolf’s ‘On Being Ill’, showing how the
sufferer must coin new words, ‘his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound
in the other’.

Formal experiment is also evident in ‘60,000 Miles of Blood’, as
Gleeson interweaves the history of blood-group identification with tales from
art and religion, her own transfusions and her treatment for leukaemia. During
chemotherapy, she takes a drug to stop her periods, ‘a moratorium on one aspect
of being female.’

A woman’s right to govern her own body is addressed most powerfully in ‘Twelve
Stories of Bodily Autonomy’, a fiercely argued essay about the 2018 referendum
on abortion. Gleeson reminds us that ‘Ireland’s history – for women – is the
history of their bodies’. From reproduction to sexuality to motherhood, women
have been reduced to their physical form, their choices taken away, their
freedom legislated against. By sharing the stories of women who have suffered
and died, Gleeson shows that change has been hard won, that it has been paid
for in blood. Taking her daughter with her to the polling booth, she reflects
on how the change in law will affect the next generation and ends with a note
of hope: ‘She takes my hand and we walk into the cool air of the hall, to
change the future.’

Constellations contains a political spark, but it is a collection fuelled by acceptance and solidarity. Early in the book, Gleeson recounts a school trip to Lourdes where ‘in the shadow of the grotto’ she receives not a healing miracle but a kind of peace: ‘I know that I will go home, and that I will live with my imperfection; that my surgically altered bones will carry me through the years’. Despite her pain and suffering, the repeated betrayals and frequent operations, she is not at war with the body that has borne her two children. While Gleeson is right that ‘pain – unlike passion – has no commonality with another being’, there is unity in the way she links the fragments of life, the loose ends and tangents, the cycles of birth, blood, motherhood, death and ghosts. For pain is a human experience, one shared and endured by generations of women in their mortal bodies.

Constellations is out now from Picador.




Book Review: Common People, edited by Kit de Waal

Common People is a collection of original essays, poems and memoir written in celebration, not apology.” So it says on the back cover.

There is no doubt that
the publishing world does not reflect the demographics of the world we live in.
And I think as readers we suffer as a result.

But there you go! This
is 2019. The UK is still run by the public-school Oxbridge elite (and happens
to be up a famous creek without a paddle – not that I’m drawing a conclusion
about that – just saying).

But back to the book,
there are some angry polemics here – so far, so predictable but not – to be
fair – unjustified. And a lot of the stories and essays were written by writers
writing about being writers and the writing experience as a (working-class)
writer. That’s great and everything, but I didn’t feel these writers were
saying anything new.

I was also confused by
the notion that if you’re not working class – that is, growing up on a council
estate – you have a land rover in the drive, stables in the garden and are
probably “setting foot in the Bullingdon club”. This rags-to-riches contrast
cropped up in a few of the pieces and I found it irksome.

Aren’t most of us
somewhere between the council estate and the country manor? Isn’t Britain full
of streets with semi-detached and terraced houses that go on for miles? And
what about all those redbrick estates full of houses – like the one where Harry
Potter lived before he went to Hogwarts? Most of us live in places like that,
so how come when some of the writers who contributed to Common People left
their council estates, they only seemed to meet people privileged Tories?

But aside from all
this, Common People has some real
gems – too many to list here, but definitely Chris McCrudden’s “Shy Bairns Get
Nowt”,which drew on his own
experience and family history to explore perceptions of class. “For some
people, class is a vector… For others it’s a fixed point.”

And I loved Katy
Massey’s clever and entertaining account of her mother’s business and life in a
brothel, which showed the intersection of class prejudice and misogyny. And Jodie
Russian-Red’s “The Wedding and the Funeral” was a great piece of storytelling.

However, too many of
the pieces focused on childhood memories and it would have been nice to have
more variation, like Dalgit Nagra’s beautiful profile of a contemporary, “Steve”,
and Paul Allen’s wonderful memoir of life as a bricky, “No lay, no pay”.

