Feature: Miss Belinda Blurb – The Real McCoy Review

The Real McCoy

A rich treasure trove of etymological humour and history

The old adage – ‘you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover’ – may disagree, but we’ve all felt defeat when we see a striking picture, a fancy font, a famous face, or a well-written pitch on the reverse of our favourite tomes.

Some favour the striking austerity of The Book Thief – ‘You are going to die’ – or the magical mystery of Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, ‘the circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it… it is simply there, when yesterday it was not’. Others prefer the elegiac grace of Kay’s Trumpet, ‘When the love of your life dies, the problem is not that some part of you dies too, which it does, but that some part of you is still alive’, or the temptation of The Crimson Petal and the White’s ‘watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them…’

The imaginary beauty on the back of Gelett Burgess’s book Are You a Bromide?, ‘Miss Belinda Blurb’, birthed this publishing practise and even baptised it the ‘blurb’ – and it’s just one of many etymological mavericks in The Real McCoy.

The Real McCoy - Blurb Continue reading “Feature: Miss Belinda Blurb – The Real McCoy Review”

Essay: Space & Hysteria in The Yellow Wallpaper and Dora: A Case of Hysteria

‘I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in […]’[1] muses Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own; an anxiety of space that arises amidst its advocacy for ‘a woman [to] have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’[2]. Although neither are writers of fiction, the women protagonists of two texts, Sigmund Freud’s Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, are subject to Woolf’s spatial anxiety. Both are locked in and out of literal and metaphorical feminine spaces, acknowledged by feminist critics Gilbert and Gubar as ‘parallel confinements in texts, houses and […] female bodies’[3]. This study will analyse how in their texts – Freud’s a ‘case history’[4] of ‘petite hystérie’ (Freud, p.19) for ‘publication in a strictly scientific medical journal’ (Freud, p.4), Gilman’s a first-person fictional account of a woman’s experience of ‘a slight hysterical tendency’[5] – the writers’ portrayal of these spaces infers the locking in and out of their protagonists. Finally, this study aims to determine, as Woolf wonders, which is ‘worse’: to be locked in, or locked out? Continue reading “Essay: Space & Hysteria in The Yellow Wallpaper and Dora: A Case of Hysteria”

5 Favourites: American Literature

The Poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830-86)

Emily Dickinson

‘Hope is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —’

The American… undiscovered
The Mother of American poetry to Walt Whitman’s Father, Dickinson left over 1,500 distinctive, dense and dash-laden poems that only found fame after her death.

Despite living in isolation, Dickinson’s poetic voice is not only introspective but inquisitive, questioning the boundaries of life, death and everything in-between, from marriage to religion to Mother Nature. With a penchant for capitalisation and poetic discord, Dickinson has both an anxious desire to discover the unknowable secrets within, as in ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’, and ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes —’, and, in ‘A Bird came down the Walk —’ and ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’, a curious eye to cast outwards on the usually-unnoticed workings of the natural world, with lines of poetry only paralleled by the wonder of the wildlife it captures. As such, Dickinson’s writing finds a unique freedom in the confinement of poetic form, femininity in the nineteenth-century, and her self-inflicted reclusiveness.

Other works ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ and ‘Those – dying then’ for death and divinity in the same breath, ‘Title divine – is mine!’ and ‘They shut me up in Prose —’ for some contextually controversial views on courtship, that synesthetic ‘Blue — uncertain— stumbling Buzz’ in ‘I heard a Fly buzz — when I died —’, and ‘Because I could not stop for Death —’ for possibly the most inspired use of iambic rhythm in the poetic canon.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

‘The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.’

The American… locked in
The Yellow Wallpaper is less about wallpaper and more about walls – of both the bricks-and-mortar and symbolic kind.

A semi-autobiographical short story about a woman forced to lay on her back and… do absolutely nothing. Known as the ‘rest cure’, this controversial remedy was often recommended for women suffering from ‘hysteria’, a term used to describe ‘female’ depression. Unsurprisingly, isolation and inactivity are not an antidote to depression, but instead feed and fester it, and its real effect, rather than a doctors’ theories, is found in Gilman’s evocative account. The narrative style reads like the pattern of the eponymous wallpaper: the flourishes of the pattern camouflage the creeping unease of the narrative, until the unnamed narrator’s interiority escapes and plasters itself over the walls in place of the repulsive wallpaper. Yet, as women under the rest cure, the act of writing is an act of rebellion for both Gilman and her anonymous narrator.

