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

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

Review: Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

A path to healing: experience expressed, explored, and exonerated through art and poetry

milk-and-honey-blogSmooth as milk, thick as honey‘, Canadian poet Rupi Kaur’s collection milk and honey is experience expressed, explored, and exonerated through art and poetry. As the titles of the four parts imply, it takes the reader through what it feels to ‘hurt’, ‘love’, ‘break’, and eventually, ‘heal’, and though the titles suggest this is a collection of recollections about love, it seems it’s more a reflection on life and relationships of all sorts – fathers, daughters, lovers, mothers, writers, and you, the reader.

Its status as an originally self-published work, a decision made out of a desire for complete creative control, shines through in its unorthodox style: a melting pot of free form poetry, prose and a post-relationship to-do list (p.142) that features some pretty sound advice all mixed in with simple but striking sketches. Even Kaur’s poetic style and typeset – only using lowercase letters and full stops – is stylistically unusual, but encapsulates the larger themes at play throughout the poems. As featured in an FAQ, the use of only lowercase letters and full stops is in part an homage to her heritage and personal history, as in the Gurmukhi script of her mother-tongue, Punjabi, ‘all letters are treated the same’ and ‘periods [are] the only punctuation’, but the appearance on the page is a representation of her personal politics, ‘what [she] want[s] to see more of [in] the world’: equality.

Trickling through everything from the typeset to the topic is a balance between the individual and the universal. The poetic voice varies between the parable-like second person and the deeply personal first, exploring depictions of violence that not only threaten women socially, with their bodies ‘a war / the border between two countries / the collateral damage’ (p.32), and sexually, as ‘an open wound’ (p.38), but also spiritually, as a father ‘shoves the word hush / between her [mother’s] lips and tells her to / never speak with her mouth full’ (p.35).

Kaur lets these shared experiences shape her own sequence: the speaker’s experiences, or those she speaks of, shift from compliance – ‘you were so afraid / of my voice / i decided to be / afraid of it too’ (p.17) – to complete defiance – ‘don’t come here with expectations / as try to make a vacation out of me’ (p.97). The titles echo this, moving from ‘hurting’ to ‘healing’, although, like milk and honey, the the narrative is free-flowing rather than formed, matched by the enjambed-style of the stanzas throughout the four-part structure.

This path to healing, from the pained to the unapologetic to the empowered, is poignantly captured in the closing chapter in pictures of women with flowers blossoming from their bodies (p.147, p.153, p.165, p.193). The speaker has learned to ‘stay strong through your pain / grow flowers from it / you have helped me / grow flowers out of mine so / bloom beautifully / dangerously / loudly / bloom softly / however you need / just bloom’ (p.158), and it’s a lesson addressed directly ‘to the reader’.

And that’s what milk and honey means: as the ‘tongue is sour / from the hunger / of missing you’ (p.116), the sweetness of milk and honey is satisfaction. But, despite the passion and sensuality in the poems, the suggestion is that it’s not sexual satisfaction, but self satisfaction: ‘i need to be successful to gain / enough milk and honey / to help those around / me succeed’ (p.199).

– published by Andrews McMeel Publishing (2015), buy from