The Unbearable Inconsistency of Levin

While I’m not the first, and I very much doubt I will be the last, I thought I’d share some ideas that were roused in me after reading Anna Karenin (even that sentence shows I’ve been reading Tolstoy). Seeing as it is such a well-read tome, I won’t go into the overall plot too much. Needless to say, at 900 pages, it is a little hard to summarise anyway. If you haven’t read it yet, or seen the film, there are a few spoilers here. You’ve been warned!

It goes without saying that of course I was troubled by his female characters. From the ridiculous Kitty, who flitters about at the beginning of the book, only to find her true solidity and sense of purpose when nursing someone or becoming a mother. Of course, now she has started fulfilling her role as a caregiver, the true calling of womanhood, she is complete. Perhaps the most raucous statement of her feelings are when she is in the throes of childbirth. “She rejoiced in her suffering,” apparently. If ever a man had a romantic notion of the intense pain of giving birth, that was it. Although perhaps he most truly captures the suffering of women in poor Dolly. At the whim of her cheating husband, she finds herself trapped in an endless cycle of pregnancy and nursing, the appeal of her good looks long gone. Nothing but the management of a household that is losing money because of her husband’s careless attitude and gambling is left to keep her busy. If ever an early argument were put forward for contraception, it is in Dolly’s musings over how her inability to control when her womb will be filled completely dominate her life.

And then, of course, there is Anna. From the outset she is insufferable, and only gets worse. Proudly showing off her beauty, by the end openly using it to attract the attention of another woman’s husband, she winds up in a sorry state, consumed by unfounded jealousy. To be honest, by the time it got to the point where she was thinking about topping herself, I was quite pleased. Anything to shut up her incessant whining about her life. And such a jealous, narcissistic being.

From this, it’s quite clear what Tolstoy’s lesson is. The evil woman who gives into temptation meets a sorry end, and is never made to be particularly pleasant, only charming in a superficial way. While Oblonsky, who is guilty of exactly the same crime, winds up getting bailed out by his brother-in-law. While it may well be argued that this is exactly Tolstoy’s point – the inequality in treatment for the two, and the very different outcomes, I feel that the way he created their characters is quite different. While at the end the reader is encouraged to be incredibly weary of Oblonsky, one is not positioned into finding him as objectionable as Anna, and so we are led to believe that perhaps Tolstoy shares society’s view.

To move to other matters, I loved the way that he ridiculed the life of the gentry. Through the simple eyes of Levin, the indulgent eyes of Oblonsky, or the vain eyes of Vronsky, the cream of society is revealed in all its flaws. A greedy and opulent set of people, who argue heatedly about matters they seem to know nothing of. It feels like a precarious nobility on the verge of collapse, doomed for their own frivolities and for the lack of understanding of themselves and those around them. Yes it is a little indulgent in the praise of the pastoral, the beautiful simplicity of a peasant’s life is overly romanticised, but I did appreciate the way that, even then, no-one is entirely sure if what they are doing is the correct way to go about living your life.

What struck me particularly was the way he presented the arguments happening between the gentry. For the most part, each man has his own singular opinions, and repeats them ad infinitum, especially when he is met with confrontation. Levin provides a counterpart to this. When someone presents a decent argument, he is swayed, and takes the time to consider the other side. This often means that he ends up contradicting himself, or changing his mind. While to others this habit shows nothing but weakness and inconsistency, I found it rather charming. At the end of the book, Tolstoy gives Levin a sense of purpose through religion, after throwing him into philosophical turmoil. In a way, I rather wish he hadn’t. It is his ability to weigh other opinions, consider ideas carefully and try out new ideas that makes him by far the most appealing character in the book (not that he doesn’t have his flaws).

It reminded me of a TED talk I listened to, with regard to trial and error. It is something that economics writer Tim Harford calls the God complex – this ridiculous idea that, despite all evidence to the contrary, humans have the definitive answer when solving problems. In an example in the talk, he tells us about a nozzle produced by Unilever for a particular brand of detergent. Scientists spent ages putting together what should have been the perfect nozzle. It didn’t work. Instead, they decided to use trial and error. They made a number of prototypes, and then each time carried forward the elements of it that worked best. In the end, they came up with a perfect nozzle, but none of them could explain what it was that made it work so well.

This, to my mind, is the genius of Levin. Rather than assuming that he knows better than everyone because he’s an educated nobleman, he looks at those around him, reads a huge variety of texts, and struggles to understand things. It is only he that fully grasps the complexity of the world around him. To be fair, this does mean that he spends a fair part of the novel being rather vexed, as he can’t find the answers to life in his approach to the world.

But we could all learn a lot from Levin. As Tim Harford says in his talk, we all claim to know that trial and error is the way forward, but how much would we trust a politician if they said they were committed to raising educational standards, but weren’t exactly sure how? Arguably, until we begin to use this sort of approach to complex problems, rather than assuming we know what is best, things will not improve. We all know what happens when politicians who have little knowledge of a topic start making bold claims and legislation. It doesn’t end well.

