In the Name of the Family, by Sarah Dunant

He has forgotten the subterfuge of clever women; how stubborn their gentleness can be.

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Incredible though it may seem, there are people—I have personally met a few—who did not like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Up until now, I have been at a loss for what to do with these people, apart from simply abandon them altogether (at least where Wolf Hall is concerned.) Now, however, I know what I shall do: point them in the direction of Sarah Dunant. Her new novel, In the Name of the Family, is the first book of hers I have read, but it is utterly irresistible.

Like Mantel, she writes about the personal dynamics that are forever intertwined with political manoeuvering, and has chosen an iconic, fertile area of history to explore in fiction. If her exploration of psychology and motive digs a little less deep than Mantel’s, that is even more reason to recommend her to doubters. In Sarah Dunant, you get a writer who is observant, reflective, and conjures up the past with incredible skill, while also pushing her plot relentlessly forward. She is, basically, an accessible Mantel, and even though the word “accessible” generally makes me shudder, here I think it’s a good thing; she writes historical fiction for the bright general reader who prefers action to philosophising.

In the Name of the Family proves that politicking isn’t limited to the Tudor court. It is set in the opening years of the sixteenth century, in an Italy swiftly coming under the control of the Borgias. Cesare Borgia is the bastard son of Pope Alexander VI, né Rodrigo Borgia, and he is general of a mercenary army that is busy capturing key cities across the centre of the country. Alexander, meanwhile, is bleeding the Church dry to keep his son in pikemen and cannon. At the book’s beginning, Lucrezia, the Pope’s daughter, is about to be married to the Duke-Elect of Ferrara, Alfonso d’Este; the alliance will strengthen Borgia family power and the Estes are happy to have a family connection to the papacy. And then there is Niccolo Machiavelli, our Thomas Cromwell figure, whose experiences as envoy from Florence to Cesare will form the backbone of his still-to-be-written masterwork, The Prince.

Dunant does a brilliant rehabilitation job on these characters, some of whom we may have preconceived ideas about. Lucrezia, for instance, has come down in history as a kind of psychotic vamp, promiscuous and murderous in equal measure. In Dunant’s telling, she’s more sinned against than sinning: on her third marriage at twenty-three, not through any fault of hers but through the natural death of one husband and the murder of the second by Cesare. The incest rumours, by the way, are dealt with: there is something weird about Cesare’s fixation with his sister, and Dunant gives us the occasional dark flashback to childhood uneasiness. Lucrezia never appears complicit in Cesare’s control of her, and she isn’t a passive victim, either; she’s well-read, and wants to make Ferrara a centre of the arts. Where her interests might appear frivolous or feminine, such as her insistence upon her full dowry allowance so that she can have sufficiently fine clothes, Dunant makes clear to the reader how much hangs on appearances. Lucrezia is a piece in a game, but a piece who knows her value. She must win over the d’Estes; she must win over the city of Ferrara. The way to do it is through beauty, youth, and charm. It is no coincidence that she is an excellent dancer.

Cesare is a little more opaque—the book’s men in general, in fact, are drawn with less shade and subtlety, and some of the scenes amongst the conspirators in Cesare’s own army are a little Game-of-Thrones-y in their terse melodrama. (I mean, it’s quite Game-of-Thrones anyway; the Wars of the Roses aren’t the only model George R.R. Martin is using. At one point, Machiavelli’s inner monologue describes the torments inflicted on a city by a particularly bad ruler, one who, as he sees it, isn’t actually cementing his power through his cruelty, only increasing the hatred of his citizens. It reminded me of those Bolton fellas.) But his sections serve as a counterpoint to Lucrezia’s gardens and silks, and they also serve as a reminder: this is why she is marrying, this is what it’s all for, the steady march of Cesare’s men over the map of Italy.

Pope Alexander is particularly well-drawn. He was, historically, a man of many contradictions: he liked to breakfast on plain herring, despite throwing money around like sand in order to buy offices or support Ceare’s troops; flashbacks suggest he was a genuinely devout child, spending Christmas night under the altar at his local church in Spain in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Virgin Mary, yet he is never without a mistress or three, and even at seventy-two he is fathering children. Dunant nails these conflicting characteristics, and makes us believe that they could exist in one man. Her Pope is friendly and big-hearted, except for when contradicted—usually by Cesare—at which point he shouts. He is not unlike Mantel’s Henry VIII: a man who can afford to be generous because he has never known want, because it has never even occurred to him that there might not be enough for all. He is devoted to his family. The book’s titular phrase never appears within its pages, but Alexander’s underlying interest is clear. When he thinks Lucrezia is unhappy in Ferrara, he writes the sixteenth-century equivalent of a passive-aggressive email to her new father-in-law, demanding improvements; when Cesare tells him he is lacking, Alexander provides. All is for the family. Advancing it is the most important thing.

