Book Review: Unwell Women

unwell women

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I read my way through Unwell Women in a prolonged and barely suppressed rage. Women and girls the world over know we are routinely demeaned – effectively silenced – and this account of historical treatment lays bare the toll it has taken on our health, mental and physical. The author presents the facts clearly, maintaining engagement and never shying away from topics rarely discussed openly – ‘women’s problems’ and how we are expected to go through life quietly, grinning and bearing. I pondered if male readers would have any interest or dismiss this well researched and presented account as a rant, females still being regarded as overly emotional – hysterical – and in need of calming down, by whatever means.

Divided into three main sections, the first of these explores how medical knowledge developed from the time of the Ancient Greeks to the nineteenth century. Throughout most of this period, women’s bodies remained a mystery. Each month they would bleed. They grew babies. They complained of pains men didn’t experience so were probably imagined. As their father’s and then their husband’s property, it mattered that females remained amenable, attractive, modest and faithful. They were vessels for men’s sexual satisfaction and, most importantly, procreation.

“They were seen as weaker, slower, smaller versions of the male ideal, deficient and defective precisely because of their difference to men … in writings that would become the foundations of scientific medical discourse and practise, unwell women emerged as a mass of pathological wombs.”

The required modesty cost lives. Women were made to feel ashamed of their bodies – sinful temptresses. In the powerful Christian world it was, after all, the first woman, Eve, who ‘ruined everything because of her desirous and disobedient ways.’ Girls and women were expected to remain covered even when seeking medical treatment, untouched by the always male physician. Ingrained shame and ignorance in medical matters led to them being regarded as unreliable narrators of their own bodily suffering. An early pamphlet written in the thirteenth or fourteenth century stated ‘the female body is inherently flawed and defective in many of its functions.’

Female healers and midwives existed. Educated women worked tirelessly throughout history to improve care but were routinely dismissed by men who retained the power to effect change.

“the male writers espousing this nonsense understood only too well that women had to be exempted from the hallowed halls of medicine if they themselves were to maintain their stranglehold.”

A great many aspects are covered in this comprehensive and gripping history, much of it disturbing and, at times, horrifying. When physicians were eventually permitted to examine women (their reproductive physiology was considered an inverted version of men’s) treatments offered for a plethora of misunderstood problems included operations to cut off clitorises and crush ovaries. Alongside the need to suppress female excitability – bad for the nerves in already nervy creatures – the ideologies of eugenics were emerging in medical aims and practice.

The second section of the book, covering the late nineteenth century to the 1940s, saw the slow emergence of hard fought for advances in women’s rights as well as medical knowledge. Doctors still regarded women as sexual objects and child bearing machines. Birth control was frowned upon, abortions illegal and therefore carried out in secret. Women reporting gynaecological pain were regarded as overly sensitive – neurotic and requiring rest away from any form of stimulation. Typical treatments offered for common ailments such as uterine fibroids, and cancers in reproductive areas, were often as dangerous as the problems they claimed to cure. Doctors were keen to further their reputations – for financial reasons as well as ego. Women – particularly those not valued, such as sex workers and the criminalised – were useful subjects for experimental procedures. Troublesome wives and daughters were readily presented for surgical interventions.

The final section covers 1945 to the present day. Although much more was now understood about how a woman’s body functioned, many female complaints still couldn’t be explained and were dismissed as psychosomatic.

“In an era when a mentally healthy woman was a serene wife and mother, almost any behaviour or emotion that disrupted domestic harmony could be interpreted as justification for a lobotomy … And the success of the lobotomy was measured according to how obligingly she resumed her household duties.”

Although much of the book focuses on the way privileged, often white, women were treated by the medical establishment over the centuries, chapters also cover attitudes towards Black and ethnically diverse women. There are accounts of how slaves were believed to have higher pain thresholds, and how entire communities in economically deprived regions were enrolled in clinical trials without being informed of potential side-effects. There may have been a need for family planning to improve maternal health, but birth control was regarded as a means of limiting procreation amongst those deemed eugenically undesirable.

I mentioned the rage I felt reading this book. Despite the impressive progress in medical treatment and knowledge, so many of the attitudes detailed here are still recognisable and widespread. They manifest as: banter, mansplaining, paternalistic teasing, bafflement when women do not appreciate a well meant gesture, anger when men feel underappreciated or disrespected. Women want to be treated as fully human, not simply a vessel available for sex and procreation.

