The Reading Women Challenge encourages you to explore women’s writing, reading each previous winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Find out more here.
This month, I read three books loosely gathered together by a theme: coming of age. These books are about growing into and out of childhood; about the peculiar difficulties that come only by trying to figure out your place in the world.
One of the main similarities through these books was the powerlessness held by all of the main characters – familiar in bildungsroman stories. Subject matter spanned time and place, but their being on the outside of society was consistently and painfully familiar.
The Song of Achilles – Madeleine Miller (2012 winner)
Synopsis: Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and their bond blossoms into something deeper.
I can’t decide if this book is more beautiful lyrically or emotionally. I read this last year, so only meant to skim it for this challenge, but it’s difficult not to get drawn into the story once you begin it.
If you’re at all familiar with Greek mythology, you’ll know Achilles is the soldier who’s dipped into the River Styx as a child, invulnerable everywhere but his ankle. He plays a part in the Greeks winning the war of Troy, but not without cost. Like most Greek tales, it’s tragic, and that expectant air looms throughout this entire novel. It’s not sad, though.
It’s hopeful. It’s about friendship, love, duty. The tragedy of an inescapable fate too, yes, but what can you do, it’s Greek.
There’s also a second book under the first: the story of women. Over and over, the story tells you about violent injustices against them. Obviously: the Trojan war is fought over Helen, object-like. But it’s easy to get swept away by the story of Patroclus. And in the careful accounting of childhood, it’s also easy for mythology where “women did not have a say” to feel more like a lived reality. In the absence of girls in a book about a coming of age, it becomes increasingly clear the way they do not get one.
The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney (2016 winner)
Synopsis: We all do stupid things when we’re kids. Ryan Cusack’s grown up faster than most – being the oldest of six with a dead mum and an alcoholic dad will do that for you. And nobody says Ryan’s stupid. Not even behind his back. It’s the people around him who are the problem.
Publisher: John Murrary Press
This book is about five characters eking out a living in the fringes of post-economic crash Ireland, brought together by a murder. At the centre is Ryan, a schoolboy who never really gets to be a schoolboy, and at the centre of his life is his girlfriend Karine. We know this because every so often McInerney gives Ryan two pages of first-person narrative about her, a glimpse into the possibilities she represents.
This is a hard book to describe, mostly because I have conflicting feelings about it. It’s both easy and difficult to read. Easy because McInerney writes confidently, with fast pacing that utilises time-skips and rotating narratives to put you on the complete outside of these character’s lives. The story pulls no punches but it gives you a clear look at who you’re reading about. It’s difficult to read because this fast pace builds an underlying dread the entire time. Although looking forward to the conclusion was what kept me reading, I was also afraid of it.
This book reads like a classic, probably because history plays a large part: individual history and how your mistakes have consequences; family history, and the way you cannot escape your parents, and Ireland’s history. All of it meshing together.
A Crime in the Neighbourhood – Suzanne Berne (1999 winner)
Synopsis: In the long hot summer of 1972, three events shattered the serenity of ten-year-old Marsha’s life: her father ran away with her mother’s sister; a young boy called Boyd Ellison was molested and murdered; and Watergate made the headlines. Living in a world no longer safe or familiar, Marsha turns increasingly to ‘the book of evidence’ in which she records the doings of the neighbors.
The book follows a literary tradition of examining small-town American gossip. From the perspective of an adult looking back on her childhood, we see things that could be sinister or innocuous, but either way a slow loss of safety. Of all three books, this is the most about childhood – and the role of endings.
Historical context is almost a side note in this book; there’s no explanation – this isn’t a historical novel. But it assumes you know why Watergate – a scandal of a cover-up, and the investigation to uncover it – fits so well into the background of Marsha’s investigations.
This is an easy book to read. Berne builds the world excellently, dipping into the history of Marsha’s parents, not shying away from her own oddities. The narrator’s truthful account of childhood is at odds with her disingenuous dealings as a child, and it creates a story that’s a stark snippet into a time when everything changed. As a reader you really feel a part of the events that summer, with the way character and the neighbourhood is built. But the length of the story, and ambiguity in it, is also exactly right.
Have you read any of these books? What did you think?
I’m reading slower than I would like at the moment, but for my next three reads for the Reading Women Challenge, I hope to read books centring around history.
Here’s what I’ll be reading:
Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2007 winner)
Property – Valerie Martin (2003 winner)
Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels (1997 winner)
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