Machiavelli, meanwhile, functions as an analyst. He is there to work things out as or before we do, to explain the import of Cesare’s decisions if we haven’t got them alreaddy, and to be a more or less normal, everyday person (i.e. a non-noble) whose life is directly affected by the whims of these rulers. Dunant makes him no better or worse than he ought to be; he is probably a bit better than Thomas Cromwell—there’s no suggestion he’s ever killed anyone—but he likes drink and he likes women, despite having a fiery wife of his own. His relationship with her is actually one of the greatest joys of the book; it develops from newlywed uncertainty to affectionate teasing to real, quiet feeling in such an uncontrived way, humming along gently under the narrative’s larger events. Dunant also has Marietta Machiavelli write the one line which now survives from her, a description of their newborn son in a letter, and it is glorious. To learn that it’s a real sentence, really written by the real woman over five hundred years ago, makes the whole thing even better.

In the Name of the Family is a fairly long book, and perhaps it could have been a smidge shorter, but at no point does it feel as though it’s dragging. On the contrary, Sarah Dunant makes the danger and the beauty of sixteenth-century Italian politics come to life so vividly and with so little wasted effort that I feel cheated at having missed her work for so long.

Many thanks to the publicity folks at Virago for the review copy. In the Name of the Family was published in the UK on 2 March.

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2016 In First Lines

I did a post like this two years ago, and forgot to repeat it last year. (Don’t worry; there’ll still be a good end-of-year roundup!) These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it. Reach for your TBR lists now, because most of these were great.

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January: “Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.” – American Housewife, by Helen Ellis. This somewhat manic collection of short stories, some very short indeed, tackles domestic femininity, pop culture, and societal double standards. It’s a little like a book version of Lucille from Arrested Development, delivering tart one-liners and clutching a martini. I didn’t love it, but I can respect what it was doing.

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February: “Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head.” – Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. Book one of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle—one of my favourite reading experiences this year—wherein we meet erstwhile member of the Royal Society Daniel Waterhouse, and follow him on the beginning of his mission to reconcile Newton and Leibniz.

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March: “I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair.” – Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Nyer nyer, I read it before it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Highsmith-esque noir plotting meets serious psychological ishoos; Eileen is an unforgettable character.

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April: “My name is Sister.” – Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), by Sarah Hall. An absolute belter of a book that takes the ideas of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and pushes them further, to more interesting places, than Atwood ever does. Another of 2016’s highlights.

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May: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” – My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier. Start as you mean to go on, Daphne: ominous as all hell. This tale of a femme fatale—maybe—and a hapless young man—maybe—is an ideal stepping stone to the rest of du Maurier’s work after Rebecca.

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June: “In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighbourhood as you could find near an East Coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn.” – A Crime in the Neighbourhood, by Suzanne Berne. What I loved about this book was how adroitly Berne makes us sympathise with a kid who does a cruel and terrible thing: how completely we enter her head.

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July: “When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.” – The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee. I’ve raved about Chee’s book here before. Opulent, atmospheric, full of detail: it’s not only a great summer holiday read, but would make a great Christmassy one, too.

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August: “That day I woke up from a dream the way I always woke up: pressed against my mom’s back, my face against her and hers turned away.” – The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill. A raw and absorbing book about Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican teenager, and the world of horse-riding to which she’s exposed during a Fresh Air Fund trip. How Gaitskill inhabits her characters so faithfully is beyond me, but I’m not complaining.

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September: “I liked hurting girls.” – Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous. One of the less impressive books I’ve read this year, in all honesty (and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that opening gambit). More on that in an end-of-year post.

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October: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” – Beauty Is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan. I was initially bowled over by this book, but Didi’s comments made me look at its use of sexual violence afresh, and I was a bit less pleased with it after that.

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November: “On my 18th birthday my Uncle Keith took me to see Charlie Girl, starring the one and only Joe Brown, who I was in love with and was very much hoping to marry.” – Where Do Little Birds Go, by Camilla Whitehill. Whitehill’s words, plus the acting of Jessica Butcher in the production that I saw, combine to make this one-woman show about exploitation and power dynamics in the Kray twins’ London one of the best plays I’ve seen this year.

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December: “There is a boy.” – Signs for Lost Children, by Sarah Moss. Moss’s latest novel, The Tidal Zone, was the first of hers I’ve read, but I honestly think Signs for Lost Children is better: in the late 1800s, Tom Cavendish and Ally Moberley, recently married, are separated by Tom’s engineering work, which takes him to Japan for a span of months. While he is gone, Ally, a qualified doctor, works at Truro women’s asylum. In each other’s absence, both of them must face their fears and, eventually, trust each other again.

