Booker shortlist book review #2 – “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo

This year’s joint winner of the Booker Prize has won almost universal praise by readers and critics alike. In addition to winning the Booker it was named by the Washington Post as one of the top ten books of this year and British-Nigerian writer Sarah Ladipo Manyika, writing in the New Statesman, described it as capturing modern-day Britain.

Girl Woman Other imgWhat I liked about it, however, was less this grander aspect, but rather the quality of its story-telling. I must admit that 50 or so pages in, I was not overwhelmed! There are twelve characters in the book, all women bar one (who is trans), all black or mixed race. They are broken down into four groups of three, and each threesome is strongly connected in some way (eg mother/daughter). Each group is also connected with the others, even if only in a tenuous way (eg teacher and former pupil) and almost all are in some way connected to Amma, the first character we meet. Amma has written a play which is having its debut performance at the National and this provides the framework of the novel. Many of the characters are present at the penultimate chapter of the book, the after-party, where the differences between them and their lives are laid bare. This is interesting because the author is not only trying to draw out the similarities between the characters and their life experiences, suggested by their common characteristic of being mixed race and female, but she is also, I think, railing against the notion of such women/people being homogeneous; they are all far more than just their race or gender.

The first chapter is about Amma, her daughter Yazz , and her friend Dominique. Amma and Dominique were radical feminists in their youth and started the Bush Women Theatre Company, to give voice to black and Asian women, particularly those with (then) non-mainstream sexualities. Amma’s daughter Yazz is the product of an “arrangement” between Amma and her friend Roland, a gay writer and academic. In chapter two we learn about her life, now at university (seems as if it’s Cambridge), her issues with her parents, her diverse group of friends – all bright, high achieving young women.

I did not warm to Amma and Yazz – they felt far too ‘urban elite’ when I thought I was supposed to be getting the whole of ‘modern day Britain’, plus I did not think Amma was particularly likeable and Yazz was quite obnoxious! It started to get much more interesting with Dominique, in whom we meet a character with far more depth and vulnerability, whose story seemed to have more texture.

In chapter two, we meet Carole, a woman from a poor inner-city background whose life appeared to be heading in one bleak direction until she was taken under the wing of a teacher who saw something special in her. Carole is now a high-flying banker. The other characters in this chapter are Carole’s mother Bummi, a traditional Nigerian woman who has brought Carole up alone, and LaTisha, Carole’s school friend whose life followed a more socially predictable path, but who, in her thirties and with three children, determines she will turn things around in her retail career where she excels.

There are two more chapters each with its own group of three women and the stories get ever more diverse and interesting. These women who come later are more ‘ordinary’ than the slightly smug Amma, Yazz and Carole, but for me their stories were the more interesting ones. Some are elderly women and we go back many years to learn about their past lives.

There were times when I would have liked a bit of a ‘family tree’ or a map to show all the connections, as it can get a little confusing with so many characters, but overall it is an artfully constructed book. This book is very much a mirror, multiple stories rather than one, but still the author manages to build a plot around the performance of Amma’s play and the after-party. There is also a brilliant plot twist at the end that I did not see coming at all, and really makes you reflect on all your assumptions about race, class and identity.

A thoroughly enjoyable book, my second from the Booker shortlist, and a worthy winner. I would like to read it again to see if, second time around, knowing what I do, I feel differently about the characters and their stories.

Highly recommended.

Did you agree with the judges that this book should have been joint winner?

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Book review: “The Bottle Factory Outing” by Beryl Bainbridge

This was my January pick for my 2019 Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme for this month being a humorous novel. I hadn’t read any Bainbridge before and had read that this was considered a comic masterpiece and was in fact shortlisted the Booker Prize in 1974 when it was first published (Bainbridge had no less than four novels shortlisted). This book also won the Guardian Fiction Prize.

So, the book has a pedigree and I had high expectations. I enjoyed it, but I’m afraid to say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected. Perhaps it’s partly timing; I posted a review last week of The Overstory, a book which I found breathtakingly good, and which I completed just before starting this one and I fear that it suffered somewhat in comparison. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for humour after that! I seem to remember having similar feelings about the books I read immediately after completing Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life a couple of years ago. There are some books which just need a little more time to sit with you before you launch into something else.

The Bottle Factory Outing imgIn summary, this book is set in the late ‘60s, early 70s and is about Freda and Brenda, two young women who work together in a London factory where Italian wine is bottled. They also live together in a pokey bedsit, and share a double bed at nights. Freda is blonde, buxom and outgoing, sexually frustrated and of a romantic inclination. She has the hots for Vittorio, the nephew of the factory’s Italian owner, and fantasises about being seduced by him, contriving situations to enable this. Brenda is a redhead, but mousey in personality, timid and sexually repressed. She has left her drunken husband Stanley in the Yorkshire farmhouse which they shared with his domineering mother. Freda and Brenda met after Brenda had a tearful outburst in a butcher’s shop. Freda took her in and got her a job at the factory. Freda can be kind but also cruel and the book is as much about the complex nature of relationships between women as anything else.

Almost all the other factory workers are Italian, expect Patrick, an Irishman who seems to be quite protective towards Brenda. The first quarter or so of the book is spent setting the scene before the ‘outing’ takes place. The outing, which was supposed to be by coach to a stately home, was Freda’s idea and was simply one of her plots to try and get Vittorio to declare his passion for her. Inevitably, things start to go wrong when the expected coach does not arrive and some workers have to go home while others pile into cars, and the outing turns into farce. It is a cold and bleak October day, so Freda’s fantasy of a sunlit picnic and strolling through romantic gardens with her hoped-for lover were never going to be realised. The other side-plot is that Brenda is being relentlessly pursued by the (older and married) Rossi, manager of the factory. At work he is always trying to get her into compromising situations.

