Book Review: A Narrow Door

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This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I follow Joanne Harris on Twitter and had been looking forward to reading A Narrow Door since she mentioned some time ago that her work in progress was a return to St Oswald’s school in Malbry. Whilst not a particular fan of Dark Academia as a genre, I very much enjoyed two of the previous books in this series – Gentlemen and Players and Different Class. The books are described as psychological thrillers and I was expecting the tense and taut pacing of the earlier works. Sadly, I struggled to engage this time round.

The story is told from two points of view and across two main timelines. Roy Straitley, the elderly Classics teacher now with worrying health issues, makes a return although he mostly serves as a listening ear, only occasionally adding a noteworthy opinion. The protagonist is Rebecca Buckfast, the new headteacher. It is made clear that appointing a woman to this role is quite shocking in such a traditional setting. She has taken the reins in the year that the Boys Grammar School merges with its sister school, Mulberry House, thereby admitting girls to the hallowed halls. In an attempt to create a fresh start after two difficult years, St Oswald’s has been rebranded an Academy.

The opening draws the reader in immediately. There are introductions to other members of the teaching staff, alongside key pupils, bringing readers who are new to the series up to speed on internal loyalties and enmities. References are made to events that damaged the school’s reputation and therefore finances – these were the plotlines of the earlier books in the series. Aspects mentioned would be better understood if the stories were read in order.

Rebecca Buckfast has a high opinion of herself and is proud of her appointment, believing she has worked harder for it than a man would have to. She also admits in the first chapter that she has committed two murders. The rest of the book contains her life story, as she tells it to Roy. She is his boss yet reveals intimate details, including aspects of her sex life. To this reader such divulgences felt inappropriate. The author worked as a teacher so maybe such behaviour happens. Fiction, of course, is often not realistic. Nevertheless, the way this book is structured too often jarred.

The plot revolves around the fallout from a pivotal event that occurred when Rebecca was five years old. At the end of the school year her teenage brother, Conrad, disappeared from his school – the neighbouring King Henry’s Grammar – never to be seen again. All but his parents believe he is dead. The parents’ lives paused on the day Conrad went missing. This has shadowed Rebecca’s life. She believes her parents remained sad that the wrong child stayed with them.

Rebecca struggled as a single, teenage mother yet managed to qualify as a teacher. She met her partner, Dominic, when they both worked at the local comprehensive. He was unhappy when she accepted a role at St Henry’s. Roy grows more interested in the history she is telling him when he realises her time there coincided with that of his long time friend, Eric, whose reputation couldn’t survive damaging allegations that previously shocked Roy to the core.

As is to be expected in a thriller: breadcrumbs are dropped before reveals are made; certain characters turn out to be not quite what they seemed; memory skews what later pulls threads together; and our main narrator proves she is not averse to underhand measures to get her way. There are hat tips to contemporary issues such as the treatment of gay and transgender pupils. There is an excellent ‘prank’ by Roy’s favoured Brodie Boys.

I enjoyed the ending, and not just because I could now stop reading a story that seemed at times to move along glacially. This is not a bad book but is not as good as I have come to expect from the author. Despite all the revelations, too many characters lacked sufficient depth, their role coming across as inauthentic. My main gripe remains that I wasn’t captivated as previously in the series.

Any Cop?: A thriller that failed to thrill this reader.

Jackie Law


Robyn Reviews: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London


‘The Left-Handed Booksellers of London’ is a fun, light-hearted YA fantasy adventure perfect for anyone looking for easy entertainment. There’s little depth to the story or characters, but the plot is fast-paced and entertaining. With the current trend in fantasy for dark, gritty stories, it’s nice to see a more cheerful take on the genre.

The story follows Susan, a just-turned-eighteen-year-old from just outside Bath who’s moving to London to start an art course. She’s also hoping to use the opportunity to finally track down her dad – a subject her mum will never talk about. However, when Susan arrives in London and goes to meet one of her mum’s acquaintances, she finds herself being rescued by a mysterious maybe-wizard named Merlin – and from there, her time in London starts to go in a very different direction than she’d planned.