So! What do these say about my reading this year? (Well, this year so far; December has hardly started.) Two-thirds of these titles are by female authors, though I went through phases of reading mostly men, then mostly women. None of the authors of colour I’ve read this year are represented, which suggests the limitations of this method (showcasing only the first book read in each month). Nor are the genres, which included a little more sci fi, fantasy, memoir and short story collections. What this selection does suggest, though, is that this was a good year for reading. There were very few books I didn’t enjoy at all, and many that I truly adored.

Soon to come: my top books of 2016, or The Year In Reading, to be followed by the year’s dishonourable mentions.

November Superlatives

I’ve sort of forgotten about the end of November. It seems to have been an infinite month, on and on and on, late nights, late shifts, weekends alone or away. It doesn’t feel like the end of anything, especially given that things are only going to get busier at the pub from now until New Year. I’ve read twelve books this month, though—some of them quite long. I won’t lie, there was definitely some post-election comfort reading going on.

most disproportionately affecting: By size, I mean. The playscript for Camilla Whitehill’s play Where Do Little Birds Go (which I reviewed at Litro) takes a quarter of an hour to read, but the play is haunting. A one-woman show that dramatises the experiences of Lucy Fuller, a barmaid kidnapped by the Kray twins in the 1960s, it’s spare, effective, and completely engrossing.

best glimpse of another world: Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, his writings about the years he spent in Southeast Asia collecting specimens of birds, insects and mammals. He’s thoughtful and reflective, but still a product of time; reading his ruminations about the “natural character” of the indigenous people is an insight into a mindset that may not be cruel but is still limited. His writings on landscape are beautiful.

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most obscurely disappointing: There is nothing at all wrong with Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter. I just wanted more… juice, I said to Rebecca when she reviewed it, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. The story of a father and son struggling with the decade-old loss of mother and wife Cessie, it’s a quiet novel about quiet men, whose thoughts Melrose infiltrates and describes fluently. The writing is good. I can’t complain about it. I think it has been the victim of Twitter hype.

most relevant: The Dark Circle, Linda Grant’s new novel, which takes in the beginnings of the NHS and the global social changes of the 1950s, and leaves us believing that the strength of the individual character is our best hope. I reviewed it just after the US election and was comforted by its vision of a new, happy, modern life, despite the constant presence of the past.

warm bath books: The US election was hard. I woke up at eight the morning after, checked my phone, and began to cry, at which point the Chaos made me return to bed. I cried and demanded to be held and cried some more, went back to sleep for a few hours, woke up, cried again. I was very glad I had the day off. I read the second and third of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It had been years since I’d read them and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they are not as intellectually antagonistic as I remembered; they are instead profoundly humane books, framing the human mind and human evolution as a source of wonder and power. They are soothing without being mindless or saccharine, and just about perfect.

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weirdest: I think Shena Mackay just writes weird books, and her novel Dunedin, though the first of hers that I’ve read, is probably pretty representative. It’s a split timeframe—the first half is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand; the second half follows the descendants of our original protagonists in southeast London—but the New Zealand bit is short-changed in the word count, and the plot of the south London bit has no obvious centre. She writes the same kind of tactile, color-and-light-filled prose as A.S. Byatt, though, so I liked it anyway.

most potential: This is, I admit, a backhanded compliment indeed. Stephanie Victoire’s debut story collection, The Other World, It Whispers, addresses issues of gender and sexuality through a fantasy lens that is fueled by a huge imagination. I also, unfortunately, found it under-edited and uneven. Swings and roundabouts…

second most potential: Wendy Jones’s collection of interviews with English women about their sex lives (helpfully entitled The Sex Lives of English Women) is, yes, totally fascinating. She has a decent spread of age, class, race and preferences—there is a 19-year-old devout Muslim, a 33-year-old ex-Buddhist nun, a 94-year-old former Land Girl who recalls having sex by the side of the road—but I wanted a little more structure; the chapters read as transcriptions of one half of a conversation, which is a bit disorienting, as it sometimes is in magazine interviews.

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best impulse buy: I’m not sure I’ve ever bought a book on the strength of one review, but I did it for Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, an anthology from The Economist whose subtitle tells you all you need to know. The museums range from the Pitt Rivers in Oxford to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, via the Frick Collection, the ABBA Museum, Kelvingrove in Glasgow, and many more. The authors range from Frank Cottrell Boyce to Don Paterson, Ali Smith to Jacqueline Wilson. The essays are elegiac, descriptive, lyrical, hilarious, strange. A total treasure box.

best debut: Eric Beck Rubin’s novel School of Velocity, ONE Pushkin Press’s new release. The control Rubin exercises in this tale of charisma, friendship, music and obsession is worthy of a veteran novelist. I’m very interested to read his next book.

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big fat fucking awesome book: C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings has divided opinion since its release. Me, I like it. A chunkster indeed, but its tale of Thoroughbred horse racing, interwoven with a Southern family saga and the attendant agonies of racial prejudice right through to the present day, makes it all forgivable: its flaws are immense because its ambitions are immense, as someone once said of Dickens. I read it on many trains over about three days, and was delighted to have had it with me to pass the time.

up next: I’m reading Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children and loving it. I loved The Tidal Zone, so this is hardly surprising, but still.