Other works for women writers in America, see Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple for race and womanhood, Sylvia Plath’s poetry and partly-autobiographical The Bell Jar for a woman’s experience of depression, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved for women and the unbreakable maternal bond.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

The American… dreamer
A cliché but a classic, The Great Gatsby is the Jazz Age archetype of the dream-to-disillusionment truth of a truly American ideology.

And the truth is that Gatsby isn’t that Great. Fitzgerald’s prose is like Gatsby’s parties: the decadence, the drink, and the dancing disguise the longing, loss and loneliness underneath all the glitter and gold as Fitzgerald’s lyrical poetry masks the prosaic reality of the American Dream. An American classic that includes some of the greatest imagery of its age, from the Valley of the Ashes to the Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg to the green light at the end of Gatsby’s adored, Daisy’s, dock, the empty symbolism of The Great Gatsby is as, if not more, meaningful – or meaningless – in our modern, material reality as it was in the Roaring Twenties, permeating pop-culture with a reminder of how hollow and heartless the pursuit of American ideals of love, life and wealth can be.

Other works from the Great Depression to eighties-era yuppies, the migrant workers George and Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Bret Easton Ellis’s monster-of-a-man in American Psycho highlight how all walks of life have dreamed the American Dream and fallen from its great heights.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

‘…racism is a visceral experience […] it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth […] [and] all land, with great violence, upon the body.’

The American…  advocate
A heartbreakingly honest work laying bare the fearful truth of racism in the USA not as a philosophy to be studied, but as a physical assault on the black body.

History is written by the victors, but the history of race in America is often written by the villains, or at least those, willingly or unknowingly, on their side. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is a visceral, vital voice in the narrative of black America made all the more poignant because it’s written as a passionate epistle to his son. Like his experience, Coates’s writing is as powerful as it is exposed, defiant as it is fearful, and brutal as it is beautiful; it’s an account unflinching but invaluable to our understanding of lives we haven’t lived. And that’s the key: this is the ‘stars and strife’ story of American history, and it’s a story that we have to hear from the hearts of those who’ve lived it first hand.

Other works The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, the blazing, groundbreaking 1963 work that influenced Between the World and Me, Maya Angelou’s autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and poetic rebellion in ‘Still I Rise’, and Coates himself on HBO’s Confederate, and why Civil War success for the South is ‘an ugly truth that black Americans are forced to live every day‘.

Hamilton: An American Musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (2015)

Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

‘If I throw away my shot, is this how you’ll remember me?
What if this bullet is my legacy?
Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.’

The American… descendant
The ultimate American musical written by an American with immigrant heritage about America then told by America now, focussing on another American immigrant, Alexander Hamilton, who wrote his way into American history as one of its Founding Fathers.

Telling history through rap, hip-hop, and R&B, Miranda makes America’s past matter through music that’s contemporary and a cast-of-colour who play the mostly white political players of the late-18th century. With many characters and songs taking their cue from the founding American writers of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, Hamilton fuses the past, the present, and the future – the finale asks, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?’ – into a harmonious whole with a heart that beats and breaks and skips and aches. Hamilton tells not only a political history but a private one, centring on the opposing views of Hamilton and his rival, Aaron Burr (Sir): one waits for it, the other goes for it; one stands for nothing, the other rises up; one dies, the other survives, but pays for it.

Other works Miranda is a theatre-admirer as well as a theatre-maker, and his varied musical influences – classical and contemporary – are found throughout Hamilton, so see the Genius annotations and analysis, authorised and added to by Miranda himself, to find them all.

5 Favourites: ‘Classics’ Reimagined for the ‘Teen Age’

Clueless (1995)

Clueless 1995

‘She was proved to have been universally mistaken.’

‘I was just totally clueless.’