I also loved “Little
Boxes”by Stuart Maconie, which is
full of history about housing, Nye Bevan and facts about architecture,
interwoven with his experience of growing up on an estate where streets were
named after literary figures. An utterly informative and captivating piece of
writing.

With over thirty
contributions from as many writers, Common
People
shines a light on the huge diversity of people in the United Kingdom
and celebrates this richness loudly. I loved the variety of dialect, racial
heritage and regional culture.

Considering the UK is
quite a small collection of islands and nations, it is incredibly rich in
language and culture and the publishing / literary world is missing a trick not
exploring that.

Kit de Waal and Common People have done a great job of highlighting that.

Common People is published by Unbound.




To Work or Not to Work? A Review : Not Working, by Josh Cohen and The Joy of Work, by Bruce Daisley

A few weeks ago, I missed the
christening of my friend’s first baby. ‘I’d love to be there,’ I texted by way
of apology, ‘but I have to work.’ She – and (if I’m honest) I – knew that I
didn’t have to work. It was Sunday morning.
I am not a doctor. No lives were in my hands. But my to-do list felt like a
matter of life and death. I had an edit to finish and a book to review. My
washing basket was full, while the fridge stood empty. I’d told myself I’d go
for a run. How could I rest until I’d ticked off every last thing?

Realising I needed to find a way to subdue the musts and shoulds ruling my schedule, I turned to two books published in January: Not Working by Josh Cohen, and The Joy of Work by Bruce Daisley. Although these books sound antithetical – one advocating an end to work, the other celebrating its pleasures and rewards – both contest the value of our current workaholic culture.

In Not Working, psychoanalyst Josh Cohen argues that relentless
activity is making us ill. We have become ‘creatures of action and purpose’, driven
by a need to achieve, accumulate and compete. Work is no longer confined to
office hours. Our smart phones bombard us with information from the moment we
wake up to the moment we go to sleep. We are constantly connected, always on,
primed to fill every interval of rest or silence, on the train or at the dinner
table, with a stream of emails, social media, videos and games. Is it any
wonder we are exhausted and burnt out?

In Japan in the early 1990s,
psychiatrist Saito Tamaki came across so many young people who had become
withdrawn, retreating to their homes in a bid to isolate themselves from
society, that he came up with a name for them, the hikikomori. Swamped by choice and possibility, and irritated by
their own reluctance to participate, they could find no place for themselves in
the world. For Cohen, the hikikomori are
the collateral damage of our culture of ‘permanent distraction and activity’ –
and the only way for us to avoid a similar fate is to stop. 

Drawing on Freud’s idea of our ‘desire
for non-desire’, Cohen rejects work as its own justification. He urges us to be rather than simply do and looks to art to provide a model for
personal fulfilment. Of his four archetypes – the burnout (Andy Warhol), the
slob (Orson Welles), the daydreamer (Emily Dickinson) and the slacker (David
Foster Wallace) – I identify most closely with the burnout, compelled to do too
much, yet secretly wanting to do nothing at all.

Cohen belongs with the dreamers and
slackers. He grew up with his head in the clouds, struggling to pay attention
to anything that didn’t interest or excite him. His heroes were fictional
dissidents and shirkers: Homer Simpson, Jeff Lebowski, Garfield and Snoopy.
During his PhD, he began to feel anxious and ashamed of his tendency to idle
until he realised the rhythms of his curiosity did not adhere to the standard
working day. He could spend an enjoyable week doing not very much at all and
then respond to a burst of creativity by pulling several all-nighters. Rather
than discipline, he links his productivity to indiscipline.

It’s a persuasive and compassionate
view. In a culture that values work and demonises idleness, how comforting to
be told it’s all right to stop and not lose meaning or creativity in our lives.
Emily Dickinson’s withdrawal into solitude is shown not to stem from failure or
disappointment but a bid for ‘personal and literary independence and
imaginative freedom.’ Tracey Emin’s 1998 installation My Bed is beautiful and essential. By preserving the tangled towels
and sheets, empty vodka bottles, cigarettes, tampons, condoms and tissues of
her breakdown, she honours the role inertia played in helping her to recover
from heartbreak.

