Book Review: Voting Day

voting day

“He’ll be doing the right thing for his country, a country that has been well ruled by decent men for seven hundred years.”

Voting Day, by Clare O’Dea, is set in Switzerland on 1 February 1959. On this day the adult male citizens of the country were voting in a referendum that asked if females should be granted the right to vote too. Told from the points of view of four interlinked but very different women, the story offers a window into their everyday world and the challenges faced by being female. Only one has any particular interest in the vote taking place despite their circumstances being stymied by gender.

The first part focuses on Vreni, a farmer’s wife and mother to four grown children who has lost something of what she once was along the way. Her daughter, Margrit, works in Bern where Vreni is preparing to travel for a medical procedure. Her three sons are living at home along with a foster child, Ruedi. Although a conscientious wife and mother, the young boy is not treated as one of the family. Vreni believes he must be prepared for the hard life he will likely lead later.

“It’s not a good idea to show affection to these children. They get the wrong idea.”

The second part of the book focuses on Margrit who has a serious problem with her boss to deal with. What I found most fascinating about these first two sections was how the mother and daughter regarded each other and themselves. There is obviously love between them but the lens through which they view the same incidents are very different.

Margrit’s story offers the perspective of a modern career woman who is just starting to understand the difficulties encountered when living without the social and financial protection of a husband.

The third part introduces the reader to Esther who works at the hospital Vreni is admitted to. She is Ruedi’s mother and her backstory explains why the boy was taken from her. This section depicts a Switzerland that offers very little to those struggling financially, who do not have family to fall back on. Esther was also taken from her parents, when she was seven years old. They were Yenish, leading a lifestyle many did not approve of.

“Somebody somewhere decided that our little home was too full and too free. They took three of us away and left the younger ones. They wanted to see children in straight lines with clean dresses and plaited hair. They wanted us meek.”

Esther misses her son dreadfully and is doing all she can to turn her life around that he may be returned to her. She understands this will be difficult given her low earning capabilities. Her current job and accommodation were organised by Beatrice, on whom the final part of the book focuses.

Beatrice, at sixty-one years old, is a successful hospital administrator. She chose not to marry, a choice made easier due to her personal financial stability. Well organised and capable, Beatrice enjoys her work.

“she was proud of how smoothly everything functioned. She had the respect of all the doctors, the board, the staff. Her salary was generous, for a woman.”

Beatrice has been working hard at the Bern Women’s Vote Association and cares deeply about the day’s outcome. The difference in how men act and are treated compared to women has long bothered Beatrice.

“I used to hate how the men sat for the duration of the party and filled the room with their voices, never fetched or served a single thing or moved from the spot to deal with interrupting children”

Covering for a sick colleague at the hospital, she returns home to learn of the result from her visiting brother.

“it was the recognition I imagined with such intense craving. I wanted them to say, this is your country too”

When Beatrice first came across Esther and learned of her situation, she did what she could to help. Galvanised by her disappointment at the vote result, she concocts another plan in an attempt to make a real difference, one of which her brother disapproves. He has his own difficulties and can only see her concern for Esther through his resentment of how he is regarded by society. As many would do well to remember today, helping one struggling minority does not mean a lack of care for others who face discrimination.

An epilogue takes the reader to a year later and an event that brings the four women together. Although Vreni proved earlier that she could act decisively when she had to, she is in awe of how Beatrice has dealt with the authorities – mostly men.

“You just have to act like them, as if the world belongs to you, too. It confuses them.”

This denouement sweetens what has gone before although little of substance has changed.

In her Author’s Note at the end, O’Dea explains how Swiss women were eventually enfranchised.

“In the end, an outside catalyst was needed to force the next, successful referendum in 1971 in the form of the European Convention on Human Rights. The convention dated from 1953 and by 1968 the Federal Council (Swiss government) was keen to sign, just without the clause concerning women’s political rights.
This ridiculous prospect galvanised the upcoming more radical generation of the women’s movement, giving them enough fresh outrage to persuade the government to deliver a new referendum. Times were changing.”

It seems incredible that a modern, European democracy withheld the vote from half its population for so long, and felt it was acting reasonably in doing so. This was a slice of history of which I was unaware.

Written with warmth and understanding, the story is well paced and offers nuggets of insight into women’s lives and how disinterested men tend to be in specifics that do not detrimentally affect them. Succinct and perceptive, issues are explored with pleasing depth whilst avoiding polemic – a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fairlight Books.

