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Review | The Governesses by Anne Serre, tr. by Mark Hutchinson

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In a large country house enclosed by a gold-gated garden, three young governesses are responsible for the education and general well-being of a group of adolescent boys. Inside, the governesses are willed into reason, order and a melancholic calm by the authorial Monsieur Austeur and his timid wife. But in the chaos of the ethereal garden, the governesses are free, wild and untamed, running around in a state of frenzied desire. Every evening they lie in wait for an opportunity to devour a passing stranger who strayed from the beaten path — all the while spied upon by a neighbouring old man and his inquisitive telescope.

Those who enjoy a surrealist fable are in for a treat with the English publication of The Governesses, with credit owed to author, translator, and publisher for crafting such a pleasurable read.

Led by editor Cécile Menon, publisher Les Fugitives has one clear aim — to disperse “short, new writing by award-winning francophone female authors previously unavailable in English or in the UK.” In this instance, we are gifted with Mark Hutchinson’s excellent translation of Anne Serre’s 1992 novel Les Gouvernantes. While many translations can often seem fragmented, losing the essence of the original prose, the great success of Les Fugitives has been to capture the crispness, spontaneity, and immediacy of the source material. Here, as with last year’s Now, Now Louison, Hutchinson’s translation of Anne Serre’s delicious French fable feels effortlessly satisfying.

“They took another taste of the governesses’ mouths
and found all the seasons there.”
— The Governesses, p.89

The Governesses opens a discussion on sexuality, orchestrated by a female triad whose chaotic energy inspires nervous lust in those who gaze upon them. The transgressive fantasy perfectly appeases our growing desire to liberate female sexuality from its status as a taboo and unspoken topic. It acts as a rebellion against male domination over female desire, with the governesses’ sexual encounters with men resembling a predator stalking its prey, and strips traditional patriarchal ideology of its power by placing these wild women into the world of the aristocracy. What is most unique to the narrative is that it is not just an expression of female sexuality, but a healthy exploration of lust and desire from all perspectives — a complete surrendering to passion. This inclusivity enables all readers to reexamine their personal relationship with desire.
Define desire.
Do we feel free to express our desire?
Are we a slave to pleasure?

Can we separate lust from love?

“They’ll love him, yes, but only while he’s inside them.
The moment he’s outside, they’ll hate him.
They’ll pretend to love him, to make sure he comes back,
but behind their sweet nothings and tender glances
will be two frenzied nymphs who will tear him to pieces
if he doesn’t hurry up.”
— The Governesses, p.26

The book has been described by the New York Times as “a John Waters sex farce told with the tact and formality of a classic French fairy tale”, and it is this other-worldliness —bordering on the uncanny— that makes the novel so fascinating. Though it is a novel imbued with sensuality, everything about The Governesses is so powerfully symbolic that it would be wrong to view the book as simply erotica. It is the chaos we need. Beyond the surface level eroticism, the narrative serves as both a timeless and archetypal reflection on class, gender, loneliness and isolation. It comes as a pleasant surprise to discover that the original transcript was published in 1992, as it feels so fresh and relevant to a contemporary reader.  

“By clipping their wings, arranging a lock of hair,
correcting a facial expression, adjusting their bodies
and persuading them to rein themselves in
and be a little more accommodating,
Madame Auster is hopeful of securing a happy future for them.”
— The Governesses, p.58

We find ourselves helplessly trying to compartmentalise Serre’s women, try to figure out what it is they are exactly, but in doing so we struggle to embrace the book’s enchanted nature. In order to fully appreciate the governesses, we must adopt an open mind, viewing them as mysterious devices resembling Greek nymphs or the Sirens from the Odyssey, rather than judging their actions as if they were real human characters with moral and social duties. 

By the time we reach the conclusion of the book, everything is seemingly pointless as to define the book by traditional narrative structures would be to miss the point. Serre diverts away from the tradition fairy-tale as there is no clear moral to the narrative — in fact, there is no distinct structural arc throughout. Instead, there is a vague past and an intangible future, as the characters exist only in the mystical world of Monsieur Auster’s Chateau, and his enchanted garden. Most – if not all – of our questions and curiosities are left unanswered (Was this just an intensely wayward and sensual story? A dream masquerading as fiction?). The Governesses is nothing more than a witnessing of the scenes of everyday life, a reality that exists outside of plot dynamics.