But Cohen’s examples from the world of art and literature are rather extreme. While he touches on universal basic income and increasing automation and looks ahead to a time without the necessity of work when we might be able to discover what we truly want to do and who we want to be, he doesn’t provide a code for stopping now. I also can’t help but wonder about the work of parenthood, and how those with small children could hope to achieve ‘pure selfhood’ given the daily demands on their time and energy.

By contrast, Bruce Daisley, European Vice-President for Twitter, promises a more practical approach in his book The Joy of Work. Like Cohen, he views our culture of work as broken, citing one study that found over half the UK workforce were feeling burnt out. He refuses to celebrate overwork at Twitter and wants to eliminate ‘hurry sickness’ (the fear that no matter how hard we try we won’t be able to get everything done). But rather than opting out, he believes we can fall back in love with our jobs by adhering to his thirty hints and tips to make what we do more fulfilling, productive and enjoyable.

Several of his strategies involve
stopping or at least pausing. To combat distraction, he advocates ‘Monk Mode’,
where employees engage in several hours of creative deep work away from the office
and the constant interruption of emails. He recommends headphones to combat background
noise, working fewer hours to preserve focus, reclaiming one’s lunch hour, keeping
meetings small and turning off notifications. So far, so good – but not especially
radical.

More interesting is Daisley’s
discussion of loneliness, which he lists alongside distraction and busyness as
a key failing of the modern workplace. Open plan was designed to bring people
closer but in a vast sea of seats individuals can feel isolated and anonymous,
unable to reach out or connect on a personal level with colleagues. While collective
tea breaks, social meetings and taking time to say hello when someone starts
might seem trivial, Daisley argues that these add up to an environment where
workers feel supported, energised, able to ask questions, challenge and
innovate.

In short, Daisley wants us to be while we do. He acknowledges the role that work plays in our lives, that it provides meaning and purpose, and believes we can improve our lot within the system. Cohen’s edict to stop is more revolutionary but no less sympathetic. His assertion that we are not machines, set to perpetual motion until we break, is utterly convincing. Neither author sees work simply as means to an end, nor is it the end. If we are to thrive rather than merely survive, we must value non-work alongside work, and make a space for simply being. While I suspect that cutting back is quite hard in practice, both books have encouraged me to re-evaluate my priorities and how I spend my time. Note to self: the washing can wait.

Not Working by Josh Cohen (Granta) and The Joy of Work by Bruce Daisley (Cornerstone) are out now




Book Review: London Undercurrents, by Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire

To give London Undercurrents its full title is to understand both the process and the product of Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire’s collaboration: The hidden histories of London’s unsung heroines north and south of the river. Sparkes and Hilaire have divided in two the work of unearthing and voicing by location, with Sparkes taking North and Hilaire the South of London, demarcated by the river that bisects the city. The Thames itself provides a thread which weaves this collection together, its shape bobbing across the page of each new section, with words from Sparkes hovering in the North-East of Islington, Hilaire’s in the South-West of Battersea, each their respective homes and the place from which they reflect on their own feel of London. Within each section, themes such as work, family, protest and war, through every age of London, are explored from either side of the river, with an (N) or (S) in the top right-hand corner of each page denoting both the location and author of each poem.

