To be reread

Like a lot of booky kids, I was a huge rereader when I was growing up. I must have read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban over twenty times. But in recent years, I have reread less and less frequently, I think because there are so many new (or new to me, I should say) books which I’m excited to read that rereading an old one feels like a waste of time. However, there are a few books which I would like to return to.

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
I’m pretty sure that I’ve only read this once, in around 2013, although I have seen the film multiple times. I remember loving this the first time around, but I think I read it on a solely surface level, and missed a lot of the undercurrent. I want to reread it with more analytical eyes, and I’m definitely a more considered reader than I was four years ago.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Like everyone else, I loved this as a teenager: there’s something about its melodrama which seems to deeply appeal to fifteen year old minds. That said, I have literally no memory of how it ends, which leads to me to suspect that I didn’t actually finish it.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
The main reason I want to return to this particular novel is that I would like to read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, but feel like I could do with a refresher on the source material first. I think I was about 14 when I first read this, meaning it was almost a decade ago, and I think I mix up plot points between this and Wuthering Heights. (As much as I do want to reread these two Brontë’s, I’m also loathe to pick up these lovely Vintage editions, which have never been read and are therefore in perfect condition, because I just know I’ll wreck them.)

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
For a long time I’ve claimed this as one of my favourite books, but I recently tried to summarise its plot and realised that I don’t actually remember it very well. I was pretty young when I read this, so I suspect that there are thematic elements which went over my head on the first pass.

Resistance by Owen Sheers
I first read this only two years ago, but I’m already feeling the draw to read it again. This is one of my favourite books of recent years, and one that I do still think about pretty frequently, so I know that I would love it on the second reading: my reason for wanting to reread it is no more complex than that.

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
I read this around the same time as I read Resistance and also adored it. We are now into the self indulgent section of this list, where basically I just want to return to books I love, for no reason other than that they make me happy.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
I’ve read this a couple of times before, and seen the BBC mini-series frankly a ridiculous number of times. I’m not the first person to say this, but Elizabeth Gaskell combines the wit and romance of Jane Austen with the social and political awareness of Charles Dickens, and she is brilliant.

Persuasion by Jane Austen
This is the only Austen that I have never reread. Come to think of it, it’s also the only one that I haven’t seen a TV or film adaptation of. I would like to though, as it’s the Austen which is most different to the rest. It was her last finished novel, I believe, and it has a more mature, cynical tone to it, from memory.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler
I read this before I had ever watched Parks and Recreation, and I just think I would get more out of this having seen the show, which is a pretty significant part of the book.


The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes

I don’t know anything about Classics, really. I did learn about Greek myths and Legends when I was at primary school, and I think we had a big Dorling Kindersley book on them when my sister and I were little, but I must have mostly looked at the illustrations because all I really remember are these images of muscular, beardy men in what I think are called chitons(?).

Because of this, I wouldn’t naturally be drawn to books based on classical stories, but after seeing Jean of the YouTube channel Bookish Thoughts talk about this one, and then spotting it in the proofs pile at work, I decided to try this one out. It turned out to be a great decision, and I’m now really keen to pick up some more classical retellings (Madeleine Miller’s Orange Prize winner, The Song of Achilles, is currently at the top of my list).

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This is a look at the myths of Oedipus and Antigone through the eyes of two of the more neglected characters from the original plays: Jocasta, Oedipus’s wife/mother, and Ismene, their younger daughter and Antigone’s sister. The chapters alternate between their two perspectives (although, oddly, Ismene is in first person while Jocasta is in third, a decision which I can’t work out the reason for, although I don’t think it detracts in any way). I have to say, I did at times find the alternating perspectives and particularly the fact that they are narrating from different points in time a little frustrating. Particularly in the beginning of the novel, I much preferred the Jocasta chapters, and was mildly irritated each time I was removed from her story. However, as the book went on I found Ismene increasingly engaging.

I particularly loved the way she removes the mythological elements from the story. The Sphinx who terrorises the hills outside Thebes is transformed into a band of robbers and highwaymen, while the characters are taken down from their mythological pedestals to become human, fallible and relatable. They refer to the mythical origins of their city with scepticism, and doubt the truth of prophecies even as they look to the Gods for answers.

While the book focuses in on the thoughts and motivations of two women who are sidelined in the original plays (Haynes includes an afterword which was extremely helpful in understanding how her novel relates to the source material), giving them rich inner lives and helping us understand the all-consuming grief they both experience, this is still an action packed story. While a novel which focused purely on their personal grief might be grim and depressing, this, thanks to the plot elements necessitated by the original plays, is still a page turner. Although, to be fair, the plot is still bloody grim.