“The golden gates will open suddenly, as if by magic,
and another stranger will succumb to their spell,
trapped in the warm night of their private world.”
— The Governesses, p.23

Like all fantasies, The Governesses is not designed to make sense. Rather, we devour Serre’s literature as the governesses devour their men — draining it of its sweet honey until nothing remains.

Words by Briony Willis.
Click here to read an exclusive extract from The Governesses


The Governesses, Anne Serre, trans. by Mark Hutchinson, Les Fugitives, 2019, pp. 108, £10.00.
For more information and to purchase, visit Les Fugitives


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Review | Exposure by Olivia Sudjic

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Exposure, Olivia Sudjic, Pensinsula Press, 2018, pp. 127, £6

Exposure, the new book by Olivia Sudjic, elegantly dissects the multi-layered web of anxieties particular to the age in which we currently live.

Exposure is the third of four impressive pocket essay books by the Peninsula Press, who launched earlier this with the publication David Wojnarowicz’s short fiction collection The Waterfront Journals. My first introduction to the books of the Peninsula Press was Will Harris’ Mixed-Race Superman, which I really loved, and thought was a great addition to the revival of the long-form-essay-as-book form spearheaded among others by the excellent Fitzcarraldo Editions.

But back to the book at hand. Exposure begins by looking at the concept of Saturn’s Return, which, coinciding with your birth, is the astrological period that the planet Saturn takes to orbit the Sun — 29.5 years. Saturn’s Return, writes Sudjic, is a time of immense self-scrutiny and anxiety, and coincides with the cultural anxiety of turning 30.

Sudjic’s own Saturn’s Return occurs in the aftermath of the release of her first novel, the much-acclaimed Sympathy. During this time, Sudjic was staying in an artist’s residency where she became unable to write due to anxiety.

Sudjic goes on to explore the different facets of the anxiety that she was experiencing with zeitgeist-capturing eloquence. She writes about the anxieties of ‘imposter syndrome’, the anxieties caused by the social media age, and about the judgement of female writers from the critical press.

All of these aspects are written about with a fascinting and insightful honesty that anyone who has suffered from anxiety will surely be able to relate to, but it is Sudjic’s writing about this last aspect—the judgement of female writers—that added a different dimension to Exposure which made it feel vital to the moment (if it didn’t already).

Sudjic explores how when men write in the first person, they are considered to be writing fiction of universal truths, whereas when women write in the first person they are accused of self-indulgence. During the time that she describes, Sudjic carries around the work of writers such as Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson and Roxanne Gay as ‘talismans’ which she describes almost as a source of personal protection. She writes of how Roxanne Gay is dismissed as a diarist while the writer Karl Ove Knausgaard is not, and of the deeply personal attacks suffered by the writer Rachel Cusk after the publication of her 2012 book Aftermath, which was heavy on emotional revelations. She also writes about the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, whose decision to keep her identity secret has led to accusations that she is, in fact, a man.

This is a view that I once heard from a male customer while working as a bookseller. When I asked him why he thought that, he said that despite being largely about female characters, the writing of the much acclaimed Neapolitan Novels ‘spoke too closely to a universal human condition’ to have been written by a woman. Beyond the intellectual vacuity at the heart of the statement, it was the casual nature with which it was said that left me bewildered.

When (white, cis-gendered) men write, even about their personal experience, they write about the human condition and, like the erroneous beige of flesh-coloured tights, their perspective is deemed universal. Books written by women, about women, are not. That’s Women’s Fiction.

— Olivia Sudjic, Exposure, p. 103

Sudjic then runs with this idea of women being dismissed or not believed by society—or at least, not as readily as men—and goes on to link it back in to a naunced analysis of the post-truth age. The skill with which Sudjic is able to bring together in a coherent and infinitely readable form such a complex series of arguments, critical analysis and personal anecdotes is truly impressive.

Exposure therefore is not just a book about anxiety. Exposure is a book about anxiety, yes, but it is also about contemporary society, about the way in which we define ourselves through the media which we create, and about the way in which women—not just women writers or artists—are pushed to the peripheries by the micro-aggressions of a patriarchy that still lingers insidiously in many aspects of society, often while pretending not to be there at all. For those interested in such things, Exposure is essential reading.


For more on Exposure visit Pensinsula Press.
Words by Robert Greer.


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Review | Medusa at Sadler’s Wells Theatre

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Rehearsals showing Medusa by Jasmin Vardimon Company @ IAB, Sitges, Barcelona. (Taken 26-07-18) ©Tristram Kenton 07-18 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

Through beautifully poetic movements and engaging drama, Jasmin Vardimon has created a unique choreographic voice that enables her to explore deeply controversial social and political discourse. I had the pleasure of attending the opening show for her latest creation Medusa, a highly conceptual performance enriched with deep symbolism and motifs which offer an acute observation of human behaviour. The performance is both a visually stunning art piece with fluid and graceful movements, as well as being a learning experience for audience members as we tapped into our emotional and creative intelligence in order to digest Medusa’s many layers of symbolism. The only shame is that the performance was in theatre for such a short period of time. The quality of choreography, the passion of the dancers, and the standard of sound and light technicians was nothing less than sensational, bringing the myth of Medusa into the modern day.

Few recall the origin story of our feminine archetype, remembering her solely as the monster who turns men to stone. However, this is only one aspect of her narrative. A mortal woman transformed into a mute by jealous and lustful Gods. Vardimon’s Medusa focuses on the creation of the myth, rather than the image of the monster itself. First appearing in Ovid’s 15 book long poem Metamorphoses, Medusa began a beautiful human girl, raped by Poseidon, and subsequently turned into the monster we are all familiar with by the vengeance of the jealous Athena. The performance did not censor the discussion of rape, making it – at times – uncomfortable to watch. Nevertheless, it is a necessary confrontation of the ultimate manifestation of male dominance, which allows us to deepen our understanding of the Medusa archetype.

~ A myth dismissed as the onset of primitive imagination ~

In Jungian psychology, myths arise as a key component to the evolution of the collective consciousness (almost like a shared psychological awareness). Myths allow for healing and understanding of a damaged and suppressed subconscious through physical and verbal enactment. Focusing on the myth of Medusa, there is more depth to the archetype that we often mistake as another cautionary tale surrounding the dangers of female seduction (like that of Eve’s). After experiencing Vardimon’s Medusa, I felt inspired to explore the much deeper nature behind the powerful feminine symbol.

Gaze is a significant aspect of the Medusa archetype. Her ability to turn people to stone signifies the stillness inherent to self-reflection. But, this reflection tends to show us aspects of ourselves that we cannot stand to bear witness to, and so we hide them deep within our psyche. We respond to Medusa’s allusive gaze with fear, a fear that the gaze of our deeply suppressed subconsciousness may destroy us completely. Specifically, Medusa’s creation story stirs discussion around a womans relationship to patriarchal assimilation, becoming the gaze of the abused feminine consciousness. Medusa lurks in the shadows, like women lurk in the shadow of man. Femininity always hidden by the shadow of patriarchy. Vardimon’s Medusa addresses this discourse both indirectly, as the women wear black pantsuits, but it is also directly addressed in the early dialogue of the performance. To paraphrase, ‘We all have a shadow, a woman resides in my shadow – never allowed to be greater than me, the man, who stands tall in the light. Thus, a woman, living in the dark, can never cast a shadow of her own’. The identity of the woman is bound to the existence of the man, always the submissive, always the inferior, always the suppressed.

       Shame,                rejection,                  guilt,                   insignificance,                inferiority,                              fear.

States of being embodied by Medusa.

Not only does Medusa symbolise reflection and stillness but, rather paradoxically, she also represents fluidity and the concept of transformation. She brings awareness that we live in a liquid society, comprised of fluid beings permanently in a state of change and evolution. This can incite fear into a suppressive patriarchal world, labelling Medusa as a deity of death and destruction. But transformation is more complex than simply catastrophe. The snakes on her head suggesting fertility and fruitfulness, as life transcends death. It may help to recall the ancient Ouroboro, an image of the snake eating its own tale, symbolic of eternal self-renewal, and the concept of creation emerging from destruction.

Innocent Victim

Monstrous Creature

Powerful Martyr

Vardimon had the difficulty of creating the multi-layered symbol of Medusa in a clear and concise way, and yet, upon some reflection, I believe her attempt was profitable. As Medusa is a transitory character, performer Patricia Hastewell Puig adopted many guises to articulate her nature. At first, Patricia’s head was wrapped in a thick rope to illustrate entrapment, as well as a sense of inward reflection. As the performance developed, Medusa’s image became more fluid, as dancers used their hands to bring to life the image of the snakes, moving from entrapment to freedom. This transition exaggerated the fluidity and transformative nature of Medusa. A creative play on a classic. Patricia takes the rope once wrapped around her face and coils it around her oppressor Athena, a testimony of human perseverance and growth against the strength of a God. Thus, Vardimon’s direction renders Medusa human once more.

Following the intensity of the performance, we had the pleasure of participating in an intimate and laidback Q&A with the director and dancers themselves, gaining rich insight into the personal motivations behind such beautifully powerful art.

Photography by Tristram Kenton

There is so much more to Medusa than the myth. Director Jasmin Vardimon spoke directly on the social significance of the figure Medusa, which allows the story to be persistently re-told and re-interpreted. Vardimon translates a contemporary understanding onto the face of classical mythology by attempting to deconstruct the modern day misogynistic perception of Medusa – citing the example of Donald Trump referring to Hilary Clinton as Medusa in a derogatory attempt to silence her autonomy. Coming from an understanding of Ovid’s poem, and thus Medusa’s creation story, this both perplexed and inspired Vardimon. Though Vardimon also perceives Medusa, not only as a key archetype in today’s discussion of gender politics, but also understands her nautical connotations which draw upon our current discussions surrounding the environment. In 28 different languages the word medusa translates into ‘Jellyfish’, a creature that has been around 700 million years, the longest surviving on planet earth. In fact, scientists believe jellyfish will be the sole survivor of climate change, as they flourish with the warmer waters. The fluidity of the dance movements incorporated into the performance, with the addition of plastic sheets, beautifully enacted the movement of waves. The gradual devastation of climate change runs alongside Medusa’s transitory narrative, the closing image being one of intoxication – the tragic beauty of both Medusa and Mother Earth, intertwining the two individual tensions of gender and environment. Interestingly, Medusa actually began with Vardimon’s desire to address the problem of climate change and pollution – the myth of Medusa later emerged from a brainstorm with the dancers.

The eight creative dancers come from varying walks of life, with all different kinds of backgrounds including Barcelona, Scotland, Belgium, Croatia, Australia and so on. The combination of unique and individual cultural, political and theatrical perceptions contributed to the power of the poetic piece. The choreography developed as Vardimon would open dialogue with the dancers, bouncing ideas off one another until they create stable foundations to rest their narrative upon. It took a total of three months to perfect the final choreography, showing the hard work and dedication that went into the performance.

Originally Medusa was intended to be an all-female cast, but later saw the addition of male dancers as Vardimon found it difficult to explore all the discussions that Medusa raises. The male characters in the piece do not come across well, rather, predatory, vulgar, and crass. When talking about the difficulty of embodying such antagonising roles, central male dancer Joshua Smith believes that performance art provides safety in exploring and experimenting with such difficult and sensitive social topics. He finds it humbling to be given the opportunity to express his own insight on such important political debates. Joshua offered an interesting interpretation of the piece, as he perceived the robotic movements incorporated into the performance to be a reflection of the increasingly robotic nature of human experience. ‘The ability to connect on a human level is deteriorating, while technological communication expands.’  He then went on to discuss the growing popularity of human-like robotic dolls, debating their possible impact on pre-existing gender tensions. 

The beauty of Medusa is the layering of interpretations and meanings that are built upon the classical Greek myth. The director, the dancers, and the audience members are given the space to explore and understand the significance of the feminine archetype. If Medusa is the representation of perception and reflection—the gaze of another upon us stirring self-consciousness —then to what can the audience relate the most? The feminine rage? The doll-like housewife? The robotic state of being? The primal males? What we connect with most during the performance, our own unique take, reveals the deeply hidden parts of our own psyche. The very heart of Vardimon’s Medusa is not the retelling of a mythological narrative, but rather a poetic deconstruction of a powerful feminine symbol.

Photography by Tristram Kenton

Words by Briony Willis.

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MedusaDirected by Jasmin Vardimon

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Monday 22nd October 2018 – Wednesday 24th October 2018.

 

 

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Review | Burning Woman by Lucy H. Pearce

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Designed to teach, inspire and empower generations of women who suffer from a deep internal burning; Burning Woman is a non-fictional, controversial exploration into how shame and guilt permeates the female identity. A book that gets to the very heart of a universal feminine affliction.

Published in 2016, Lucy H. Pearce’s Burning Woman is one of her seven books which specialise in exploring the field of the feminine. Despite being published just over two years ago, the timeless book remains relevant for generations of women past, present and future. As a writer, Lucy guides women to reconnect and harness their intuitive yet deeply suppressed female power. Her tone fits perfectly with Womancraft Publishing’s overall ethos – to celebrate “paradigm shifting books by women for women”.

Before venturing further into the contents of the book, it would seem an injustice to not speak on the beautiful and captivating cover art by Robin Lea Quinlivan. Titled ‘Waiting to Fly’, the artwork encapsulates the books pivotal theme of lifting oneself from restraints. We witness a rising phoenix, illustrated with vibrant oranges, reds and yellows – perfectly preparing the reader for the novels contents.

Burning Woman is separated into twelve chapters flowing seamlessly into eachother. Without revealing too much; the book begins by defining the Burning Woman archetype, leading to how femininity is scorned and suppressed by patriarchal power, until finally offering insight as to how we can build a positive relationship with our feminine essences. Each chapter concludes with exercises for those who feel inspired, or perhaps experimental, and wish to take their reading experience further. The book is a manual on how to cultivate, nurture and release the innate power in our feminine roots, without it being destructive.

Though the novel centres around femininity, it would be misguided to assume that men are excluded from Burning Woman. Lucy gives space to the male perspective in her third chapter titled ‘The Masculine Dark’, with its subsections ‘The Dark Arts of The Patriarchy’, ‘Fear’ and ‘Shame’. Lucy reminds readers that feminine exists within the masculine, as depicted by the Chinese Ying and Yang, or Carl Jung’s Anima and Animus. The feminine essence innate to men undergoes the same burning from shame and guilt that constitutes a woman’s existence in patriarchy.

As the nature of the book is an investigation into the relationship between feminine power and shame; Lucy draws upon many spiritual and intellectual speakers alongside her own experiences, to give a detailed and thorough perspective. The book offers a comforting community of men and women who challenge patriarchal conventions, including psychoanalyst Carl Jung, Activist Leymah Gbowee, and Author/psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estes of Women Who Run with the Wolves. Thus, Burning Woman satisfies our appetite for resistance, which, prior to reading, we may not know we had.

It comes as no surprise that the book received the Nautilus Silver Award in 2017 in the woman’s section, as well as being an Amazon bestseller. Spoken in the first person (sometimes plural for affect), Lucy’s tone is engaging and informal; ironically fiery at times, and extremely stripped back as she delves into the deep and existential topic of the female identity. Though the opening suffers with a somewhat slow and repetitive start, Lucy makes up for this as the narrative quickly builds momentum.

Lucy’s fifth chapter titled ‘The Feminine Dark’ is a particular favourite of mine. With the subsections ‘Initiations into Darkness’, ‘Journeys to the Underworld’, ‘Going Dark’, ‘Womb Space – Feminine Heart of Darkness’, ‘The Unconscious’, and ‘Dreams and Visions’, this chapter gets to the root of female suffering. One of her faster-paced sections, Lucy explores the negative influence of patriarchal attitudes; re-defining our dark selves which we are taught to fear as transformative.

It is difficult to fully articulate the experience of reading Burning Woman. Beautiful words by a beautiful soul; Lucy H. Pearce takes the reader on a journey of unlocking and empowering the hidden and oppressed parts of the female psyche. I like to view the book as a gateway; an introduction into the grand and complex world of the feminine unconscious, and its archetypes. The beginning of the journey to understanding one’s self.

For those who enjoy Lucy’s exploration of the feminine, Burning Woman’s sister book titled Medicine Woman: Reclaiming the Soul of Healing is scheduled to be released this October.

Words by Briony Willis.

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Burning Womanby Lucy H. Pearce

Womancraft Publishing, pp. 240, £10.99. Purchase here.

 

 

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Review | Promising Young Women by Caroline O’Donoghue

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This year has truly brought to the fiction scene some of the most stunning and powerful female characters. From the extreme – such as My Absolute Darling’s Turtle Alveston – to the proudly millennial – such as Sally Rooney’s characters – there is now an abundance of female leads holding up a mirror to today’s society, reflecting many, often as of yet unarticulated observations and feelings.

In her debut novel, Caroline O’Donoghue has decided to tackle some of the most relevant issues concerning young women of the twenty-first century: gender imbalance at the workplace, career versus personal life, growing degrees of separation from friends and family, and grappling with adulthood in an era that demands that girls become women at an increasingly young age.

Jane Peters is a 26-year-old young woman living in London. She has worked for an advertising agency for around two years – largely unnoticed – and has been in a happy relationship with her boyfriend, Max. We meet her when all this is about to change. After embarking on a romantic relationship with her married, much older and more senior colleague, Clem, everything Jane knew begins to crumble. As her career advances, Jane cannot help but wonder whether this is solely due to her involvement with Clem – and as the relationship inevitably deteriorates, some darker secrets begin to surface. Jane will be tried both physically and mentally before she can emerge on the other side.

Promising Young Women starts out very promising indeed. The initial plot direction – that of a young woman having to balance her love life and her career, especially when the two are confined to the same space – is common enough for readers to be able to understand and sympathise. It has all the ingredients to become a solidly romantic story. O’Donoghue also gives Jane’s friendly relationships stage time: her best friend, Darla feels spiteful and jealous as Jane advances up the career ladder, and her co-worker, Becky, is desperately trying to make a friend out of Jane as her childhood friends all drift towards husbands and babies. It is really in this first half of the book that the ’promising’ angle is explored, and where O’Donoghue succeeds in creating a realistic world for many London-living women of age 25 and up.

In addition to her working life, Jane also runs an online agony aunt blog, where she anonymously dishes out life advice to those willing to listen. This is where she really thrives, although as is often the case, she is unable to take her own advice. There is context to this throughout the book: growing up with an absent father, Jane becomes the pillar of moral and emotional support for her mother until she later remarries. O’Donoghue does not let the absent father issues become a cliché, however, and her sharp language veers towards the satirical when Jane decides to unload her past onto Clem in what is deemed (at the time) a romantic moment. The entire book is written in an engaging and often satirical voice, which only occasionally suffers from over-explaining or repetition.

As the book proceeds to explore further Jane’s workplace affair, things become quite muddled, and take a turn for the dramatic. Introducing magical realism and thriller-esque elements, the novel veers towards a mix of genres where no single thread can really emerge as dominating. The original realist viewpoint is lost to what feels more like commercial women’s fiction. Characterisation suffers greatly – apart from Jane, none of the characters are truly explored, leaving them feeling somewhat shallow and one-dimensional. Jane often does not read like a 26-year-old. Clem is pictured as a villain; Becky, the loyal supporter, and Deb, an older co-worker as the mentor figure. There is no real spectrum between black and white characters.

How Do You Like Me Now by Holly Bournepublished earlier this year, is comparable to O’Donoghue’s novel in that it also actively aims to tackle early adulthood; but while Promising Young Women regularly skips between genres in the second, more fast-paced half of the novel (bringing the book to a thriller conclusion and abandoning its original, realistic tone), Bourne sticks to painting a convincing picture. Saying this however, it would of course be detrimental to expect the same thing of two contemporary writers, both fine writers who each demand different expectations, and are both enjoyable in their own way.

The author clearly has an original and engaging style, and the book is helped endlessly by the wit and humour in her writing. While at times Promising Young Women can feel like a writer finding their voice, this is part of the experimental energy of reading a debut author. From what we can see from this particular debut, O’Donoghue’s literary horizons are looking very promising indeed.

Promising Young WomenCaroline O’Donoghue, Little Brown Book Group, 2018, 352pp, £16.99 (hardback)

Words by Vera Sugár.

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Interview | Sophie Mackintosh

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© Sophie Davidson

Last month Megan Girdwood reviewed Sophie Mackintosh’s debut dystopian novel The Water Cure, rendering it uneasy, hypnotic and yet so captivating. We asked Sophie about her feminist piece which tells the story of three sisters, excluded from the rest of society and the literal toxicity of men by their parents. They struggle to navigate themselves around the disappearance of their parents, and around the arrival of three strange men who wash up on their shore.

 

Was the choice to make a feminist novel an active one, or just a by-product of writing about women?
It was more of a by-product – the focus was originally more environmental and apocalyptic, but it was the bond of the girls that drew me in, the story of how they exist in a difficult world. The women are the centre of the story, finding out how they can survive, live, and find their own agency; I couldn’t avoid making it feminist, with everything else happening in the larger world influencing the words I put on the page. 

 

The narrative renders masculinity physically toxic to women, what was the inspiration for this?
The toxicity of the world can be interpreted as the world literally being toxic thanks to patriarchy – that’s where the seed of the idea originally came from. I felt very tired and angry around the time of writing the book, and was thinking a lot about having grown up navigating within a patriarchy. Sometimes the world does feel poisonous – so I wanted to make it literal. 

 

The sense of sisterhood in the novel is such a powerful and complex force, is it something you can personally relate to?
Absolutely – sisterhood is really important to me and something I think about a lot. I’m very interested in the dynamics of sisterhood, of how love, hate, and envy are mixed up together into this queasy mixture, even in loving families. I’m from a big Welsh family – I have one sister but several female cousins around my age, and we all grew up together like siblings. 

 

The sisters perform painful and testing daily therapy rituals, and as the title suggests, damaged women arrive to the island to receive a rejuvenating ‘water cure’ carried out by the mother. Where did you get the inspiration for these therapy games?
I was inspired a lot by Victorian hydrotherapies – some of them were incredibly bizarre. I also drew on the strange games you play in childhood and adolescence, when you’re sort of testing your body, figuring out what it can and can’t do, and not always sure why you’re doing it. 

 

Would you consider the family as matriarchal or patriarchal, and would you say that the women in the novel are the most damaged by men, or by one another?
I think a patriarchy with a complicit matriarch, maybe. Like in our world, women in power can wield as much damage as men – having a woman in power doesn’t mean they won’t continue to prop up existing damaging structures and enact policies that harm and disenfranchise people.

That’s the paradox – they’ve been told so much that men are dangerous that they willingly harm themselves and put themselves through so much to stay safe. I think there’s damage implicit everywhere, even in the act of loving something or someone. 

 

How do you want men to react to your novel?
I don’t want them to have a knee-jerk reaction and be like “Oh, this is a man-hating book”, because it isn’t at all. I hope that men read it and enjoy it, and take something positive or useful from it. So far, I’ve been lucky that men who’ve read the book have largely been really lovely and generous, and have told me it’s given them food for thought. 

 

Are you open to the idea of your novel being adapted for another media form?
As I was writing it I approached it very visually – it all felt very real to me, so I would love to see it adapted into a film or play. My approach to writing is quite filmic, with the aesthetic of films such as Dogtooth and Valerie and her Week of Wonders (just to name two) having a big influence on me. 

 

Did you have any idea of where their journey across the border will take them, and do you intend to visit these characters again?
I’ve explored their stories as much as I want to. I like to think of them finding a safe place, happiness, a home where they don’t always have to live in the state of emergency, but I want people to reach their own conclusions. 