The collection begins
with the theme of the characteristic pull of London for outsiders: “Paved with
Gold”. Opportunity and the struggle that precedes success is experienced and
explored in “First Crop” by a Huguenot asparagus farmer tending to the soil and
the spears “as rude / and round / and succulent / as fantasy allows”. A quick
flick to the Background Notes section of the South poems reveals that an
investigation into the unusual name of the poet’s local pub (The Asparagus)
lead to the discovery that Battersea is thought to be the first place in Britain
where asparagus was grown, the poem’s subtitle offering the date 1685. In “Livestock”
three experiences of the dairy business are brought together in a three-part
poem. The cry of an Islington cheese and cream street seller from 1575 combines
with Mrs Nicholls’ aching despair at the slaughter of her cattle to prevent the
further spread of plague: “Each bolt to the head / shatters our bones. / City
air thickens / deep with lowing, / as London turns Heifer, / mourns her lost
calves” (again the North Notes section clarifies the scale of an 1895 outbreak
which decimated most of London’s cows); and a Cardiff cattle herder’s wife
coming to Holloway in 1811 remarking “Such a sight – great grey teats full of
gold coin / aching to spill on the floor. Quick! Get our pails / underneath and
open our mouths.”

Gathering and grouping
the poetic products of Sparkes and Hilaire’s combined research in this way,
that is to say thematically as opposed to chronologically or separated into two
authored halves of the North and South of the city, allows each piece and each
voice to converse in a way that builds connections; by-lines that travel
between the experiences of women through the landscape of the city and into the
past. In this way London becomes an industrial place populated by industrious
and tenacious people, such as a thirteen-year-old coin forger detailing her and
her family’s endeavours in a thirteen-point to-do list. Or an 1892 White Lead
Works factory worker “Dodging the Doctor” in order to avoid a diagnosis that
would prevent her from making wages by clambering “barefoot / up the drying
scaffold, / hide at the top on rough planks. / Hup I go.” “Hup” really
sings as an example of the ways the voices of these women are written:
carefully, thoughtfully and often playfully. “Thames Crossing, Second Attempt:
19th August 1861” illustrates Selina Young’s successful tightrope
walk from Battersea to Cremorne Gardens as if viewed from above. Her rope
becomes a taut line across two pages, her balance pole perpendicular to this,
cries from the crowd populate two stanza banks (“look at her go! man alive – / those skirts must weigh / a tonne!”),
and the boats on the river lurk between. As expected from a collection that
brings together such a variety of voices, the challenges encountered by women
range from feats of physical endurance to acts of acknowledgement as in “Dido
Belle Sits For Her Portrait” where Belle, a woman born into slavery then
brought by her grandfather 1st Earl of Mansfield to Hampstead, is given the
complexity she deserves and not afforded when the portrait, up until the 1990s,
was simply known as The Lady Elizabeth Murray: “No corn-fed, / cotton-raised
statue am I / nor decoration / picked for porcelain shine… I am a gift”. It is
in this way that voices are given a chance to respond, making these poems feel
full of possibility even in desperate situations, and in other moments, gleeful
and utterly joyous. In “Battersea Women’s Pub Outing” a June 1947 daytrip has
the women of the Mason’s Arms “let loose in Margate” with “voices in rollicking
singalong / kicking our legs high” in such infectious humour it seems possible
to feel as if we might have been there ourselves when on “every ride / Little
Lottie roars so much / she heaves her dinner up / soon as she’s off the Big
Dipper”.

At the end of Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire’s collection both poets take a moment in their respective biographies to reflect on the experience of unearthing the stories and voices of the women that combine to create London Undercurrents. “It should not be so hard to find them”, remarks Sparkes; Hilaire writes that “I’ll keep on digging,” suggesting there is much work still to be done. And that’s possibly what’s so remarkable about this collection: the appetite it engenders for more. I can imagine the voices of yet unheard women in every village, town and city of the UK emerging to create sequels and chapters of the Undercurrents project. It’s disheartening to realise what an endeavour this might be, to seek and find the histories of women, but the rewards that occur through this work are so striking. The richness and variety, intrigue and emotion, together provides an illustration of London as a tumultuous and exhilarating place, occupied by women throughout its history who have built and shaped its terrain from the bottom up and from the top down.

London Undercurrents is out now from Holland Park Press.