I tried to convince my trivia team that Lauren Groff’s Matrix was fantastic. I was like guys, it’s set in a medieval nunnery and follows the life of one nun as she brings the abbey from starvation-ruins to wealth and power all with feminist pomp and flair. And while some in the group agreed that while the lesbian love affairs that flourish at the abbey were, indeed, appealing, their overall enthusiasm for the plot was… weak.
Don’t let their bad choices be yours. The sense of time – and out of time-ness – of the novel, the ways love manifest among women (and not just the sexy kind), the consideration for when – and how – to obtain and maintain power, and of course the details of many, many hours of prayer, well it’s very good.
So if you want to start your 2023 reading year off with a bang… maybe don’t start with Matrix it is a little slow in parts (while still great!), but definitely put it in January. Because then you can brag to everyone you know that you’re familiar with how 13th century nuns made profits and power.
I’m here to report that Kate Atiknson’s Shrines of Gaiety is extremely fun and funny. Though, if you are at all like me, it will take you 75 pages to figure that out. I started out thinking ‘this is Serious literary fiction’ (and it is literary fiction!) and set in London after World War One and about gender politics and gangsters and so must be Dull But Important. Persist, dear reader, persist.
It is funny, smart, playful and entirely absorbing.
Perhaps another reason why it takes a bit of time to get your bearing in the book is that it flits chapter by chapter through third person limited narration among a motley cast of characters all interwoven with one another in the setting of London’s night clubs: a runaway teen ager arrived in London to find her fortune as an actress (spoiler: she does not find her fortune as an actress so much as nearly starve on the streets); a once-impoverished parochial librarian arrived in London with her fortune to take up a job as a spy (!); a newly arrived Detective Inspector tasked with solving a spate of murders; the head of a string of night clubs, Nellie Corker, who sees ghosts, reads fortunes and machinates to maintain her power; and the passel of Corker’s children half of whom are indistinguishable and the other half sharp and bright.
Threads of murder and mystery, romance, debauchery (a baby party! where adults dress as babies and fancy around with nannies and opium), theft, corruption and scheming. Delightful for the fun of it all, but woven through with substantial questions of how a society (or an individual) responds after a great trauma (say a giant war and then an influenza pandemic), of how that generation of women and men change as a consequence – both in expectations for their lives but of their roles in politics and the economy, of how little we can rely on the police.
I can’t promise you’ll love it, but I do think that if you make it through the first hundred pages without laughing you’re probably a bad reader and should just quit.
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.
Nothing fancy or personal here, folks, just a ringing endorsement for Sarah Leipciger’s Coming Up for Air, a fantastic book about… drowning? But really – the writing here is extraordinarily good, so good the interwoven plots don’t need much to hold together – though they do. Like chapter 24 that details Pieter in his fishing boat and a *spoiler spoiler* Event is some of the best writing I’ve encountered in years. Hair raising.
I may have been predisposed to like this one because it’s historical fiction and Canadian, but given my recent spate of not being able to read anything serious or well-written, I think this one had its fair share of odds to overcome. Threading three plot lines – that of the 19th century woman who kills herself by drowning in the opening chapter, a mid-century man who moulds plastics and a contemporary woman living with cystic fibrosis and writing – the reader sets out wondering if and how these plot lines come together. And while they do eventually, sort of, connect in terms of plot, it is their thematic and symbolic notes that connect them most meaningfully: water, breath, filial and affilial love.
As a creature of the water myself I was hypnotized by the descriptions of swimming and submersion. As the three characters navigate water-filled worlds they raise questions about the thinness of the line between life and death, and the hubris of humans in swimming this line.
So now that libraries are fully reopening you have no excuse. Get out Coming Up for Air and I promise you won’t be disappointed.*
*Promises are not valid if you have bad taste.