Susan is a likeable enough protagonist – very much a reluctant heroine who spends the majority of the book very confused. None of the characters are ever developed in depth, but Sarah serves her narrative purpose well. Merlin and Vivian are far more interesting characters, but while details are tossed out here and there neither is fully explored. I’d happily read an entire follow-up novel about Vivian and her life when Merlin isn’t dragging her around the country because everyone’s trying to kill his latest crush.

The concept of left and right-handed booksellers and their magic system is brilliant – quite unique, and who in the reading world doesn’t want the bookseller to be the hero of the story? Again, the pace means this isn’t explored, but it’s a great take on the secret-protectors-of-normal-people-from-secret-magic trope. The rest of the worldbuilding borrows heavily from general European mythology and folklore: Fenris from Norse mythology, a variation on vampires, goblins, the power of May Day. It’s a crude mash-up but works well, blending familiar elements into something new.

The plot is the main focus. I haven’t read any Garth Nix for years – I believe I once read Sabriel, but so long ago I can barely recall it – but if all his books are in this vein, I can see why he’s so popular with younger teenage readers. The plot is conventional, with relatively predictable twists and turns, but entertaining, with witty dialogue and a teenagers-uncover-adult-incompetence slant so popular with younger readers. There are sad and tense moments, but for the most part it’s upbeat and humorous. Given that the main character is eighteen, I’m not sure if the aim was to have an older target audience, but the light tone and superficiality make it read like a younger book.

Overall, this is a fun YA fantasy adventure great for light entertainment. Recommended as a holiday read or when you need a light pick-me-up – or for a more reluctant teenage reader.

Thanks to Netgalley and Gollancz for providing an e-ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orion
Hardback: 24th September 2020

Robyn Reviews: Imperfect Women

Imperfect Women is a character study of three women – Eleanor, Nancy, and Mary – who met at university thirty years ago and have been best friends ever since. None of their lives have gone in the direction they envisaged, and none of them are particularly happy. The novel is split into thirds – Eleanor’s point of view, then Nancy’s, then Mary’s – and we get to know each woman from their own perspective and the perspective of those closest to them. Naturally, these differ significantly. They’re all flawed, brilliantly human characters, and whilst I disagree with many of their actions I love how real they always feel.

The novel starts with Eleanor receiving a phone call from Nancy’s husband, Robert. Eleanor has always been close to Nancy’s family – she has no partner or children of her own, choosing to focus on her career – but receiving a phone call at 4am is still unusual. Robert is concerned as Nancy has not returned home after having dinner with Eleanor. Eleanor drives to Robert’s house and confesses that Nancy has been having an affair and went to meet her lover after the dinner. Robert is shocked – and shock turns to horror when the police suddenly arrive. Nancy’s body has been found by the river in Hammersmith, and suddenly the bubble of normality which Eleanor’s been living in for the past thirty years shatters. Nancy’s death sets in motion a chain of events which expose every crack in Eleanor, Nancy, and Mary’s lives – and by extension, the lives of those closest to them.

This is a character study, so I don’t want to give too much away about these characters. I adore them, even though on paper they might not always seem pleasant. At first, they seem like three stereotypes – Eleanor, the woman who sacrificed everything else for her career; Nancy, the woman who married into money and never had enough to be satisfied; Mary, the woman who gave everything up to raise her children and doesn’t know who she is without them any more – but as the story unfolds they become so much more. Eleanor is probably my favourite, possibly because – as a twenty-something student – I find her easiest to relate to, but Nancy and Mary are also captivating in a different way. Their lives are car crashes, but you can’t look away.

“Women on this world are expected to conform, though it doesn’t seem like that any more. You can be many things in this life, but a dissatisfied woman isn’t one of them.”

The supporting cast – Nancy’s husband Robert and daughter Zara, Eleanor’s elderly neighbour Irena, and Mary’s husband Howard and children Marcus, Maisie, and Millie – have varying degrees of importance depending on the perspective at the time. Robert and Howard especially get a great deal of screen time, and it’s fascinating to see how each character views them differently. I dislike both of them – Howard especially – but given the lens through which they are viewed this is almost inevitable. In contrast, I had a huge amount of sympathy for Marcus – his life is a disaster, but at heart he’s a vulnerable child who truly cares about those around him, which is more than can be said for most of the cast.