I pondered the choices parents around the world make when offered the chance to gender select an unborn child. Boys are still widely chosen more often than girls. Biomedical research funding focuses on finding treatments for ailments suffered by men. Clinical trial subjects have, over decades, mostly been white and male. Unexplained chronic pain reported by women – even that with testable biological markers – is often dismissed with ‘withering glances, eye-rolls, smirks and heavy sighs.’ It can take years of suffering before tests are offered and treatment made available.

The medical histories detailed here are mainly USA and UK based. In these supposedly forward thinking countries, women still struggle to maintain autonomy over their bodies. Access to abortion requires a doctor’s permission and is not available in certain places, such as Northern Ireland. Many of women’s illnesses remain a mystery and are not taken seriously.

The first step in finding a solution is recognising there is a problem, making this an important work. What we need though are advocates who will be heard, not silenced as shrill and hysterical. If history tells us anything it is that the treatment of unwell women is of little interest to men while their needs continue to be met.

Any Cop?: Read this book and be aware of how ingrained and widespread the prejudices are – then learn to listen when unwell women speak.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Things Are Against Us

things are against us

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“But when do women get to dream? How about allowing us a few whims too once in a while? How about indulging women in the belief that we look okay, or that we’re okay mothers and daughters, or that we have okay things to say or do?”

Lucy Ellmann has strong opinions and is not afraid to say what she thinks. In this collection of fourteen essays she rails against the damage caused by patriarchal systems of governance, especially to the natural world and its less powerful or privileged inhabitants. Her solution to the competitive idiocy inflicted by men is to pass over control of all money to women. Her arguments are caustically persuasive – eruptions of rage and despair at what the males of our species have been allowed to get away with. If this sounds too philippic fear not; the essays are as full of wit as wisdom.

The book opens with the titular essay, an amusing riff on how THINGS make life so much more frustrating and difficult in a plethora of ways readers will recognise.

“Your alarm clock will often disturb a good dream. At other times, its battery will die and you’ll miss an appointment. The milk goes off. A water pipe will whine, or burst, and there’s not a THING you can do about it. No matter how old you are, grapefruit will always spit in your eye. The aim of those THINGS is uncanny.”

Next up are a couple of essays that focus on America, where the author was born and lived until she was a teenager. It will come as no surprise to anyone that she despises Trump and his gun-toting sycophants.

From here there is a natural segue into her arguments against the patriarchy. The sixth essay, ‘A Spell of Patriarchy’, will likely be enjoyed most by those who have watched the many classic films referenced. I have not but could still enjoy the read.

Unlike Ellmann I have never found pleasure in reading Dickens. I have, however, enjoyed some crime fiction. Ellmann really doesn’t rate crime fiction, a view she explains in ‘Ah, Men. Certain readers may take offence at this but, if they can get past what they may feel are attacks on their art or choice of entertainment, the essays herein are cleverly constructed and poke fun at many accepted behaviours.

Whilst I may not agree with all the author’s opinions, I did on the points she makes about descriptions of outward appearances in ‘Third Rate Zeroes’. She ponders how fixated so many are on what someone looks like given this is a ‘minor, accidental, and temporary achievement.’

“How much time in life and in literature has already been wasted on mean, irrelevant, and soon outdated notions of beauty? You know, so what if Cinderella was beautiful and her step-sisters weren’t? Is this really really the key to an understanding of human capacity? Is it fair? Is it even entertaining?”

‘Morning Routine Girls’ explores the disturbing growth of young girls promoting beauty products on their YouTube channels. This follows ‘Bras: A Life Sentence’. Both essays may make female readers question why they have accepted the supposed need for either cosmetic intervention.

Ellmann has a soft spot for the Little House series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, writing of this in ‘The Woman of the House. Although referring to the softening of certain hardships endured for Wilder’s intended young readership, Ellmann doesn’t mention the erasure of Laura’s dead siblings from the story, those who perished at birth or as infants. I shared her enjoyment of these books growing up but not her view that this simpler existence was, ‘Not a bad way to live, on the whole.’

Neither would I now wish to live without electricity as she considers in ‘Sing the Unelectric!‘ I do, however, concur with her views on wastefulness. The lack of longevity of many modern goods and devices is a growing concern now that mechanical operations have been replaced by computer controlled sealed units whose manufacture and disposal is so damaging to the environment. So many points made by Ellmann deserve consideration however much detail may be agreed with.

My favourite essay in the collection is ‘The Lost Art of Staying Put in which the author questions why humans choose to travel for so called pleasure. It is expensive, bad for the planet, and many tourists demand that locals not only speak their language but also provide food and accommodation to match the quality they are used to from home – why leave?