So, rather than a tale of obsession and vengeance, I would rather see Anna Karenina as a novel of questions. If we take this reading, we can see very clearly Tolstoy’s wisdom, as he mocks all of his characters, no matter what their choices are, and doesn’t encourage us to particularly side with anyone. Except possibly Levin. If there were anything this novel could teach us, it’s that perhaps we shouldn’t take our own ideas too seriously, and need to be more open to moulding our ideas in light of new discoveries and perspectives.

Why I’m Not an Angry Feminist

Today I had the joy of experiencing a running buddy while out on the streets. As I ran past him, he came into step beside me, waving his arms and making silly high pitched noises. After which he collapsed in giggles, so amused by the sight of a woman running down the road. All of this was done in the sight of, not a crowd of jeering lads, but what I assume was his young daughter. I can only imagine the lessons she has learnt about the value of women through her eyes as she watched this ridiculous display.

I wish it were rare. In the long time I have been running, I have experienced many things, such as a man stopping his car, winding down the window, then telling me I was ‘very nice indeed.’ There have been whistles, murmurs of approval, or sometimes just blatant staring. The other side of the reaction was a man telling me and my friend to ‘speed up, girls,’ as we ran past.

In the summer, it’s hot. What that means is, the most comfortable outfit for running is a pair of cycling shorts and a vest. I happen to have DD boobs. Believe me, this causes enough trouble in the choice of sports bra (Shock Absorber, absolutely brilliant), without having to factor in the reactions I might get in the street. A friend of mine, who is similarly endowed, posted on Facebook after being thoroughly pissed off after receiving a similar comment. Her (female) friend posted underneath that it was because of her boobs, and that she should feel flattered. What this is essentially saying, is that women of certain dimensions, or who happen to fit into socially acceptable views of ‘beauty,’ should not only expect and deserve unwanted attention, they should feel flattered by it. Extrapolate this argument, and it forms the basis of excusing someone who was groped on the Tube because they happened to have a nice bum and were wearing a skirt. Take it to the extreme and it’s exactly the same argument used to defend rape. Well of course it happened, she looked a certain way and was wearing certain clothes. Is it as bad? No, of course not, but it is a different shade of the same spectrum.

As always, I spent the rest of my run furiously planning a fantastic comeback for the next time it happened. I wanted to tell the idiot that told us to speed up that we were 8 miles into a 10 mile run, and already pretty knackered. I wanted to tell the guy on the street last week who told me to ‘smile, love,’ that my face does not exist solely for decorative purposes.

And there the floodgates opened. The times that people are surprised that I have an opinion about something political or scientific because I am blonde, or the times I have been advised to ‘steady on’ when enjoying a meal at the risk of getting fat. The time I had someone correct me when I said I had run 20 miles. Oh, you mean 20k, they said. The time someone had an entire conversation with me and didn’t look above my breasts. The time I saw a woman tittering and deferring to her boyfriend like a brainless idiot in order to appear more attractive. The times I’ve been told I’m ‘not like normal girls’ because I like playing computer games, or watching sci-fi films, or like drinking beer or whiskey. The time I was repeatedly charged for work on my car that hadn’t happened. The time I was pulled into the office by my boss (also a woman) who told me that my colleagues had complained about my clothing because it was ‘distracting.’

I could go on. There are times when I am so damn jealous of men. How lovely it must be to never have to put up with this shit. How beautiful it must be to walk freely down the road and not be expected to move out of everyone else’s way, just because you were born with a uterus.

These things exist in the world because of a patriarchal society. They do not exist because men are inherently horrible. Both men and women are to blame for perpetuating and excusing these behaviours, and it is a source of extreme annoyance that the idiot that waved his arms to me on the street today will cause me sleepless nights when I play the incident over and over in my head, and wish that I had thought of something to say before I had run past, that at least could have stayed in the mind of the little girl standing next to the wall, watching my humiliation.

I’m not an angry feminist, I’m bloody furious. And so should everyone be. Take that list of things that I have experienced in my life. Apply it to your sister, your niece, your aunt, your mother. It is not good enough that being born a different gender (insert colour, sexual preference, gender identification, any other ridiculous way people are categorised as ‘different’ here) means you are treated in a way that makes you feel humiliated. No-one should have to experience that. The next time some idiot says something like that to me, I sincerely hope I have the courage to call them out on it. Please join me. It’s the only way we can make this world a better place.

After Me Comes the Flood

Last month, I went to the Emerald Street Literary Festival. Filled with intelligence, literature and inspiring ideas, it was a fantastic day out. And, best of all, it had a bookshop. In the end, me and my friend decided to buy three books each, that way we were effectively getting double for our money, as we could swap as soon as we’d finished. Nothing better than the feel of a weight of new books in your hand. The first I read was a debut novel by Sarah Perry, After Me Comes the Flood.