 

The Water Cure is out now. (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99)

BY ISABELLE COWLING @IzyCowling

 

Essay | Meg Wolitzer’s #MeToo Moment by Sophie Perryer

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Meg Wolitzer must be psychic. Well before the explosive allegations against Harvey Weinstein were revealed and the #MeToo movement gathered pace, she penned The Female Persuasion, a novel about feminism, and finding your voice. 

Published on June 7th, the Female Persuasion tells the story of Greer Kadetsky’s coming-of-age, from her edifying arrival at Rutland College to her encounter with the dazzling Faith Frank, and the ensuing intergenerational friendship which shapes Greer’s experience of the world. 

This isn’t the first time that Wolitzer has tackled the bildungsroman trope; her 2014 novel The Interestings follows a group of 6 teenagers, who meet at a summer camp the year that Nixon resigns. The novel follows their divergent lives through youth and middle age; it’s a fascinating study into the enduring nature of creativity and the transience of satisfaction. 

Unlike The Interestings, though, The Female Persuasion puts the female coming-of-age experience at the heart of this novel. From the loss of her virginity to her first boyfriend, to the unsettling experience of having her breast grabbed at a college party, Greer’s story is full of moments that every millennial woman will find mirrored in her own life. Early in the novel, Greer, a shy bookworm paralysed by her inexperience, laments that she is not one of those women described as ‘spitfires’ and ‘kickass’, women with ‘fuck-you confidence’ who are ‘assured of their place in the world’. Wolitzer draws wonderful parallels between Greer and her best friend Zee, described as ‘bracingly, innately political’; her temerity acts as a foil to Greer’s timidity, which gradually wanes as the novel progresses.

When it comes to the representation of #MeToo in the novel, Wolitzer’s prescience is astounding. Not only does the description of serial groper Darren Tinsler hit awfully close to home post-Weinstein, but she also predicts the value mismatch between Second Wave and Fourth Wave feminists which has pervaded much of the #MeToo discussion. In the novel, Greer and Faith’s relationship breaks down after Greer becomes disillusioned with some of Faith’s actions, which she feels are contradictory to her feminist values, such as her sleeping with a married man, and her turning a blind eye to ethical neglectfulness on a refuge camp for trafficked women in Ecuador. 

Speaking of Greer, it is no coincidence that the novel’s main character shares a name with arguably the most influential feminist of the 1970s, Germaine Greer, who now seems to be spending much of her time arguing with current feminists about the moment which we’re living through. Wolitzer has hesitated in directly confirming the correlation between the names, admitting instead that she ‘unconsciously’ named the character Greer after remembering seeing The Female Eunuch on her mother’s bookshelf. 

In the novel, Faith Frank is a bastion of Second Wave feminism; it feels like Germaine Greer is her real-life counterpart. Through this characterisation, Wolitzer asks the question that has troubled 21st century feminism during #MeToo so far: namely, is it possible to admire the foundational work that Second Wave feminists did to underpin the societal progress women have made over the past 30 years, without necessarily agreeing with everything that these women are saying in the present moment? After all, each generation of feminists has certain privileges, thanks to the previous generation, but they also have very different experiences of the world, and as such, have developed different attitudes. 

And this is partly why Wolitzer’s novel is so powerful – it captures a moment in time, for a certain generation of women, and enshrines #MeToo in a literary format. It is not historically and socially overarching or comprehensive because ultimately, it is a work of fiction. It succeeds in revealing the cracks in our current incarnation of feminism, in an insightful manner, and encourages us to think about the freedoms that we’re entitled to. More than anything who, the novel forces us to take a look back over the past 12 months, and see just how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go. At the end of the novel, Greer bemoans that men ‘always get to set the terms’. ‘They don’t ask, they just do it’, she complains. ‘I don’t want to keep repeating this forever. I don’t want to keep having to live in the buildings they make.’ Wolitzer’s novel landed in the centre of a female revolution, which brought those buildings crumbling down. It’s our time, now, to pick up our tools, and, brick by brick, begin to rebuild. 

By Sophie Perryer.

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