On to my reading notes, from least favourite to favourite:
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (2021)
This book is a tale of two parts. The first half is written in a fragmented style that is an amalgamation of social media lingo. It feels as though we were trapped inside as person’s Twitter feed, in endless scrolling, but we are in fact inside the mind (or mind made feed) of an unnamed protagonist who makes her living on her online presence.
She could be anyone, everyone speaking at once, no one in particular; a collective mind absorbing everything that comes into it. This narrative voice could be a person or it could be impersonal; it could be ‘the internet’, or ‘the portal’, as the protagonist calls it. “Why did the portal feel so private, when you only entered it when you needed to be everywhere?”
In the second half of the book, our protagonist’s endless scrolling is disrupted by life outside the portal: her sister’s baby is diagnosed with a rare congenital disease and shall not live long.
I like the way Lockwood mimics (and, at times, mocks) social media discourse, and I love the odd beauty of her feed-like ‘communal stream-of-consciousness’. I also enjoy the fact that she has avoided the trap of falling into a simplified, one-sided view of technology as something inherently ‘bad for us’.
Our protagonist’s life inside the portal is not ‘less real’ than her life outside it, but its reality has a different quality. And I like the way the two ‘lives’ resonate over each other; how ‘the portal’ has evolved to become a prism through which the protagonist shapes her experience outside it; and how this experience, in turn, disrupts the portal’s art of communal thinking by introducing something at once deeply personal and also largely shared – death, grief, loss.
I like the way the author tries to play with the tensions between individual and communal, specific and generic, and her use of odd resonances. The internet had “once been the place where you sounded like yourself. Gradually, it had become the place where we sounded like each other”. As the protagonist’s mind seems to have grown out of proportion to her limited, individual life, absorbed by the collective, endless scrolling flow of the portal’s communal mind, so the baby’s head is growing out of proportion to her body. Something is going to give; some bubbles will burst. “As the baby struggled to breathe, as it became clear that her airway was collapsing, as her head grew too heavy to even turn from side to side, it slowly dawned on them that she was experiencing an enlightenment, a golden age.”
I just felt that the the second part, which was supposed to infuse the book with some emotion, just left me cold, and the two halves did not flow into each other so well. Perhaps, they were not meant to do it, but I felt that the second half demanded more time and space to develop; perhaps, it demanded a lingo, a portal of its own. As it is, the second half feels like some sort of phantom pain – something that comes from a body part that is no longer there. Perhaps, it was meant to feel this way.
About the book
- Riverhead Books, 2021, 210 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 4 stars
Unsettled Ground, by Claire Fuller (2021)
We are in rural England, in a rundown cottage. It is cold and bleak, and twins Julius and Jeanie Seeder wake up to find their mother, Dot, dead on the kitchen floor. They are fifty-one, they are lonely, and they have never left home. Their father, Frank, was killed in a tractor accident, when they were twelve.“The different lives they might have lived are too enormous to comprehend.”
Until now, they have led a simple life on the edge of modern society. They have no television, no internet, no bank accounts. Julius works as a handyman, jumping from gig to gig. They grow their own vegetables in the garden, they have a dog, they tend their hens, they play folk music together. Now, everything is about to unravel, and nothing will be the same: “None of them are the people we thought they were.”
Jeanie and Julius don’t even have time to mourn Dot. They discover their mother was in debt; that she borrowed money; this money is nowhere to be found; and, to make matters worse, they are handed an eviction notice. Their life is about to fall apart, bit by bit. They will bury their mother and unearth a few secrets: their ground will shift under their feet, unsettled.
“’I don’t think you understand. We’re going to lose the cottage.’ Jeanie puts her palms on the table. The creature is in her throat. If she opens her mouth wide enough and screams, it will come sliding out, new-born and slippery, ready to fight.”
Fuller is a master at building tension and atmosphere, she excels at character development, and her writing is very rich and sensorial – but, plot-wise, the novel loses its grip at about two thirds of the way through, and the drama in the end feels a bit too rushed, too much.
Still, the book has thrown me inside Jeanie and Julius’ entrapment in homelessness, lies, and poverty – their lack of options, their awkward attempts at holding their small world together. I loved the novel’s underlying melancholy, and its shy tinge of hope. The animal in Jeanie’s heart is stirring. It must first be uprooted and its soil must be unsettled, before its seeds can find home and ripen anew.
