The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – review

I read lots of books that I’d be happy to call great. I read loads of books that I’d go on to recommend to friends and family. But every now and then one comes along that blows everything else out of the water and takes its place on the pedestal reserved for the absolute zenith of quality writing. You can undoubtedly see where I’m going with this; The Vanishing Half is one such book and I suspect it will be a long time before I read anything that comes close to achieving what this novel managed to do. In fact, I’ve been sitting indecisively at the laptop for some time now, wondering where an earth to start – and how to convey the sheer perfection of its emotional heft, sublime writing and arresting story.

Well, let’s start with a plot summary. The novel follows the lives of a pair of twins – Desiree and Stella – who are born in the small American town of Mallard in the 1940s. It’s an unusual place; its founder, Alphonse Decuir, was a freed slave (and the twins’ ancestor) whose dream was to build a town populated by a black community, one which “refused to be treated like Negroes”. Yet his ideal vision was one of “lightness”; we are told how:

"...he imagined his children's children's children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream.  A more perfect Negro.  Each generation lighter than the one before." 

And it’s skin colour that ultimately drives the twins in very different directions. Desiree lives out her life as the black woman she is, but once the adolescent Stella realises she can pass for white, her life is set on a trajectory that sees her leave her family, and hometown and her identity behind to forge a new persona – a persona that is white. The women’s choices have consequences that last a lifetime, ones that are borne not only by themselves but by their children, who become the ultimate victims of a life defined by lies, evasion and subterfuge.

What drew me into the novel straight away was the evocative depiction of small-town America as it was in the mid twentieth century. The descriptions of the mundane – the familiar and unchanging clientele at the local diner, the twins watching Audrey Hepburn movies at the local picture house, their mother in her rocking chair shelling beans – are made to seem at once inconsequential and loaded with meaning, nostalgic and yet utterly authentic. The writing carries with it a real sense of affection on the part of the author towards not only her characters but the world they inhabit, flawed and brutal though it may be.

This brutality, when it appears, is a real shock, a flash of horror incongruous against the seemingly gentle, benign setting; it marks the beginning of what will be a tragically common thread through the twins’ lives – racism and the violence that all too often comes with it. At times it takes the form of social discrimination, ironically by members of the community who consider themselves

"fine people, good people, who donated to charities and winced at newsreels of southern sheriffs swinging clubs at colored college students.  They thought [Martin Luther] King was an impressive speaker - they might even have cried at his funeral, that poor young family - but they still wouldn't have allowed the man to move into their neighbourhood."

At other times, when the white community’s sense of their inherent privilege is threatened, social exclusion turns to violent action – sometimes under the cover of darkness, at other times in metaphorical and literal daylight, invading the very places where people believe they can feel safe and secure. These parts of the book are hard to read, but crucial to the painful truth that Brit Bennett is exposing through her novel: racism is everywhere, from the thugs that do their fatal damage with a crowbar to the white-collar workers of affluent suburbia who inflict theirs through petitions, gossip, bullying and harassment.

Ultimately, I’d say this was a novel about belonging, and it asks the question of its characters again and again. Stella, by passing as white, gains access to a section of society who would never allow her to belong if they knew the truth of her ethnicity. Desiree, returning to Mallard as an adult, has to face up to the reality of belonging in a place she always promised herself she’d leave behind her. And when the twins’ children take over the baton of the story, the novel’s tack changes again, charting the struggle of finding your place in the world when there are so many unanswered questions about your family’s past hanging over your head. It was at this point, when Desiree’s daughter Jude leaves Mallard for the other side of the country, hoping to fulfil her potential at college, that the story went off in a direction I didn’t expect. It’s difficult to say much more at this point without giving away too many spoilers so I’ll leave you (hopefully) to read the book and discover for yourself where the story goes. What works so well, though, is that even as the novel branches out, the author keeps bringing all her threads back together at just the right point to keep the tapestry holding together and to remind us as readers how and why things got to where they are.

