Review: The Dark Circle

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 2 stars
Two teenagers are admitted to a sanatorium with TB in the 1950s in Linda Grant’s newest book The Dark Circle. Grant is a previous Women’s Prize for Fiction winner and the buzz suggests she is a contender on the shortlist.

Lenny and Miriam are admittedly far more interesting characters than I expected from the initial blurb, and I particularly love how they fall in love with literature, and connect with other patients during their stay at the ‘Gwendo’. The novel explores the phenomenon of TB from a number of perspectives, and looks at postwar life from the experience of the Jewish protagonists, to the implementation of the NHS. I really enjoyed how the novel transported you to a forgotten past, and felt that it did really evoke the early 50s.

However, for several reasons, I still didn’t really get on with this book. While Lenny and Miriam’s experiences are significant, and a story that needs to be told, the whole book felt like their experience in the sanatorium – stifled, monotonous and slow. Nothing really happens over the course of 320 pages. The switching points of view made it difficult to focus on which character was focalising at the time, and occasionally the prose just felt odd, with jarring metaphors. I couldn’t tell whether this was an attempt at originality or quirkiness to avoid cliches – however there was more than one turn of phrase which didn’t really make sense or made me question what it meant.

I could identify and sympathise with some of the characters, though others just felt flat and not fleshed out enough. I like the idea of the novel, in terms of the exploration of how the patients were not just medically treated, but socially, politically and on an individual level. It explored a range of human emotions with great nuance and it really did make me feel for the patients. However, because of the lack of pace and plot, and the writing style in general,  I struggled to immerse myself in it or really enjoy it.

Review: Hag-Seed

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The Hogarth Shakespeare series is a project rewriting some of of the Bard’s most famous plays, into novels by some of the world’s best-loved authors.

Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood is based on The Tempest.


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 5 stars
If you thought a play within a play was Hamlet’s domain, think again. In Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest Prospero is a famous theatre director, Felix Phillips, who is ousted from his role and ends up putting on plays in the ‘Literacy through Literature course’ at a local prison under the name of Mr Duke.
Hag-seed is an incredibly clever exploration of the themes of this play, namely the role of prisons within it. As Felix enacts his revenge using the inmates he directs, the other characters are complicated – we have the Ariel he casts 8Handz, as a kind of Ariel, but he is also haunted by his daughter Miranda who died age 3, and so becomes a kind of spirit like Ariel.
Equally, the death of Miranda complicates who takes on this role in the play. Lady Luck, or the Auspicious Star is cleverly personified in Estelle – showing how Atwood’s attention to detail is faultless. The play is modernised both as Atwood’s tale and in the performance of The Tempest that Felix stages which features rap-numbers, dance and significant reinterpretations.
Atwood’s invented world of the play is clever and complex, making you think twice about the play you thought you knew. It deals with issues of revenge, justice, imprisonment and mercy in whole new ways, rethinking the ways in which we perceive these. We get to know the inmates and can sympathise with them,  they are funny, real understandable people.
The depths which Atwood reaches with Felix explore the character in completely new ways, we see his motivations, emotions and manipulations but also a softer and more vulnerable side. The references, allusions and explorations within this are an English student’s dream and it feels as though it may have been an exercise of intelligence for Atwood, who lists off a dozen different sources for reference in her acknowledgements. I can’t say how good this book would be if you weren’t aware of it’s heritage – but the story was good with an interesting plot and was well-paced, reaching an exciting climax. However most of the fun came from knowing what the hidden references and meanings were, so a knowledge of the play was important here.
I studied The Tempest for four years in a row at school and was frankly pretty sick of it – I’ve never seen or studied it again since. If this book could make me enjoy a play which I’m not a huge fan of then it really did its job. Atwood’s retelling was everything a retelling of Shakespeare should be – an accessible, exciting and engaging update to the Bard’s words.

