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Review

June in fiction

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo (Penguin Random House)

Bernadine Evaristo is a Professor of Creative Writing in London, a founder of initiatives that support writers and artists of colour, and an author of eight works of fiction, along with numerous other writings. She is also an activist who has spoken in support of Black Lives Matter protestors in the UK after they were criticised for removing colonial statues. ‘History is constructed … We have a past, and historians interrogate that past,’ she said recently on the BBC, ‘and historically that has been done by elite white men … Removing those statues is giving power to the people who really do object to a symbol of their historical slavery.’

In 2019, Evaristo controversially won the Man Booker Prize jointly with Margaret Atwood, a former winner. ‘Controversially’ because the prize has never been awarded jointly before, as this is against the rules, and famously because it had never in – its fifty-one years of history – been awarded to a Black British woman writer. Which raises the question: couldn’t they just have awarded it to her on her own, then? Atwood is surely pleased with her achievements to date. At any rate, Girl, Woman, Other comes highly recommended. So highly, in fact, you could almost expect it not to live up to its fanfare.

But it does.

Girl, Women, Other, is politically savvy, conscious, vibrant, immeasurably clever, and satirical. It is also absorbing on a personal level. Amma is a Black lesbian playwright, based in London, on the aged side of middle-aged, with a daughter named Yaz and a penchant for non-monogamous relationships. It’s hard not to read Amma as a cipher for Evaristo, for she is a veteran playwright and activist just as Evaristo is a veteran author and activist. At one point Amma experiences nerves about her upcoming play and tries to remind herself of her track record: ‘as a critic once wrote, Amma Bonsu is a safe pair of hands who is known to pull off risks.’

Evaristo, we feel at the outset of this work, is a safe pair of hands. More than being safe, though, Evaristo’s prose is rife with meticulously observed details, about the far-left radical arts scene Amma inhabits through the 80s and 90s in London, about the relationships and power dynamics surrounding her, about what adorns her body (slacks in the winter, size 12 or 14, asymmetrical tops, bleached dreadlocks, even the brand of shoes – Birkenstocks). Throughout, there’s a brutal level of honesty and sincerity. Upon Amma’s first sexual experience with a female partner: ‘It was the closest she’d come to making love with herself. It was like coming home.’

With its radical syntax (Evaristo eschews capitals at the beginnings of sentences) and its deeply personal material, Girl, Woman, Other really is all that. Go read it.

 

The Fogging – Luke Horton (Scribe)

Luke Horton was until recently the online editor of The Lifted Brow Review of Books. The Fogging, his debut novel, was acquired by Scribe. Anna Thwaites, one of its editors, said that ‘Luke has captured something honest, compassionate, and disturbing about a very familiar kind of modern man. His observations about people and relationships are piercing and a relief to read …’ This work may be described in many ways, but not as a book which provides ‘relief’. The truth is quite the opposite. Horton draws us into the mind of a central character whose complexes and compulsive interiority are relentless.

Horton risks alienating the reader early on in his novel. Tom and Clara are a couple in their early thirties, some ten years into a relationship, when they go on holiday to Bali. The atmosphere of the almost claustrophobic privilege of the travel scene is captured beautifully: the beaches and hawkers, the serving class comprised solely of locals.

Cue what some critics might read as daring incisiveness, as Tom embarks on an inner spiel about Clara, or, more specifically, about her physical attractiveness: ‘Clara didn’t like herself in a swimsuit …’ the passage begins. It goes on for pages: ‘Not being classically beautiful had been a good thing for Clara, Tom decided …’ musing that her crow’s feet suited her, that she had become ‘more attractive’ as she got older. Later in the same passage Tom notices another woman on the beach, who was ‘stunning’, tall, with olive skin, a dazzling smile, and ‘breasts that bobbed up and down every time she laughed …’ Tom thinks of porn, and what he might do with a woman he doesn’t love.