I could go on writing about The Vanishing Half for days and still not have covered everything I want to say; I can’t remember the last time there was so much to love crammed into one book. The evocation of time and place is spot on; the characters live, breathe and exist without ever striking an inauthentic note; every description, every line of dialogue, every tiny incident is treated with exquisite care and attention. It’s a story about race, yes, but it succeeds as such because it’s also a story about real people – their frustrated ambitions, failed relationships, lies, loves, hopes and regrets. It is without doubt THE best book I’ve read in 2020 and I can’t imagine anyone not falling in love with it. Is it a sad book? In many ways yes, and yet for all the heartbreak there are glimmers of hope that keep pushing resolutely through the grief and the pain, meaning that when we come to the end, despite everything we’ve gone through in the company of these characters, we don’t feel any sense of despair.

I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’re lucky enough to have experienced this book for yourself! Thanks for reading.

Six Degrees of Separation – July’s journey in six books

Six Degrees of Separation is possibly my favourite book tag, and is hosted by Kate over at Books are my Favourite and Best. Each month, she chooses a different book as a starting point, then it’s up to each participant to create a chain of 6 more books, each one linked to the one before. The connections can be thematic, personal, or even visual – the beauty is that everyone’s six degrees will be wildly different! If you want to join in (and it’s a lot of fun) check out the 6 Degrees page on the host blog for inspiration, or follow the #6Degrees hashtag on Twitter.

The jumping off point for July is What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. It’s a book I haven’t read (although it’s one of those I really feel I should have done) but no matter: I know exactly where I’m going with my first connection!

4321 by Paul Auster

My first book is written by Siri Hustvedt’s husband, Paul Auster, whose earlier books I count among some of my favourite novels. This one, however, I just could not finish: I found it too repetitive and even though his writing style had lost none of its flair and fluidity, that sadly wasn’t enough to hold my attention. It’s always an immense disappointment to feel let down by a novel for which you had high expectations, and it’s that sense of deflation that links me to my next choice,

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

The Three Musketeers is one of my most beloved books of all time but this one? My word, it was slow going. Like 4321 I had to admit defeat before the end; I suspect part of the problem was that I came to the book after the film (the version with Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce) which is a firm favourite and one I never get tired of. It’s very rare for me – or any bookworm I reckon – to prefer the movie over the book, but there’s one other novel that jumps straight into to my head as being the perfect example of this:

The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien

Yes, I know it’s a classic and an unsurpassed example of fantasy world-building blah blah blah but my over-riding impression of it? A lot of walking interspersed with tedious elvish council meetings and digressions into the history of Middle Earth that feel, well, pretty self-indulgent. Sorry. Give me the movie trilogy any day of the week. I even own all the extended editions on DVD but in book form, not for me I’m afraid (although in case you’re sensing a theme emerging, I did actually finish it!) But I’m going to move away from the personal now and give you a bit of a different connection to my next book, this time via the author. Tolkien served in the trenches during World War I, and the creator of this next story went through the same experience.

Winnie the Pooh by A A Milne

Milne, like Tolkien, was at the Somme during WWI, but survived to write one of the most wondrous works of children’s literature ever created. One of my most enduring childhood memories is listening to the audiobook night after night – I can still hear Alan Bennett’s voice in my head when I read it today. When I was still quite young, my family and I went to the Ashdown Forest, which of course provided the inspiration for the book’s setting and many of its famous episodes – Pooh-sticks on the bridge being a particular highlight. It’s this connection between a real-life setting and my own personal experience that leads me to the penultimate book:

The Widow’s Confession by Sophia Tobin

Much of this novel is set in Broadstairs on the Kent coast, not a million miles away from where I live. And this is where being a bookseller certainly has its perks: I was lucky enough to attend the novel’s launch party, which took place in the hotel that forms the backdrop to some of the novel’s key events. This hotel, The Royal Albion, was built in the late 18th century, and boasts none other than Charles Dickens among its clientele. Dickens had connections to numerous part of my home county of Kent, so it seems fitting to end with a book of his that draws on the surroundings of his childhood home.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

One of the funniest episodes of this joyful novel is the excursion taken by Mr. Pickwick and his friends around Rochester, Chatham and the Medway area of Kent. There’s something about the way the hapless companions fall into scrape after scrape and yet somehow always manage to emerge with their joie de vivre unscathed that leaves you with an enormous smile and feeling a little bit better about the world.

So that’s my six degrees for July – if you’ve joined in this month, please do comment and let me know; I’d love to see where your literary journey takes you.

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My week in books – wrapped up

It’s been a busy week in books this week. Here’s a round up of what’s been happening in the book room….

*Books finished*

My habit of having multiple books on the go at once means it takes me longer than most people to finish them; however, it also means the completions tend to come in spurts!