Review: The Power

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 5 stars

A feminist dystopian by a Margaret Atwood mentee, nominated for the Bailey’s Prize. It almost sounds too good to be true.

Well it isn’t. The Power by Naomi Alderman is everything I wanted it to be. The book is simultaneously a deeply personal and epic exploration of the gender-power dynamic in the modern day.

The premise is fairly basic: what if, overnight, the power shifted? What if one day, the literal power was in the hands of teenage girls?

In Alderman’s future the ‘Day of the Girls’ sees women gaining a superhero-esque electric power, giving them the physical means to not only equal men, but to overpower them. However, Alderman is far too clever to make this a simple ‘girls run the world’ story, instead reflecting the complexities of patriarchal society in her dystopia.

The story is told through multiple focalising characters, giving an expansive view of the way the world changes, across the US, Europe and the Middle East. The different characters are complex, all dealing with the phenomenon in unique ways. As well as seeing the perspective of a variety of girls and women; Allie, a runaway, Roxy a british teen and Margot a US politician, Alderman offers us the perspective of male journalist Tunde.

 

“She cuppeth the lightning in her hand. She commandeth it to strike.”

 

The story spans years of changes and illustrates a gradual but seismic shift, however Alderman offers us nuance – as well as women gaining power, we see women abusing that power. Oppression of and violence against men becomes widespread, however, women are still targeted and gender specific violence is enacted against them. Women become leaders, yet many are still hiding and on the run, at the hands of just as violent a regime as before.

Clever tropes and symbols litter the story, illustrating these changes for us – for example the news anchors Tom and Kristen, who debate the issues, yet as time passes Tom is replaced by a younger man and Kristen becomes the intelligent authority on political affairs and economics. In between chapters we see scientific explanations and archaeological finds explaining what has occurred, and short of those which incorporate humorous references to modern technology, it may have you beginning to question your historical knowledge.

Alderman combines dystopia with horror, humour and satire to create a perfectly crafted inversion of patriarchy. This book should be required reading for everyone to understand exactly what gender inequality is and means, not just for women, but for men too, who are also disadvantaged by patriarchy. Ultimately, Alderman shows that women are human, we are capable of the same mistakes, vices, and atrocities as men. There is no such thing as a female utopia and ultimately tying power to gender has no positive outcomes.

The Power is a compelling treatise on all the problems of patriarchal society – from objectification to sex trafficking – however, it is also an engaging story about empowerment and the danger of power.

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist

You may or may not have seen the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction shortlist was released yesterday (if you haven’t where on earth have you been?). You can check out a recap of the six books that made it here – along with my personal take on the announcement.

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Stay With Me

I read this as an ARC back in Feb (check out my review) and loved  it. This made me immediately biased so it obviously went straight on to my fantasy shortlist. It is the only one of the six that I have already read – typical!

First Love

This one came out of nowhere for me – I hadn’t even looked at it as a contender because I had never heard of it. Yet this proves that ignorance is no excuse and I will definitely learn to pay more attention than the book at the end of my nose.

The Power

I’m so excited to read this as I have heard nothing but wonderful things. The premise is right up my street – what if women have the power? It feels timely, relevant and it got high praise from Margaret Atwood so really it better not disappoint now.

Sport of Kings

While it didn’t make my fantasy shortlist, I had a feeling that this type of book might have made it on to the shortlist – this and Barkskins both seem to be attempts at the Great American Novel. I’m really into American literature, particularly when influenced by rural life and it is such a male dominated genre that a woman’s take might be refreshing.

The Dark Circle

It doesn’t surprise me that this made the shortlist, with the author a previous winner it was always an contender. The story seems interesting but I didn’t have it down as a must-read. With a constantly growing TBR it might be an audiobook listen, but I’m keen to see what it is all about.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing 

This has been on my TBR since it was nominated for the Man Booker and thankfully the Baileys Prize is giving me the perfect excuse to read it. I’m keen to explore a novel that is set within such a different culture and it’s epic nature definitely makes it a formidable rival.