 

The Dark Circle, by Linda Grant

Life was better when something mattered, even if it was just putting on your war-paint in the morning.

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Lenny and Miriam Lynskey are an East End brother and sister, twins, from a Jewish immigrant family. Lenny is being groomed to take over his uncle Manny’s property development business; Miriam works in a florist’s shop. The Second World War has just ended, but National Service is still in force and Lenny has been called up for his medical exam. He’s not worried—Uncle Manny has paid someone and he’ll be declared “unfit for service”. Except when the results come back, it turns out Uncle Manny didn’t need to pay anyone: Lenny’s unfit for service anyway. The x-rays show he has tuberculosis, and Miriam does too. They’re packed off to a TB sanatorium in Kent, which, under the auspices of the new National Health Service, is now open to non-fee-paying patients for the first time.

This is the premise of Linda Grant’s new novel. There is a lot going on. By far the longest section of the book is the part actually set in the sanatorium, in 1955. I am accustomed to thinking of the NHS as one of Britain’s claims to greatness, a beneficent institution that made social equality a reality, not just a talking point for armchair socialists. It’s unnerving, therefore, to read about the strong resistance to NHS oversight that permeated UK medicine in the 1950s. The attitude wasn’t just held amongst medical professionals, but also amongst patients themselves: the “better class” of people at the Gwendolyn Downie Memorial Hospital see Miriam, in her tight dresses and bright lipstick, and immediately write her off as vulgar and common. The old-fashioned approach to medical treatment—that the patient must passively submit to treatment, which in TB cases usually consisted of “allowing the disease to take its course”—was paternalistic and patronising in the extreme. Grant captures it, and the class undertones, so well:

“Why wouldn’t they let you back in? What’s all this about?”

“It’s the cure, it’s supposed to be a cure.”

“We had the bed rest already.”

“But this is in the fresh air at low temperatures,” said Matron. “It’s a completely different experience. People pay hundreds of pounds to go to Switzerland for this you know, and look at the Alps all day, but here, you’re getting almost as good and for nothing.”

“So you keep saying,” said Miriam. “We know what we’re entitled to.”

Anxiety provoked by encroaching socialism is everywhere, but the Gwendo (as the sanatorium’s inhabitants call it) is no better: medical director Doctor Limb fears the “interference” of the Health Ministry but fails to see how destructive it is for him to force passivity and conformity upon his patients. The arrival of Arthur Persky, a sailor from Brooklyn whose brief docking in London was enough for him to be diagnosed with TB and barred from re-entering his ship, is an explosion of colour and rebelliousness in this closed-off, grey-and-beige world. He completes the process that Lenny and Miriam have started, thoroughly shaking the Gwendo’s social foundations:

A few hours observation had led to an emerging idea. That the Gwendo might be a kind of experimental station for what could be done to tear down the individual self and rebuild it in the model of the well-behaved citizen. And this thought made him sick because there would be no greater power over Persky than Persky.

The Dark Circle is one of the few novels I’ve read that is explicit about the fact that the whole world changed radically after the Second World War. It follows its characters to 1991, which really lets the reader see the enormity of the difference (Miriam visits the Gwendo again in her seventies, and revels in the knowledge that she can buy an ice cream in the local village whenever she likes; when she first arrives, in March of 1950, ice creams are only sold in shops two months out of the year.) But it also acknowledges the changes in real time, as it were; characters in the 1950s are aware that they’re living in a world where nothing will ever be the same again, and by and large, they’re okay with that.

It was nice being in a decade with a pleasant number, the curly 5, the fat 0, no longer the sharp points of the 4 which could rearrange themselves into a swastika if they felt like it, and had done. They were exactly halfway through the century. War was in the process of becoming a memory, not a situation to be endured and survived. Anything new had to be a good thing. She sometimes had a vision of all the red-brick Victorian houses of London being flattened to make way for unassuming beige and white boxes in which everyone could live calmly, with central heating and fitted kitchens.

Reading a paragraph like that in a south London Victorian conversion flat is a bit of a shock to the system: now we venerate those old brick houses with their ceiling roses and their stained glass above the doors. That longing for change, for modernity, for something new, explains a lot about the worst of post-war architecture (Brutalist tower blocks, the Gwendo itself, which is described in the 1991 section: “The optimism of its form was at odds with the stained walls, the cracks in the structure, the unforgiving greyness of its materials.”)

Grant also weaves in the coming of television, the age of air travel and package holidays, and the defeat of the Labour government. Hannah Spiegel, an inmate of the sanatorium who was in Ravensbruck concentration camp during the war, is privately pleased by this defeat, which seemed to me inexplicable until I read the following:

Not everything needed to be subject to socialist planning and the people had understood this and rejected it. There were parts of the country, she’d heard, that still believed in their hearts in an Olde England of pixies and ghosts and magic and privately, she thought that was a good thing, though obviously preposterous.