In the middle of a heatwave, John Cole decides to get away from the heat of the city and visit his brother. On the way, he has car trouble and find himself at a strange house, where the residents seem not only to know him, but to have been expecting him. We follow his tentative steps to discover the true nature of the people around him, without revealing his true identity, and explore the eerie world the house has brought him to.

This is an intense novel. It could’t be any longer than it is (230 pages), if only for the suffocating atmosphere that imbues it from the very beginning. Her prose is also thick and dense, which helps to create the overall atmosphere of a stifling summer.

The setting is almost other-worldly. While no specific time reference is given, we could be in Victorian times once we arrive at the strange old house. With a piano, peeling paper and artefacts scattered around, the place seems completely isolated from the outside world. The threads of the truth begin to slowly untangle, and we are led, bit by bit, into the strange world the residents inhabit.

Elijah is a priest who has lost his faith, Claire is a childlike woman, Alex, her brother, is a fragile young man and Walker seems separate from the rest, while Eve is an entrancing pianist. Presiding over them all is Hester, a forceful matriarch who steers the course of all of those in the house as though they were her children. Perry creates a highly atmospheric interior, with lots of references to colour and shade, along with religious imagery. This heightens the importance of the house, and gives it a refuge-like quality, as if the people inside are choosing to cocoon themselves within.

Of course, if you spend a large part of a novel building up to a mystery, there needs to be a decent payoff that is equal to the level of suspense that has been created. I think, in this case, the novel was a little lacking. The reasons behind the people and their pasts seemed a little neat, perhaps obvious, and I would have liked to have seen something a bit more complex or shocking to counteract the tension that was built up earlier in the novel.

Having said that, the level of intrigue is not what the novel hinges on. The blurb is a bit of a mis-sell, as it implies that we are almost in thriller territory. A decision by the publishers to make the book appealing, no doubt, but that perhaps makes the content not live up to the promises made on the back of the book. What you are getting is something quite different. A dark, elusive book that takes time to linger on details in beautiful prose and to explore the fragmented reality we all inhabit, and how we might end up clinging to the most unlikely of people or situations, in order to feel at peace.

Sarah Perry has produced a notable first book, the tone and character of it lingered long after I read it. Not enthused perhaps, but certainly haunted.

Empress Orchid – The Mistrusted Empress

I first heard about ‘Empress Cixi’ through a BBC documentary called ‘The Ascent of Woman.’ An impressive summary of a huge swathe of human history, the programme asked questions about the subjugation of women over the centuries, and examined the reasons behind it. Much of it was startling, such as the fact that covering women up with veils was considered appropriate to show status and sexual promiscuity, many hundreds of years before Islam existed as a faith. It also examined the deep suspicion of women, their sexuality and their motives, and the way they have been mis-represented in history. One of these cases is the basis for the novel ‘Empress Orchid,’ written by Anchee Min. In it, we discover the hidden past of the woman who went on to be the main political power in Imperial China for 47 years. Historically, she has traditionally been painted as a devious despot, who was largely responsible for the fall of the Qing Dynasty. However, this may well be another case of the mistrust powerful women are afforded.

She started out her life as a relative pauper, her father holding a position in local government. When they came to Beijing, she was promised to a less than spectacular cousin in order to try and sort out the family finances. Instead, she decides to enter a kind of ‘lottery’ that chooses the wives and concubines of the emperor. Due to her Manchu origin (the Manchu ruled over the Han Chinese for thousands of years) and beauty, she is selected to be one of that ‘wives’ of the emperor. She is effectively a very high-ranking concubine. As the story progresses, her relationship with the emperor and his ‘main’ wife develops, and she finds herself in a far more favourable and powerful position than she ever set out to be.

The description of the wealth and luxury of the Chinese court are fantastic. Having visited the Forbidden City myself, I know how intricate and detailed the carvings, buildings and palaces are. To see it through the eyes of Yehonla as she enters, and as gifts are bestowed upon her, is wonderful. Jewels, gold, silk, diamonds, all of these things are lavished on each item she and the other woman possess. Shoes become priceless objects, trays and wall decorations are the work of gifted craftsmen. It truly transfers us to another world, a place where a man can have thousands of women to choose from to secure his future heirs, a place where bathing and making yourself beautiful takes half a day, and a funeral procession involves tens of thousands of people and can last for weeks. In hindsight, it seems impossible that such wealth and splendour were available to so many (admittedly, a tiny percentage of the population). But then, if you leave peasants to starve in fields, I’m sure there’s more than enough for your gold teapot. It gives us a window into a forgotten and lost world, full of extremes.

The personal story of Yehonala is an interesting one. Min decided to follow her story from her poor beginnings to the moment when she gains her power. That seems reasonable enough, there are many writings on her as an Empress and it is good to see the ‘hidden’ part of who she was, even if it is a fictionalised account. Nonetheless, I think I would have liked to have seen more of her afterwards, to get a sense of the woman she became, as well as how she got there. If you want to read more about that part of her life, The Last Empress, also by Anchee Min, follows her later life.

A rather frustrating element in the book is the timeline. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a researcher to take disparate events in a person’s life, especially when there is so little to be found for this particular person, and then weave it together into a coherent narrative. However, there were places where we seemed to shift forwards or backwards to a few months or weeks later, with little sense of progression. I suspect she wanted to include certain details and just included them in the ongoing story, but it might have made the book flow better if she had considered more carefully where to place them and how they contributed to the overall narrative.

I think the parts I enjoyed most concerned the diplomatic and political situation of the time. While all the fancy bits were pretty, I was fascinated to discover a country that truly perceived itself as far superior to others in every way, and considered the rest of the world to be barbarians in comparison. The mistrust and lack of diplomatic success of China historically is far more understandable in this context. The marginalised role of women and the careful and surreptitious ways Yehonala has to manipulate her way into having any influence over her life or that of her family is also very illuminating. No doubt this is where the label of ‘devious’ comes from. However, when viewed from her perspective, you can see that the only way such a person could have any say in her own world would be through less diplomatic means.

Ultimately, Empress Cixi managed to gain and hold influence over a global power for decades in an era that barely allowed women the right to choose their clothes, let alone their destiny. This book is an important fictionalisation of a remarkable woman. We must remember how skewed our view of history is, and try our best to rediscover the forgotten women that helped to shape it in ways we do not understand. That alone makes it worth a read.

A Little Life

a-little-life-9781447294832There’s something immensely satisfying in a novel that appears to start out one way, and then takes you somewhere you weren’t expecting.

Initially, A Little Life appears to be a well-written if slightly superficial account of a group of young men in New York. The prose is beautiful, but not laboriously so. At a moment of poignant observation, we are treated to a delightful turn of phrase. What separates this from wordy writers that just like to describe everything, is that these moments are always tied to the emotions of the character. I never felt that I was being told things for the sake of it, which is a rather tricky thing to do.

However, as the novel progresses, we discover that the stories that fit between this existence are far more complex than we imagined. From public displays of fun at parties or dinners, we are taken into the minds and memories of each character, finding out their insecurities and foibles, knowing them better than their friends ever will.

As a result of this, we see the nuance of all of the characters very early on. The chapters are weighty and dense, flitting about from present to past, disclosing the hidden parts of themselves, which of course colours the way we read them in the future. In this way, her characters cannot become stereotypes. Because we see the myriad reasons behind what they do, the reason they lie or cheat or let down each other, each one is a deftly written portrait, with unexpected hues in the background.

There are times it can feel a bit too weighty. The burden of responsibility, of knowing these people so intricately, can be a little difficult. This is especially the case if you put the book down for a day or two, and then come back to it to find you’ve forgotten what it was you found out about them in the last bit that was so important. This became more problematic when the voice shifted. I liked very much that we weren’t told exactly who was speaking. In one chapter, we see an event that has already happened, through the eyes of a different character. While I appreciated the shift, I had to flick back and remind myself of who it was that had that particular view of the beach that day they went walking. I am happy to be asked to work hard as a reader, and it is something I do a little too often in my own writing, but it did jolt the flow of the story when I had to interrupt my reading to figure out where we were.

However, my main concern was the lack of female characters. They skirted around the edges, coming and going, never leaving anything indelible on the male characters they interacted with. But a book about men can still explore gender roles. I can forgive it because the book is about male relationships, and egos, and the complex and problematic nature of friendships when they are influenced by external pressure to be ‘manly’ and conceal true emotions. In this way, it can be seen as an examination of the limits patriarchal society places on men, and the struggles they have to engage with each other when expectations of them are stilted and fixed.

I found myself more and more intrigued by this world, the light was going out later and later each night before bed. Although it is very much a large tome (720 pages) the length felt necessary in order to fully appreciate the depth of the characters and the scale of their life. After all, we follow them for decades. I even carried it around with me in my bag one day (my back did not thank me) because I couldn’t bear to leave the characters alone when I left the house.

Although we circle around the group initially, it soon becomes clear that we are focusing on a central character: Jude. He is a mild man, who always feels separate and different, but we are not entirely sure why. As we enter his head more and more often, we discover his disturbing past and the reason he pulls  away so frantically from those that love him. What was equally frustrating but also compelling, is that Yanigihara doesn’t let him make the right decisions. She allows his doubts to shape his actions, continually trying to damage himself and those around him in order to prove that he really isn’t worth the time and attention they want to lavish on him. It speaks all the more truthfully of the state of a human mind and its fragility.

On finishing the book, I felt I had met these people. Their stories were linked and woven with mine and it would not have surprised me to read about them in the paper or bump into them on the street. Rarely have I felt so completely that a person existed. In trying to put my finger on the reason why, I think it was the minute details of their worlds. An event here, a dropped item or scarf there, an intimate moment that is left dangling, all of these things build up a picture of, well, a life. This is what allows the reader, with the characters, to look back on a moment from the beginning of the book with yearning remembrance, as if we too experienced the passing of time and the weight it left.

It is indeed a little life that we all live. Yanigahara has managed to capture at least one between the pages of a book. An impressive feat.

Why it Doesn’t Matter What’s in Your Pants

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Genderspecs – Challenging gender stereotypes, one blog at a time

It’s a pretty exciting week for those struggling to be accepted outside of gender norms. Based on recommendations made by the women and equalities committee, there’s a whole load of reasons to be cheerful for the future. Hopefully, we can start to pare away people’s gender-biased assumptions and place less importance on the need to conform.

Finally, being transgender will no longer be deemed a mental illness. That one seems to be a bit of a no-brainer, but it wasn’t that long ago that you needed to prove you had mental problems before you could even be considered for gender reassignment. Reviews will also look at the need to specify ‘gender’ on a number of public documents – everything from passports to bank accounts will be questioned. I’ve always wondered why my bank manager needs to know who I like to sleep with or what’s residing between my thighs in order to deem me worthy of putting a few quid into an account. Now they won’t need to.

There’ll also be major surveys into the needs of trans people, as well as working with universities to combat transphobic bullying. It’s about time that this marginalised group of people got a bit of airtime. These measures are fantastic for the trans community, but also a huge step forward for everyone, who will no longer need to be defined by narrow gendered views.

It’s always mystified me how much truck people put on genitalia. It’s not like we let that many people see it on a daily basis, it isn’t something that we wear with the same pride as a new outfit or haircut, and yet for many its used as a symbol of oppression and marginalisation.

And trans people aren’t the only ones that are worried about their bits. Female genitalia in particular is often a cause for concern. A disturbing recent survey found that 400 under-18s in the US had labioplasty. In layman’s terms, that means you go under the surgeon’s knife because you think your vulva is ugly. Never mind what on earth their parents are thinking, the real head-scratcher is why so many girls angled a mirror up between their legs and were so horrified at what they saw that they felt the need to make themselves look normal. Oh the bloody irony. On one side of the globe we’re fighting to protect young girls from being mutilated, while on the other side they’re handing over thousands of dollars to voluntarily lose their nerve endings. What a weird world we do live in.

But then, the vulva doesn’t get a lot of airtime. Look on the underside of any school desk or the wall in a loo and you’ll find a lovely cock and balls (hair and spurting optional). The penis is reproduced ad nauseum in sculptures, buildings (the Gherkin? Just a giant phallus) and a plethora of paintings, whereas the humble vagina doesn’t get much of a look-in. It’s quite pretty, looks a bit like a flower, although you could be forgiven for thinking it’s some sort of mythical beast. A Japanese artist made a 3-D print of hers and turned it into a canoe. If we didn’t limit our representations of half of the world, perhaps that would also help us to stop making judgements about people based on their sexual organs. Just a thought.

The distrust of feminine sexuality is just the other side of the same coin. In our search for easy classification of each other, we’ve plumped for sexual organs as the easiest way to do that. But what a misnomer they are. Having a clitoris doesn’t predispose you to being crap at Maths, just as much as having a penis doesn’t limit your artistic expression. No wonder that some people find it that much harder to take the step to appreciating that your genitals might not indicate your gender at all.

So no, I don’t care what’s in your pants. Or what it looks like. We all come in glorious shapes and sizes, and I’m delighted that the government has decided to get on board and reach out to those who can’t see themselves in the narrow tick-boxes we assign to life.

The Versions of Us

A very interesting concept – three possible outcomes for the same couple. We’ve all questioned the ‘what ifs’ in our lives, so this novel has a go at unpicking the actual outcomes of decisions made over the span of an entire lifetime. What keeps you flicking the pages in this book (and I did read it very quickly) is the short chapters and the unusual concept. I would have liked for it to be executed with a little more finesse.

Eva and Jim meet at a chance encounter while at University. But while the first time they see each other doesn’t change, the way their lives play out following that moment is explored in three alternatives. In one, they stay together, in the second, they keep missing each other, while in the third, things go rather disastrously wrong, at least at first. We follow both of them from their twenties through to their seventies, from London to New York to Paris, and untangle the confusions and delights of two lives, lived to the full, and the effect that certain decisions have on them and those close to them. It’s a clever premise, and it’s certainly engaging to be taken to many different locations, intimately described, and to have the opportunity of seeing the parallel universes of two people and the way they shift and fluctuate towards and away from each other.

I saw Laura Barnett at a reading of her next book, Greatest Hits, which also sounds interesting. In her new novel, she explores the idea of a life lived through one day, and the memories and ideas that this day throws up allows the reader to see their whole life. In the interview, Laura said she didn’t have a carefully mapped out plot for The Versions of Us with lots of post-it notes or charts, that it was all in her head. I would say that this is perhaps clear from the reading of it. While the stories were certainly interesting, I wasn’t particularly compelled or surprised by what happened in each of the threads, and the different plot points didn’t necessarily drive the novel forward. What does, of course, is the varying relationship between the two central characters, and the way the outcomes are different. It also perhaps explained the missed facts and time inconsistencies that were littered throughout. The method of narrative is a clever device, and it is a clever book, but I was disappointed that more wasn’t made of the interweaving, as it could have allowed for some really unusual storytelling.