So all in all this was an interesting shortlist! Three of the books I has predicted/hoped for on my fantasy list: Stay With Me, The Power, and Do Not Say We Have Nothing while one was a total surprise. I was a little surprised that neither of the more commercial books from Perry or Flint made it, and I was disappointed that The Lesser Bohemians didn’t because I loved it. However, I’m quite glad the list is not exactly what I hoped for because I’m going to read those anyway and the prize is helping me to push my boundaries and discover new things. Time-permitting I’m hoping to get through a decent chunk of this list ready to do a more informed look at who I’d place my bets on before the announcement.

Happy reading!

Review: The Lesser Bohemians

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 5 stars

My first impression of this book was that it was unreadable. However I am so glad I persevered because it was truly amazing.

The Lesser Bohemians spans the first year of an Irish drama student in London, set in a period which resembles the 90s, who gets involved with an older man. The style of the novel is what initially makes it quite difficult – it is almost like stream of consciousness,  which makes it feel quite Modernist, clearly owing something to Joyce.

However, once you get into the style and get used to the flow it is actually beautiful, rhythmic and lyrical. Sentences trail off, interruptions occur, distractions happen – it is very real, physically real, and an intriguing way of writing. Somewhat ironically the language becomes more lucid and easier to read as the novel progresses.

Aside from the language the characters are interesting and mysterious – with most only given names towards the end of the novel, including the narrator herself. This has a great effect as I found some of their monikers quite surprising after I got to know the character.

Equally the plot is compelling while still remaining undefined – we are never quite sure where it is going, which is part of the plot itself, as the characters themselves don’t know either. There are plot events which came as a surprise, and without wanting to give away any spoilers, the content is difficult and could potentially be triggering.

However, the issues were well dealt with, illustrating the complexities of these issues. The book explores different kind of relationships and their natures, for better and for worse. This book made me feel so much; it made me laugh, cry, feel awkward and feel horrified. I sympathised with the characters, I hated them and I was tearing my hair out over their actions. The book challenged my romantic side, and it felt like it was doing this very deliberately, constantly undermining my rose-tinted expectations while building them back up again.

It is a difficult book to discuss without giving anything away, but I loved it for the beautiful, evocative language, the experimental style and for being so moving. I am so glad that I persisted because otherwise I would have missed this incredible book.

Review: Stay With Me

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Stay With Me tells the emotional story of the pressures society places upon women around motherhood and one woman’s desperate struggle to find her identity when all she wants to be is a mother.

Yejide desperately wants a baby, however her and her husband Akin are yet to conceive. Facing the pressures of Nigerian culture which values motherhood and offspring highly, the couple are forced to accept the polygamy which Yejide’s mother-in-law forces them into. Yejide is desperate to conceive, delving into superstition as she begins to clutch at staws.  Either due to unfortunate coincidence or the pressure placed upon her, Yejide develops from a ghost pregnancy, threatening to break her marriage apart.

What ensues is a tale of betrayal, deception, scandal and loss much darker than you would have ever expected. The novel is told from the perspectives of both Yejide and Akin as they fight to form a family and then literally fight to keep their family alive. It is also set against a backdrop of political unrest, which mirrors the tense atmosphere of the novel, up until the parallel climax  of both the context and storyline. Alongside its use as a literary device this also serves to ground the novel in a real sense of time and place.

The story is difficult and heart-wrenching. Seeing both perspectives complicates where your sympathies lie and all of the characters are at fault. Notably Yejide is not always sympathetic and likeable – but this was a good decision, as it made her far more real and relatable, as she struggles to come to terms with her identity and relationship to motherhood in a culture which places mothers on a pedestal and shuns women who cannot meet this standard.

The book was compelling and exquisitely written, making it emotive, frustrating and ultimately heart-breaking. If this is Ayobami Adebayo’s debut, then surely there can only be better to come from such an exciting new author.


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon.