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Naomi Hamill – How To Be A Kosovan Bride

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Tradition, modernity, politics, and folklore.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 212
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63095-9
First Published: 15th August 2017
Date Reviewed: 11th August 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

A young woman begins the traditional process of leaving her family’s home for that of her inlaws; she may stay with her new family or she may return home. Her life plays out against a backdrop of a country at war, and the beginnings of a new nation.

How To Be A Kosovan Bride looks at the cultural traditions surrounding life in post-war Kosovo, bringing in stories of refugees and a few folklore-esque tales, too. Told by someone who goes to the country each year, it offers a particular perspective.

There are two threads in this book. In the first, Hamill balances tradition in all its trappings of dignity and honour, with the very modern. There’s a peppering of humour here and there but by and large this is a look at the clash between tradition and modernity, of being a traditional bride and a modern university student with all the cultural and, in the context of university, political, elements behind it.

To do all this, the author takes the wedding day as her starting point, a bride both excited and reluctant – unsure if this is the right thing to do – and then splits her story in two from wedding night onwards. The bride becomes plural, two people, as Hamill looks at two possible lives, one girl ‘passing’ her virginity test and the other ‘failing’ it (though she is in fact a virgin); one girl becomes the traditional Kosovan wife, the other, having been ‘returned’ on day one by her in-laws, deciding to pursue a university degree. For the most part this results in two narratives that are very, very different, and Hamill’s ‘Kosovan Wife’, as the character is called, does not find much happiness, so the narrative leans towards modernity, but there does come a point where both girls have a ‘grass is greener’ moment and wonder whether another life would’ve been a better choice.

Through the Kosovan Wife, Hamill is able to look further into culture, but it’s during the Returned Girl’s sections that the narrative comes into its own, where the author looks at the way the university entrance exam must be passed with flying colours in all subjects and how schools get around this issue where it concerns pupils having particular skills in particular subjects. The book as a whole is full of politics and it packs an almighty punch for its relatively small number of pages and white space. The second thread of the book, vignettes, stories, of the war – people fleeing, children killed, men walked to their death, liberation by people that aren’t all good – are absolutely harrowing; Hamill is completely blunt and in the acknowledgements of the book she thanks various Kosovan acquaintances for their stories that she used as a jumping point for her fiction, underlining the reality behind it all.

Finally there are a couple of faux-folktales dotted about, one spanning several chapters, adding a bit of magical realism to the book, rounding out the text so that it has information about history and the arts as well as the political element. This is where Hamill’s love for the country is shown best, her writing here being fictional but aligning to folklore well.

Of the writing, that second person, it’s difficult to say… if you hate the method, you may grit your teeth at this book, but because the author has made a point of often tamping it down, you may find it easy enough to get on with. There are only a handful of chapters that directly specify a ‘you’ – admittedly it’s not obvious who this ‘you’ is, whether the reader or a character and if the latter which – and the style matches the various stories told. It adds to the sense of oral history, folklore, and stories of war.

How To Be A Kosovan Bride is a good look at a country in conflict and the people on the wrong side of it, as well as a country still coming into its own. It is hard-hitting and very political but the humour and shortness of it balances this out. You’ll likely want to research the facts alongside your reading, especially if your knowledge is limited, as the book has a sense of a basic knowledge base behind it. It’s very much worth doing so.

I received this book for review.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman – Herland

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This is a difficult book to write about!

Publisher: Various
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1915
Date Reviewed: 12th February 2017
Rating: N/A (Historical value is significant but it’s not the best book out there)

Van and his friends are exploring new regions and during their travels they are told of a land bereft of men. Highly intrigued, they make for that country for different reasons. Terry thinks he’ll conquer the ladies, Jeff thinks it all sounds marvellous, and Van is simply interested. It might not turn out as they expect, particularly for Terry.

Herland is a science fiction utopia novella – a sociological text – that looks at what might happen if men were not around. Understandably based around early 20th century American society – and a lot of academia – there is much to recommend it today both in terms of the history of feminism and eternally relevant concepts. There is also a lot to be said for reading it in our modern day where, in our further cultural and scientific progress, some of the concepts are more poignant and relevant than they were in Gilman’s day.