The other issue is, in itself, the threading together of three narratives. Because the chapters are so sparse, I found myself losing track of which daughter or son was which, the main problem being that I no longer cared as much what happened to them. This was especially the case with the ‘extra’ characters, that really didn’t get fleshed out enough to make it off the page. It is certainly a difficult thing to do, threading all of these narratives together, but I wonder if giving us longer chapters as the book progressed would have allowed us to be better immersed into each specific world, as I found myself flitting through the book, not very invested. The other problem that this multiple narrative throws up is the need to ‘tell’ so much. With gaps of months or even years between each episode, we find the character quite awkwardly reflecting on something that doesn’t always seem natural, simply because the reader needs to be filled in on what has come before. I can understand that this was a difficulty in leaving gaps, but perhaps it would have been nice to tackle them in slightly different ways each time, to avoid the ‘she/he remembered…’ feel that gets a bit repetitive. It also meant that feelings were often reported rather than experienced, which again left me feeling emotionally distant from the character’s journey. Perhaps two threads might have meant that the stories could be more intimate and fully developed, rather than spread so thinly between three.

Her prose is flowing and smooth, with the occasional touch of beautiful phrase. This gives it a nice pace, so that in between your brain catching up with who is who and what was happening last time you saw them, there are elegant descriptions that I found delightful. In fact, the nuance of language just edges it out of being a beach read, as it doesn’t (always) fall for easy clichés and offers a far more subtle exploration of relationships (in all their forms) than you would expect from a different kind of book.

To be clear, this is a very engaging and interesting novel, and I did really like the interplay between the character’s lives. It’s an interesting concept, as we so often cite ‘timing’ as such an important factor in relationships, that to see the actual result of three different timings between the same two people is a very interesting exercise. I just would have liked to be more emotionally engaged with the story.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Personally, I’m not a fan of the word ‘genius.’ It’s derived from ‘genie.’ The idea that a little imp comes and sits on your shoulder and gives you an idea, and that’s where your fantastic work comes from. To me, that detracts from the graft, the inspiration, the dedication, needed in order to produce something of wonder and beauty. As Adam Grant points out in his TED talk, one of the reason people end up with beautiful creative things is that they create lots of average or crap things first, which means that their practice and honing of talent produce something pretty impressive in the end. The word also implies a disconnection, as if a celestial firebolt has been flung at the head of some unsuspecting person.

For that reason, I wouldn’t describe Eimear McBride as a genius. She has produced something singular and beautiful that no doubt shows flair, imagination and rare talent, but I don’t want to give the credit to the little green guy whispering in her ear.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a tough read, for many reasons. Firstly, the prose. It is disjointed and poetic, freely flowing with unusual syntax and grammar (no commas!). This fluid style takes a while to get into and absorb, but somehow it seems to capture the voice of the narrator so much more internally than ‘regular’ writing does. The second reason is the ordeals that the central character goes through. It’s not light reading, but it is important reading, for many reasons.

Most reviews I’ve looked at tend to focus on the prose style. Which is understandable. At times it moves into something almost incomprehensible – when the protagonist is undergoing some deep trauma, the prose becomes barely anything but noise; a deep, guttural response to the awful things she is subjected to. It’s one of the things which makes this novel so special. The other, which I’ve not encountered nearly as much, is the exploration of female sexuality. Perhaps the interviewers were too embarrassed to ask, suspecting it was autobiographical (an assumption levelled far too often at female writers) or perhaps, like so much of the world, they’re terrified of the possibilities of female sexuality. An intellectual debate about her language neatly sidesteps the incredibly important issues she exposes.

Early on in the book, she is raped by her uncle when she is thirteen. The way she recounts this event is very important. She does the unthinkable – she acknowledges that a young teenage girl is a sexual being. Feelings she cannot name arise within her. She hears and knows of sex but cannot comprehend the implications of what it is. These feelings are aroused by her uncle. From her perspective, she feels as if it is reciprocal, that she has led him on, that it is a mutual act. Exposing this complexity is important. Grown men have claimed underage girls were ‘asking for it’ in order to defend themselves from statutory rape. Judges have even accused schoolchildren of ‘grooming’ adults in abuse cases. The graphic and uncomfortable scene in McBride’s book reveals the obvious truth – it is the adult that carries the responsibility. No matter how ‘flirtatious’ a young girl may seem, she is merely beginning to explore the sexual possibilities of her body, she is certainly not begging to be raped. Her inability to understand her abused nature is a central point in this heartbreaking narrative.

