I’ve had a much better reading month(s) in March and April, even if I am (still) falling behind my reading goals. The past two months involved books about pop stars, dystopian realities and finally reading one of the most hyped-about novels of the last year.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (2016, Hamish Hamilton)
I was very excited to finally read Swing Time, even if some of the reviews of it had been a bit lackluster. It’s the story of an unnamed narrator, who goes from growing up on a London estate where she’s obsessed with dancing and has a competitive relationship with the only other brown girl in her class, Tracey; to becoming the personal assistant to a Britney Spears-esque singer named Amy. Smith does pack a lot into this novel; from competitiveness in friendship to family relationships to ‘white saviours’ in Africa. However, I found Smith’s voice through the narrator to just be really engaging. I never found the book lagging and whilst it was perhaps over-ambitious in scope it is really worth reading.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (2016, Hogarth Shakespeare)
The Hogarth Shakespeare series has been one that I’ve been keeping an eye on, but have yet to release an edition that I was interested in. Hag-Seed is an updating of The Tempest, only made extra-meta. It follows the theatre director Felix, who was ousted from his job following family tragedy and personal betrayal, who ends up directing a production of The Tempest in his new job running a theatre programme within a prison. The concept is really clever, and Atwood is so good at bringing all the various characters to life. However, large swathes of the novel just felt like mini-essays on The Tempest complete with character analysis which wasn’t really what I expected. It did just make it feel a little like Atwood was just showing off her knowledge of the play as opposed to making much sense in terms of the novel. I am very excited to keep an eye on the Othello and Hamlet updates which are coming.
Public Library & Other Stories by Ali Smith (2015, Hamish Hamilton)
Having enjoyed How to be Both, I was keen to pick up more by Ali Smith, and Public Library seemed like a good call as it appeared to be all about the importance of libraries and literature to society. If I’m honest, I was pretty underwhelmed. There are some really good stories within the collection, but a lot made me feel almost a bit stupid for not grasping the apparent symbolism within them; there were many times when a story ended and I could just see the question marks in my head. However, the best bit about this collection for me were the little interviews that Smith did with friends and other authors/arts-related people about their relationship with libraries, and what they see the role of these institutions playing. So this gets brownie points for its importance, but unless you’re a massive Smith fan, I perhaps would give this a miss.
Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill (2014, Quercus)
Louise O’Neill is a young adult author whose name has been flying around the internet for her work on this novel, and on her second novel Asking for It. She has gained a reputation for tackling difficult issues in her novels, so I was happy to finally read this book. Only Ever Yours focuses on Frieda, who lives in a world where women’s roles are heavily segregated: companions (or wives) to elite young men, courtesans or chastities (or teachers of the next generation). Frieda is at ‘school’, and is desperate to be a high-level companion, which is dependent on her looking and acting a certain way. However, when her friend Isabel begins to rebel against these expectations, Frieda’s world begins to unravel. I can’t say I was blown away by this. The characters all felt very two-dimensional; this may have been O’Neill’s point, but it didn’t make for a particularly engaging read. If the set-up sounds familiar, that’ll be because this novel basically feels like a sequel to the world that Margaret Atwood sets up (far better) in The Handmaid’s Tale, which did make me wonder why this novel has had so many ‘unique’ superlatives thrown at it. O’Neill is very good at creating a sense of unease throughout the novel, and it was possible to see some of society’s current issues being writ large through this (especially around food & weight, I wouldn’t recommend reading this if you have any issues with those topics). However, if you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale, you probably don’t need to read this too.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016, Penguin)
I was uber excited to read Homegoing and it really didn’t disappoint. Gyasi debut (DEBUT) novel begins with two half sisters, Effia and Esi. One is sold into slavery, and one is married to a British slave-owner. The rest of the novel follows the ensuing generations, and their lives mainly in the United States and Ghana. The legacy of slavery and colonialism is unflinchingly dealt with. There are passages in this novel that are deeply uncomfortable, which only makes it all the more important to read in an era where some would have us believe that the colonial years were wonderful, and that issues of race no longer exist.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2016, Faber & Faber)
Sebastian Barry is a name that I’ve heard a lot, but have never read any of his work. However, after this novel won the Costa Book Award, and had a couple of rave reviews from people I trust, I thought I’d check it out. Days Without End follows Thomas McNulty and his lover John Cole who find themselves living a transient existence in the early years of the United States. Together they fight in wars of land against native Americans and in the civil war. Told in a stream-of-consciousness style from McNulty’s perspective, Barry is unflinching and pretty graphic in his descriptions of the war, death and hunger that McNulty and the other characters experience. This is a period of American history I know very little about, and Barry brings it to visceral life. He also very casually discusses his protagonist’s sexuality and relationship to gender, which was incredibly refreshing for a period novel. Whilst this novel is beautifully written, the subject matter just wasn’t really my thing, which meant that I didn’t enjoy this as much as I wanted to. I will, however, definitely read more work by Barry, I’m aiming to pick up The Secret Scripture before its film adaptation comes out.
If You Go Away by Adele Parks (2015, Headline Review)
Adele Parks is a really popular contemporary fiction writer, but I hadn’t ever picked up any of her novels. My Mum lent me If You Go Away, which is Parks’ first foray into historical fiction. It follows two characters; Vivian, a debutante who is forced into a loveless marriage to cover up her ‘indiscretions’ during her season and Howard, a playwright who gains notoriety for refusing to enlist in the First World War for no…real reason. Their paths cross when Vivian finds herself running her husband’s country home, and Howard returns to his home village. This isn’t a novel that does anything particularly new; once Vivian loses her snobbery and gets her hands dirty she discovers new things about herself she’s never known…once Howard views The Front with his own eyes he begins to reconsider his thoughts on the war. However, it’s a fairly light, easy read; and Parks does do a good job at evocative passages about the First World War.
I’m currently still making my way through Love in the Time of Cholera, but who knows, maybe May will get its own reading round-up!