Herland asks many questions under the umbrella subject of womanhood. What is a woman? What is femininity and how much is nature versus nurture? How much should motherhood (back then almost an inevitability) impact upon a woman’s life?

Gilman’s narrator is a man, Van, and he is joined by two others. In the trio, the author makes use of different personalities in order to be able to fully explore her ideas in the context of her fictional world as well as to pull it apart both in favour of it and not so. Van is somewhere on the middle of a scale; he’s critical of both his friends who in turn represent viewpoints at the extremes, one of them loving Herland a lot. Jeff doesn’t take long to align himself with the country, indeed he is presented, once the trio get there, as a major ally of it. Gilman, through narrator Van, questions the wisdom of falling completely for the female-only society, always leaning towards equality for both genders. Jeff takes Herland in his stride and as the novel continues you can see Gilman’s questions – is Jeff’s a complete submission, his almost ‘mummy’s boy’ approach a good one?

Then there’s Terry. Granted, Terry goes through a cycle of changes that’s in favour of Gilman’s ideas – which I’ll get to in a moment – but on the whole in Terry you have a ‘man’s man’ who thinks all the women will love him and submit to him. Gilman wants you to see that both Terry and Jeff’s views are problematic, Van, too, to various extents.

Terry’s change, from ‘man’s world’ to a bit more ‘woman’s and man’s world’ is never completed – Gilman does make him more amenable for a time but it’s in her continued decision to not change him completely (she shatters his good progression to major effect) that you can see her thought that equality is best – and in fact Gilman uses him to show the increasing realisation that women can do just as good a job in traditionally male work. It’s a slow development but there is a distinctive span of time between Terry’s reckoning that the female-only country will be ‘savage’ and his statement in which he terms the people ‘highly civilised ladies’.

On the question of what femininity is, there is much. Gilman builds it up, as she does her exploration of ‘people’, speaking of Terry’s description of ‘real women’ (those in his society) and using character development to say the following through Van:

This led me very promptly to the conviction that those ‘feminine charms’ we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity – developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfilment of their great process.

Gilman looks at the differences between Herland women and American women, the way Herland’s are the equivalent of American men. She doesn’t go too far into the idea that Terry, Jeff, and Van should do the housework, too, but the point is made: a woman doesn’t have to conform to society expectations to be a woman.

Where Gilman looks most critically at her creation is on the subject of motherhood. She uses the real world expectation in her fictional one, taking it to the extreme so that becoming a mother is the absolute be all and end all of life, it’s just that they happen to live full lives otherwise. (She has by this stage built up your imagination of the world enough that you can see the patriarchy and western concept of manhood aligning perfectly with this taken-to-the-extreme concept of motherhood.)

The country revolves around motherhood. It’s the highest, best thing, a woman – a person – can live for; it’s a religion. It’s both a clever criticism of the west and a criticism of itself:

“The only thing they can think of about a man is Fatherhood!” said Terry in high scorn. “Fatherhood! As if a man was always wanting to be a father!”

Motherhood is where the novella meets its biggest present day opposition. The basic history of the land is science fiction – it might even disappoint you because Gilman takes a giant definite leap towards fantasy, away from real world concepts. Herland women started experiencing immaculate conceptions and this reproduction produces only females. The contention today is in the continual effect of that propagation (because it’s now natural) – in order to not become overwhelmed by overpopulation, the highest people in Herland decreed that some women must ‘suppress the urge’ to reproduce and leave it to a select number of chosen women. Some women are so favoured they have more than one child.

The criticism itself comes in where Gilman places what we would now call a cheeky child outside of the circle of those chosen to later be mothers. If you combine this concept with Herland’s success at eradicating disease, illness, harm, it’s not the happiest picture, despite that this eradication of suffering is for the benefit of everyone in the land.

(The interesting thing about the views of children, in general, displayed here is Gilman’s view of how the west treats them: ‘no Herland children ever met the overbearing rudeness we so commonly show to children’.)

So disability and mental illness become suspect, too. Gilman does not speak of it outright – the illnesses she mentions read as cold and flu – but it creates unease, particularly in the context of today. It’s much like the situation surrounding Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre – you have to consider where prejudice as we view it meets what were average societal thoughts back then and come to your own conclusion.