About the book
- Fig Tree, 2021, 289 p. Goodreads
- Tin House Books, 2021, 327 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 4 stars
- Projects: My Most Anticipated 2021 Books
- This book was kindly sent to me by the publishers for review
Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi (2020)
Our protagonist Gifty is a PhD student in California, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants. Her father abandoned the family and returned to Ghana when Gifty was a child; later, her brother, a once successful soccer player, becomes addicted to the opioid he had been prescribed after an injury, and dies of an overdose; shortly after, Gifty’s mother sinks into depression.
Now, our protagonist is studying neural circuits of reward-seeking behaviour, and, in doing so, she is also excavating larger questions: Gifty has turned to science to find a key – to addiction, to depression, to her crisis of faith. She is reckoning with her past. She is toying with her wounds. She is trying to transcend her kingdom.
“Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom, as one of my high school biology teachers used to say. That belief, that transcendence, was held within this organ itself. Infinite, unknowable, soulful, perhaps even magical. I had traded the Pentecostalism of my childhood for this new religion, this new quest, knowing that I would never fully know.”
The narrative moves back and forth between past and present, religious faith and science, building in emotional force, layer by layer. That the book manages to do so, without falling into sentimentality nor melodrama, and also dips into larger topics – science, faith, addiction, loneliness, grief, racism, mental illness, mind, soul, mother-daughter relationship, immigration, and abandonment – is a measure of Gyasi’s exceptional talent for storytelling.
“We don’t even know the questions we need to ask in order to find out, but when we learn one tiny little thing, a dim light comes on in a dark hallway, and suddenly, a new question appears.”
My one qualm with this novel is its neat ending. It is too neat – we lose faith. It feels almost as though all the emotional force that was driving us through the pages could not be held for much longer and had to be… transcended. The connection is suddenly lost. But, once the text’s friction and its struggle are gone, we lose faith. The book is closed on us just before its close.
“Questions become guesses become philosophical ideas about how something should probably, maybe, be. I grew up around people who were distrustful of science, who thought of it as a cunning trick to rob them of their faith, and I have been educated around scientists and laypeople alike who talk about religion as though it were a comfort blanket for the dumb and the weak, a way to extol the virtues of a God more improbable than our own human existence. But this tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false. I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”
The title plays with the ideas of Kingdom as a biological classification (animal kingdom, the scientific realm) and as a religious term (Kingdom of Heaven, the Christian spiritual realm), as the protagonist is caught between scientific belief and religious faith, driven by both, forever trying to bridge their divide, and forever failing to do so – failing to transcend their (and her) kingdoms. Failing – except for her brief, sweet, blazing moments of true human connection, where meaning is created, and another (more pedestrian, but perhaps more meaningful) kind of transcendence is made possible.
“When I watched the limping mouse refuse the lever, I was reminded yet again of what it means to be reborn, made new, saved, which is just another way of saying, of needing those outstretched hands of your fellows and the grace of God. That saving grace, amazing grace, is a hand and a touch, a fibre-optic implant and a lever and a refusal, and how sweet, how sweet it is.”
About the book
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (2020)
Our protagonist, Antara, is haunted by her lifelong difficult relationship with her mother, Tara. When Antara was a child, Tara left her husband to live at a cult-like ashram, and becomes its guru’s lover. From there, she turned to begging on the streets and to engaging in more love affairs, neglecting her daughter all along. Tara is that most terrible of literary monsters: an absent mother, an unfaithful wife, an unrepentant woman. Or is she? The lines between self-determination and selfishness get blurred.
Now, three decades on, Antara is a newly married artist and has given birth to her first child – a daughter of her own. “I am tired of this baby”, she says at one point, as if caught in a never-ending family cycle. Meanwhile, her mother Tara has started to suffer from the early signs of dementia, and Antara is forced into the role of taking her into her home and caring for her. The mother-daughter roles are now reversed – except that, in this case, they never really existed in the first place.
The novel’s first lines already hint at its burnt taste:
“I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.
I suffered at her hands as a child, and any pain she subsequently endured appeared to me to be a kind of redemption – a rebalancing of the universe, where the rational order of cause and effect aligned.