If female sexuality were not so feared, perhaps little girls would not feel the need to police their clothes, actions or speech in order to maintain archaic ideas of ‘propriety,’ be it inflicted by religious dogma (as it is in the novel) or to fit into societal expectations. The mantra that ‘boys will be boys’ and cannot help themselves is as insulting to men as it is to women. In the book, McBride shows us how the shame she is encouraged to feel for her sexual activities places the blame squarely in the lap of the victim, not the creepy uncle who continues to hound her into adulthood.

Later, too, we see highly promiscuous behaviour. While we can see that the girl is damaged, it is not necessarily saying that a sexually promiscuous woman has to be broken in some way. In fact, she uses it as a tool for power and control, in situations where she feels she has none. Dealing frankly with what young people actually do in bed and why is far more important than pretending that males still prowl around looking for targets, while females ‘let’ themselves be preyed upon, or not. The protagonist actively seeks out sexual partners, and enjoys it. That’s not to say her experiences are entirely positive, and all too often she is taken advantage of and abused, but it is interesting to see a female character so open and experimental.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the ending. Wouldn’t want to put spoilers in, but it did seem a bit of a disappointment, a nice arty way to round it off but not particularly convincing in light of the harsh realism that we were treated to up to that point. But endings are always tricky. What’s more important, is what we’re left with.

The ‘half-formed thing’ that Eimear McBride leaves us with is an objectified female, but not just a victim. She is marginalised and judged for her sex and her sexuality, and demonised for her knowledge and understanding of those restrictions placed upon her. Because she refuses to bow to religious dogma or traditional roles for herself, she is pitted against her family, her peers and the religious establishment. But she is so much more than this. The novel is a jarring yet harmonious call for the status of females to be reimagined outside the cages that are set up for them. I like to think that McBride is hopeful, that, for some girls, they flower into a fully-formed woman, and are given the grace and freedom to do so.

Wearing Makeup Isn’t Empowering

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Genderspecs – unpicking gender stereotypes, one blog at a time

There’s an awful lot that can empower you these days. Shower gel, pants and even socks are being held up as things that allow us to assert our rights. To a certain extent, this can be true. The physical expression of who we are can allow us to be noticed, taken seriously and even challenge stereotypes. Where I draw the line (a metaphorical one around my eyes which makes me look cross) is at the idea that wearing makeup is an empowering statement. It really isn’t.

I was reading a review for Room the other day, when one particular sentence caught my eye. “She [Brie Larsson] appears almost feral in ‘Room,’ without makeup and unwashed hair.” Feral, really? I’m pretty sure that’s just most women on a Sunday morning, not some wild and untamed animal lurking in the bushes waiting for prey. Expecting a woman to wear makeup in order to look normal is all the proof you need that it isn’t an empowering act.

But this is very often how it is sold. From ‘giving you confidence’ to ‘covering up that great night out from your boss,’ the language used to sell these products is very often skewed around this idea that you are taking control, sticking it to the man, even, by wearing that particular shade of blusher. Apparently it can even have positive psychological effects. This language is being used by massive cosmetic companies to manipulate women into thinking they are making a statement by covering their face up.

Gaining control over the thing that oppresses you is very important. Reclaiming sexist, homophobic and racist language and using it as a way to spread a message is very powerful. It takes the words and images that have so long been used to keep you in a certain space, and marks them out as your own. However, I’m not sure the same can be said for wearing eyeliner.

You only have to look at a social experiment into going without makeup to see what is considered ‘normal’ for women. Going without slap is called ‘brave,’ as if bearing your naked face to the world is some sort of act of defiance. People were told how tired they looked at work, were asked if they were ok. We are so used to seeing women’s faces as ‘normal’ when they have been doctored and enhanced by cosmetic products that we think someone is having an off day when they’re not wearing it.

Which leads to shocking double standards in the workplace. From the recent furore over a woman being sacked over refusing to wear high heels, it is clear that standards are demonstrably skewed for men and women. The same is true for makeup. There is some weird association that has arisen around the beauty rituals of women, that if they fail to present their face in a cosmetically-enhanced way they have ‘let themselves go,’ or they ‘haven’t made an effort.’ This is absurd. Choosing whether or not to wear makeup has no bearing on your professionalism or your respect for those around you.

Don’t get me wrong, there are days when I thank the god of L’Oreal for allowing me to cover up some godawful spot or to put a bit of fake cheeriness in my cheeks when I’m feeling crap. It must be hard for most men. Sure, they could colour in their eyebrows (I still don’t know why that’s a thing) or put mascara on to make their eyes really zing, but it might not be met with the same sort of enthusiasm. But judging me by wearing it at all? That’s when it’s not ok.

Make up only enhances one aspect of you. Your physical appearance. Which does nothing more than accentuate the level to which you are judged by it. Contouring does not enhance your intellect, a nice shade of eyeshadow does not highlight your practical or social skills. All it does is enhance the physical you. A tiny element of who you are as a person.