“Travel kills as much knowledge, taste and culture as it purportedly spreads. The compulsion for sameness has an insidious effect: languages, costume, dialects and accents start to die out as soon as the Coke and jeans and T-shirts arrive.”

I enjoyed that the home city focused on was Edinburgh (where Ellmann lives) rather than London or Paris – a refreshing change in literary musings.

For readers who enjoyed Ducks, Newburyport, many of these essays include lists (although also a variety of punctuation). The tenacity of the writing is familiar if more succinct.

Ellmann admits to being a tad glib at times but this approach enables her to get across the points she wishes to make pithily. She despairs of the world men have made and seeks change. Many of her observations and opinions may appear tongue-in-cheek but should not be dismissed as unintended to be taken seriously.

Any Cop?: A much enjoyed read however much may or may not be agreed with. Urgent, angry and often very funny.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Whereabouts

whereabouts

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a multi-award winning author who had somehow passed under my radar. I am pleased to have now rectified this. Another reviewer described her writing style perfectly: “Lahiri spins gold out of the straw of ordinary lives”.

The narrator of the story is an accomplished and independent woman. Due to a mix of life choices made and circumstance, she lives alone in her Italian city flat. Her day to day existence is ordered and materially comfortable. The routines she has developed keep her grounded, although at times she mulls possibilities missed through roads avoided.

“Is there any place we’re not moving through?”

Structured in short chapters, the reader is taken on a journey through the woman’s daily habits and wider experiences. She shares observations on: her surroundings, her thoughts on those encountered, herself and how she reacts. There is an underlying melancholy to many of the musings. Insights shared are succinct and candid, raising issues of interest alongside personal history.

The narrator’s childhood generated an abiding dislike of her parents. She still visits her mother but derives little pleasure from the older woman’s company.

“In spite of how she’s clung to me over the years, my point of view doesn’t interest her, and this gulf between us has taught me what solitude really means.”

There are regular catch-ups with a variety of acquaintances, although the narrator can be scathing about those they introduce her to. On meeting a childhood friend’s husband for the first time, when the couple visit the city with their child, she writes of his pomposity, considering him ill-mannered.

“He mentions that his father was a diplomat and that he was raised all over the world. […] The city doesn’t enchant him, after just two days he’s complaining about our haphazard way of life. […] And I wonder, what exactly did he learn about the world after living in all those different countries?”

Mentions of past lovers attempt to normalise that some were married. There is a brief temptation to take a platonic relationship with the husband of a friend further. Mostly she accepts her solitude and the freedom it brings to live as she chooses. Her life is notably one of comfort and privilege, as are the lives of those she mixes with.

One chapter describes a vacation at an empty country house, offered by the owner as a pick-me-up when the woman goes through an unexplained hard patch. There is a visceral description of her reaction to a decapitated mouse – how the mind can induce absurd terror from unexpected minor upsets. Such insights are presented with consummate clarity.

The honesty in the writing at times includes negative traits. These are dissected with the same candour as all other thoughts and feelings shared. The narrator exhibits a selfishness she is free to nurture as she lives alone and may choose who to spend time with – and when.

Despite her attainments, the woman lacks confidence in certain areas.

“I’ve always felt in someone’s shadow, even though I don’t have to compare myself to brothers who are smarter, or to sisters who are prettier.”

Unlike most of the writing in this tale, the gender divide inherent in this thought grated.

The woman describes herself as disoriented, bewildered and uprooted yet she comes across as solidly able – capable of thinking through experiences and expressing herself clearly. This begs the question what has been omitted – what aspects she has chosen not to share.

The final chapter provides an excellent metaphor for the sadness of the ingrained detachment she has cultivated – of moments missed through her unwillingness to step outside the comfort zone created. The narrator is aware of this shortcoming, and that the bricks on which a life is built often crumble. She ponders the possibility of change.

The short vignettes provide a window into the woman’s world but are far from a complete back-story or description of her current situation. This adds to the story’s skilful pacing and how strands are woven together.

Any Cop?: A spare yet evocative study of a chosen existence presented with impressive lucidity. A reminder that lives move forward, ripples intersecting, ramifications rarely predictable.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Intimacies

intimacies

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Intimacies is a collection of eleven short stories that delve, with exquisite and piercing insight, into the lives of young Irish women at home and away. Many of the protagonists in these tales have chosen to leave the isle but retain the shadows of their upbringing. Motherhood features strongly – the impact of having, wanting or not wanting children.