Gilman says little directly about race. Terry calls the people who reside next to Herland ‘savages’ but given his character in general, in the context of the book it’s hard to say that this is Gilman’s view. Gilman’s Herland could be ethnically mixed; again it’s down to the reader. (I will note here that the question of the author’s views on race are answered in the next book. Since I wouldn’t recommend reading the next book I’d propose you read essays about her instead.)

Herland is an enjoyable read on an entertainment level, at least in terms of being entertained by history and barriers being broken, but it’s not something to read to escape daily life. It demands you think – that is it’s very purpose – and it’s a book you’d be hard pressed not to take a thousand notes on. It has its faults, it has its dated aspects, but it is a triumph in terms of progressive thinking. The only thing really amiss is the ending – the book finishes almost mid movement, but there’s a sequel that continues where the flying machine takes off.

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Joanna Cannon – The Trouble With Goats And Sheep

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The Trouble With Goats And Sheep (The Borough Press) was shortlisted for the British Books Awards 2017.

Lambs (and kids) of god.

Publisher: The Borough Press (HarperCollins)
Pages: 453
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-13217-0
First Published: 28th January 2016
Date Reviewed: 10th May 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

Mrs Creasy has disappeared and no one on the avenue knows anything about it. They’ve only two things to go on – the police don’t seem too interested, and Mr Creasy says his wife will be back given time. Grace is interested in the disappearance but more so in the idea of God – if the vicar says God is with us then God must be somewhere on the avenue. One of the neighbouring houses must host him; together with her many-jumpered friend, Tilly, she’s going to find him.

The Trouble With Goats And Sheep is a wholly character-driven dual-narrative novel that looks at the way groups of people deal with individuals who aren’t like them. It’s also about how exclusive a small community can become.

Cannon’s backdrop is the British heatwave of 1976, a time when rain ceased entirely for a couple of months (we had 4 weeks here recently, which was weird enough), the temperature shot to a still-unbeaten record high, and water had to be rationed. This backdrop allows Cannon to look at emotions and personalities pushed to their relative limit. It also ensures that for the sections relating to that year, the neighbours spend a lot of time together by virtue of being outside.

The neighbours are insulated by their unchanged residence; whether by personality or through time (it’s mostly personality but the author covers both bases) these people are very set in their ways; as the then Conservative leader and later Prime Minister is known for saying, they are “not for changing”. There are some rather unfavourable characters here. To name but a few: Harold – a man full of hate who has convinced his wife that she forgets, making her create lists of tasks for the day; Sheila, who heartedly joins in on verbal attacks and is generally unable to see beyond her misconceptions; Grace’s parents who don’t take responsibility for what they’ve done and thus enable bullies to pursue others.

The person they hate, because ‘dislike’ is not a strong enough word, is a man who keeps to himself. You don’t find out if social circumstances were ever different, but the neighbours have turned their backs on Walter completely. In interviews, Cannon has said she wrote the book to shine a light on the situation of people on the edge of society and it is through Walter that she accomplishes this. Walter has supposedly stolen a baby in his time and everyone was secretly happy when his house went up in smoke – from the first, Cannon shows the reader how it’s more likely that Walter is misunderstood… not that anyone on the avenue would care that they got it wrong. The author doesn’t answer the question of the stolen baby until the end – it’s one of the whodunnit elements of the book – but what she says before that is enough for you to conclude that if Walter did steal the baby, it likely wasn’t malicious. Walter may have a learning disability and/or social anxiety – the what, if any, isn’t important, it’s the idea of difference that Cannon focuses on. The neighbours don’t like difference. Intolerance, arrogance, and as it happens, racism, is best in their books. Cannon tends to lace this with clever comebacks:

‘How exactly should they have prepared themselves?’
‘Got used to our customs.’ Harold pulled at his shoelace. ‘Learned a bit of our language, you know.’
‘I’m fairly sure they speak English, Harold.’
‘Well if they do, it’s only thanks to the Raj. You can’t just go marching into somebody else’s country and expect them to follow your rules, you know.’
‘India?’ said Dorothy.
‘No, Britain.’