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

This book. This goddamn book. It’s so good. So, so good.

I enjoy a lot of African writing; of course the mighty Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I studied French-speaking African writers at university, including Boubacar Boris Diop, Mariama Bâ and Calixthe Beyala. So, when this appeared on the Bailey’s shortlist, I was immediately all in. I was lucky enough to receive a copy from Canongate through work, which I am super grateful for.

It’s the story of Yejide, who is struggling to conceive a child despite having been married for a few years. She’s coming under a huge amount of pressure from her family, but particularly from her mother-in-law, who pushes Akin, the husband, to take a second wife. Meanwhile Yejide is so desperate for a child that she is turning to a so-called “prophet” who has her breastfeed a goat.

That’s about all I can say about the plot without spoiling anything, because this is a novel with an enormous number of twists and turns, relentlessly putting Yejide through more and more pain. While I have never been in a remotely similar position to Yejide, her anguish was so vivid that it felt personal and familiar to me in an incredible way. It is just crisis after crisis after crisis, which makes it both painful to read and incredibly compelling.

While the novel is predominantly narrated from Yejide’s point of view, it is interspersed with chapters from Akin’s perspective, which add depth and nuance to their troubled marriage. These are often the chapters which reveal an unexpected twist, which makes you go over the rest of the novel in your head and realise that the seeds of these ideas have been sown throughout, but so subtly that you never could have pieced it together.

Personally, I think this might be the Bailey’s winner. This is a raw, emotional novel, in which Nigeria’s political turmoil takes a backseat to the internal workings of a marriage. It will tear your heart out, and you should read it immediately. It absolutely blows my mind that a debut author has produced this, and I will be reading absolutely everything she writes in the future.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Lizzie Borden was a young woman who was accused of murdering her father and step-mother with an axe in Massachusetts in the 1890s. In See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt imagines the events which might have led to this brutal double murder. I had been really craving some creepy reads, so when the proof appeared at work, I nabbed it immediately.

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It had multiple narrators, which I enjoyed, and none of them are at all reliable. I bloody love an unreliable narrator. So we see the events from the point of view of Lizzie, her sister Emma, their maid Bridget, and Benjamin, an outsider to the Borden household who is pretty sinister and comes to play a role in their lives. It’s primarily set across the day of the murders and the day after, but through those days we see the characters think back across the years and remember the household across time. Schmidt brilliantly builds up a picture of an oppressive, unhappy living situation, and of the mental state of the sisters over time.

I’m pretty sure that Schmidt hasn’t added any embellishment where the actual known events are concerned, so that, as we know that Lizzie Borden was acquitted, she very much keeps us guessing as to whether or not she actually did do it. I really appreciated the skill involved in weaving a story around facts in this way. The embellishment she adds is primarily in the characters and their emotions, not in events.

It is a very creepy book, but not in a thriller-y, feeling like someone is over your shoulder way. It’s more a pervasive, niggling sense that something is not right in this house. This is particularly evident in the chapters narrated by Lizzie. Schmidt’s Lizzie does not think in a conventional way, there is a lot of repetition in her sections as she has the same thought over and over again, and her senses seem more, well, sensitive than other people’s, for want of a better word. There’s often a feeling that things are crowding in on her, all the sounds and smells and sights are overwhelming to her. Personally, I kind of wish that this had been even more heightened, as I felt like I was more observing Lizzie being overwhelmed rather than sharing in that. Not only are her senses exaggerated, but she also seems to perceive things slightly differently: she talks about tastes singing and the wood of the old house popping.

Lizzie’s heightened senses and repetitive thought patterns lead to several motifs within the novel. She often says “The clock on the mantle ticked ticked”, although again, for me personally this fell slightly short – I would have liked this to be more pervasive, this awareness of the sound of time passing. There is also a conflation between the scents of sweetness and rot, talk of rotting teeth from sugar, the pear orchard outside and the bodies inside. This is probably the creepiest part of the novel, and I really enjoyed this aspect.

There was a lot about this book that I appreciated, but it is just that: I appreciated the skill and the techniques but didn’t really feel them. I felt like I was observing this novel at a distance and while I would recommend it, it’s more on an intellectual level than an enjoyable or enthusiastic one.