“We should learn to find comfort in the fact that everyone’s got their own sadnesses.”

I find it much harder to discover contemporaries that I’ll love than I do science fiction and fantasy novels – and on paper, a novel about three women in their fifties undergoing mid-life crises shouldn’t appeal to me, but for whatever reason I loved this. The writing is excellent, and the characters are so believable you wouldn’t question meeting them on the street. Every terrible decision they make seems perfectly justifiable in their eyes, and you can believe that events would actually unfold this way in real life.

Overall, this was an excellent book. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves a character-driven story.


Published by Orion
Hardback: 20th August 2020

Robyn Reviews: Seven Devils

Seven Devils is a slow starter that grows into itself. The first half of the book is all introduction and exposition, but the second half is clever with twists both expected and unexpected – the ending especially. It’s worth persevering to enjoy the strength and character development at the end.

The book is set in an intergalactic empire ruled by a dictator who ensures his power by implanting chips in the heads of his citizens and sending commands to them via an AI, the Oracle or the One. He ensures that everyone is implanted by sterilising his citizens and growing new ones in vats. However, despite his efforts, a band of rebels – the Novantae – persist, fighting against his rule and seeking to liberate as many people as possible. Amongst them are Clo and Eris – deadly enemies forced to collaborate on their deadliest mission yet. Success could have huge implications for the Novantae – failure would mean certain death. Along the way, they pick up some unexpected stragglers – and this unexpected group must put their trust in each other to prevent the emperor and his son, Damocles, ensuring the end of the Novantae – and possibly the entire galaxy.

Eris was a brilliant, complex character, full of guilt and secrets. The more I learnt about her, the more I liked her. She got the most screentime because she had the most interesting backstory and role to play – in many ways, this would have worked with just her, Clo, and perhaps Rhea as point-of-view characters. Eris was a strong, ruthless character, but also very human in a way that none of the others seemed to appreciate.

Cloelia, or Clo, was one of the last people to have been born naturally rather than grown. She was an impulsive, rash character, prone to angry outbursts, but also fiercely loyal. She’s the sort of character I’d definitely want on my side – but I didn’t enjoy being in her head as much as I enjoyed being in Eris’s. She held too much of a grudge and regularly failed to see the bigger picture past a cloud of red mist.

Nyx, Rhea, and Ariadne made an interesting band of women. Nyx was much like Eris, except unlike Eris she’d spent a long time under the Oracle’s programming and had to grapple with that. Her sections were interesting, but not distinct enough from Eris’s to be entirely necessary. Rhea, the ex-favoured pleasure consort of Damocles, was a far more intriguing character – more could probably have been done with her than was achieved here, and I hope she plays a bigger role in the sequels. Ariadne, the Oracle’s engineer and a child genius, started strongly but became increasingly irritating. I appreciated that Lam and May never played down the trauma that her upbringing would have left on her and the impact it had – the depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder was excellent – but it wasn’t fun to read about, and her sections felt rather repetitive. She worked better as a side character than when she had her own point-of-view.

Overall, this made an interesting addition to the Star Wars-esque genre of science fiction focused on evil dictators and plucky bands of rebels. If that’s your cup of tea, stick with this – the payoff it worth it at the end.


Published by Orion
Hardcover: 6 August 2020

Book Review: The Strawberry Thief

“life is on loan, and all the things we find on the way – lovers, children, happiness – have to be given back in the end.”

The Strawberry Thief, by Joanne Harris, is the fourth book in a series that started twenty years ago with Chocolat. It is gently paced but with an underlying darkness, a hint of magic unleashing powers difficult to control. At the story’s centre is a young girl whose independence has been stymied by her mother’s love. The instinct to protect generates fear – for the future of parent as much as child. In many ways this is a coming of age tale across two generations. It is about a need for self-determination and finding the strength to let go.