The outing occupies most of the rest of the book. Inevitably, not all goes to plan and there is a dramatic and unexpected twist, which I won’t spoil by sharing with you. There is definitely humour, but it is very dark. By coincidence, there was a BBC radio broadcast of the story (abridged of course) in mid-January, where the wonderful Maxine Peake and Diane Morgan took the parts of Freda and Brenda, respectively, and Sue Johnstone (masterful) narrates. They drew out both the humour and the tenderness very effectively. In fact I enjoyed the broadcast slightly more than the book! I think this was because the ironic interpretation came across more strongly (the process of abridging perhaps?) and that felt more satisfying for a 21st century reading. Clearly we still have quite a way to go when it comes to gender equality, but you forget how bad things were only 40-50 years ago. In the context of the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment of women in the workplace is more difficult to find funny. Perhaps I am being far too earnest!

I enjoyed the book, but must confess that reading it did at times make me a bit uncomfortable. Which is a shame because I think it is a far more complex novel than a first (post-Overstory) reading allows. I think I need to read it again!

Hmm, what do you think?

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Short story review: “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian

2018-01-10 10.43.49I concluded my 2017 Reading Challenge with something a little less challenging (in terms of length anyway), a short story. I knew it would be a busy month so I did not want to set myself up to fail by choosing some lengthy tome. (I’ve done the same for my 2018 Reading Challenge). December was so busy that it actually took me a couple of weeks to get around to choosing what to read, and then Cat Person fell in my lap, so to speak!

It’s hard to write a review a short story without spoilers so you can read it here, and then move on the reading the rest of this post, if you wish. It will take you no longer than 20-30 minutes, or you can actually listen to the author reading it herself via the same link.

Cat Person imgCat Person, by Kristen Roupenian has caused a social media storm. Set in America it is a story about Margot, a 20-year old college student, and a brief relationship she has with 34-year old Robert. Margot works at a small independent cinema and she meets Robert when he buys some confectionery from her stand before watching a movie. She feels mildly attracted to him:

“She did think that Robert was cute. Not so cute that she would have, say, gone up to him at a party, but cute enough that she could have drummed up an imaginary crush on him if he’d sat across from her during a dull class.”

Margot flirts lightly with Robert, to ease her boredom, but, initially, at least, he does not reciprocate. He returns to the cinema a week later and this time they exchange phone numbers. Over the next few weeks they develop a text relationship, then he meets her late one night at a convenience store. She expects that he will try to kiss her but he merely gives her a peck on the forehead. They eventually go on a date, to see a movie about the Holocaust that Margot finds slightly inappropriate for a first date. Afterward, when they have been for a drink at a bar, he kisses her, ineptly, and she finds she has mixed feelings about him. Despite this, Margot seems to feel she cannot back down from the inevitable, at this point, and they go back to his place to have sex. Margot finds the sex repellent and decides that she does not want to see him again, but she also feels that her flirtatious behaviour may have ‘led him on’.

This is a highly topical story about the complicated business of dating and sexual relations in the 21st century. The “cat person” of the title refers to Robert; when they go back to his place he announces that he “has cats”, although Margot never sees them. This is clearly meant to convey a slight ‘oddness’. In Margot’s eyes Robert falls well short of expectations (on all levels not just physically and sexually, she does not even feel completely safe with him) and she decides she wants nothing more to do with him, which he clearly finds confusing. When she finally rejects him by text (encouraged by her roommate who becomes impatient with Margot’s dithering and takes the matter into her own hands), Robert reacts in quite a needy way, before becoming angry (all by text). His final text “Whore” clearly echoes the aggressive and unsolicited sexual behaviour we are hearing too much about at the moment, but it could be argued that Margot’s behaviour, her flirtation, her initiation of the sex, means she created that situation for herself and it is no wonder that Robert, clearly no master at relationships, does not know how to react to her seemingly unpredictable behaviour.

It is a story that left me somewhat morally adrift.  There is no clear right and wrong party here. How you judge Margot, or Robert, will depend entirely on your perspective – your age, your gender, whether you have male or female children, etc. And it perhaps goes to show how the sexual politics that are currently being renegotiated make for a complex environment for both men and women.

A thought-provoking read, highly recommended.

If you have read this story, what did you think?

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December reading challenge: a short story

2017-12-18 10.46.14So, it’s my final reading challenge post of 2017, and this month it’s a short story. Just as well, because there isn’t very much month left! The reason I picked this genre for December is that I predicted, correctly, that it would be a busy month and my reading would slacken off. It is taking me ages to get through the book I am currently reading (the book club’s choice of Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami).

I’d been thinking for a while what I might read this month; there are some fantastic short story writers out there, and I have to confess to not having read many of them, so I wanted to make a real effort to delve in. Then last week I heard about a short story published in the New Yorker magazine recently that has caused a furore on social media, provoking praise and disdain in equal measure. I have also learned a new word as a result – ‘misandrist’ – a person who dislikes, despises, or is strongly prejudiced against men, the opposite of misogynist. You have to wonder why we don’t hear this word very much!

Anyway, Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian is about sex and relationships in the 21st century. What’s not to like?! If your appetite is whetted by this, you too can read along by clicking on the link below:

Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian

Let me know what you think!