The Classic… Austen’s classic comedy-of-manners, makeovers, marriages and match-making, Emma (1815)

…Reclassified meddling misses Emma Woodhouse and Cher Horowitz both have everyone else’s marital affairs on their minds – so much so that they forget the fancies and affections of their own hearts. The satirical wit of Austen’s slightly spoiled society lady finds a second home in all-American high-schooler Cher, and the high school hierarchy is lampooned with the same commentary on class, society, and the characteristics of the sexes as Emma’s English high society. The meddlesome young women both find their way to a handsome suitor who’s been close to their hearts all along, but Cher’s love is sealed with a make-out, not a marriage. Ugh, as if.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Romeo + Juliet 1996‘…To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.’

”Cos I’m kissing you…’

The Classic… Shakespeare’s story of ‘star cross’d lovers’ and ancestral strife, Romeo and Juliet (c.1595)

…Reclassified Baz Luhrmann’s Verona-Beach-and-revolvers reimagining of Romeo and Juliet is by no means the best cinematic version of the unlucky lovers, but it is a trailblazing translation of the traditional to the contemporary. While Roger Ebert egregiously branded it a movie for the ‘MTV’ generation – ‘Young Hearts’ really do ‘Run Free’ in the modern music – the Bard still gets top billing as Luhrmann makes use of the original language, although, with the exception of Pete Postlethwaite’s Laurence, it’s largely missing the metrical poetry of the play. Yet, Romeo + Juliet made stars of DiCaprio and Danes, its ‘star cross’d lovers’, and, to a lesser extent, Shakespeare, introducing his work to a fresh – and very profitable – demographic.

Rent (1996)Rent 1996

‘…if you wouldn’t mind lighting my candle.’

‘Oh, won’t you light the candle?’

The Classic… Puccini’s heartbreaking opera about ailing bohemians in nineteenth-century Paris, La Bohème (1895)

…Reclassified Set almost one-hundred sets of ‘five-hundred twenty-five thousand six-hundred minutes’ later than its source in New York’s Alphabet City, Jonathan Larson’s musical is full of allusions to La Bohème. Far from just modernising Rodolfo and Marcello to Roger and Mark and referencing ‘Musetta’s Waltz’, the musical transforms the artists’ outdated wasting disease into a frighteningly modern one – AIDS. Whilst the protagonists aren’t all teenagers, Rent is, arguably, a teenage retelling, reflecting the angst and appealing to the anarchy of a marginalised youth – particularly the LGBTQ+ community – who feel they’ve been failed by a culture that couldn’t care less about them. Larson’s La Bohème is bold and heartbreaking, but it’s also wholly believable.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

10 Things I Hate About You 1999

‘Asses are made to bear, and so are you.’

‘I guess in this society, being male and an asshole makes you worthy of our time.’

The Classic… Shakespeare’s romantic comedy with his most complicated and unromantic couple, The Taming of the Shrew (c.1590-4)

…Reclassified Katherina, with her cutting taunts and ‘scolding tongue’, is perhaps Shakespeare’s most proto-feminist creation, and so it’s no surprise her modern counterpart features in one of the more feminist teen films of the time. Along with Heath Ledger as a long-haired Petruchio, 10 Things I Hate About You is a teen-romcom-Shakespearean-comedy crossover with a kickass soundtrack. A roller-coaster of those feelings that come with falling in love, beating bullies and playing parley with over-protective parents, the film does as Shakespeare did, just with fewer words and wicked fashion, and explores that universal experience of what to do when we realise we don’t hate the one we love, not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.

Easy A (2010)Easy A 2010

‘On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.’

‘Perhaps you should embroider a red A on your wardrobe, you abominable tramp.’

The Classic… Nathaniel Hawthorne’s canonised scripture on sexual shame in Puritan-age America, The Scarlet Letter (1850)

…Reclassified Easy A is easily the most accessible of all the ‘classic’ adaptations: it’s the most meta – the kids are studying The Scarlet Letter and Emma Stone even summarises it for us early in the movie – the most comedic, and the most malleable in its treatment of the source material, but it still makes many of the same remarks about society’s response to women who have sex – which is worrying, when you look at the release dates. Protagonist Olive faces many of the same prejudices as Hester Prynne as she tries to fight her way through the high school rumour mill, just as the Puritan townsfolk pass judgement on Hester, but ultimately their kindhearted and courageous character prevails. Although, tragically, only one gets to ride off on a lawnmower.