  • The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry – a timely look at toxic masculinity and the damage it’s doing to people of all genders, written by, in my humble opinion, one of the most awesome people alive on the planet today.
  • The Truants by Kate Weinberg – a book that turned out to be a pleasant surprise, setting off on what I thought was going to be a predictable path but then turning into something else entirely. In case you missed it, my review went up last night!
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – I’m working up to writing my review for this one; it was such an outstanding book I’m struggling to get myself into the headspace to do it justice!

*Book journaling*

I’ve kept a log of all the books I’ve read for the last couple of years but, after becoming slightly worried about the integrity of the notebook used for this purpose (the glue has already been out once) I’ve decided it’s time for something more robust. So I bought this GORGEOUS notebook by Esmie and am a little bit in love with it. I’m currently deliberating over whether I transfer everything that was in the old book log to the new one so it’s “complete”; the perfectionist in me feels I probably should…..

*Books purchased*

Just the one this week but something a bit different from my usual fare. During the pandemic I’ve become more and more fascinated by all the statistics presented to us and the questions around their usefulness, their accuracy and the alarming ways that different organisations or groups of people can come up with wildly varying conclusions while supposedly using the same data. This book by David Levitin caught my eye and I hope it’s as illuminating as the synopsis suggests.

*Currently Reading*

Lastly, here are the books I’ve got my nose buried in this week:

  • The Cat and the City by Nick Bradley – I’ve had this on the go for a few weeks now, not because I’m not enjoying it but because its episodic nature lends itself to being read at a leisurely pace. The page turning drama of The Truants and The Vanishing Half lured me away this week, but having done with those I can go back to immersing myself in Nick Bradley’s hypnotic vision of Tokyo once more.
  • Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid – I’m not going to say too much about this as I want to save as much of my enthusiasm as possible for a blistering review, but, wow. Already totally obsessed with this novel and its colourful cast of characters.

It’s been a great week in my little book world – I hope next week is as exciting! Thanks for reading and see you back on the blog soon.

The Truants by Kate Weinberg – review

Any novel featuring a precocious clique of university students acting out a lethal drama of arrogance, manipulation and murder is inevitably going to draw comparisons with The Secret History. Most of these comparisons are, let’s be honest, going to be unfavourable, because Donna Tartt’s first (and in my opinion best: discuss) novel is a masterclass in campus nastiness and post-adolescent hubris that has yet to be bettered. I’m not surprised that Tartt gets a mention on the book’s back cover, but to assume this is going to be a mediocre attempt at a carbon copy would be to do The Truants a disservice.

However, I openly admit that when I started reading it, that’s exactly how I thought it was going to unfold. I’ve read a couple of novels with similar set-ups (The Bellwether Revivals, If We Were Villains) so was pretty sure what to expect: an insular group of characters whose vices, obsessions and jealousies eventually tear the obnoxious clique apart from the inside. Kate Weinberg begins her book by introducing a collection of characters who appear to fit into this mould. Jess Walker, from whose point of view the story is written, is a frustrated girl who has lived out her life thus far as the bored, almost-invisible “middle child” in a pretty unremarkable middle class family. On her arrival at university she is immediately drawn to the absurdly wealthy, socially fearless and uninhibited Georgie and the two of them form a slightly unexpected but inseparable pair. It’s not long before this fledgling friendship expands to include two young men: Nick, another student and Alec, a South African journalist who although not enrolled in the university, delights in turning up on campus to argue with and humiliate the lecturers. Every dysfunctional group needs a force to drive it to its ultimate destruction, and it’s Alec who is the catalyst for the events that follow. His position as the influencer of the group is easy to understand; he has a seductively tragic backstory, a life experience his younger admirers lack, and a level of eccentricity and individualism that falls just on the right side of appealing. Crucially, he is also incredibly charming – an asset that will have serious repercussions for those who fall under his spell.

So far, so unsurprising: but the author throws another character into the mix, one who I found the most intriguing of the entire novel. Lorna is a university professor whose reputation for academic excellence and cutting edge ideas earns her something of a celebrity status among her students, in the eyes of Jess most of all. At first I had her painted as a somewhat insubstantial personality, a stylish yet hollow woman who knew how to put on a performance and who took undue delight in the hero-worship she received from her na├»ve pupils; as the novel progresses, however, she becomes more of an enigmatic figure and we’re never sure how much of the mystique surrounding her is a fabrication, a figment of Jess’s obsession, and how much is founded in reality.

