Book Review: Golem Girl

“Ableism is the belief that in an ideal world, all bodies should be flawless, or that they should at least try to be cured.”

Riva Lehrer was born in 1958 with the inner layer of her mother’s placental wall adhered to her skin swathing the lower half of her body like a mummy’s bandages. She had a red sac protruding from her back. She had spina bifida. At the time only 90% of babies born with this condition lived to see their second birthday. Prevailing medical opinion was that they should be left alone – only those who survived proving themselves worthy of the medical resources necessary to treat them. Riva’s mother, Carole, had already suffered two distressing miscarriages. She was determined to fight for her living child and found an ally in a surgeon freshly trained in the latest techniques for treating spina bifida. Newborn Riva was operated on – the start of decades of surgery in which doctors would try to make her body more ‘normal’.

Golem Girl is a memoir that tells the personal story of an accomplished artist and teacher whose life has been built on the belief that she is a monster – an aberration. Throughout her childhood she was expected to submit to painful surgeries and treatments that her mother sought in an effort to, if not ‘cure’ her daughter, at least enable her to function and fit more smoothly into a society that would cruelly comment and stare with impunity. Thankfully, attitudes changed over the years, although in her epilogue – written in May 2020 – Riva questions the underlying truth of this.

The first half of the book covers the author’s childhood, during which she would have little agency over her treatment and education. Carole was a formidable advocate, supported by her fiercely Jewish wider family. She did not consider that Riva could want anything other than to be made less obviously disabled. She also took life changing decisions for her daughter because, as she bluntly stated, she did not believe Riva would ever find a loving husband, looking as she did. She wished to protect her child yet could never see her as anything other than someone in need of fixing.

Not all the surgeries Riva underwent resulted in the outcomes aimed for, yet still her mother persisted in her search for treatment that would change how her daughter looked and moved. As she grew older, Riva started to question their necessity, angered that she was not consulted.

Riva was in her late teens before she gained any sort of autonomy – and this was under difficult circumstances for the family. It would be many more years before she would question the orthodoxy that surgery was necessary, not to save her life but to make her look more acceptable. She was a talented artist still trying to find her niche in a world that could not see her and her work except through their blinkers of what others considered the bounds of femininity and disability.

Riva did find love, and also came to question why society struggled to regard people like her as acceptable as they were.

“Disability was natural, as was queerness, and neither were in need of correction or eradication.”

The timeline of the second half of the book jumps back and forth through several decades as the author explores a variety of issues she faced as an adult. There were a number of significant love affairs. There were friendships that resulted in impressive bodies of artwork. Throughout the book are illustrations of some of Riva’s art – many of them portraits that study the lives of other disabled people. These are reproduced in a section at the end which describes them more fully.

I use the term disabled aware that such a term may not be acceptable to some. Riva discusses this as she tells her story – how descriptors have changed in her lifetime. As a child she would be subjected to abuse regularly – neighbourhood children calling her ‘retard’ and pelting her with missiles. As an adult she was approached by a stranger intent on telling her: if I looked like you I’d kill myself. All of this has shaped Riva’s perception of herself, and her self-confidence. That she used her experiences to get to the stage she is at now is remarkable – or maybe that view is also reductive and I should listen more carefully.

This is an eminently readable and important work, depicting as it does life through the lens of a woman who has been both othered and dehumanised. Thanks to her own efforts and the ongoing support of her family, Riva has been able to carve an independent life for herself. She points out that financial constraints prevent many disabled adults from ever leaving their parents – infantilising them in a cocoon of well-meaning autocracy.

A poignant and moving tale but also one that is anger inducing when one considers how the disabled continue to be treated. The artwork within these pages speaks as powerfully as the words – of bodies that are beautiful and have achieved and are various. This is a story that deserves to be heard and then heeded. A recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Virago, at the request of The Barbellion Prize, for which it is shortlisted.

Book Review: The Incendiaries

The Incendiaries, by R. O. Kwon, is a doomed love story between two troubled students who attend an elite American university. It opens with an explosion. The voice switches between Will, Phoebe and the snake oil salesman John Leal. Will is looking back, trying to understand why his Phoebe would get involved in a violent protest during which people died.

Will was at a bible college until he lost faith in the existence of God. He is now at university on a scholarship but has to supplement this with a job at an upmarket restaurant. He meets Phoebe at a party when she spills her drink down his trousers. Phoebe seeks distraction in the form of attention and alcohol to drown her grief following the death of her mother. Both these young people have an aching hole in their lives. John Leal has observed how humanity craves something to believe in. He is seeking power by creating a religious cult.