See this ace post, ‘Classic Lit and Teen Flicks: Why it Works’, for a more in-depth analysis on what makes these adaptations work.

Review: Our Memory Like Dust by Gavin Chait #blogtour

Wholly human: captures the imperfection, fragility, ephemerality, fragmentation of memory

our memory like dust blog tour

Our memory is like dust: imperfect, fragile, ephemeral, fragmented, and Gavin Chait’s novel Our Memory Like Dust perfectly captures what it means to remember, how it feels to remember, and why, in times of crisis, it’s imperative to remember if we’re never to repeat the crimes of our collective pasts. Crises of all kinds, from the environmental to the humanitarian, are also like dust: a moment ruptures, the fragments fly, they fall for a long time, drifting through the light-shafts of human consciousness, until they fall into place in history, and we live in an era exploding with them.

Chait captures the dust-like drift of crisis and memory in writing moving with poetry and precision, and it’s never felt more prescient. Set decades into an unflinchingly familiar future, it follows those fleeing, fighting, and desperate to find refuge from an Africa devastated by conflict, but this is a novel as diverse as the continent itself: it’s sci-fi, dystopian, and speculative, but from the opening epigraphs, it’s also frighteningly familiar and uncomfortably current. Much of the action moves with a migration crisis, but Chait approaches it from a mythologising perspective: a weaving of voices, mother-tongues and folktales that elevate it from a war-torn drama to a interwoven mix of the mythic and the modern. There’s something modernist, almost Eliot’s The Waste Land-like in the devastated, dusty landscaping of the Sahara desert, and, like The Waste Land, ‘out of the dead land’ sprouts ‘memory and desire’.

Debris floats for a long time before it falls into place, and the fragmented opening infused with temporal shifts is, at times, frustrating, but through it Chait has captured the fragmentation, the imperfection, of memories: they fall apart before they fuse together into a picture man can understand; Our Memory Like Dust suggests that stories and crises do the same. Chait manages to craft a temporal setting that seems both modern – with its technologies and timely relation to the ‘real world’ – and mythological, with storytelling that seeps out of its history and into the story at hand; the effect is wholly human, reading the novel is what it feels like in the moment of remembering, and it’s no mean feat.

In a discussion of his creative influences, Chait references Akram Khan, a contemporary choreographer who does his own mixing with mythology and the migrant crisis: in a commission for English National Ballet, Khan reimagines the classically canonised Romantic ballet Giselle against the migrant crisis, and uses echoes of music and movement from the mythic echelons of the original in his creation. Our Memory Like Dust shares those echoes of classicism and mythology, but, like Khan, deconstructs it and creates something more harrowing – and more human – out of the dust. For, as Our Memory Like Dust demonstrates, not only is memory imperfect, fragile, ephemeral and fragmented, but so is humanity. Like dust.

– from an uncorrected proof copy received to be part of the blog tour – thank you Rosie! – published by Doubleday on July 27th 2017, buy from Foyles for £14.99

Review: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Listening for love: a symphony of heartfelt feelings, full of humour

music shop

Shakespeare once wrote, ‘if music be the food of love, play on’, but for Frank, the loveable, bearlike lead in The Music Shop, music is also the food of community, companionship, and change. A tale that’s heartfelt and full of humour, it revolves, like a vinyl record, around the turntable in Frank’s music shop, with Joyce unfolding her narrative like the needle: pointed, precise, but through which prose of such sweet simplicity can play – and it practically sings.

Music permeates not only the plot, but the prose, the characters, and even the chapter titles. The story centres on Frank, a consummate listener who listens to his customers’ emotional ailments until he can find them a cure in the form of a song, and it could be anything from Beethoven to the Pet Shop Boys. Frank listens not only to what his customers say, but what they don’t: he hears what music is sounding in their souls, and what’s most unsettling and frustrating for him is when there’s only silence, and it’s a mysterious muteness he finds in the green-coated, continually-gloved German Ilse Brauchmann. While a curious quietness envelops Ilse, Joyce never leaves us in silence; the chapter titles are often songs, and it weaves an inescapable rhythm into the novel until almost all the melodies are stuck in your head – with a whole new meaning to listen for after Frank’s enlightening music lessons – and you’re humming along as you read.