Grant’s characters are all like this—we might not agree with or fully understand their reasons for holding an opinion; we might even think their opinions are internally inconsistent; but they always, always make sense in the context of the character. Of course Hannah Spiegel fears government interference and enforced togetherness. Her history ensures that fear. Even on holiday in Spain, years later, a group of revel-makers passing her on the road is cause for alarm: “She still did not really like to see columns of people on foot. They gave her what she could only describe as ‘a terrible feeling.’ It came up from her stomach like acid reflux and spoiled everything.”

The Dark Circle is a complicated book. One reading will not do; you may need, and will almost certainly want, to read it a few more times, squirreling out thematic connections. Grant’s preoccupation with Jewishness is here; so is a terrible resonance with the modern-day conditions of our NHS, our parliamentary corruption. Through it all, Lenny and Miriam, Arthur Persky and Hannah and her lover Sarah, continue to live vociferously, to take up space. Putting on your war paint is sometimes the only thing keeping you from destruction, and these characters put on their war paint with a vengeance right to the very end. It’s a joy and a pleasure to read about them as they do so.

This review is part of The Dark Circle blog tour—you can catch the next few days of the tour, and the previous installments, at the brilliant blogs listed below. Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. The Dark Circle was published in the UK on 3 November.

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Darling Days, by iO Tillett Wright

What I’m about to do is the worst and best move I will ever make.

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The book-comparison game is a dangerous one, but it is one that people who sell and promote books have to play on a regular basis. Sometimes this results in weird and vaguely desperate combinations (hands up if you’ve ever seen a book whose jacket says something like “for fans of Stephen King and Sex and the City” and wondered what the hell kind of target demographic that is); sometimes it results in regrettable over-selling (see my review of Diary of an Oxygen Thief, which wasn’t well served by being compared to The Catcher in the Rye). Sometimes—just sometimes—it’s spot on. And so it is with Darling Days, a memoir by iO Tillett Wright (yes, iO, spelled like that) that comes garlanded with comparisons to Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. Incredibly, almost improbably, the comparisons are apt. It’s a great book.

Actually, for my money, Wright is better at prose than Patti Smith is by a considerable margin. I enjoyed Just Kids for its general atmosphere of romantic bohemianism, but much of the writing on a sentence-by-sentence basis felt overwrought, emotional, and repetitive. Wright, by contrast, produces electrifying, evocative descriptions of the Lower East Side in the 1980s, a world that gentrification destroyed so quickly that it is almost as though these places never existed. Take this:

The Bowery Hotel, now a glamorous weekend landing pad for movie starlets, used to be a twenty-four-hour gas station that served radioactive vindaloo on Styrofoam plates to my mother in the middle of the night. Two mangy dogs roamed between the pumps, so dirty and caked with exhaust grease that one’s fur had turned green, the other one’s blue.

Wright’s mother’s husband, Billy, the great love of her life, was shot in his sleep by police. She was never married to Wright’s father, Seth Tillett, with whom she had a relationship after Billy’s death. Wright is entirely open about her parents’ intentions, or lack thereof (“they never had the intention of being a couple or building any kind of domestic life together”), but she’s equally clear about their love for their daughter. They promise each other that they will put her first; they will care for her; they will never put her through foster care or the courts system. Their official relationship might be only temporary, but both pledge responsibility for the baby.

For the first few years of Wright’s life, she lives with her mother. Apart from the abject poverty, the fact that they live up the block from a shelter full of homeless, occasionally violent junkies, and Wright’s desire to dress, act, and be treated as a boy, everything is pretty normal. In 1991, though, things start to change: the management of their apartment building, mindful of new city regulations, announces that the place will be gutted, and everyone will need to move:

The way Ma describes it, it’s like they rode in from Fourth Street on horseback. One day we are minding our own business in the asshole of the universe, and the next day these squares are galloping in, handing out bribes or slaughter as they go.

…’Unfortunately for all of us, either way the city is stepping in and putting its foot down. All the tenants will be temporarily relocated during the renovations to equally comfortable apartments until you can be moved back into your new houses.’

He tries to word this carefully, but when he says “comfortable”, half a dozen people snort and snicker. I’m thinking of the red-haired, pothead leprechaun with six pianos downstairs, and what comfort might mean to him, a kind of joy inconceivable to the man now speaking in American Dream bullshit platitudes. Or what it means to my mom, for whom comfort itself is a dirty word.