The opening story, ‘Like This’, is a stomach twisting freefall evocation of the fear a mother feels when she realises her child may have been abducted by a stranger. The everyday problems encountered when taking both a toddler and baby out, in an attempt to entertain them, are laid bare. The taut prose is all the more powerful for how viscerally the unfolding situation is conveyed. It is a masterwork in the art of succinct storytelling.

After such a strong beginning the reader may wonder how momentum may be maintained. Have no concerns. Each of the following stories offers depth and erudition, weaving important topics that colour women’s lives and relationships into their everyday experiences. Alongside the mothers exhausted by the demands of beloved children are women suffering miscarriage, and those seeking abortion in a country where this is still illegal. The author ably demonstrates that shock tactics are unnecessary when traumas in regular life have been normalised, admitting to them made shameful.

‘People Tell You Everything’ is set in a contemporary Shoreditch workplace. It explores misunderstandings – the humiliation that can be experienced when love is unrequited. The characters view each other through a lens in which their personal desires are reflected. When reality bites the hurt can become hard to live with.

Marriage is portrayed with poignancy but also humour.

“It was Friday night so we were having a glass of wine while we looked at our phones.”

Men may be secondary characters but they are permitted to be good people.

‘Words for Things’ is quite brilliant. Two young mothers – long time friends – are discussing Monica Lewinsky, how as teenagers they judged this twenty-two year old employee caught in the web of a lecherous American president. The story offers a perspective on how people change as their understanding deepens.

“Tonya Harding, Amy Winehouse, Shannon Doherty, Britney Spears. Because the thing was, it wasn’t just Monica Lewinsky. It was all the other women too, who used to be sort-of laughing stocks, and who – you suddenly realised – turned out to be something else entirely.”

Religion, of course, warrants a mention. ‘Jars of Clay’ is set around the Irish vote to legalise abortion under certain circumstances. An earnest if blinkered church group from America have travelled to Dublin to try to persuade people to vote against this proposed change. Their arguments are well rehearsed but even the eager young believer in their midst cannot entirely tamp down her doubts about their mission when confronted by the reality of lived experience.

The Children’ is a powerful tale of the bond between mothers and their children told with reference to Caroline Norton – a 19th century activist – whose callous husband used his legal powers of ownership to ensure severance when she left him after a series of life affecting beatings.

“Cut off from her children after an acrimonious split, she went about changing the law for wives and mothers.”

In the contemporary timeline the narrator is concerned for the viability of her own pregnancy. Each of these stories offers up multiple, entwined issues for consideration.

‘All the People were Mean and Bad’ is set during a flight from Toronto to London. A young mother struggling with her baby is assisted by an older man sitting next to her. There are many layers to peel back in what is a story of marriage and parenthood.

The collection ends with ‘Devotions’ – a reminder of the intensity of love for a child at each stage of their growth, and how quickly the emotional detail of moments that felt so precious fade as lives move inexorably forward.

Several of the characters in these stories muse that their young children will not even remember the events that cost their mothers so much effort and anguish, that what children do remember is often that which caused them pain rather than pleasure.

The writing is seriously impressive – incisive, heartfelt, and always engaging. At times while reading it had me in pieces as I recalled my own experiences as a young woman and mother, but it provides so much more than relatability.

Any Cop?: A mighty collection in which each and every story deserves to be savoured. If you have not yet discovered Lucy Caldwell’s fiction, start here.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Bitterhall

bitterhall

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Bitterhall is a story of intersecting lives and the effects of childhood experiences on how a person manages relationships. It is also a ghost story of sorts, including a murder mystery. Set in contemporary times but with disturbing undercurrents from the past, the narrative offers three perspectives on events that occurred over some weeks one autumn in recent history.

The first key character to be introduced is Daniel – thirty-six years old and one of three tenants living in a large house in a northern city. He works at the local university where his innovative work is nearing fruition. He has recently stolen an historic diary from a long time friend.

Daniel is attracted to the most recent tenant to take up residence in the house share. Tom is handsome, works in marketing, and is in a new relationship with Órla, a PhD student. Daniel discovers he has an affinity with Órla that he rarely enjoys with anyone. It is these three who recount the unfolding tale.

The third tenant, Badr, appears more centred than the rest. Also living in the house is Minto, the reclusive owner of the place.

In the opening section of the book there is a suggestion of suppressed violence in Daniel’s behaviour. He worries about how he appears to others, often choosing his own company as less stressful. His recollections focus on the insular – observing but rarely empathising.