Vianne Rocher is running her chocolaterie in the sleepy French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, living above the shop with her sixteen year old daughter, Rosette. Her older daughter, Anouk, is now in Paris with her boyfriend and is much missed. Rosette’s father, Roux, remains in his barge moored on the Tannes, restless but still a part of the family’s lives. The residents of Lansquenet are little changed – older of course but still thriving on gossip and its cause. Some changes though are inevitable – time cannot be held still, even here.

The story opens a week into Lent with the death of Narcisse, who owns the flower shop opposite the chocolaterie. His daughter is incensed to discover that he has left a patch of woodland to Rosette. Vianne’s younger daughter is regarded as a simpleton because she cannot speak in a way others can understand and is often restless when frustrated. Her skills at drawing go unregarded despite the stories they tell.

“Maman always says that stories are what keep us alive; the stories people tell us, and scatter like thistledown on the wind. And stories are all that’s left when we’re gone”

Narcisse leaves his story to the local priest, Reynaud, who struggles to read the hand written pages bequeathed with anything other than fear over what they may reveal about him. Since he was a young boy Reynaud has carried a terrible secret. If revealed he believes the life he has built in Lansquenet will be destroyed.

Told from the points of view of Reynaud, Vianne and Rosette, the ripples created by the old man’s death bring with them adjustments to the village dynamic that Vianne vehemently resists. Once a free agent, travelling with the wind, she is now fearful that the roots she has put down will not be enough to hold her daughters within her sphere. Anouk may have moved away but Vianne plans to hold fast to Rosette by whatever means necessary.

When a stranger sets up a business in the old flower shop, Vianne senses a challenge to her powers. Rosette, along with many of the villagers, is drawn to the stranger and what she can offer them. Vianne can see only a threat to Rosette’s continuing need for her. She vows to drive the stranger away and seeks allies.

The story unfolds around the strands of love, fear, greed and tolerance. Scattered between the present day happenings is the text of Narcisse’s history, gradually told and adding depth. There are obvious comparisons but mostly this older story offers an understanding of the long term repercussions of even the best intended actions.

A story of parents and their children; about the power shifts across generations; of clipping the wings of those who live with a need to soar.

Beautifully written with rich descriptions, especially of chocolate and the magic it can generate. This is a darkly delicious and emotionally satisfying read.

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

Book Review: Thin Air

Thin Air, by Michelle Paver, is a ghost story from an author who knows how to write compelling suspense. Having read her excellent Dark Matter a couple of years ago I had been saving this one for my Halloween read. It did not disappoint.

Set in 1935 it tells the story of a group of five wealthy, English gentlemen who set out to conquer Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak on earth. Public school and Oxbridge educated, they climb to prove their supremacy over nature, with some regarding aids such as crampons or oxygen tanks as unsporting on such an endeavour. One of the group has not had quite such as privileged an upbringing, something that sets him apart – a suspicion over his trustworthiness in a crisis.

“He’s also a shade off in the vowels, and seems very eager to fit in”

Such snobbery is nothing compared to the way these grown boys, setting off on a spiffing adventure, regard the natives they employ to fetch and carry. These men and women include the Sherpas who will transport kit and provisions as well as guiding the group through the hostile high terrain. Where the ‘sahibs’ struggle with exertion and altitude, the local men cover the same ground numerous times setting up base camps, cooking food, and advising on conditions. Their wariness of the mountain, manifesting in rituals, is treated with disdain.

The English party includes two brothers, Kit and Stephen, who struggle to contain their long standing sibling rivalry. Stephen was invited late, as the necessary group doctor, after the original choice suffered an incapacitating mishap.

The story is narrated by Stephen as it unfolds. Although excited and determined he increasingly suffers nightmares and a heightened awareness of malevolent forces. He must suppress his fears if he is to be permitted to continue.

The story opens with a visit to the last remaining survivor of a previous attempt to climb the mountain, which ended in failure and numerous deaths. A memoir was written about this self-declared heroic experience which led to Kit revering the author and group leader, Lyell. Kit now intends to follow in Lyell’s footsteps, and to succeed in reaching the summit and planting the British flag before rival Germans. Their native helpers are fearful of the spirits that linger on a doomed route.