Later we find that far from just turning this gaze upon those close to him, Tom’s character chronically turns it upon himself, leading him to have anxiety attacks. But this doesn’t quite offset the echoes of all of our literary inheritance, in which straight men deconstruct female characters’ attractiveness in the service of something which is called fiction. The Fogging reads as an honest depiction of a character in pain, and also disassociated from that pain, but the honesty may not exactly pay off.

 

The Girl with the Louding Voice Abi Daré (Hachette)

Abi Daré’s debut novel fits with almost disturbing neatness into the category known as ‘the postcolonial exotic’. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Daré has lived in the UK for eighteen years. She has said that The Girl with the Louding Voice was a product of her wish to give voice to all those girls worldwide who want to educate themselves and seek independence in adverse circumstances. Hachette has touted this book as ‘award-winning before it has even been published’, which is both true and which, again, raises questions about whether its success is justified, or whether it is a result of ticking a range of tokenistic but politically relevant boxes.

Well, The Girl with the Louding Voice is fascinating and brilliantly written. Adunni is a child of a widowed father, who waits a scant year after her mother has died to attempt to marry her off to a much older man. Galvanised, Adunni must raise her voice. A triumph of particularity, this work is reminiscent of The Colour Purple in its childlike diction, which is convincing and affecting. A compelling read.

 

The Spill Imbi Neeme (Penguin Random House)

Imbi Neeme’s The Spill won 2019’s coveted Penguin Literary Prize, and she has been shortlisted for a host of other prizes. She is described variously as a Victorian resident, a mother, a short story writer and ‘recovering blogger’, all of which go some way to explaining the riveting, quirky punchiness of Neeme’s prose, which is set out in short bites and builds to a series of emotional crescendos.

The Spill is a feat of clever handiwork, like a series of magical sleights of hand. Sometimes there appears to be not much going on on the surface. The dialogue, in everyday Australian vernacular, sometimes veers into the banal. But it’s all deliberate and, subsequently, darkly funny. ‘I’ll have the Atlantic Salmon,’ one of the characters says, at a restaurant, overcoming her issues with another character’s money and ordering the most expensive thing on the menu.

Dark humour aside, Neeme investigates issues that are not trivial at all. Her characters, traversing their contemporary lives, are barely hanging on. Satisfying and well-wrought.

 

Almost a Mirror Kirsten Krauth (Transit Lounge)

Kirsten Krauth is an upcoming novelist whose first novel was just­­_a_girl. Her second book, Almost a Mirror, was shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize. Emily Macguire wrote of Krauth that there was no character that she ‘couldn’t get me to empathise with, any story she couldn’t make me feel deeply about.’ Almost a Mirror is a demonstration of this, as Krauth flicks through characters from wildly varied backgrounds, making each accessible and sympathetic. This work marks Krauth coming into her powers as a novelist.

Place is a character in Krauth’s novel, rendered with particular specificity: Sydney: 2010. Melbourne: 1981. We shuttle back and forth from St Kilda to Pascoe Vale to Castlemaine, inhabiting different timescapes and different lives, and are happy to go along for the ride. The exactness of the scenes lends impact to the characters’ lives, whether we are driving the motorways with taxi driver Jimmy or fixing the lighting with Benny in a famous dive on the Esplanade in St Kilda. Throughout, Krauth’s prose is eerily clipped, almost affectedly economical, splashing out at fiery moments with graphics that interrupt the text.

Original and moving, this work puts Krauth on the map, if she wasn’t already.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Michalia Arathimos has published work in Westerly, Landfall, Headland, JAAM, Best New Zealand Fiction Volume 4, Sport and Turbine. Her debut novel, Aukati / Boundary Line, was published in 2019 by Mākaro Press. She is currently Overland’s fiction reviewer.

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Comments

  1. Why pick on the phrase “relief to read” in The Fogging review? A book can contain both unpleasantness and insight, in fact it’s probably a given.

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