But now, I can’t even the tally between us.
The reason is simple: my mother is forgetting, and there is nothing I can do about it. There is no way to make her remember the things she has done in the past, no way to baste her in guilt.”
The novel is driven by Antara’s unforgiving, burning voice; by her hatred and her longing for love; by what she remembers, what she adds to the story, and what she wants to forget. How and why to take care of someone who refused to take care of you? And how and why not to do so? Who gets to remember and who gets to forget? Who belongs, who excludes, and whom is being excluded? Who gets to tell the story? Those are the questions the novel goes through with an unflinching desire not to answer, but to hurt.
Antara (the un-Tara) was deliberately named to be different from her mother and “designated as her undoing”. Her name both separates and connects them: “I often wished she had never been born, knowing this would wipe me out as well – I understood how deeply connected we were, and how her destruction would irrevocably lead to my own”.
Now, Tara’s memory loss precludes both restitution and absolution, and also comprises the loss of something that only exists in its sharing: the past. Tara’s destruction will be Antara’s undoing, and it is to this novel’s merit that it manages to balance itself so well in its protagonist’s unsolvable riddle: her unquenched desire for revenge is the other side of her unquenchable longing for maternal love. It tastes like burnt sugar. “I should be sad instead of angry. Sometimes I cry when no one else is around – I am grieving, but it’s too early to burn the body.”
I love this novel’s anger, its dark humour, its lack of hope, its lack of redeeming features, its uncomfortable aftertaste. If I were to fault it, it would be for its urgency in burning all its boats. It gives in too readily to the blast and burst.
The book’s exploration of the dynamics of remembering and forgetting is also mirrored in Antara’s work as an artist: a series of drawings that start from a photograph and are copied from each other, day by day, until the final drawing drifts from the source material and takes a different shape. Just like memory itself: “memory is a work in progress. It’s always being reconstructed”; “we actively make memories, you know. And we make them together. We remake memories, too, in the image of what other people remember.”
At this point, we feel that Antara may not be as reliable a narrator as we initially took her to be. “I know I’m finished when I have gone too far, when the picture I started with has moved away from its original categorization into something different, when I have altered it to the point of being almost grotesque” – she is talking about her art, but she may well be talking about the story she is telling us: drawing and remembering both mean “moving one step further from the original.”
Both for Tara and Antara, memory is unreliable, incomplete, impermanent, and about to be lost. “And even now, when I am without her, when I want to be without her, when I know her presence is the source of my unhappiness – that learned longing still rises, that craving for soft, white cotton that has frayed at the edge.” Antara’s narrative reads as a confession of guilt, but whose guilt? This may be a more blurred matter – guilt, like memory, is a palimpsest.
About the book
- Hamish Hamilton, 2020, 240 p. Goodreads
- Original title: Girl in White Cotton, 2019
- My rating: 4,5 stars
The 2021 Longlist
As I said, I do not intend to read the entire longlist, and you can see below the books I am planning to tackle. Other bloggers are doing an excellent job at reading and reviewing all the longlisted titles, so you should check them out: Callum, Naty, Eric, Emily, Hannah, Marija, Laura, Rebecca, and Rachel. Rachel also published a post on the Women’s Prize Complete Longlist history and created a corresponding Google spreadsheet!
On to the 2021 longlist:
- Read books are marked as (✓)
- Favourites are marked as (✨)
- DNFed books are
- Books I still want to read are highlighted
- Shortlisted books are in bold
- ✓✨The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
- ✓✨ Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
- ✓✨ Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
- How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
- Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
- ✓ No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
- ✓✨ Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
- ✓ Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
- ✓ Luster by Raven Leilani
- Summer by Ali Smith
- ✓✨ Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
- Consentby Annabel Lyon
- Small Pleasuresby Clare Chambers
- The Golden Ruleby Amanda Craig
- Nothing But Blue Skyby Kathleen MacMahon
- Because of Youby Dawn French
From the longlist, my winner would be…
But, if I had to choose from the shortlist, the winner would be…
Judging by popularity, however, I think that the book most likely to win is…
That’s all for now, folks! What do you think about the Women’s Prize for Fiction? Which book is most likely to win? And which book should win?