I was expecting The Truants to remain quite insular in its focus and claustrophobic in its setting, as is often the case with stories of this kind, but I was actually very happy to find it take off in an unexpected direction. In the first chapters there are all the hallmarks of pending self-destruction: drinks, drugs and romantic attachments, some concealed and some very much less so. However, the author cleverly decides to split her close-knit group apart midway through the novel, and this gives the book room to become a different sort of story. The second half becomes almost more akin to a thriller, with a mystery to be unravelled, yet the writing manages to balance the excitement of an unsolved puzzle with an increasingly astute focus on the characters and their confusion, passion, guilt and pain. Jess carries the story in ever-increasing solitude as others fall by the wayside, and eventually it comes down to the relationship between the troubled student and Lorna, the professor, mentor and caregiver to whom she is drawn like a moth to a flame. The connection between the two remains shrouded in questions to the end. Was there an element of sexuality there? Was the affection even genuine, or was it ultimately a relationship that served a purpose at a particular moment in time?

There are few neat answers for anyone involved in this story – and I liked that. The truth of life is that friendships drift apart, past betrayals cast a shadow over relationships that can taint them forever and people can disappear from your life overnight without warning and before you’ve had a chance to make your peace with the part they played in your journey. The partying students who we meet at the beginning of The Truants learn many of these hard lessons over the course of the book, and I think it’s that progression that prevents us from tiring of a collection of characters who are, to be brutally honest, mostly self-absorbed and not always that likeable. For all their faults, they will stick in your head – and I always feel that’s the mark of a well-written novel.

Thanks for reading; if you have any thoughts on The Truants I’d love to hear them, so do leave your comments below!

The Sunday Stack – Summer Reads

This is my first ever Sunday Stack, a neat idea from Bronwen at Babblesnbooks. Every Sunday there’s a different prompt from which to build your stack – this week it’s summer reads.

I very much read with the season: wintry books when you’re curled up with a cup of tea to fend off the cold, sunny and exotic books in the midst of summer. So while for some, the idea of summer reading might be a light and easy beach read, for me it’s absolutely literal – novels where the sun is shining, the heat’s cranked up and you feel like you’re on holiday!

The House on Paradise Street by Sofka Zinovieff

Could anywhere be sunnier than Greece? I remember reading this on a sun lounger in Kos a few years ago and nothing could have been more appropriate. To be fair, the story itself isn’t quite so sunny – a family drama in which a woman returns to her old home in Athens and comes face to face with some heartbreaking truths about her family’s past – but for setting alone this had to be in the stack.

The Wedding Officer by Anthony Capella

We all need a bit of romance every now and then (yes, even me) and if you’re feeling in the right mood then this ticks all the boxes. Set in Naples during the Second World War it has Italian heat, Italian passion and Italian food – in other words, a complete package holiday in a book.

Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim

While this doesn’t quite have the wall to wall sunshine of the previous two books, it does encapsulate all the pleasures of summer, and in fact every season, in its depiction of the garden as a perpetual sanctuary from all the family madness that goes on behind the claustrophobic walls of the house. Elizabeth is not always the most endearing of characters, but you will for sure covet her garden.

A Month in the Country by J L Carr

When telling people how much I love this book, I always describe it as quietly heartbreaking. Behind the apparent peace, tranquility and gentle warmth of an English summer lies a silent anguish that will leave your heart in bits without you being sure exactly how or why.

Tangerine by Christine Mangan

This novel positively radiates summer. Set in Morocco, the combination of the vicious mind games played out by the main characters and the city’s searing heat creates a stifling, oppressive feel that takes hold from the first page and never lets up. Not a light or fluffy summer read, but a compelling one that will scorch itself into your head.

This has been a really fun post to do – look out for more Sunday Stacks in the coming weeks! If you want to join in, don’t forget to use the #SundayStack hashtag; I’d love to see your summery suggestions.