This is really the beginning of the end for the people who live in this building, and it seems to be the beginning of the end for Rhonna Wright, too. From this point onwards, she becomes increasingly angry, violent, even psychotic. Little iO has always known that her mom drinks a lot, but this is different, a darkness behind her eyes that frightens. She writes just enough scenes describing fights between her and her mother for us to get the idea: they are both incredibly strong-willed. Rhonna has always been her protector, but things are getting untenable. There’s never food. Rhonna starts cooking things and forgets about them. She hoards trash, newspapers, cardboard. The apartment is dark and difficult to navigate. iO sleeps on an army cot and is woken repeatedly, almost nightly, by her mother raging through the darkness, swearing, screaming.

The “best and worst move she will ever make” is the reporting of her mother’s condition to her school guidance counselor. Wright knows this will catapult her into the care of the city and the courts system, a bureaucracy against which her mother has fought all her life. She knows it will be seen as a betrayal, but she does not have a choice. Eventually, a court grants custody to her father, and she moves to Germany to live with him.

It’s a brief happiness: her father, too, has substance addiction problems, and her father’s girlfriend Julia eventually finds the whole situation too difficult to handle. When Julia finally snaps, pinning Wright to a car bonnet and screaming into her face on a freezing Christmas Eve, it’s a horrible scene, and if Wright’s terrible vulnerability wasn’t already clear to the reader, this part makes it so. She’s a tenacious, hot-tempered teenager, and she can’t have been easy to care for, but her life so far has lacked such a basic level of stability. Her father sends her to a progressive boarding school in England, where she finds the heady joys of first love with a German student called Nikita, but every summer, it’s a toss-up as to where Wright will end up, which country she’ll call home this year.

Clearly enough, what keeps her grounded (and, sometimes, alive) is her circle of friends. There’s Johnny, her Puerto Rican “brother” who leaves his leftovers on the table for her as a kid. There’s the girl she calls KGB, a beautiful Russian; there’s Nan, her larger-than-life godmother; there’s Frankie, a pot-smoking bohemian musician who moves into the flat Wright and Rhonna share in New York, and who can care for Rhonna with the objectivity that Wright cannot summon. There’s also Edie Tillett, Wright’s paternal grandmother, providing unconditional love and a bolthole over the years: her death, near the end of the book, is wrenching.

 Wright ends her memoir as she moves out of her mother’s apartment, aged twenty-two, looking for a new start and entering a new relationship. The copy I read was an unfinished proof; I hope that in the final book, perhaps in the Acknowledgments, there’s a sense of how Wright’s relationship with her mother currently stands. It’s clearly the strongest, most significant bond of her life, at least thus far; she never villainizes Rhonna, only tries to understand. (Her mother’s late-revealed dependence on Desoxyn explains a lot: combined with alcohol, it produces psychosis.) All the other people that love and support Wright, too, populate the background of this book, quiet but nevertheless present. That old saying is true, after all: friends are a family you choose.

Thanks very much to Grace Vincent at Virago for the review copy. Darling Days will be published in the UK on 27 September.

A White Night, by Charlotte Mew – in Daughters of Decadence

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~~caution: here be a spoiler for a single story~~

In 1993, Virago published a collection of short stories by women writers of the 1880s and 1890s, edited by Elaine Showalter, a prominent feminist scholar. Now, twenty-three years later, they’ve reissued the collection. It’s not a time period that speaks to me much; when I learned about the tail end of the 19th century in high school history classes, I got the Gilded Age of American industry, monopolies, philanthropists, presidents with eccentric facial hair, and prolonged but indecisive military excursions in Latin America. Photographs of the period look somehow older than photographs from thirty years previously. The women wear hats of ludicrous width and all appear to be sucking on lemons; the men are frequently top-hatted titans of capitalism, and almost never looking directly at the camera. It is not a period that represents itself with the lush brightness of the mid-19th century, or the filthy vivacity of the 18th, or the political intrigue of the 17th.

And yet, as Showalter’s introduction to the collection points out, there was a lot going on in this fin de siecle as regards women, both in terms of their writing and in terms of their more general social position. We think of decadent writers and artists as men–Wilde, Beardsley–and the same is true of this era’s serious literary authors: think of Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Yet at the same time, there was an explosion of writing, mostly in the form of short stories, from women. They were published in periodicals like Vogue and Lippincott’s and The Yellow Book, most of which don’t exist any more. They were by and about “New Women”, creatures of sometimes ambiguous sexuality, authors of unrecognized genius, complex thinkers. They terrified critics, who referred to them dismissively as vain “erotomaniacs”. One of them was Charlotte Mew, whose short story A White Night I was asked to review by the Virago publicity folks.