The hand Joyce offers to the reader to join in is just as friendly as the hands – and hearts – in her fictional community. On the aptly named Unity Street, Frank’s music shop is flanked by a host of fellow shopkeepers, each a lovingly crafted and fully-fleshed character: there’s Kit, the creative but haplessly clumsy helper in Frank’s shop, Father Anthony, a kindly, compassionate ex-Priest-and-alcoholic who always has a comforting hand to place on Frank’s stooping shoulders, and temperamental, tattooed Maud who has a kind heart under her covered skin. As far as a composition goes, they’re a real medley of tones, tempos, and times, and it doesn’t seem as though they’d be particularly harmonious, but Joyce makes them perform like a finely-tuned orchestra: sometimes in accord, sometimes cacophonous, but always together.

Yet, the community’s togetherness is threatened by change: from the closing of the shops on Unity Street – the scene where the shopkeepers sit on the street outside the shut-up bakery is a beautifully bittersweet show of solidarity – to Frank’s refusal to stock CDs. Frank finds the most solace in the stillness of his moments floating on the lake in a swan-shaped pleasure boat with Ilse Brauchmann beneath a moonlit sky, but he soon learns that life, like music – from songs to sonatas, even moonlit ones – must change. Joyce echoes the need for change when the narrative suddenly skips, like those inferior-sounding CDs, forward thirty years in the last third, in contrast to the flashes back to Frank’s unconventional childhood with his mother Peg, which are interspersed throughout like a counterpoint.

Music may be the food of love, but Joyce’s The Music Shop is much more than just a love-song; a symphony of heartfelt feelings performed by an orchestra of colourful characters, The Music Shop will make you want to listen closer, not only to music, but, like Frank, to your fellow man.

– from an uncorrected proof copy – thanks to Alison! – published by Doubleday on July 13th 2017, buy from Foyles for £14.99

Review: For the Winner by Emily Hauser

Awakening the ancient: an homage to the original myths, a new hero to cheer for, and an achingly human touch

for the winner

The age-old tale of Jason and the Argonauts: battle-hardened Greek heroes voyage to the far-off land of Colchis to fulfil a prophecy and capture the Golden Fleece, bringing back glory, inflated egos and even a girlfriend – however it’s told, it’s an exciting, timeless tale of trials and triumphs, but how do you breathe life into it today? In For The Winner, Emily Hauser awakens the ancient with an homage to the original myths, a new hero to cheer for, and an achingly human touch.

Reimagining a Greek myth means there’s a lot of ground to run: a host of Gods, the heroic Argonauts, an extensive map of far-off lands, but Hauser lets the exposition come from the most plausible place – the mouths of slaves, especially Atalanta’s feisty, faithful friend Myrtessa, who see it all first hand, and as a result it rarely feels forced. With such a wealth of myths to draw on, the paratextual material provided is not only immensely helpful but evidence of the depth of Hauser’s expertise, and whilst she honours the weight of history and writes with a erudite respect for her sources, she dives right to the heart of the story – the hustle of a marketplace, the exhaustion of an expedition, the sweet stickiness of an apricot – and even suggests some of it may be more lie than it is legend.

Atalanta is a Herculean hero, but she’s more heroic than he ever was: abandoned as a baby because she wasn’t a boy, her sure-footed, hard-fought fight to prove her worth as a woman in her own right is not only a refreshing take on an old tale, but as timely as it has ever been. This is about ambition, adventure, and a quest for equality, and Atalanta’s tale has a parallel in the goddess Iris, another woman waiting for her moment to win.

And, lastly, the greatest thing about this Greek retelling is that it is so alive. From the mortals – many of the men are all too recognisable as the ‘modern man’ with a golden cloak and a tan – to the Olympians – the narrative interspersed with italicised chapters from their perspective – and even the land, sea, and ships, everything is personified. The painful lashings on Atalanta’s palms elicit off the page, and the lashings of rain pour down on our heads as well as the heroes’. And not only that, but Hauser’s version focuses on friendship and family as much as fighting and fleeces, with prophecies and fate playing second fiddle to the very human power of choice and free will.  It’s a powerfully refreshing take on an age-old formula, and its hero has fought harder to be there than any other.