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor – review

The Ashes of London kicked off my love affair with this series, and it’s been going strong ever since. I thought book three, The King’s Evil, was the pinnacle – until I read this one, after which I could only doff my hat to Andrew Taylor for topping his previous installment once again. For those of you who haven’t come across them before, the books are set in Restoration London and feature the exploits of civil servant James Marwood, who finds himself drawn reluctantly into the machinations of Whitehall and the King’s court. Over the course of the series he develops an enigmatic relationship with Cat Lovett, the daughter of a regicide, whose family history forms an ever-present cloud over her prospects and security. On the surface they are acquaintances who every now and then are useful to one another, yet we can see quite clearly there’s something more to their relationship than that: something unspoken and not entirely understood by either of them. They are not lovers, not even friends necessarily, but there’s no denying they each instinctively need what the other provides.

The Last Protector of the title is the name given to Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver, who has been in exile on the continent since the monarchy returned to power and has made no attempt to cause trouble for Charles II’s regime – until now. Intimately connected with the conspiracy theories, rumour and unrest filtering through London is the flamboyant but dangerous Duke of Buckingham, whose dandyish attire and theatrical manner belies his power and ruthlessness. With the King, Buckingham and the mysterious figure of the Protector forming three sides of a devious and manipulative triangle, James Marwood faces double dealing and betrayal on all sides as he tries to unmask the instigators of the political violence spreading through the capital.

This is a period of history I love and find absolutely fascinating, so there’s an immediate appeal to be found in the setting alone. However, sound historical research doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with enjoyable historical fiction – and this is where Andrew Taylor gets it so right. The recreation of mid seventeenth-century London feels authentic without being a vehicle for gratuitous fact-dropping, and the author manages to give his readers an understanding of the political climate of the time without using dialogue as clumsy exposition. Most important of all, the characters feel as relatable as if they were alive today, and having followed Marwood through four books now, I feel as attached to him as I did to Shardlake in C J Sansom’s magnificent series. The political setting means there are inevitably swathes of male characters, but the author seems to go out of his way to redress the balance by involving some terrific women in the story, taking care to draw them in as much detail as his male lead. There’s a surprising amount of historical fiction out there that’s pretty lazy with its female cast (the bawdy innkeeper’s wife! the homely peasant! the generic Tudor princess!), often relegating them to the role of sexual victim or plot accessory, but what this series gets right is the way in which it treats women as individuals whilst acknowledging the reality of their lives in a society that was more overtly patriarchal than the one we live in today.

The Last Protector is a compulsive page-turner, an intriguing thriller, an escape into the past and also a touching story of the cruel chasm that exists between the haves and have-nots. I have my fingers crossed for many more books to come – it’s clear that James Marwood’s story is very far from over.

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Why I love….. Sergei Lukyanenko

It’s been absolutely AGES since I did one of my Why I love…. blog posts, so I thought it was time to resurrect it as a feature! If you’re new to This Girl’s Book Room, the idea behind these posts is super-simple: I pick one of my favourite authors, then tell you what it is that makes me love them so much, and why you should try their books if you haven’t already. Today it’s the turn of an author who I think deserves a wider readership outside of those who naturally gravitate towards fantasy or horror: Russian writer extraordinaire, Sergei Lukyanenko. Without further ago, here’s why I love him so much.

He has an appeal that goes beyond fantasy fans

One genre conspicuously absent from my blog is, as I’m sure you will have noticed, fantasy or fantasy-horror. My general rule of thumb is that is if a book features either a map or an absurd fantastical character name on the first page then I’m not going to like it. I just about made it through Lord of the Rings and even slogged my way through a Juliet Marillier novel to prove to a friend I was willing to try something different, but nope, I’m definitely more at home in a real-world setting. I really thought, then, when The Night Watch (the series’ first book) was recommended to me, it was going to be another politeness read – but no! To my joy it’s set in modern day Russia (and other countries as well later in the series) and despite the presence of vampires, werewolves and magicians it’s fully grounded in a recognisable world.

Sexy vampires? Not here, thank you very much.

Let’s be honest, the constant fetishization of vampires is a bit yawnsome isn’t it? That’s not to say it can never be successful, but I for one was mightily relived that there are no brooding, sultry bloodsuckers here – at least none who take on that role unironically. On the surface Lukyanenko’s vampires appear almost no different to everyday people: they’re licensed, regulated, and most of them go about their business in a law-abiding fashion while holding down apparently normal lives in Russia’s capital city.

His books will make you think. And then think again.