The attitudes of the Englishmen are astonishing. They regard day climbs in the Alps as sufficient preparation for the Himalayas. One has a touch of arthritis which the others try not to mention. They bring a typewriter and a gramophone as luggage, carried of course by the Sherpas who they treat as animals, load bearers with no sense or agency. The English regard their endeavour as meritorious despite the obvious risks to themselves and their essential helpers.

The journey offers many challenges, exacerbated by altitude sickness. As a doctor Stephen understands the effects but cannot shake his growing, visceral fear. When mail is delivered (incongruous as this may seem during a challenging mountain adventure, but the English abroad do demand that their standards be catered for) he learns of the true fate of the group’s predecessors. What he has tried to convince himself cannot exist, now presents as a deadly threat.

The story is masterfully structured with an authentic voice, interesting character development and building tension. The self-importance of the English is both staggering and depressingly familiar. This is a ghost story but also a portrayal of the foolishness of those raised to believe themselves superior due to birth and wealth. It is a reminder that nature does not distinguish, and it is in man’s interest to treat his surrounds with care and respect.

Thin Air is published by Orion Books.

Book Review: Fear

Fear, by Dirk Kurbjuweit, is a story of a murder and a marriage and of how far a man will go to protect the foundations on which he has constructed his adult life. Set in Berlin, the protagonist is Randolph Tiefenthaler, an architect living with his beautiful and intelligent wife, Rebecca, and their two young children. Their nightmare starts when they purchase a well located and spacious upper ground floor flat, perfect for family living. Randolph is now sitting at his desk writing an account of events that led to his seventy-eight year old father being imprisoned for manslaughter. Randolph’s father confessed to killing Dieter Tiberius, the tenant of the flat downstairs.

Based on true events, the author has created a thriller that questions how fragile the edifices of civilised life can be, and of the pressures a man feels to be a protector. Soon after moving into their flat, Rebecca starts to receive letters from Dieter. He is watching the family, listening to their movements from below. When the letters become threatening Randolph takes the matter to the police only to discover that no crime has been committed. Dieter’s reaction is to accuse his neighbours of sexually abusing their children.

Randolph writes of his childhood and of the disconnect and fear he felt due to his father’s gun obsession. He is determined to do better with his own children but has allowed his marriage to grow stale. As Dieter’s behaviour escalates Randolph and Rebecca are drawn back together. Their middle class confidence, bordering on arrogance, is pierced as they realise reasonable tactics to resolve the matter are ineffective. If Randolph is to keep his family safe he must consider more radical action.

The voice and behaviour of the narrator come across and honest and reasoned. He is writing to confront the truth which he tells the reader he has not yet fully shared, even with Rebecca. I found it harder to empathise with her. Rebecca had hysterical screaming fits even when her children were at home. For a medical professional this loss of control under pressure seemed strange.

The story though revolves around Randolph, the impotence he feels and the growing realisation that he will need to compromise his valued integrity to deal with Dieter. Despite knowing from the first few pages how things will end, the tension in the telling is skilfully maintained.

Events force Randolph to confront an aspect of himself that he had denied existed. I am curious about how he would cope with that in the afterwards. The child abuse allegation also puts thoughts in his head that he struggles to contain. In attempting to prove innocence his behaviour is affected, as is his confidence in Rebecca.

Each of these strands offer food for thought but it is the basic premise that is the most disturbing. In a civilised society it is assumed that wrong-doers will be punished, the innocent protected. How to define wrong-doing and innocence are perhaps more complex than is generally accepted.

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

Book Review: Dark Matter


Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver, is a deliciously disturbing story of a 1930s arctic expedition that pitted rational man against isolation, darkness and the supernatural. Presented in the form of a journal it offers an insight into the effects of anxiety over time, and how the mind cannot always be controlled.

When the story opens, Jack Miller, a grammar school boy with a London degree, has just met with the wealthy and titled Oxbridge educated quartet who have gained funding for a year long scientific research trip to a remote arctic island between Norway and the North Pole. They require a communications expert and have been told that Jack may be their man. Intimidated by their privilege and familiarity, Jack struggles to believe he could fit in. However, his life in London is such that he is desparate for change.