A White Night is brief and deeply disturbing. Our narrator, Cameron, is on holiday in Spain with his sister Ella (we can’t really call her our heroine, though Showalter, heroically, refers to her as such in the collection’s introduction) and Ella’s new husband King. They visit a rural hill town and, at Ella’s insistence, go exploring in the twilight. The action doesn’t really start until they enter a large parish church attached to a convent and get locked in by accident. It’s much too late for anyone to hear them banging on the door and shouting, so they’re eventually resigned to spending the night there, until, around midnight, their uneasy rest is disturbed by a parade of monks, followed by a woman and two priests. A long ritual ensues which is completed by the live burial of the woman under a flagstone before the altar. Cameron does not intervene, and actively prevents King from doing so, although when the monks leave the church, they attempt to find the gravestone in the darkness. Day eventually dawns, they realize their labours are hopeless (they’ve managed to find the stone but can’t pry it up again), and they leave the church with Ella, speechless and horrified, in tow. Telling the story to the British Consul produces only a kind of bureaucratic shrug, and they leave Spain within twenty-four hours. Cameron notes, as a final aside, that this episode still haunts Ella’s dreams, and that she has “never forgiven him” for his objectivity and detachment about it.

What are we to make of that same detachment? Cameron’s refusal to intervene to save the woman is the most inexplicable part of this story: he is moved and horrified by the scene unfolding before him and yet there is something about the woman’s demeanour that makes him feel as though saving her would be wrong. “She had, one understood, her part to play,” he tells us, and goes on to describe with a sort of relish her face’s inscrutable expression:

It was of striking beauty, but its age? One couldn’t say. It had the tints, the purity of youth…but for a veil of fine repression which only years, it seemed, could possibly have woven. And it was itself–this face–a mask, one of the loveliest that spirit ever wore. It kept the spirit’s counsel… Only, as she stood there, erect and motionless, it showed the faintest flicker of distaste, disgust…She was at last in full possession of herself. The flicker of distaste had passed and left her face to its inflexible, inscrutable repose.

So for Cameron, at least, this is a face that possesses a certain power, a face that has agency. He uses other words in conjunction with her (“proud surrender”, “magnificent disdain”) that give us similar impressions. We are not meant to see her as a victim. She has entered the church screaming, but Cameron keenly notes (with what authority, it’s unclear) that the screams are mere “physical responses”, in other words instinctive reflexes; her face looks unmoved.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. My initial instinct was to trust it. Cameron later writes that “she lies, one must remember, in the very centre of the sanctuary… It was this honour, satisfying, as it did, some pride of spirit or of race, which bore her honourably through.” The woman’s value is high in his estimation because of her honourable conduct, her perfect performance of acquiescence. She acquits herself, in other words, like a man, but not so much like a man that she ceases to be passive and therefore womanly. Threatened women gain male approval by being thoroughly aware of their own impending doom, and accepting it stoically. (Do you see what I mean about this being a disturbing story?)

The monks, likewise, are dealt with not as individuals but as one blurred indistinct entity. There’s a superficial distinction between them, but their actual personhoods fade into insignificance because they are all together, all a crowd:

Some of the faces touched upon divinity; some fell below humanity; some were, of course, merely a blotch of book and bell, and all were set impassively toward the woman standing there. And then one lost the sense of their diversity in their resemblance; the similarity persisted and persisted till the row of faces seemed to merge into one face – the face of nothing human – of a system, of a rule. It framed the woman’s and one felt the force of it: she wasn’t in the hands of men.

Except, of course, that she both is, and isn’t: Mew creates in this scene a brilliant representation of patriarchy, a system or rule composed of the faces of ordinary people who are in themselves neither saints nor devils. No monk or priest puts the woman in the grave that opens before her: she walks into it and lies down on her own. But she has been brought by those faces before her to a state where she can do that to herself. Perhaps it is not only a picture of an oppressive system, but a picture of what would later become known as “internalized misogyny”, the scorn and devaluing of women by other women, the self-hatred that a woman pours into herself.

King, the husband, is moved to try and help (perhaps he is trying to be the punning “white knight” of the title), but Cameron stops him; Cameron himself sees only the theoretical and the symbolic sides of the experience, considering it “a rather splendid crime”. It’s only Ella who remains troubled by the episode, and this, Cameron suggests, is because of her damned silly woman’s irrationality:

She refuses to admit that, after all, what one is pleased to call reality is merely the intensity of one’s illusion.

Men of Cameron’s time and class can afford to believe that reality is an illusion, because in many ways, for them, it is. Women – of almost any time, any class – have never been able to indulge in this kind of sophistry, because reality touches them too forcefully. Can you say to a woman of the late Victorian era who was never taught anything of biology or anatomy that her experience – maybe involving terror, force, pain – on her wedding night was “the intensity of her illusion”? Can you tell a woman who has been buried alive that her suffocation is not real? Maybe Ella is the heroine of this story, after all: she understands the significance of what she has seen, even if no one else does.

Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. Daughters of Decadence was published in the UK on 4 August.

Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann

“You’ve got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls.”

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Valley of the Dolls is 50 years old this year. It’s being republished by Virago Press, the imprint well known for championing women’s writing; they publish, among others, Angela Carter, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, and Margaret Atwood. So there’s an obvious question, one that springs immediately to mind, regarding this reprint: is Valley of the Dolls a feminist book?