There are 6 books in The Night Watch series, and while I’d say the first one is probably the biggest mind-bender of the lot, all of them have complex and well-executed plotlines and even more complex characters. The novels imagine a world in which magical forces are battling and collaborating by turns to maintain the elusive balance between Light and Dark that keeps society running as it should. There are constant questions being asked of the characters, and by extension the readers, about the nature of the false binary that we conventionally term “Good” and “Evil”. What sacrifices are acceptable in the pursuit of a greater good? Is it possible to do the right thing without ever having to compromise on your values? And most importantly, is there such a thing as being unequivocally on a single side?

Anton Gorodetsky

Light Magician Anton Gorodetsky is hands down one of my favourite literary creations. Despite having the power to rip dark magicians to shreds in battle, Light Other Anton is still somehow an everyman, walking the streets of Moscow alongside its human inhabitants while juggling the blessing of extreme power with the crushing curse of responsibility. I think that’s the secret to how Lukyanenko manages to make you so attached to him; despite his fantastical abilities he’s more human than many mortal characters we come across in the course of our reading lives. When I parted company from him at the end of book 6 I was broken.

I really hope I’ve tempted you into trying this fabulous Russian writer, especially if you’ve always thought he wouldn’t be up your street. Definitely start with The Night Watch, as this is not one of those series you can join part way through and not lose out. If you’ve read these books already, I would love to know what you think! Thanks for reading and see you back on the blog soon.

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My week in books – wrapped up

*I’m a bookseller again!*

The bookshop where I work opened its doors to the public on Monday after many long weeks of lockdown. It’s been an incredible and surreal experience; on the one hand I’m now talking to my regulars through a Perspex screen, which takes some getting used to, but on the other, the beautiful comments we’ve had from customers who are over the moon to have their local bookshop back have been overwhelming. It’s easy to forget how much of an impact books can have on people’s lives, and this week I’ve felt honoured to play a small part in that.

All this has meant it’s been an unusually lean week for reading and writing – after over two months of being furloughed returning to a full-time job has proved to be quite draining, and my evenings have mostly been about cobbling together some dinner, pulling on my pyjamas and being dead to the world before it’s even completely dark. However, there have been a couple of bookish highlights!

*Book purchases*

I’ve limited myself to just two this week:

  • Bone China by Laura Purcell – I’ve never read any of her novels before, but she’s a name that keeps popping up across a number of book blogs I follow, and I decided it was time to give her a try. I’ve been in the mood for a bit of creepiness lately (see my recent posts on M R James and Melmoth) and this continues the theme.
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – honestly, I’ve seen sooooo many good reviews of this one! I loved the synopsis and whereas it usually takes a lot to tempt me into splurging on a hardback, this was one temptation I couldn’t resist.

*Mission accomplished (otherwise known as books finished this week)*

Just the one book finished this week, but it’s a good ‘un: The Last Protector by the always fabulous Andrew Taylor. If you’re a fan of C J Sansom, S J Parris or similar historical crime authors then this is one series you have to try. Review will be up on the blog shortly!

I promise I will try my best to up the blogging again next week, but in the meantime, thanks for reading and see you back on This Girl’s Book Room soon!

My week in books – wrapped up

It’s been quite a hectic week in the world of This Girl’s Book Room, and one packed to the rafters with books as usual.

*Back in the bookshop*

After more than two long months of lockdown I was finally back in my beloved bookshop this week, prepping for our opening on Monday. I’m not going to lie, it was very surreal getting the place kitted out with till screens, sanitiser stations and one way signage but with it all in place I now feel strangely calm, happy we’ve done all we can to make the place safe. It’s going to be a very different type of bookselling environment we’re all going back into and I have very mixed feelings about it if I’m honest; but one thing I can say with certainty is I know huge numbers of our customers are going to be delighted to have their book haven back, albeit in a somewhat different form.

*Bookpost*

You’d be hard pushed to find many things more exciting than coming home to find a parcel of books on your doorstep and I had two this week – yay! The latest books to join the Book Room collection are:

  • Little by Edward Carey – I’ve had my eye on this for months and never got round to it, but after a friend’s recommendation (during a socially-distanced iced latte) I decided to pull my finger out and order a copy.
  • Cutting it Short by Bohumil Hrabal – I stumbled across a review of this book on the brilliant Vishy’s Blog and there was just something about his description of it that caught my imagination; I’m really looking forward to giving it a try.
  • The Cat and the City by Nick Bradley – almost every time I’ve been on Twitter over the past fortnight I’ve seen someone raving about this book. If you’re a regular visitor to my blog you’ll know I’ve been reading a fair amount of Japanese fiction lately, so the idea of a cat wandering around Tokyo linking the stories of its diverse inhabitants sounded purrrrr-fect (sorry.)