Six months later he has resigned from his job, not without some misgivings, and sets off as an accepted member of the team. The excitement of the undertaking carries them all through the journey and the setting up of their camp. Rotas are agreed and a routine established as the days shorten towards what, in this part of the world, will be four months of darkness cut off from the world by a frozen sea.

The skipper of the boat which provided their transport had been reluctant to take them to their chosen base. He had talked of it being a place that made bad things happen. The scientists refuse to accept such an irrational opinion, but a seed of doubt has been sown. By the time the boat leaves events have conspired to shrink the team to three. Jack has also experienced moments of sudden fear that he cannot explain.

Before the long winter truly closes in around the group, illness hits and Jack is left to cope on his own. Amidst the relentless darkness and isolation he must also deal with the prescence of a terrifying spectral being whose existence he was loath to admit but which he can no longer deny.

The stark beauty of the frozen wilderness becomes a threat. Jack does his best to continue the work the team was funded to undertake but his mind is battling with a fear he cannot rationally explain. Reluctant to appear foolish, and eager to retain the admiration of his team leader, he denies that anything is wrong when he communicates with the outside world. Alone he struggles to maintain any semblance of a normal existence.

The author brilliantly evokes the irrationality of certain fears and the very real impact they can have. The reader feels the cold seeping in under doors, and listens with trepidation for unexplained footfall or the breathing of someone who cannot be there.

With new scientific discoveries being made all the time, how much is really known about the world in which we live? This is a ghost story of the highest order.

Discovering Shtum: Guest Post by Laura Williams

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Laura Williams is agent to Jem Lester, author of the fabulous ‘Shtum’ (which I review here). In this guest post she explains what drew her to the novel.


Almost three years ago to the day I’m writing this, I went to one of City University’s City Nights readings. A monthly event above a pub in Clerkenwell, students on the university’s novel writing MA course read a chosen section of their work to friends, family, coursemates, tutors, and the odd agent looking for new talent. In 2013, I was an assistant at PFD, attending the event to scope out the submissions we’d be receiving in the summer as part of a prize we sponsor for the course. Each year we receive manuscripts of the final year students’ work, and the author we think has the most promise is given representation by the agency. So, I was there to get a jump on what we’d be reading that summer.

Three years later, I’m an agent at PFD representing my own clients. I’ve been to dozens of creative writing readings, and I’ve heard hundreds of students read their work. I don’t remember any as vividly as I remember Jem Lester reading the opening of Shtum on that rainy night in Clerkenwell.

When Jem started reading, I only knew it was a novel about a boy with autism. The book starts with an everyday scene in the lives of Ben and Emma and their ten-year-old non-verbal autistic son, Jonah. Ben and Emma’s morning ritual of bathing, changing and feeding Jonah, terrified to take their eyes off him for a moment unless he destroys the kitchen in his quest for ice cream, as happens in the opening of the book, leave his parents exhausted and despairing that anything will ever get better for them, or Jonah will ever get the support he needs. In an email I sent Jem the next day, I described his extract as “bruisingly raw, open and honest”, but it was also hilarious in its unflinching look at the realities of raising an autistic child.

I spend most of my time at my desk, reading manuscripts, figuring out my own feelings about a project. Readings are wonderful, because when I laughed at Jonah’s obliviousness to his own disastrous exploits, or when my breath caught when Emma broke down, I was so aware of the roomful of people in this pub in Clerkenwell feeling the same way, doing the same things. It was a first hint of the emotional impact that Shtum would later have on readers of the book, and I knew as soon as I heard that first few pages that it was something special.

Jonathan Myerson, who runs the novel writing course at City, gave me Jem’s contact details, and I emailed him the next day to tell him how special I thought the book could be. Jem told me what a morale booster that was, while he was finishing the first draft of the manuscript. A few months later, Jem was unanimously crowned the winner of the PFD/City prize for that year. By that time, I had been promoted and was starting to take on my own clients, and I was thrilled to start working with Jem editorially.

