Historical fiction. Such a great genre. Have I said it before? I have? Well, I’ll say it again: such a great genre. Something about the space to explore the impossible problems of the present in the safety of the past. Not sure what we should do with the right to abortion? Worried about the lasting impacts of a global pandemic? Fretting about the crumbling of institutions like Church and marriage? To the past! Where we can hod these problems and turn them around without the delightful haze of knowing these are both immediate to our own lives and yet so distant as to be cute: how sweet, they just figured out they should wash their hands before surgery.
So right, what’s the book, Erin. It’s Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, released in summer of 2020, but written pre Covid. Though someone should by Donoghue a lottery ticket (or start calling her prescient instead of
Atwood) for the cluster of issues explored in this book. Set in Dublin in 1918, it is the height of the influenza pandemic. Our protagonist, midwife and nurse Julia Power, is on her own on the influenza maternity ward, where we meet a series of women who have had too many children for want to bodily autonomy or reliable birth control. Julia trades off her duties with another nurse, a nun from a neighbourhood ‘house for women and babies’ where unwed mothers are sent and their children then taken into servitude, and so the narrative probes the consequences of Church and moral absolutism on women’s bodies and family. One of these grown children, Bridie, comes to help on Julia’s ward, and (I’ll admit somewhat unexpectedly – my fault as a reader or that of Donoghue?) introduces questions of sexuality and redemption as she and Julia come to find one another. Which is to say, it is a book thick with Issues for Discussion.
And while I expected to be struck by the similarities to our present moment with respect to the pandemic – the eerie familiarity of advice to keep distance, the shuttering of schools, the terror of a loved one with a cough – and I was, it was the exploration of women’s ability to choose the course of their lives that I found most relevant. The series of women that pass through the maternity ward come as a type: married woman subjected to domestic violence; married woman with 10 babies already; unmarried ‘fallen’ woman bound to a life of shame and exclusion; married woman has stillborn baby but must go home and Carry On. Each of them share in small descriptions of their lives the ways the babies they carry are – whatever else – expected – that even if they are unplanned (as in our ‘fallen’ woman) that there should be a baby born Out of Wedlock, is itself a certainty. That there would be a choice about having the 10th baby or an ability to decide instead of staying with an abusive partner you might… not. These women are contrasted with Julia, of course, but also the woman doctor on the ward – Kathleen – who is literally on the run from the police for her involvement in political ‘crimes’ while she cares for patients with compassion, competence and curiosity.
This contrast serves to sharpen the sense of oppressive constraint and claustrophobia following all of these women. That even those who appear to have the most freedom – Julia who can for some pages ride a bicycle! – are limited by institution and by expectation.
And while it is a wildly topical book that would serve your book club discussion well, it wasn’t fabulous. Parts dragged and some of the passages read as too aware of their own Significance. And there are better (much better ) books about reproductive choice to read right now. But if you find yourself with this one you I suspect you’ll find a certain relief. Things feel bad; things are bad. And perhaps they’ve always been that way.
What. A. Delight. Not in recent memory has a novel so tickled my enjoyment synapses (I’m not interested in knowing if such synapses actually exist. Spare me.). From page one, Patrick de Witt’s French Exit offers up the sardonic, the cheeky, the down right funny, and hits the reader with a full force of fun and playful, while also (probably) (definitely) exploring themes of …
Wait. What is this book actually about? If not about the fun and funny? It follows the fallen fortunes of Frances and Malcolm, tumbled from great wealth and esteem to a sort of poverty (I say sort of because they still manage to be in a fancy French apartment while faced with penury). Frances is a character in all the sense of the word, a sort of force of unflappable brilliance, and in watching her reconcile her vision of herself and her life with her newly arrived circumstances, I suppose we are meant to think through questions or morality and what makes for a good life. Maybe, too, whether it is the connections and relationships we foster that make any of it worthwhile. The founding of her friendship with Joan is one of the more delightful moments in an already incredibly charming book.
I’ll admit that where the book falls down is in its point, but on that I’m not particularly bothered. Like, I don’t mind that it skirts around big questions and instead lets Morality be morality, and Mortality, be mortality. Which is a way of saying there are ‘themes’ and ‘questions’ but the point of the book seems more to let the reader just. enjoy. reading. Through the whimsy and playfulness and fun of what Frances and Malcolm do, we’re allowed to appreciate with them the absurd and fanciful without always being bogged down with weighty questions. Ah. Perhaps there’s the rub. That as Frances and Malcolm too, have spent a lifetime avoiding anything Serious or Committed, we are given the luxury – not necessarily the wealth required for this particular luxury – of not thinking about very much, until we must think about it all.
Terrific writing – really: surprising, specific, not-showy-but-still-smart – and such. fun. Don’t come bickering with me later that it wasn’t about very much. I don’t care if you’ve forgotten how to just read because it feels good.
I read a book in a day! I read a book in a day! Granted I’m on holiday, and there are no distractions and all the coffee, and this was a particularly compelling book. But putting those points aside, it’s still worth celebrating: I read a book in a day! It’s been so long.
ANYWAY. You’d likely read this one in a couple of sittings, too. Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things gets described on the book jacket as ‘cerebral thriller’ and ‘dark twisting suspense’ and ‘horror.’ I’m not sure what a ‘cerebral’ thriller is – I guess there’s very little actual blood in this book? or most of the suspense is achieved by confusing narration and an aggressive present tense. I was feeling edgy while I was reading it. Doesn’t help that, S., on learning it was a ‘thriller’ decided to make whooshing whistling noises and occasional leaps from behind doors. #charming
The book has two ‘modes’ I’d say: one, the hyper-present tense description of a road trip with our unnamed female narrator and her boyfriend Jake, to visit Jake’s parents; two, these stilted strange conversations between the two characters (and then the characters and the parents and some other assorted supporting roles) that stray between the philosophical and the menacing. Most of the questioning centres around whether and how we can navigate the world alone – that is, what is lost/gained by eschewing relationships, or not being able to be in relation-to: what do we need from one another? what are the limits of self-sufficiency? Sometimes these questions are explored head-on in a bizzare-wouldn’t-likely-happen car conversations between the two, and then the questions also get explored in these strange little stories the two tell one another from childhood where extended metaphors are meant to do some kind of instruction on the same theme.
At its best there is a propulsive uncertainty about what will happen to our protagonist. At its worst I didn’t care enough about her – or the snow storm (which read as if someone had said ‘don’t forget setting! and pathetic fallacy!’) or her headaches or the Caller – to be invested in whether everything works out or whether things will be… ended.
Anyway. I’m curious if you’ve read it, what you make of the ending. And if you haven’t, I’m not convinced I’d recommend it. Unless you like ‘cerebral thrillers’ which – if the cover is to be believed – this is of that genre. Not like it was bad, just that there were too many things that irritated me. But still. I read a book in a day!
I started, and gave substantial effort (enough that I feel okay reviewing them), to two Can lit novels in the last couple of weeks. Both are books that I ought to have really liked but didn’t. I’ll take the blame. It’s summer. There are patios. And BBQs. (And work, family and responsibilities. Whatever.) Continue reading