*Currently Reading*

I’ve just started a book I purchased a few weeks ago: The Descent of Man by the awesome human being that is Grayson Perry. I’ve not got far yet, but already his perspective on male privilege and the social damage caused by centuries-old conventions of masculinity is a real breath of fresh air.

Hope you’ve had as many great books in your life this week as I have! Happy reading.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo – review

Kim Jiyoung is not a remarkable woman. She comes from a conventional family, went to school and college, got a job, found a partner, married and had a child. Everything about Kim Jiyoung is what everyone would expect – until the day when, aged 34, she sets off on a course that frightens her husband, alienates her in-laws and looks set to undo the stability and predictability that has been the defining feature of their lives. Jiyoung begins to speak as if another person were inhabiting her body. When she addresses her husband by talking about herself in the third person, he thinks it’s a slightly odd but understandable cry for attention and support. However, when she takes on the persona of a friend who died the year before, he starts to feel more and more unsettled. Finally, after an altercation at a family gathering where Jiyoung speaks some uncomfortable home truths about their behaviour – all the while as if she were commenting as another person – her husband, Daehyun, decides to book her an appointment with a psychiatrist. The story that follows is of Jiyoung’s life as recounted to the doctor during their sessions.

The style in which Cho Nam-Joo relates her protagonist’s tale is clever, unusual and extremely effective; Jiyoung, while not in any way a two-dimensional character, is nonetheless very obviously an everywoman, intended to represent the millions of women in South Korea (and in many other countries too) who come up against barrier after barrier when simply attempting to live their lives with the same freedoms and opportunities as their male counterparts. At times it reads almost like a work of fact rather than fiction, the author peppering the narrative with pertinent statistics relating to women’s earnings in the workplace, or the ratio of men to women in a society that favours male children to the point where abortions of female foetuses are a frighteningly common occurrence. And actually, this is a work of fact in the guise of a novel. Everything Cho Nam-Joo describes is a genuine reflection of women’s existence in a society that favours men from cradle to grave.

It’s not an easy read. Some of the discrimination – and danger – Kim Jiyoung suffers is very overt, such as the episode where man follows her onto a bus and sexually harasses her. Slightly more subtle, but just as frightening in its implications, is the bullying that she and her female classmates receive at the hands of male students – and most importantly, the teachers’ response or lack thereof. Even when one teacher, unusually, tries to dig into an incident in which Jiyoung’s shoe is stolen, she tells the girl that her tormentor’s behaviour is because “he likes you…..Boys are like that; they’re meaner to the girls they like.” This is a world in which boys literally have the upper hand from the day they’re born; the author describes how women from all generations of Kim Jiyoung’s family were commiserated when they gave birth to girls, and constantly endured friends and relations telling them how much better their lives would be once they’d had a boy and the pressure was off them to produce a male child. Once the patriarchal set-up has been established, it never lets up. All the way through school, college and finally the workplace, Jiyoung and her female friends find themselves second best and having to fight for the most basic of rights. Boys are served lunch first in the school canteen while the girls have to wait in a second queue. Business managers promote men over women who are more competent, and are quite candid about the fact they’ve done so. Female siblings are expected to use their salaries to contribute to the higher education of their brothers in order that they might have better employment opportunities. Some of it seems so absurdly discriminatory as to be almost unbelievable, but it’s all too true.

To say I enjoyed the book wouldn’t be a fair assessment, as it’s quite clearly not meant to be a comfortable or escapist read. As the injustices pile up, so does the rage of the reader, as we get a very vivid sense of the powerlessness of women in the face of such an entrenched patriarchy. That’s not to say that Cho Nam-Joo presents her female characters as completely helpless; throughout the book there are small glimmers of hope as Jiyoung and others speak out against the circumstances in which they find themselves. All too often, however, small victories are followed by backward steps as the established social order of men first, women second, reasserts itself. Centuries of inequality cannot be overturned overnight. It is a difficult read, but a hugely important one. Only by shining a light on unfairness, discrimination and abuse can anything ever begin to change.