Two years after I first met Jem, I sold the book to Jemima Forrester at Orion, who has been an incredible champion for the book. The amazing team at Orion fell in love with the book the same way I did. Now, a year on from the deal, the book is about to be published. Shtum has grown from a few words read to a handful of people, to a book that even before publication has captured the hearts and minds of hundreds of readers. It’s been a privilege.

A couple of weeks ago, author, editor and agent went to listen to the audiobook of Shtum being recorded. Sitting in the recording studio, headphones on, listening to Jem’s characters come to life in a brand new way, while Jem himself sat there, mouth open, it felt like it had all come full circle. For a book about communicating through silence as much as through speaking, I couldn’t be happier that Jem gave voice to this story on that rainy night in Clerkenwell three years ago.

Jem Lester c. Catherine Ercilla        banner

This post opens the Shtum Blog Tour. Other stops are detailed on the banner above, do check them out.

Book Review: Girls Will Be Girls


Girls Will Be Girls, by Emer O’Toole, is an exploration of identity, gender and social conditioning. It starts with the premise that “all the world is a stage” and that “gender is an act which has been rehearsed”. The reasoning behind these assertions are well articulated in the opening chapters making this a thought provoking, challenging but never difficult read.

By drawing from her own life experiences, and sharing many amusing if sometimes poignant anecdotes along the way, the author looks at how people are conditioned to act out the part prescribed for their gender from birth. This is more than just dressing girls in pink and boys in blue. It looks at the way adults treat little girls (isn’t she pretty?) and how women are admired for attaining an acceptable aesthetic (thin, tanned, long hair on head, no hair on body).

The author talks of how she would feel social love and acceptance when she conformed, and how difficult it was to be seen in public with a more natural look.

“Why does so much embarrassment and shame surround women’s bodies?”

“it made me see how deeply engrained body policing really is”

I remembered the furor in the media when Emer appeared on breakfast television with visible underarm hair. Women grow hair on their bodies at around the same stage in their development that they grow breasts. How differently these natural protuberances are treated. Visible body hair, other than on the head, is viewed with disgust. Female breasts are so desirable that they must be covered, particularly in a professional setting, for fear that men will lose control, poor dears.

“The taboo on breasts successfully convinces us that women’s breasts are provocative, that men cannot possibly come into visual contact with them without losing all reason to a degree that we actually blame women who are attacked for failing to sufficiently hide their bodies.”

The chapters on sexuality were explicit but written to inform rather than titillate, a refreshing change. Women perform their socially influenced, learned behaviours in public and in the home, but even more so it would seem in bed. And that is what is expected, especially by men. The influence of porn is discussed, as is the lack of knowledge of the functions of the female anatomy. This is not an anti male text in any sense but rather an eye opening account of the roles society expects the genders to play, roles which are often painful as well as degrading for women.

The author writes of experiments she has carried out with her looks and how these have been received. She has shaved her head, grown her body hair, dressed as a boy and a girly girl. She reports on how each of these incarnations have been treated by friends and strangers, of the confusion and anger that can be induced when a women strays from what is considered the norm.

“My experiment […] was a visceral reminder of just how socially unacceptable the unmodified female body has become”

“we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right”

The sociology and psychology are fascinating. I would love to put this book into the hands of so many people, yet I suspect that those who could learn most from it would dismiss the reasoning as feminist ranting, political correctness gone mad. Why should the beneficiaries of a system try to change it?

Personally I did not need to be convinced. As an over 50, overweight woman who eschews make up I am often reluctant to leave the house knowing how I will be viewed by society. I currently sport body hair because of comments regarding my size that have been made when I have gone to be waxed. I have suffered my share of sexual harassment in the workplace and socially.

In one chapter the author talks of how expectations change over time, and where this might lead. She ponders if the next generation will consider surgical changes a necessary element of their beauty regime, a real possibility given the direction in which our culture is moving and one which, as the mother of a daughter, terrifies me.

And this is why books such as these matter and must be put into the hands of young adults. If the patriarchy see no reason to change then the catalyst must come from elsewhere. Society is not just made up of boys and girls but also of those whose gender cannot be so neatly defined. Difference is natural and normal. Accepting this will require a radical shift in learned behaviour.

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