Órla lives in another house share but stays over with Tom regularly. She is already waiting to have her heart broken, trying hard to tamp down this expectation.

“I loathed this being the one running after; I wanted to be the one people chase.”

When Tom starts reading the stolen diary, his behaviour notably changes. Órla grows worried but has little idea how to help.

“He has succeeded where I haven’t in becoming plural. And it’s not just down to me it happened – he split himself. He was split. Something clawed at him and he let it in and in the process let himself out. Selfletting, like bloodletting.”

By the time narrative shifts to Tom’s perspective it has become clear that some uncanny force has manifested. Órla turns to Daniel for help.

Tom lives his life in cycles, accepting that each will end. He is currently at the start of a new sexual cycle with Órla. His current job has lost its appeal and he desires change. He is disturbed by his reaction to Daniel and this is exacerbated by the diary’s effect on him. Is the force it unleashes obsession or possession?

“Everyone is drenched in ghosts – there are so many more dead people than alive – so it takes a cut to let them get in.”

There is an oblique quality to each of the character’s remembrances that, while building depth to events recounted, remain skewed by personal perspectives. The stealthy progression will lead the reader to examine what they believe.

The story starts at the housewarming party organised when Tom moves in. A second party, held at the home of the owner of the diary, is pivotal. The denouement is masterfully rendered exposing a truth many may try to avoid accepting. Spectres are raised over how much control anyone can have over their own feelings and behaviour – and how much they can influence the actions of those they care for.

Within each character’s sections the book is structured in short chapters with intriguing headings. Although this bite sized approach maintains pace, I found chapters meaty, requiring pauses for digestion. I was fully engaged but could not rush the reading.

Any Cop?: A skilfully shadowed story that will creep into the reader’s psyche inducing a questioning of possibilities. An exploration of the power of the mind – how difficult it can be to control when personal fears are triggered.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Fragments of an Infinite Memory

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I’m thirty-seven years old; I went online for the first time when I was nineteen; I can still say I’ve lived more than half my life without the internet, though this ratio will soon tip the other way.”

Maël Renouard is a French writer and translator. He has taught philosophy at the Sorbonne and the École Normale Supérieure. In this, his latest book, he muses on how day to day life has changed due to ease of access to the internet – smart phones providing a plethora of knowledge, news and entertainment on demand.

Across eleven chapters, the author offers short opinion pieces and recollections – vignettes that look at how sites such as YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Earth and Facebook have changed how people curate their lives and memories.

“Who hasn’t gone on the internet looking for past loves and friends one hasn’t seen in years? Time lost in search of lost time.”

He posits that views of the world and self have changed, and that internet apps have altered how we interact as well as how we anticipate and then record experiences.

The second chapter opens with a list of comments left below YouTube videos of hits from a number of past decades. The nostalgia evoked is, with almost equal frequency, a source of sadness and joy for users.

Such digital repositories have revised how people learn and live. And yet, there remains a hankering for what went before.

“someone told me that a few months earlier he had created a start-up that offered to print out SMS conversations on little scrolls (and perhaps soon bind them into books as well, he added); his business was flourishing beyond all hopes.”

As users move from physical to digital, what had once seemed commonplace becomes rare, such as letters sent by post. The author mentions the worry he had when required to send a paper document and, holding the sealed envelope, experienced doubt that he had included the necessary item. With email he could simply check attachments in his ‘Sent’ folder.

In later chapters there are musings on the rich man’s dream of achieving immortality by downloading brain contents – whatever that may involve. It is pointed out that this has largely been achieved already. Online we leave writing, recordings and images that others may access and interact with. He assumes these will still exist after we die.

The author discusses the idea that artificial intelligence is nothing like intelligence in humans – the latter requiring consciousness and intentionality. Articulating what this means can be challenging.

“In a sci-fi film, a police officer says to an individual he has just unmasked as a humanoid robot: “You can’t write a novel or a concerto.” The robot replies: “Can you?”

Our wariness at the prospect of artificial intelligence possibly rests upon an even greater fear than that of being annihilated, enslaved, replaced etc. by machines (though we are quick to portray this as an irreparable loss to the universe): the fear of being unmasked as ‘feeble, humdrum creatures, mostly incapable of creating anything at all.’

On memory, there are reminders that fears existed in ancient times, following the invention of writing, that human capacity to memorise may be adversely effected.