Let’s not forget the reason makeup exists. It is to airbrush the face, present a sexualised and ‘flawless’ face that is considered acceptable and desirable within social norms. Don’t be fooled into thinking you are a special gem who has decided to wear a shocking shade of red in order to get back at the patriarchy. If you want to wear make-up, go ahead. But don’t pretend that I’m making a bold statement for feminism. You’re not.

The Dark Rooms Writers Have to Enter

Yes I’m a little late, but I have just devoured Emma Donoghue’s wonderful book, Room. Not since Christmas have I found a book that made me pause at every moment I could on my journeys around London, and even had me walking down the street reading in order to just get a few pages in before work.

One of the most beautiful things is the voice. A child narrator can sometimes be a little trite and affected, but Donoghue’s use of subtle syntax, vocabulary and slightly skewed perspective creates a powerful voice that’s delightful in its intimacy and disturbing through the reader’s external knowledge of the real situation Jack finds himself in.

With all the hype about the film, you probably already know the story. Just in case, we are seeing the world through the eyes of Jack, a five-year-old boy who is trapped, with his mother – ‘Ma’, in a high-tech cage created by a man who kidnapped her at the age of nineteen and repeatedly raped her. The idea for the book is taken from the disgusting Fritzl case in Austria, where a man trapped his daughter in a basement and repeatedly raped her, resulting in three children. Having looked at images of where she was held, it was interesting to note the level of detail Donoghue has used, right down to the cork on the wall. The imagination and logic she must have used to put together exactly how this tiny world works is in itself impressive.

To see this harrowing story through the eyes of the child is to offer us a unique perspective. On the one hand, it gives us hope. The delicate and intimate relationship between the mother and her son is a truly beautiful thing. In the words of the character of Ma – ‘he saved me.’ Through each other, they find solace in their captivity. Later in the book it also allows for a possibility of recovery, although I was pleased to see that this wasn’t made too simple.

The other thing it does it heighten the claustrophobia and shudder-inducing reality that these women (and there have been a disturbing number of them over the years) have been subjected to. His tiny voice repeating the actions they do over and over again every day, the tiny space they do ‘laps’ in, all of it creates a stifling atmosphere that is unnerving.

But I think there’s more going on here, something that was missing from a lot of the reviews I’ve read. Once the pair have escaped, it’s the reaction of the world that really allows the author to critique society. Firstly, on gender roles. Jack is referred to as ‘sweetie’ and ‘little lady’ because he has long hair and likes Dora the Explorer. The adults he meets are perplexed by his lack of interest in ‘boy’ things, and find it difficult to interact with him. Parenting itself is up for scrutiny. While Jack of course has had the extreme of constant contact with his mother, the activities they do together are fantastic, and he shrewdly observes that most of the parents he sees in ‘Outside’ tend to ignore their children, preferring to look at their phones or chat to other adults rather than interact.

Perhaps most poignant is the general hype and hysteria surrounding their story. Much like the real case, they are hounded by the press. Through Jack catching some of the news stories in a desire to see himself, the response is everything from sainthood to some sort of psychoanalytic deconstruction of us all being in our own ‘cages.’

Most horrific for the reader and damning for the media is the interview she gives. I loved the sideways dig at people that are prudes about breastfeeding; when the interviewer raises it as a shocking detail (she continued to breastfeed him), ‘Ma’ laughs at the absurdity that this intimate sharing between them is the most surprising thing about her story. The ‘hype’ of the media is beautifully illustrated by Ma’s unwillingness to accept herself as a hero. She is a woman that has survived an awful situation. She gives a list of others that are worse off than her (the only place I felt the slight touch of the author was how she knew the statistics for solitary confinement in the US), that go through difficult things every day, but lack the ‘freak’ quality that makes stories like this so lauded by the media.

The language of difficult situations is rife. How the boy must be ‘damaged,’ how she must want to ‘forgive.’ I very much appreciated the pragmatic approach that the author took. Yes, of course there are repercussions and both will have echoes of their ordeal in their later life, but I liked the way it was seen as a problem to overcome, not a life-defining change.

So why on earth write a book about something so horrible? When I told a friend what I was reading, he laughed. ‘Light reading, then?’ was his question. And my answer is, not exactly, but this stuff is vital. In the words of Ma, people are not good and evil. Hitler was not Voldemort, Pol Pot was not Sauron. We like to simplify narratives but, as Ma says, ‘people are both.’ Confronting the darkest parts is incredibly important. In this most specific case, and in lots of others such as rape, sexual abuse, discrimination, the list can go on. Hopefully this is something we won’t have to face ourselves, but it is vital that we struggle to understand that these things can and do happen. A narrative has the power to fully absorb you in a situation that a news report simply cannot. Once you understand the feelings of those involved, it opens our eyes to the possibilities – good and bad – of everyone. Only by moving away from easy stereotypes and confronting the terrible things that happen can we hope to understand ourselves and each other more.