Friday, 9 April 2021

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo


Our March book club novel was the 2019 Booker Prize winning text by the British novelist Bernardine Evaristo.
 

 

This novel is set in England, mainly London and northern counties from the 1970s to the present day. It tells many stories relating to twelve main characters who mostly identify as female. Sometimes Evaristo follows just one character such as Dominque and her journey and life in the USA or a family saga of 2 generations as with Hattie and her daughter Penelope. It is a snapshot of their lives, highlighting the way people are living in different relationships in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

 

First impressions:

 

  • I liked it very much. The characters are wonderful, so warm and human. The punctuation or lack of it didn’t bother me at all. It was fascinating to see the different lives these women lead to the lives of the Punjabi widows also living in London (see our review of Balli Kaur Jaswal's Erotic stories for Punjabi widows). It was pertinent to read this book this month in Australia where we are discussing at all levels of society, women’s roles, safety and level of freedom.
  • Both my children recommended it to me. I loved the energy of it, all the interesting characters, but I did feel a bit overloaded.
  • It offers an aspect of English society that many of us don’t see.
  • I found it pleasant and with great characters. I was sucked into working out the connections. I felt it needed a chart. I wanted a denouement. The After Party was not the answer as I had expected. I thought it was risky taking on so many voices at once. 
  • I loved the rhythm of the writing. The novelist skewers the assumptions people make about others. She also shows the ‘accommodations’ people make to manage their lives. Evaristo shows many different aspects of racism in the UK in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
  • I loved it and felt that the writing just flowed, like an energetic river. I preferred that to structured punctuation.
  • I loved journeying through time. 
  • I found the character of Megan/Morgan very confronting. The use of the plural pronoun was confusing.
  • I found it hard to know at times if I was reading about a black or white person. For example, I thought that Penelope was a white woman for a while but it was clear by the time I read the Epilogue.
  • It was clever how the novelist makes the connections seamlessly.
  • I loved the fact that the writer is telling stories for people whose stories are very rarely told.
  • I was shocked to hear that Evaristo won the Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood and this was the first time that the prize had been shared. However Evaristo was treated rudely (and probably racially slurring) by at least one commentator who is reported to have said something like: The Booker was won by Margaret Atwood and another.
  • There are many subjects in this book including sexism, racism, domestic violence and family life. I was so pleased to read it. 
  • I loved the structure and didn’t notice the lack of punctuation. I think the novelist handled the changing events of the time and the character’s interactions very well. Evaristo didn’t pass judgements from our day on the doings of the past. 
  • It was the best book I have read in ages. I felt it was like poetry – there are poetic passages throughout. It wasn’t didactic. It was very funny and fresh. 
  • Sometimes when writers change direction with a new character there can appear to be a ‘jump’ but this was not evident in this book. It was all connected. For instance when Bummi popped up as a cleaner after appearing earlier as Carole’s mother.  
  • I found the ending very moving and it highlighted the mother-daughter relationships which are a main feature of this novel.
  • I loved the ‘little’ touches in this book such as the inheritance and also the numerous marriages and different types of people discussed. It appears that lots of the characters are based upon Evaristo’s friends. 


While discussing our first impressions, we discussed the ending and how it tied up loose ends, without resolving the major issues because these can only be moderated through time and societal changes. The After Party reflected that all the main political issues are not resolved. There was some dovetailing in this chapter – between Yazz and her father, and Carole saying thank you to her former teacher Shirley. Revelations for the characters were pertinent. The Epilogue showed that on a personal level people can find happiness – especially mother and daughter connections. This is illustrated by the unconventional family of Amma and Yazz. There is an understanding of linkages even when we don’t expect it. 


Evaristo herself, we understand, venerated her grandmother. She never met her, but ‘used’ her as an elder in her texts. Maybe her grandmother was the basis for the elder Hattie, who was largely invisible. It was ironic that Hattie was making Morgan/Megan her heir, rather than her son or grandson. 

 

Discussion:


The majority of our conversation centred on the characters in this novel.

 

We began by discussing one of the few male characters in this work, Roland who loved his daughter Yazz and wanted her to appreciate him. Roland expressed the racism even for him as a University professor in his statement that he was ‘sick of being a representative of a whole race’.  


Grace was an orphan who won the heart of Joseph. He was a good man until Grace suffered postnatal depression which Joseph didn’t understand, and which wasn't known at the time, but that was resolved. It was difficult reading as there was a lot of racism in the village for Grace. At that time there were relatively few black people living outside large cities in the UK. The black migrants were from the Caribbean and Africa. 