Book Review: Bottled Goods

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn.

Bottled Goods is described as a novella in flash fiction. It is structured in short chapters with each offering a window into everyday life in Romania under Ceaușescu. The plot moves forward apace.

The protagonist is a young woman named Alina whose wealthy family lost their land to the communist government before she was born. Her mother is an apparent zealot for the regime, although this may be her way of retaining control over her daughter who has a tendency to dream of fulfilling yearnings of her own. Alina’s aunt, Theresa, has influential connections through her marriage and uses these to help her niece when she can.

Alina marries Liviu against her mother’s wishes. For all her communist ideals, Mother continues to regard her new son-in-law as a peasant. Refusing to help the newly weds who have defied her, their early married life is made more difficult than it needed to be. Alina resents that she must take a low paid job as a teacher to enable her husband to finish college, something she was thereby unable to achieve.

What hopes the young couple may have had for decent careers, which would have made life a little easier, are shattered when Liviu’s brother defects. This action brings his wider family under scrutiny from officials tasked with ensuring all comrades adhere to party diktats. Liviu is called in for questioning and then reassigned to work in a remote and difficult location. When Alina overlooks a breach of protocol by one of her students she too suffers the close attention of party officials. The couple now live in fear of more serious punishment, putting their marriage under greater strain.

The portrait of life under such a controlling government is cogently enraging to read. Alina must also live with the fear of betrayal from colleagues and even family who would be rewarded for providing information. Alina understands that her mother is selfish and desires a compliant daughter who puts the mother’s needs and wishes before her own. She struggles to accept that any parent would sacrifice a child as punishment for daring to try for a better way of life that does not include them.

Alina turns to Theresa for help and is offered a solution that requires a step of faith. As with any advantage gleaned in this country it comes at a cost, including the weight of guilt.

This is impressive storytelling with fully three dimensional scenes packed into each short segment. The characters appear rounded and real with their varied traits and behaviours. Communist Romania is as much a character as any of its people. The story has depth and passion whilst retaining flow and an engaging tension.

Despite the frustration and despair I felt at Alina’s treatment this was an historically fascinating tale. The unusual structure was harnessed with skill and then worked superbly to build empathy. There are magical elements which could be taken at face value or accepted as metaphors that offer further details to consider.

Alina is presented as a far from perfect individual with her trials providing a foundation for portraying the realities of life under a closed, communist dictatorship. Written with flair and precision this is an immersive and compelling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fairlight Books.

Guest post from independent publisher, Fairlight Books

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Today I welcome Lindsey from Fairlight whose book, Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn, I will be reviewing tomorrow.

Fairlight Books is an independent publisher based in Oxford. Our aim is to promote literary fiction and quality writing by new and established authors. Literary fiction has been under threat in recent years and with our attractive books and illustration-led covers we are trying to reconnect readers to this strand of literature.

Established in 2017, we publish 7-10 titles per year, including hardback and paperback novels. For us, it’s all about quality, rather than quantity. We also publish novellas, as part of our Fairlight Moderns series.

One of the reasons writers of high-quality and literary fiction find it so hard to get published these days is because the system over the last few years has become very geared towards finding and promoting genre fiction, particularly the hugely popular genres of crime and thriller writing. In fact, The Arts Council recently suggested that literary fiction in the UK was in crisis.

Because of this, we think it’s important for us, as a publisher of literary fiction, to be innovative in how we source and promote literary fiction for readers.

One of the ways we do this is by focusing primarily on receiving our submissions direct from writers – not with windows that open for short periods of time at random moments, but through a constantly open submissions process. We review every single manuscript we receive and although sometimes it can take us a few months, we do get back to every single author with a response one way or the other.

We’re also unusual in that we are happy to publish and promote novella-length literary fiction. Our Fairlight Moderns series is quite unconventional in being made up of novellas of new English-language writing (not translations) from literary writers worldwide. With their gorgeous jewel-like covers, each with a unique illustration by New York-based Sam Kalda, this eclectic collection of stories from around the world is proving popular with readers. They are a great way of introducing new literary authors’ writing to a wider readership.

It’s great to see such prizes as The Republic of Consciousness Prize out there supporting small independent presses, and celebrating literary fiction. It offers a good opportunity to get visibility for our authors and expand our readership. Since one of our Fairlight Moderns, Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn, was longlisted we’ve had a great response from the industry which has really raised awareness among readers as well.

Find out more about Fairlight Books on their website

You may also wish to follow them on Twitter: @FairlightBooks