April Wrap Up

Days Without End – Sebastian Barry
I honestly thought this was a completely perfect book. I don’t have a single bad word to say about it. My review is here, but TL;DR the prose is stunning and it’s a really moving examination relationships, the extremities of war and what constitutes a family.

The Cows – Dawn O’Porter
I have some reservations with this one, but it’s fun and feisty. There are three plot strands and I only really loved one of them, so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. Worth a read though.

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt
Super creepy and atmospheric, but it hasn’t necessarily stuck with me in the way I would have expected. It’s about a murder, but don’t let that put you off if you’re not a crime reader – I’m not – it’s much more of a disturbing character study than a thriller.

Stay With Me – Ayobami Adebayo
Currently, this is what I’m rooting for to win the Bailey’s Prize. It’s really pacy and full of twists, but packs an incredible emotional punch. I didn’t think that I would read anything as good as Days Without End any time soon, but this is on par with it.

The Bombs That Brought Us Together – Brian Conaghan
I think I had a bit of a book hangover when I read this, so I didn’t love it as much as a lot of people seem to. I just didn’t get on with the writing: it’s very accurately written in the voice of a 14-year-old boy, which is not my thing at all.

The Children of Jocasta – Natalie Haynes
Another great read this month, this is a retelling of the myths of Oedipus and Antigone, with two of the minor characters from the original myths as the protagonists. My classics knowledge is next to nothing, but I still loved this.

Closely Watched Trains – Bohumil Hrabal
I’m very much still mulling this one over. It’s a tiny little 80 pager, but it left me with a lot to think about. It’s about a young man in Czechoslovakia (I know that’s not what it’s called now but it was at the time) during World War II, dealing with his own emotional issues as well as with the realities of living in a Nazi-occupied state.

Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo
This is about an elderly Antiguan man living in Hackney, who has been in a secret relationship with his male best friend for the last 60 years. It’s about prejudice and aging and the way you can keep learning and changing even at the end of your life. I really enjoyed this one.

Geekerella – Ashley Poston
I found myself really craving YA romance at the end of this month, so rather than just rereading Fangirl or Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (the only YA romance books I would really recommend) I picked this one up, and I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not going to change your life, but it is an adorable retelling of Cinderella set around nerd culture.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

This book has been pretty hyped up in advance of its release today, I’ve been hearing about it for months and months. But to be entirely honest, I kind of think it’s been marketed inaccurately. It’s been presented as light and fluffy, the blurb (at least the one on the proof I read) implies that it is in some way about Eleanor Oliphant getting into a romantic relationship, and skims over the fact that the protagonist is mentally ill, suffering from delusions and alcoholism and is, in general, in a really awful place in her life. This is a much, much darker book than any of the promotion I’ve seen presents it as. (That said, I’m writing this two months before the release date, so that may change as the marketing campaign ramps up.) Honestly, based on the blurb and cover (again, these are the proof versions of those things), I would never have picked it up had a friend not recommended it.

What I will say is that it is written very lightly, I think because we’re inside the head of a woman who doesn’t realise how severe her problems are, which makes it a lot easier to get through than a book about the darkest depths a mind can go to might otherwise be. It’s incredibly compelling to read. I absolutely raced through it, despite the tough subject matter, and I have to admire the skill of the writing in making it bearable to look at something so dark. I recently read Nina is Not Okay by Shappi Khorsandi, and that book was in a lot of ways very unpleasant to read, because it’s so unflinching in the way it looks at alcoholism and what people do when they are alcoholics. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a much softer examination of drinking (most of the time), and I didn’t find myself having to put it down and take breaks from it the way I did with Nina is Not Okay.

I’ve seen a lot of reviews talking about how much the reviewers loved Eleanor’s “old soul” and how they absolutely adored the character, which was really not my experience. I found the character pretty annoying and kind of unrealistic for the first two hundred odd pages. I definitely had to get past her attitude to the world to enjoy the plot. I think partly it was because I didn’t recognise quite how damaged she is – but I also think that’s the point, you only gradually realise what a mess she is. I also suspect that my feelings about the character were influenced by the way the book was presented to me – I initially assumed she was part of the trope of female characters who are bookish and disconnected from the world, which is something that I’ve always found annoying. I’m not saying she doesn’t fit into that trope, but she is a much more in-depth, intelligent look at that sort of character, and her disconnect isn’t a result of everyone else being superficial and modern and her being so much more insightful.

Overall, I was really pleasantly surprised by this book, and if you, like me, are a little snobby about certain types of book, then this is a time you should get over that snobbery and prepare for a bloody good read.

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