 

We enjoyed Shirley’s mother Winsome, now in her 80s and back in Barbados where she is part of a reading group. Evaristo quotes from the British ‘Guyanese lady’ poet Grace Nichols. Grace Nichols has lived in the UK since 1977 and her first book of poetry, I is a Long Memoried Woman, won a Commonwealth poetry prize in 1983. The line quoted is so apt for this novel:


‘we the women/whose praises go unsung/whose voices go unheard’. (page 254)

 

As a reading group, we loved Winsome's comment about how her reading group ‘had a debate … about whether a poem was good because they related to it, or whether it was good in and of itself’ (p. 254). We appreciated many of these added facts about the characters. 

 

We also discussed how Evaristo ‘nails' talking about women’s appearance and confidence, and how these are essential to being considered a good worker by modern society. This is especially shown in Carole's section talking about her appearance and her lack of confidence in her high-powered job at a bank despite being exceptionally bright and intelligent. (See page 140 where she states her morning mantra before the mirror.)

 

Evaristo is so insightful and not scared to cut through the ‘crap’. The writing is so sharp and funny at the same time.

 

Morgan formerly Megan is a character many of us found challenging. A person wanting to be neither sex is something many of us have not come across before. The pronoun question is so hard. We discussed gender fluidity and cross-dressing, which is becoming more socially acceptable but is still confronting. Other readers thought Morgan was a bit stereotypical. One reader said she was not convinced by this character. We agreed that gender in the present day can or should become irrelevant in many circumstances. We also discussed gender, reproduction, and the challenges faced by trans-people and those close to, or working with, them. 

 

One member shared Yazz's friend Waris's list of questions and comments that people think they can ask racially diversified youngsters : 


... as Waris continues talking, says that she's learned to give as good as she gets if anyone says any of the following: 

that terrorism is synonymous with Islam

that she’s oppressed and they feel her pain

if anyone tells her she’s responsible for them being unemployed … (p. 60)

 

We commented on how some people think they have a right to question others about the most intimate matters. Evaristo highlights the reaction of the person being questioned so succinctly and so cleverly.

 

We also briefly discussed Shirley and Amma and their relationship, and how Shirley is considered dull and boring and Amma an intellectual snob. 

 

So it was a great discussion and I think most of us thought the book added new aspects to the present and continuing controversy over women of all races, our role in society and how we should be treated by men. It was wonderful to read.  

 

Present : 7

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Tsitsi Dangarembga's This mournable body


Our second book of the year was Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga's third novel, This mournable body, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020. It proved to be a challenging but ultimately worthwhile choice. 

When we say This mournable body was Dangarembga's third novel, we should also say that it's the third in her trilogy, the first two being Nervous conditions (1988) and The book of not (2006).  None of us have read these, but we understand that they were more positive than This mournable body, by which time protagonist Tambudzai is out of work and struggling to survive. She's desperate to be the success she has alway wanted - and believed herself able - to be.

As always, we started with our ...

First impressions 

One of us loved the novel from the start. She engaged with the second person voice and enjoyed the novel's exploration of "the personal is the political" through its protagonist. She liked how the voice conveyed the character's remoteness or dissociation from her "self", versus a third person voice which tends to provide a more objective commentary or first person voices which tend to be more intimately confessional. 

Most of the rest of the group did not immediately engage with the novel, though they came to like or, even, appreciate and enjoy, it somewhere along the way:

  • initially thrown by the voice, largely due to the narrator's fluctuating state of mind, the scenario-style, and the story's focus on cruelty, but started to get into it by part two, and ended up loving it. 
  • found the beginning hard and confronting, but then began to appreciate it.
  • struggled early on, but found reading some background about the book was helpful in giving her the boost she needed to find stimulation in the story.
  • found its disjointed nature off-putting, but liked aspects such as the little kindnesses Tambu meets along the way and how Dangarembga conveyed Tambu's paranoia. Suggested that it's refreshing to read a book by a black female author.
  • found it difficult get into, but was interested in its discussion of ecotourism and poverty interesting. Came to enjoy the writing style, and appreciated the wide variety of issues the book explores. 
  • also found it hard at the start, but suggested that it's a good example of why we read books, which is to experience the lives of others that we would otherwise know nothing about. Was interested to see what happened to this once rich African country, and particularly the impact of the West, of Mugabe, the sexism, violence, racism. 
  • was surprised to find it hard to get into because is sympathetic to Zimbabwe. Put it aside and picked it up again too late to finish, but found that it started to make sense in part 2 when Tambu is in the mental institution. 