The internet may be a repository for: knowledge, recordings, and images. Only the individual retains the entirety of self.

Chapters explore how and what we photograph now that smart phones offer immediate access to captured images where once analogue film would have required expensive and delayed processing. Before we visit a place the internet can provide us with pictures of what we will see, that we may then photograph to prove we have been there and immediately share on line with ‘friends’ we may never have met. Examples are provided of how Facebook affects users, even its detractors.

“More and more, we compare reality to images, instead of comparing images to reality.”

There exist people who have created their desired personas through internet entries. It is even possible for a person to exist online but not in real life. The possibilities offered by the internet are reflected in works of fiction, with stories changing markedly when set after the years when use became ubiquitous.

Chapter nine, a favourite of mine, offers up a series of highly enjoyable contemporary tales written in a style reminiscent of the ancients. These provide salutary lessons, of those seeking recognition believed to be unfairly denied, or those who deign to be above using online means to promote themselves – by mentioning this they do so anyway.

Some of the thoughts, ideas and conjectures are more complex but by presenting them bite sized they are easily digested.

Any Cop?: Although sometimes rambling and digressive, this is an interesting perambulation through internet usage and the changes generated. A playful yet well considered explication of a modern marvel so many rely on and now take for granted.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Silent Letter

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“we’re this, we are a moment”

The Silent Letter is a collection of poems written as the author, Jaume Subirana, is reaching his sixties. They harbour an appreciation of the now – of everyday life’s vistas and minutiae. The language used is measured yet piercing, avoiding the guttural and the crude in favour of more gentle observations. This does not remove vivid emotion but rather exudes a personal, internal understanding of wonders to be found in any time or place.

The poems bring to life the beauty of nature and its ability to calm inner turbulence. Time is given over to watching raindrops catching light on a windowpane. Snow blankets the ground, bringing with it a feeling of peace.

“A silent pause next. Winter’s silent letter.”

Such visual pleasures are presented succinctly, avoiding the garish, leaving a contrail of enchantment in what many will fail to notice as they chatter and look forward to their next experience. The poems offer a cessation in the rush and noise – the fear of missing some opportunity that blinds to what is here already.

The words conjure an intimacy – gentle beauty. The images evoked are discrete while still touching the senses.

Settings are various, each valued for aspects that all could enjoy if they took the time to observe and absorb ambience alongside fixtures. Art is stepped into. Empty space offers relief between the impressive scenes depicted on the walls of a castle-cathedral.

The poems are presented in the original Catalan and then the English translation. Even those that cover only a few lines are given a full page. This spacing encourages the reader to pause and absorb each choice of word and stanza fully.

The collection is followed by a Vita Nova by Jordi Galves in which he describes Subrirana’s work, ‘as disconnected as possible from the blind gregariousness of mere sheep.’

It is a refreshing pleasure to read such carefully constructed and moving poems that remain accessible while avoiding both bland and fruitied phrasing.

“We sip a sacrament
of light and silence”

Any Cop?: In achieving balance and perspective – cultural resonance drawn from life, nature and simple observation – the author provides inspiration to pay quiet attention and live well.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Greensmith

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

In amongst her other work, Aliya Whiteley has published an impressive number of novels. She first came to my attention when I read The Arrival of Missives and realised she produced original stories in a style I wanted to read more of. Her writing is playful and imaginative, mind bending and intoxicating. Her characters defy stereotypes yet remain ordinary alongside the various features that make them extraordinary.

Greensmith opens with an introduction to its protagonist, Penelope Greensmith, in the form of an online dating profile. We learn that she is a scientist in her fifties who is now somewhat lonely. A war is mentioned, one that caused her to flee to a remote cottage with her life’s work. She collects and catalogues seeds, building a flower bank that includes many species which may now be extinct. The Collection was started by her late father, who raised her following the death of his wife. Penelope’s grown up daughter, Lily, does not share her mother’s passion for the ongoing project.

With a basic background in place, plot gathers pace when a stranger, Hort, arrives unexpectedly in Penelope’s cottage garden. He wishes to talk to her about her Collection and the device used to prepare the seeds for storage – named the Vice. Although wary at first, the thought of the online dating app reminds Penelope she was looking for greater connection with the world beyond her current existence. When news of a virulent plague reaches her, one that is killing all plant life across the globe, she must decide on her future.

When considering life and its preservation, man has a habit of focusing on himself and, perhaps, other mammals. Yet all living creatures rely on plants for air and sustenance. If the plants die suddenly – in this case coating the world in green sludge – it will not take long for every other life form to expire.