As this is a character-driven novel, you spend a lot of time with these people – the entire time, in fact – but Cannon makes it worth your while. Aside from providing a reprieve in the form of Grace, who is a caring soul, the author takes time to de-construct how the neighbours’ personalities and biases can lead them to take action when most people would simply shrug and move on.

In terms of the whodunnit elements, the book sports rough pointers as to who might have caused the house fire that killed Walter’s mother, which is revealed at the end. (Have I said how awful these people are?) The mystery isn’t at the forefront and in fact the revelation, which is a bit murky and requires some thought, isn’t much of one – it does answer the question, but it’s only slight in terms of impact.

The ending itself, which returns to the mystery of Mrs Creasy, like the answer to the fire isn’t particularly interesting – Mrs Creasy’s non-presence is more akin to Du Maurier’s Rebecca – an off-stage character, no lines, yet nevertheless managing to make a sizeable impact.

In case all the nastiness is wearing on you, Cannon offers moments of humour. Seen most prominently near the beginning in order that you start the book knowing the deal straight out, there is a chapter that is almost entirely dedicated to making you laugh.

The hall filled with people. It was far more crowded than the church had been, and pairs of jeans mixed with Sunday best. It appeared that Jesus pulled a much bigger crowd if He provided garibaldis.

[…]

No one mentioned Jesus.
In fact, I didn’t think anyone would have noticed if Jesus had walked into the room, unless He happened to be accompanied by an Arctic roll.

The Trouble With Goats And Sheep has a lot going for it. The detailing is excellent, the characterisation and dialogue spot on; many aspects of it are objectively very good, the subjective aspect falls firmly in the personalities. It’s altogether a well conceived and well-executed book, you just have to pick the right moment to read it.

I received this book for review.

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Emma Cline – The Girls

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The Girls (Chatto & Windus) has been shortlisted for the British Books Awards 2017. The winner will be announced 8th May.

Under the thumb.

Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Random House)
Pages: 353
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-74044-3
First Published: 14th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 4th May 2017
Rating: 3.5/5

At 14, Evie’s life is becoming difficult. She’s got problems with her major friendship, has a crush on her friend’s brother and knows that’s a problem in itself, her father has left the family home for an apartment with his assistant, and her mother spends all her time elsewhere. Feeling the lack of love in her life, Evie is easily drawn to Suzanne and her friends, girls in well-used clothes who live on a ranch under the leadership of an older man. Evie chooses not to live with them exclusively, knowing she should go home sometimes so her mother doesn’t suspect, but the group’s influence is enough. Now, middle-aged and looking back on the time, Evie muses on the influence, her innocence and role, and the crime committed that saw the major players behind bars.

The Girls is a novel of semi-factual history, an account of a 1960s cult with a devastating end. Told from the point of an acquaintance, it is one part drugs, a manipulated idea of free love, and one part teenage anxieties and fitting in, particularly as a female.

Based on the Manson Family murders in the late 1960s, Cline’s book aligns to facts enough that her book can be considered a semi-retelling. Looking ever more closely at influence and the impact of neglect – both real and assumed – Cline’s focus on the female psych is the strongest element of the novel. Evie’s experience, enmeshed in the cult but with enough time away from it, enables Cline to study the way words, bullying, parental-filial relationships, can impact the self and the ability to be manipulated, both in general and sexually. This is of course mostly in the context of the era being studied, but Cline ensures her writing has long-term relevance, having the older Evie contemplate the experience of a young acquaintance in our present day, a girl she sees staying silent whilst her boyfriend and his friend talk, a girl who takes her clothes off to show her body when requested – though uncomfortable – in the company of both boys.

Evie’s teenage lack of self-confidence, self-worth, most terms that begin with ‘self’, is what enables her to be taken in by the group, their relative (though pretend) empathy and love for her driving her to do things that you as the reader can tell she would really rather not do – she’s always on the cusp of understanding it but lacks the forethought due to self-belief. (It should be noted this book is of a very adult nature.)

I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.