– from an uncorrected proof copy – thank you Hannah! – published by Doubleday on June 15th 2017, buy from Foyles for £14.99

Review: Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato

An artistic flourish captured in every character: Fiorato renders her models with radiant colour and rich meaning

crimson and bone

The red and the white: the colour of blood and bones, the crimson cape of Mary Magdalene, and the white camellias with their wilting petals and saccharine scent. These colours that haunt Marina Fiorato’s historical drama Crimson and Bone are also daubed across Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, and the novels share more than just their hues, as tales of ‘whores’, high society, and (too) hospitable suitors. And though Annie Stride – the central scarlet woman who opens the story contemplating suicide on the Bridge of Sighs – claims to know little of artistic ‘composition’, ‘chiaroscuro’, or ‘character’, Fiorato is an artiste.

Annie Stride may be a pregnant, penniless prostitute on the brink – literally – of despair at the opening, but she soon blossoms into a character far beyond any Victorian cliche. Annie is no fantasist; she’s a steely fighter with an East-Ender’s straightforward honesty, and Fiorato paints each mood, motivation and memory with the detail of a master rendering his muse. And it is into a muse she blooms beneath the fingertips of her benefactor Francis, an upperclass artist who offers her his home and a hand down from the parapet. Whilst he plays the doting but dispassionate husband, he paints Annie as a host of damned women, from Mary Magdalene to Marguerite Gautier, and moulds her into his very own la traviata.

With all this painting, Francis and Annie flee to Florence to find inspiration and ink, and there they find Fiorato’s finest creation, the Rainbow Man. With as many coloured pigments in bottles around his neck as brightly coloured panels on his coat, he brings colour to Francis and a colourful companionship to Annie, all mixed in with a slick of suspicion. Suspicions aside, Fiorato also crafts a host of memorable supporting characters: from Mary Jane, Annie’s dearly departed partner-in-crime whose poignant , almost companion tale is told in a diarised, ‘found footage’-style format before every chapter, to the talkative Italians that tend to Annie and Franics in Florence, and a rendering of a real-life artist’s model, Lizzie Siddal, hauntingly illustrated as waning like the moon while hanging on the arm of her soon-to-be husband; and while Siddal may be all skin and bones, every character Fiorato creates is fully fleshed out.

As adept at landscapes as she is portraiture, Fiorato captures both the broad strokes and detailed textures of the novel’s backdrops. The dark, dank shadows of Annie’s London are the seedy underbelly of Francis’s bold and bright society, and, initially, only the city’s famous bridges can bridge the space between them. If London is both light and dark, Florence is both warm and wintry: the sun shines but Annie’s time there is characterised by a longing and loneliness that only colour can change. And their voyage to Venice is an artistic one – to see the opera La traviata – a device that Fiorato so deftly weaves in amongst the lingering whiff of white camellias, and whose Lady gave life to the opera.

And captured in every character and locale is Fiorato’s artistic flourish: a true chiaroscurist, she renders her models not only with radiant colour but rich meaning; it’s not just crimson and bone, but every shade of red on the spectrum – from ruby to rose, garnet to scarlet, brick to blood – and each brought to life with white light in the eyes and on the waters, and shaded with the blackest shadows beneath the bridges.

– from an uncorrected proof copy – thanks again to Emily!– published by Hodder and Stoughton on May 18th 2017, buy from Foyles for £17.99

Essay: Defying Gender in Mrs Dalloway

Happy Publication Birthday, Mrs Dalloway! First published on this day, May 14th, in 1925 by the Woolfs’ publishing house, Hogarth Press; this new Penguin Vintage Classics edition has the most beautifully abstract cover and you can click to buy it (as I’m about to) here!