It turns out that Hort is an inter-galactic traveller looking for a solution to the virus that is affecting many planets, not just Earth. He asks Penelope to become his companion – bringing along her Vice and Collection – to try to save her world. Hort is persuasive, and Penelope rather likes the idea of becoming a hero.

So, Greensmith is science-fiction. This requires a degree of world building, or should I say universe building, which the author tackles with a hefty dollop of humour. She gets around some tricky concepts by pointing out the limitations of language. How, after all, can something be accurately and fully described in English when nothing like it has ever been seen or experienced by any English speaking people?

The human brain has a habit of anthropomorphising – it sees shapes in clouds, faces on tree trunks or such items as potatoes. When confronted with beings and situations beyond her comprehension, Penelope copes by seeing them as something she can recognise and name – she is, after all, an expert in cataloguing. Her first aliens, other than Hort, are flamencos. She views their antagonists as lizards dressed in armour, knowing they look different to beings from other worlds who will define by their own standards.

Hort is harder to pin down. Attractive and enigmatic, reservations hover around his trustworthiness. Having left Earth with him, however, Penelope has little choice but to follow his lead. The one thing she will not give him free rein over is her Vice and Collection. Hort struggles to understand how he is not unquestionably her handsome hero in the film he creates of his actions and subsequent memories.

As plot is developed and progressed, the author’s writing style comes into its own. Each diversion offered is a delight as well as a further layer in the quirky world building. Penelope never loses sight of her goal – to save planet Earth and thereby her daughter. What she comes to realise is how insignificant one time and place is in the scale of the universe – yet how important the smallest thing can be in making life worth preserving.

“when the largest things made no sense, relief could reside in the smallest objects, the ones that needed so badly to be cherished, instead.”

The denouement ties up threads with aplomb, leaving a sense of satisfaction without compromising all that has gone before.

Any Cop?: This is a tale that is clever yet lightly rendered, offering much to consider within a universe created from witty concepts playing with recognisable features. It is science fiction that focuses on the fun side of storytelling, with a hat tip to how astonishing our natural world is. A timely yet always entertaining reminder that Earth deserves wider protection – not management – for the good of us all.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Inside the Beautiful Inside

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Bethlem Hospital began as a priory, founded in the 13th Century. By 1400 it had become a refuge for strangers in need. Over time, Bethlem specialised in caring for those considered insane. By the 17th century, the asylum was well-known enough to appear in dramas and ballads – used as a way to explore the popular question of who was mad, who was sane, and who had the power to decide.

When the second version of the hospital was constructed, in 1676, it was unlike any asylum seen before. Its opulent exterior was compared to the Palace of Versailles. However, the hospital was built on rubble – it didn’t have proper foundations. Because the ornate façade was so heavy, it immediately cracked at the back. Whenever it rained, the walls ran with water.

The new hospital was, quite literally, putting a pretty face on what many Londoners saw as a messy, distasteful problem. Visitors would pay to view the inmates and wonder at the grimness of their lives. Going to the hospital was meant to be an instructive reminder to keep baser instincts in check lest they too be committed.

Inside the Beautiful Inside is set in the crumbling Bethlem during its final decades, before it was torn down and rebuilt again elsewhere. The protagonist is an American marine, James Norris, a real life seaman who was an inmate from 1800 to 1815 – he was incarcerated for an unnamed lunacy. In this fictionalised account of his life, Norris served under Captain Bligh – of Mutiny on the Bounty fame – and was a friend of Fletcher Christian. The story opens with Norris saving Christian’s life whilst at sea.

The timeline then jumps forward to the day Norris is taken to Bethlem. Here he must endure under the cruel regime of the keepers and a drunken surgeon, tasked with patient care. Convinced that Christian is also an inmate, Norris is determined to wreak revenge on the man he now blames for ruining his chance of a happy life with a woman he spurned.

The appalling conditions in the asylum are brought to vivid life in the narrative. Norris survives by going inside his memories, particularly of happier times with a young Welsh woman, Ruth, who he hoped to marry. He has, over the course of his life, lost all those he cared for: mother, brother, lover, friend. By reliving his key memories, the reader learns of each of these relationships, albeit in fragments.

Norris’s eventual outcome was determined by three prominent reformers who were concerned by the condition and ill-treatment of patients in lunatic asylums. They used an illustration of Norris – mechanically restrained in an extraordinary device designed specifically for him after a series of violent incidents – to garner public interest and thereby orchestrate change.