Will is drawn to Phoebe from the first night they meet, fantasising about how they would be together. When this happens for real he regards her as an amalgam of what she shares of her background and the ideal of his desires. Both had childhoods cloaked by intense faith, followed by loss, guilt and disappointment. They look to each other for hope, a chance of redemption, but instead find flawed individuals. When John Leal’s bait is accepted and he starts to wind Phoebe in, Will grows jealous. He wishes to save her, but for himself.

Phoebe is fond of Will and does not want to let him down as she understands others he loved have done. She also desires John Leal’s promises of deeper meaning and higher rewards. Observing her inculturation Will tries to force her hand. He behaves abominably.

In spare and powerful prose the author adds layer upon layer of reason and action fleshed out by numerous twists and shocks. The supporting characters evoke campus life and how little even close friends know of each other’s inner turmoils. Throughout the story being narrated Will is trying to understand. Yet the Phoebe he desires is an imagined one who puts him at the centre of their universe.

The varied roles of religion and the manipulations this allows are well portrayed. Little in the story is black or white. The denouement leaves much to ponder, not least that love may be as much a human construct as other beliefs.

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

Book Review: The Last of the Wine

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The Last of the Wine, by Mary Renault, was hard work to read, although not without some reward. The writing style brought to mind the classics, the ancient texts of Homer, of Plato and his contemporaries, several of whom are name checked within these pages. Although I noted certain wisdoms it was not on a par with these venerated teachers. This was a story, but not one that held my attention sufficiently to enjoy.

The protagonist is Alexias, a young Athenian of good family whose fortunes are undermined by the ongoing Peloponnesian War. The causes of this conflict, along with many of the day to day customs and activities of the time, are not explained. The reader is expected to understand, or perhaps research, what many of the words and references mean. I found this frustrating. In my view, historical fiction works best when the reader is transported back to a place and time where they may experience the life lived for themselves. I did not feel this immersion as, too often, I could not picture what was going on due to the unfamiliar terminology.

Alexias is raised by his father, young stepmother, and slaves. Due to his standing in society he has time to listen to philosophers who oversee discussions in public places. News and views are shared orally with weighty debates encouraged, although the older generation are as wary as now of anyone promoting change or views which differ from their own.

Alexias also trains with athletes, representing Athens in prestigious games. It was interesting to note the celebrity status granted successful sportmen and artists. The ruling class were landowners, with tradesmen considered below them in status. Alongside the veneration of beauty and youth this all seemed depressingly familiar.

One custom which differed was the expectation that young men would take lovers of the same sex. Wives were considered possessions, required for housekeeping and procreation. Many girl babies were taken to the wilderness and left to die within hours of their birth as they were regarded as a burden to the family.

Alexias spurns the older men who approach him, choosing instead a lover, just a few years his senior, named Lysis. Together these handsome, privileged young men go into battle, first defending their home town from Spartan raiders and then later sailing to nearby islands to fight on land and at sea. When the war does not turn in their favour they must survive a lengthy siege. Much of the book describes these conflicts.

More of interest to me were the descriptions of home life and relationships, although the large cast and unfamiliar naming conventions made these difficult to follow over time. Women were ancillary, of use only as required by men. Animals were disposable and cruelty rife.

Alexias and Lysis support the Demokrats over the Oligarchs. After years of conflict they noted that amongst their compatriots were:

“men who had wanted, not freedom and justice, but only what some other man had”

“Democracy is only as good as the people, or as bad”

Describing a leader they could have been talking of today’s politicians:

“lives by denouncing and exposing while he is in credit, and, when he is out, by sycophancy and informations, with a little perjury thrown in.”

Alexias is advised to swallow lies if they are expedient. Despite the differences in customs, it seems little has been learned in two millennium.

Perhaps this is a book that will appeal more to those with a prior knowledge of Ancient Greece. I struggled on to the end and then wondered why I had granted it so much time. I did acquire some new knowledge, but it was hard won.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group.

Book Review: Circling the Sun

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Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain, is an historical fictional memoir about the life of Beryl Markham, an extraordinary woman who attained fame by becoming the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic. Beryl spent much of her life in colonial Kenya where she scandalised high society with her refusal to bend to convention. She does not come across as a happy woman, but is certainly remarkable.

Beryl was born in Leicestershire, England, but moved to British East Africa with her parents and older brother when she was two years old. Her father had sold their home and invested the money in a farm where he planned to grow wheat and establish a stable of thoroughbred race horses. Two years after they had arrived Beryl’s mother returned to England with her son, leaving Beryl to be raised by her father. This abandonment haunted her for life.