Discussion

We confirmed that the book is primarily set around the turn of the millennium, and that Tambudzai at this time is around 40 years old.

Our discussion roamed over the place a bit, but we talked about how Tambudzai embodies the nation's post-Independence trauma and sense of false hope. We liked that the novel is not black and white, and that most characters are complex.

One member initially saw the book as being about metal illness and paranoia, but decided that it is more political, exploring issues like the impact on the individual of national trauma. 

We discussed various issues to do with Zimbabwe and Africa, including how white Tracey would try to exoticise "Africa" for the tourism trade, and how the West is portrayed as generalising Africa, lumping all countries into one. We talked about the compromises and bribes Tracey had to make to get her ecotourism business going. 

We also talked about gender, about women being expected to dress modestly, about women being beaten (of which there are several examples in the book, by strangers, sons, husbands, etc.) We also noted the competition between people - such as Tambu and Pedzi - in their desperation to succeed in a tough world.

We talked about the language, with several members sharing favourite quotes. Several of us commented on the ant and hyena imagery used to convey Tambu's emotions, the ants seeming to convey her anxiety in various situations and the hyena her lack of control:

The hyena laughs as you enter the gate. It has slunk once more as close to you as your skin, ready to drag away the last scraps of certainty you have preserved the moment you falter ...
A member liked this description of a woman who'd been beaten:

Evening light drips shadows onto her skin, thickening the knots of swelling, deepening lacerations.
Tambu's sister, Netsai, had lost one of her legs in the war, something we are reminded of regularly in the novel, suggesting that it symbolises the country's trauma, and the fact that many of its people do not, as a result of their experiences, feel whole. One member liked Tambu's description of watching Christine, who had also been to war, working in the garden:

You have seen this manner before, this being where the body is and not being there, in your sister Netsai, who went to war, who lost a leg, and who said to you when they said there was peace, “Yes, I went and I am here but I never came back. Most of the time I’m still out there wandering through the grass and sand, looking for my leg.”

Blood and womb are recurring images in the novel, referring, we felt, to the vulnerable position of women in Zimbabwean society as well as, more broadly, to the war and violence the country had experienced. There is quite a bit of description in the book about the impact of war on those who fought in it:

The women from war are like that, a new kind of being that no one knew before, not exactly male but no longer female.
One member mentioned the many references to Tambu's determination to smile in various uncomfortable or vulnerable circumstances, such as:

Your smile attaches itself to your face more tenaciously as your anxiety increases.
One member thought the denouement came too quickly, while another felt that once we'd got to that point the book would become boring if it were drawn out.

Throughout the discussion we needed to clarify various events in the novel, because at times the language is intense resulting in the actual action being described not always being clear. An example is what had led to Tambu ending up a mental patient in hospital, in part 2.

One member had circulated, prior to the meeting, a link to writer Teju Cole's article "Unmournable bodies", which Dangarembga acknowledges at the end of her novel as "putting many matters into perspective" and inspiring the novel's title. The essay talks about how the West tends to be selective about which bodies it is prepared to mourn (such as the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre) and which it tends to ignore (such as many Muslim victims of violence.) We discussed what we thought the title meant, and decided it could be an assertion that "I am worthy, I am worth mourning", something that is hard for people to feel in a place where everyone is struggling.

The question was asked whether we would recommend this book to others. Most said yes, but would accompany it with a warning or some preparation.  

We also considered Dangarembga's intention. We understand that the first two books in the trilogy are more positive, so wondered whether this book reflects increasing concerns about the country's political challenges and also, perhaps, about how life becomes harder for older women. But, we also felt that the epigraph, that "There is always something left to love" suggests an ultimately positive, or, at least, hopeful reading for the novel? 

Present: 8 members

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

Prepared by Sue B

Our first novel of the year was "our" classic for the year, though, you never know, we may do another! It was Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers, which was published in 1857and is the second book in The Chronicles of Barsetshire series, aka The Barchester Chronicles. It is set in an imaginary English Cathedral town. As always, we started with our ...