The reasons for these incidents are used in the story to add depth to Norris’s character and subsequent actions. Told from his point of view, veracity is always in question. Norris holds tight to his memories as they are all that keep him going through the pain and degradation inflicted on him and his fellow inmates. Over the course of his time in Bethlem, Norris’s grasp on reality is severely tested.

Fascinating though it is to travel inside the head of someone living through such appalling circumstances, this was not an easy read. The memories Norris shares add colour and credence to his actions but life in Bethlem remains unremittingly grim. Although not a long book, I was eager for it to end. The denouement made more sense when I looked up what happened to Norris in reality.

The author has chosen to make Norris a victim who survives in part due to strengths derived from his life as a hardened seaman. That he hankers after a more domestic existence – one he eschewed due to jealousy and pride – made his predicament poignant but, in some small measure, self-inflicted. His time in captivity brought to the fore his regret at not valuing what he could have had.

The story offers an interesting history but not so much the psychology I had expected from the synopsis. The voice adopted for Norris garners sympathy – how could it not – but too often comes across as disjointed. Perhaps my not entirely favourable reaction is down to unmet expectations derived from the book’s publicity material – that and my lack of engagement with the style of writing.

Any Cop?: The treatment of those society regards as insane has a long and shocking history. I feel I learned more about Bethlem in general from this tale than about the inmate narrating.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Glass Hotel

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“What kept her in the kingdom [of money] was the previously unimaginable condition of not having to think about money, because that’s what money gives you: the freedom to stop thinking about money. If you’ve never been without, then you won’t understand the profundity of this, how absolutely this changes your life.”

The most important thing to say about The Glass Hotel is that it was a pleasure to read. The characters are fully formed and complex, doused with a realism that keeps the reader interested in their fates. They each have a purpose in the unfolding plot that adds nuance and depth. There are many inter-relationships and passing cross-references to parse, enabling a consideration of varying perceptions. I enjoyed the author’s habit of dropping titbits from the future as the timeline moved back and forth across decades. This served to provoke curiosity in how the character would reach the future development in their life trajectory.

What I wasn’t so impressed with was the denouement. By choosing to open the story with a brief reveal of the ultimate fate of a key character, I was left disappointed when the detail was added and a conclusion built. Having savoured the skill with which the author writes, I turned the final page and felt dissatisfied. Perhaps I was simply unwilling to go with the author’s suggestion of possibilities.

The glass hotel itself is a luxury destination on a remote peninsula in Canada, where the moneyed may relax and feel detached from their busy lives. It is here that Jonathan – who specialises in investments – meets Vincent, a bartender who grew up nearby. Their families, friends and business associates form the core of the pool of characters.

The story is set between 1958 and 2029, with certain years particularly eventful. How to make money, and why it is required, is a recurring theme. The focus is on those who were not born into wealth so had to find a way to acquire what they needed – to both survive and then live a life aspired to. There are explorations of the morality of choices made – how characters justify their actions, if only to themselves.

Vincent has an older half-brother, Paul, who harbours ambitions to be a composer and musician. He is also a drug addict, always resenting that Vincent got to live with their father. The dynamic between these two as they reach adulthood offers a fine study on the psychology of family.

Jonathan’s first wife – his confidante and mother of their daughter – dies of cancer. He is the owner of the glass hotel and visits regularly, seeking investors. His life revolves around his business although he enjoys his wealth, using it as a symbol of his success. When he takes on a much younger woman to be his new wife, it is mutually beneficial but not a love match.

Over the decades, the story follows several of Jonathan’s investors, some of whom regard him as a friend. The author touches on their lives lightly but always adding to development. These artists and businessmen rarely consider the financial cushion on which the rest of what they do has been built.

Money can be made and also lost, the impact of which inevitably varies. Certain characters need the respect they believe financial success accords them. Others find a way to move forward, but always with thoughts of what might have been. There is anger and also bewilderment.

Although the plot is engaging and offers much to mull over, this is a character driven story. Perceived success is depicted as a veneer; life as a state of flux, relationships mostly a masquerade. Roles played and compromises made affect self-esteem.

The writing is a master class in building anticipation, the structure aiding progression at an assured pace. The various characters may at first glance appear vanilla but by delving deeper into their psyches they offer up dilemmas more widely representative.

Any Cop?: I may not have felt satisfied by the ending, yet this was still a story well worth reading. Its complex themes never detract from the ease of engagement. A lingering thought provoking tale in myriad ways.

Jackie Law