The title stays true to form – whilst there are a couple of men in this book who are manipulated, it is not the same – this is a book about girls and women in the ways discussed. There are few good male characters in this book; the literal good guys Cline has painted well, but with Evie’s narrative you don’t get to see them for long and they are not given much time.

Cline’s study has much to recommend it, but beyond this the book struggles to make a mark. The writing falls somewhere between excellent and too much; on a solely literary level it’s marvellous, it’s all very poetic and descriptive but on numerous occasions it detracts from the essence of the story, Cline appearing to favour words over getting her point across. Favourite words and terms of phrase are noticeable, for example, many times something ‘stipples’ something, and every so often words are made up.

It’s literary but missing a few things – it doesn’t say anything new. The background details – the hows, whys and whens of the cult – have been left out entirely; even if the book lines up with the stereotype of cults and rests on history, the details should have been included rather than the expectation that the reader already knows the story. The historical details about the hippie life do not always ring true.

This is a book where you know the ending at the beginning – on purpose – but all the action has been left until the end meaning that you must be enjoying Evie’s musings on the lackadaisical everyday to keep going. Due to Evie’s position in the group, a lot of the lasting information is relegated to paragraphs telling you what the TV reports said, which does mean it has less of an impact than it might have otherwise, and unfortunately this low level of impact is similar throughout.

I received this book for review.

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Juan Carlos Márquez – Tangram

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Not what you thought.

Publisher: Nevsky Books (Ediciones Nevsky)
Pages: 162
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-8-494-59133-4
First Published: 2011; December 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 2nd May 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Spanish
Original title: Tangram
Translated by: James Womack

Two men visit an ex-actress in order to network but find themselves locked in her basement for weeks. A man looking to commit a crime finds it difficult to do so when his targets turn out to be suicidal. A group of children take to calling names in the belief that people will change if they hear the truth. These stories, together with a few others, make up the details of what could be different narratives or one whole.

Tangram is a short thriller which makes use of fractured storytelling in order to keep you thinking and surprise you at the end.

Carlos Márquez’s use of fractured narrative means that for a good while, until the story starts to cycle round and come together, it could be said you’re reading a short story collection. Stories, linked by a vague theme, suggest something far from a novel-length piece, but as it turns out, the writing and structure is absolutely key to this book, which is interesting because the necessity of the writing is apparent very early on, but more in the sense that you can appreciate it rather than anything further.

The author uses writing – first person, particular types of phrasing and cracks in the fourth wall – to dig deep into the details of his characters’ stories. The author looks at the whole, of course, but it’s almost whimsical – he places a lot of importance on the ending, on getting it right, but he’s so focussed on each character that the book darts back and forth neatly – is this a literary novel or is it genre thriller? At heart, it’s both. In view of the translation, you can see Carlos Márquez’s words underneath Womack’s text, the author’s concepts and workings remaining clear. Footnotes have been included in places where to translate in-text, so to speak, would have slowed the pace.

There is a bit of humour in the book, a thread that makes you wonder before revealing itself fully. It is slight, very slight, and fits the writing wonderfully.

The ending pulls everything together… well, almost – but almost is the point. You’ll discover (likely, at least, unless you’ve somehow figured out where it’s going and I’d guess in this case that’s not likely) that some of what you’ve read isn’t important but that it wasn’t quite a red herring. You’ll discover that some things you thought important were, and those things tend to be the things you’d later decided were probably red herrings. You’ll discover that the things you did think were red herrings were indeed red herrings and that the author included them fully hoping you’d see them as red herrings.

And the ending may come as a shock because it’s really not what everything seemed to be building up to… until you’re reading the ending and working your way backwards. It’s fair to say appearances may be deceptive and the most crafty person in this situation isn’t any of the characters but the author himself.

This isn’t a book about witnesses or suspects, rather it’s a book about people who happen or happened to be in some way affiliated with the people involved at the core of the story. Reading it is a little like playing Cluedo, only with less of an exact sense of where you’re headed; and keeping a check-list of the people you’ve met so far wouldn’t be much help because the author isn’t telling.

The page count is perfect – you wouldn’t want this any longer or shorter, partly due to the effect the details have where you wonder how much information is relevant. Best read for its technique, Tangram is an award winning book and it’s not hard to see why.

I received this book for review.

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