gender in mrs dalloway

In her 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf defies contemporary expectations of gender with an unfearing portrayal of homosexual relationships, especially between Clarissa and Sally and Septimus and Evans. The publication of sexologist Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion in 1897, whilst suggesting for the first time in Victorian medical study that homosexual behaviour was the ‘manifestation of an instinct which to [those] persons who possess it frequently appears natural and normal’[1], underscored the actuality that ‘in a country like England […] all our traditions and all our moral ideals, as well as the law, are energetically opposed to every manifestation of homosexual passion’[2]. Ellis notes the existence of a ‘compact social force which on every side constrains the individual into the paths of heterosexual love’[3], and this study will analyse how Woolf shapes, explores and strays from those pathways through Clarissa and Septimus’s same-sex interactions, their interruptions by the opposite sex, and the presence – or absence – of parenthood, as well as charting the effect changing feminist ideologies may have had on the 1925 novel, from the relative erasure of lesbianism and femininity in early studies of homosexuality to ‘post-First World War antifeminism’[4] with the ‘laud[ing] of motherhood’[5] in the 1920s. Continue reading “Essay: Defying Gender in Mrs Dalloway”

Review: The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel #RoanokeGirls

A gripping modern Midwestern Gothic about secrets, sexuality, disappearances, and a destructive, dynastic rule

roanoke girls blogDon’t be deceived by the cover design: there’s nothing rosy about The Roanoke Girls. Amy Engel’s novel is a gripping, modern Midwestern Gothic about secrets, sexuality, disappearances, and the destructive, dynastic rule of Yates Roanoke and his girls. The Roanoke Girls takes all those classic Gothic tropes and transposes them into a contemporary setting, with Roanoke, the ruined castle, at the centre: a rural Kansas farmhouse with an abundance of hallways, stairwells and framed photographs for the secrets to hide behind.

Like all good Gothic novels, secrets locked away for generations are at the heart of the story. Lane, one of the eponymous ‘Roanoke Girls’, returns to Roanoke for the first time since running away when she was sent to live there at sixteen after her mother’s suicide, summoned in the wake of her charming but troubled cousin, Allegra’s, disappearance. The past and present are woven together poignantly using two temporal perspectives – ‘then’ and ‘now’ – interspersed with chapters from the other ‘Girls’ as the secrets spill out. Whilst complex, the narrative has the texture of delicate lace, not clumsy knit, and nothing feels unnecessary – if it is a knit, it’s tight and intentional and intricate and twisted, in more ways than one.

Engel unfolds her mystery in gorgeous, gripping prose and metaphors that are unusual yet so uncomfortably, almost unbearably, alive. Turning the metonymy of horror on its head, rain lashing at the windows, howling wind and lightning overhead are reimagined – and the trope revitalised – as a searing summer heat that threatens to stifle the setting, Osage Flats, if the secrets don’t get there first. The novel reveals its hand early on, but this doesn’t spoil the suspense: the horror sticks to us like sweat on our foreheads, forcing us into the same position as Lane as she wrestles with ‘small-town suspicion’, how to respond to the revelations, and whether she, and we, should brace ourselves for more.

As such, the plot is less about the secret itself, and more about the devastating effect it has on Lane and the family’s lives and relationships; the horror feels real because the impact is as palpable as it is harrowing. Engel has real talent for making things feel tangible; her characters are all deftly crafted, flaws and all, and are equally damaged and damaging, dangerous and vulnerable, vengeful and forgiving, as seen in Lane’s childhood crush Cooper, with his rough hands and soft touch, Allegra’s besotted but suspicious ex-boyfriend Tommy, and ‘old coot’ Charlie, the farmhand who acts as both confidante and accomplice.

The only thing that isn’t alive are the ‘Girls’ themselves, but they haunt the novel’s halls as well as any Gothic ghost and fit interestingly into the Gothic ontology of women in distress, although none of them are fainting damsels. The Roanoke Girls bleeds from the same vein as The Virgin Suicides, it’s ‘a lot of dead girls’, after all, and Rebecca, as the mystery of a missing woman revolves and unfolds under one roof that’s dreamed of in the very first sentence; as both works nurtured the Gothic in the 20th century, Engel waters it again now: growing it into the Midwest, the post-modern, and, perhaps, the only remaining unmentionable. As for those roses on the cover, the epigraph over the page reveals their own secret: ‘look at this tangle of thorns’.

– spoiler free review from an uncorrected proof copy – thanks to Emily! – published in the UK on 9th March 2017 by Hodder and Stoughton (2017), buy from Foyles for £12.99