With her father busy establishing his farm the young Beryl was left to run wild with the natives, a life she adored. The local village took pity on the motherless child and accepted her into their fold where she learned their language, their stories, and how to hunt alongside their boys. From her father she learned about horses.

Beryl and her father socialised little but the friends they had were other wealthy expatriates enjoying the colonial lifestyle. When Beryl was eleven years old one of these neighbours commented on Beryl’s wildness. Within a few months her father had brought a housekeeper to the farm to polish and educate his daughter. Beryl rebelled.

“All the way across the yard, I fumed. The world was pinching in on me, narrowing to the sudden fact of Mrs Orchardson, and what she might mean to do or be.”

From this moment on Beryl fought to keep her independence, a difficult state for a woman to achieve at the time. Although many in Kenya lived lives that would have been considered unacceptably scandalous in England, they did so from within the confines of convention. Beryl was not adept at hiding what she was doing, nor did she accept that this was how she should live.

Beryl’s life unfolded as a series of triumphs and disasters. She entered into marriages which failed, affairs which became public knowledge and caused difficulties for her friends, pregnancies which led to heartache. She also became the first woman ever to hold a professional racehorse trainer’s licence at only nineteen and went on to achieve success in this field.

Although Beryl and many of the other white colonists sometimes struggled financially, the lives they led were fuelled by excess: parties, affairs, champagne, fast living. The size of the country belied the closeness of the community where there was much intermingling and few secrets. Beryl befriended the writer Karen Blixen and big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, famed by Blixen’s memoir, ‘Out of Africa’. Denys was one of Beryl’s lovers and it was he who inspired her to learn to fly.

This story is a vivid portrayal of a gilded lifestyle and of a woman who railed against the constraints imposed by being born a woman at that time. I did not warm to Beryl but was impressed by her strength of purpose. She was fortunate in having so many loyal friends.

The prose is fabulous evoking the power and splendour of Africa; the transience of the shallow lives lived by the colonists juxtaposing the beauty of the land.

“I think we sat that way for hours. Long enough for me to feel my own density settle more and more completely into the chalky dust. Aeons had made it, out of dissolving mountains, out of endlessly rocking metamorphosis. The things of the world knew so much more than we did and lived them more truly. The thorn trees had no grief or fear. The constellations didn’t fight or hold themselves back, nor did the translucent hook of the moon. Everything was momentary and endless. This time with Denys would fade, and it would last forever.”

Although Beryl lived into her eighties this story finishes with her first solo flight at the age of twenty-nine, a brief epilogue confirming her successful transatlantic flight. We are told in an author’s note that “Scandal and speculation followed Beryl for much of her life.” Given her apparent single mindedness, this does not surprise.

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

Book Review: MaddAddam

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MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood, is the final book in a trilogy which started with Oryx and Crake in 2003 and continued with The Year of the Flood in 2009. All three books tell stories that run in parallel, although each takes the overlapping characters a little further along in time.

MaddAddam focuses on the street-wise Zeb. In telling his story we get the final links in the plot strands that join characters we have been introduced to in the previous books, the MaddAddamites and God’s Gardeners. The survivors from these groups are now living as a small community, trying to eke out an existence following the chaos that Crake unleashed in his attempt to rid the world of the evils of humanity.

The peaceful replacements that he created, the Crakers, play a prominent role in this instalment as do several of the other creatures bioengineered by the gene splicing scientists before the waterless flood. As well as more detailed background we are given a glimpse of how the new world order will develop once the chaos has settled. I found this glimpse the most depressing aspect of the book as it looked rather too familiar. It suggested that the world is condemned to repeat its mistakes from whatever new start, perhaps that is the point which the author wishes to make.

The MaddAddam trilogy tells of a dystopian future that makes for powerful reading because it is so perceptive, detailed and believable. This final part is as compelling and skillfully written as the previous two. Key plot details are first unveiled as simplified stories told each evening to the Crakers. These are biblical in style, the writing of them serving as a spiritual text more than a history. The whole book has an allegorical feel running alongside the tension and action.

It is hard to regret the destruction of the world described, yet I felt sad that the reboot could not offer more hope for the future. I suspect that a happy ever after would not have stood up after all that had gone before. Despite the leaps in science and the many strange creatures, this book comes across as a disturbing possibility.

MaddAddam is clever and readable, neatly concluding a fabulous tale from a master story teller. Questions are answered, loose ends tied and a future suggested. There is doubtless a moral message running through the writing but it does not come across as preaching.

A fast moving, tightly told story with a cast of strong and complex characters; this eagerly anticipated offering from Margaret Atwood, one of my favourite authors, did not disappoint.