First impressions


  • Loved it. Couldn’t resist also rewatching the 1982 BBC TV series filmed in Peterborough, whose excellent cast did full justice to Trollope’s wonderful characters
  • Didn’t finish it because read The warden first. The church background was very complex. It was wordy but witty. The deliberately heavy-handed naming of people was fun.
  • Loved the engagement with the reader and the ironic tone but preferred The warden which was sweeter.
  • Really enjoyed it. The characters were vivid and entertaining. It was hard to find a Kindle version in English.
  • Hadn’t previously read it and found it different to anything else we have read. After reading most of it, listened to the last 25% of an audio play which “coloured” the characters. Preferred the “black and white” of the printed text. Loved it, and felt there was much to unpack.
  • Only half-way through and enjoying it.
  • Loved the wry comments. Not much plot, and the whole thing revolves around very little. Imagined Salisbury Cathedral. Found it hard to get into at first and glossed over the first few chapters. Grew up in High Church Sydney – it brought back memories.
  • Love Hardy, but just getting into this when family events interrupted reading.
  • Had read it in the 70s. Different to Hardy is more wordy in his landscape description. Liked the authorial voice in Trollope. Loved the satire and comments on life at the time.

Further discussion

Our conversation ranged widely and jumped around, including the following:

  • Why write six novels set in a Cathedral Close? Because it is close to government? The politics of the Anglican Church are prominent in the novel, so it was suggested that a guide to Anglican church hierarchy might help us to understand the structure. Dr. Grantly missed out on being made Bishop because of a change of government. 
  • The novel was written not long after the Oxford Movement, which was a religious movement in the Anglican Church which focused on High Church, emphasising its Catholic heritage. It led to Newman and others becoming Catholics. In the novel the High Church faction is represented by Dr Grantly, who recruits Mr. Arabin (who had been a follower of Newman) for support against the Low Church or Evangelical faction represented by Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie. There’s not much theology in the book, but much poking fun at the Church politics. We discussed that at that time the church tended to be a career rather than a calling. Mr. Harding’s principles were often amusingly in the way of Dr. Grantly’s pragmatism. 
  • The warden and Barchester Towers also comment on the role played by newspapers in manipulating public opinion.

As you’d expect the novel reflects the attitudes of its time. There was some degree of sexism, for example Mrs. Bold being referred to as “a delicate creeper [which] has found its strong wall”, and we felt that Dr. Grantly had been highly mysoginistic in his treatment of her. Yet, the novel also has many strong women such as Mrs Grantly, Mary Bold, Signora Neroni, not to mention the formidable Mrs. Proudie and even Mrs Quiverful. It was clear that while the men held the official positions, their wives worked unpaid at the Sunday Schools and held a lot of power behind the scenes. It was noted that in the Trollope family the author’s mother (the highly successful novelist Fanny Trollope) had earned most of the money.

We also noted some occasional antisemitism.

We enjoyed the humorous descriptions of life at the time. An example is Mrs. Thorne’s garden party where she tries to keep some Feudal traditions going, such as the quintain for jousting practice where Harry Greenacre came to grief. The social hierarchy at the time meant that everyone fitted in their appropriate place, except the appropriately named Lookalofts who were dressed up and determined to dine with the gentry instead of in the field with the other farmers. They're mocked by the Greenacres for being “half nekid’ and wasting money on pianos and silk instead of stock for their farm. Mrs. Bold’s widow’s cap became less obvious over time. A sign that she was ready to get back into life again? Mrs. Clantantram wears a Rocquelore. So much was made of it that we googled to find out that it was an 18th century man’s cloak. Characters were really amusingly described, e.g. Miss Thorne: “Had she not been made throughout of the very finest whalebone, rivetted with the best Yorkshire steel..”

We discussed Trollope as an author. He was wordy, as were other Victorian authors. One example shared was: "Should the bishop now be re-petticoated, his thraldom would be complete and forever".

He assumed that his audience had a classical education. He also took the audience into his confidence, for example with the plot spoiler that Eleanor would not, in the end, marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope. Would we have enjoyed the story more if we had not known this? We thought not. One member said “I love it when the author talks to me”. It was commented that Jane Austen did it too while Dickens did not. Trollope references Fielding in the novel. Did he see himself in that tradition? Fielding had larger-than-life characters but Trollope's are more subtle? Did he kill off John Bold so that Eleanor’s relationship with her father could be the focus?

What did Trollope believe?


We wondered what Trollope himself really believed. Most of the characters are reasonably well-rounded and shrewdly observed. Mr. Quiverful, for example, is torn between being offered the much-needed Wardenship, and feeling bad about Mr. Harding. Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie are mostly presented in a very unsympathetic light, but they were right about the Wardenship. Mr. Harding did not need it as much as Mr. Quiverful did.

We were told when they first came back from Italy that the Stanhopes were cold, manipulative people. But they were fun, and in the end behaved with honesty and even kindliness. Did Trollope change his mind about them?

In the last paragraph we celebrate Mr. Harding, “a good man without guile, believing humbly in the religion which he has striven to teach”. Maybe that’s the answer?

Present: 9 Minervans