The short answer is: hell nope. The long answer is: sort of, maybe.

If you don’t know the plot already (and I didn’t, having neither previously read it nor seen the film, released in 1967 and starring Sharon Tate), it revolves around three young women in New York City just after WWII. There’s Anne Welles, a refugee from emotionally frigid New England small-town life, devastatingly beautiful and seeking an existence as an employed woman on her own terms. There’s her roommate, Neely O’Hara, a seventeen-year-old who’s already been a professional performer for a decade, and who finally gets her big break through Anne’s friendship. And there’s Jennifer North, an actress who cheerfully admits to having no talent, but whose body is her primary asset.

Over the course of twenty years, Anne, Neely, and Jennifer get comprehensively screwed. Anne falls in love with Lyon Burke, a theatrical agent who works for her boss; they eventually marry, but he has copious affairs. Neely becomes wildly successful as a Hollywood film actress, but becomes hooked on drugs, ends up in a psychiatric hospital, and begins an affair with Lyon upon release. Jennifer’s story is the worst of all: aborting a pregnancy in New York because the father of the child has a congenital neurological seizure disorder, she moves to France and becomes hooked on sleeping pills. Upon her return to the States, she meets and falls in love with a Republican Senator, who doesn’t want children but is obsessed with the perfection of her body (mostly her breasts). Just before her wedding, she’s diagnosed with breast cancer and is told she must have a mastectomy. Instead, she commits suicide.

So: here we have mental health and substance abuse issues of the highest order. We have women deeply, terribly damaged by the disregard of society–mostly of men–for their worth as individuals. We have relationship breakdown. We have Anne’s (at least initial) determination to be financially independent. We have extramarital sex, demanding parents, the fear of provincial oblivion. You can see why Valley of the Dolls is cited as a direct cultural forebear of Sex and the City.

The problem I have with calling it feminist is mostly this: feminism has moved on since 1966. All of the things I mention above probably did make it a feminist book (or at least feminism-flavoured) when it was first published. Sure, women had sex and breakdowns, but literature didn’t chronicle it very much, let alone validate that suffering. We like Anne; we feel sorry for Jennifer; we’re forced to admire Neely’s grit even if we find her behaviour shocking. These women are hustling for themselves, and there’s a lot of rage in their experiences. Helen Lawson, an aging stage actress, “crucifies” a younger actress, Terry King, who threatens her primacy in a show. She does it because she’s terrified. Throughout this book, women compete with and attempt to destroy one another because they are so goddamn scared: of the future, of aging, of the power of the men in their lives. The women are the artists and performers, but the men are the lawyers, the agents, the directors. The women sign the contracts, but the men draw them up.

Even the most determined of the women in this book are aiming, really, at one thing: marriage. Anne’s refusal to marry Allen Cooper at the beginning of the novel is admirable (she doesn’t love him and tells him so; he literally informs her that she will eventually; she shakes him off after a few months, but only by falling in love with someone else). But there is so much pressure to bag a man: Jennifer’s mother tells her on the phone, “In five years you’ll be thirty. I was twenty-nine when your father got tired of me.” Even Neely, at seventeen, doesn’t understand why anyone would want anything else. And when Anne falls for Lyon Burke, she demands to know when he’s marrying her… after four days of dating. Intersectionality, meanwhile, is hardly present: Jews and gay men are subject to depressingly off-hand nastiness, while women of colour don’t exist at all in this book’s universe, and working-class women are only ever ashamed of their origins. For me to even raise the issue, of course, is sort of pointless, insofar as Susann wasn’t writing during an age of intersectional feminism. She’s of the Gloria Steinem generation; their breakthrough was to get the world to notice that white, middle-class women cannot be expected to cope with constant domestic and professional misogyny.

The problem now is that we have realized that’s not enough. When you read about the terrible things that happened to women in the early years of film and stage celebrity–the stories of Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland spring to mind–you can’t help but be horrified, especially by the way in which contemporary culture fetishizes those same women. A similar phenomenon contributed to the legends, and the early deaths, of Princess Diana and Amy Winehouse. What we expect of public women is awful, and was awful. This is all true. But it’s also true that white, middle-class women have a long history of ignoring and erasing others who should be equal partners in the struggle for rights: women of colour, gay men, gay women, transgender women, poor women, fat women, disabled women. My generation does not venerate Gloria Steinem except for as a reminder of how far we’ve come. We’re looking to poets like Warsan Shire; to writers like Juno Dawson and Roxane Gay; to musicians like Anohni; to commentators like Jack Monroe.

So is Valley of the Dolls valuable? Certainly: as an artifact, a signpost, something historically significant. But if I worked for Virago, I would be a tiny bit concerned–privately, quietly, but nonetheless–about reissuing it. We are not these women anymore, or at least, we don’t have to be. Why are we looking back?