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.
I feel like I haven’t done this in a while, because I took a break last month to read the 2020 shortlist instead. Maybe it’s because of the break that I have especially enjoyed this month’s books. I found all of them very easy to read, with an unbroken narrative that flows smoothly from beginning to end.
This month, the books I read were about ‘family.’ Although each book approaches this in different ways, family is absolutely the glue that holds these stories, and thus the characters, together. Each book concerns itself with delving into the family’s past and exploring those bonds holding them together; when read all at once, I was struck by just how many different stories there really are.
On Beauty – Zadie Smith (2006 winner)
Synopsis: Set in New England mainly and London partly, On Beauty concerns a pair of feuding families – the Belseys and the Kipps – and a clutch of doomed affairs. It puts low morals among high ideals and asks some searching questions about what life does to love.
This book follows the Belsey family: Howard, a white professor of Art History at a liberal arts university, who married Kiki, a black woman who inherited a grand house in a middle-class town, and their three children. One of the reasons this story is so easy to read is because of this family. Each character feels like a real person, with flaws and foibles, as well as love and loyalties integral to them all being a family. It’s clear from the very beginning there is an element of disharmony within this family. They’re close to each other but not close. They have different views on things like religion and politics and are free with arguing for them. This is contrasted with the Kipps, the patriarch of which is Howard’s academic enemy, largely for the fact that he studies the same subject as Howard but with a very conservative approach.
The two families seem to be opposites, but as always, not all is as it seems. The story breaks down the invisible walls between the Belseys and the Kipps, even while there are some walls that remain. For example, how are they meant to overcome political differences that are not just about politics, but lives? It’s one of the heavy topics in the story, amongst things like infidelity, social class and race, but this is all set against a backdrop of comedy. The mundanity of small details are really what help bring the story to life, and there are many moments when I found myself laughing aloud at the sheer creativity in the way the author turns a phrase. Such as: “The mention of his own name was never an occasion for irony or humour for Levi, and like his own avid lawyer, he took a personal interest in every mention or misuse of it.”
I have not actually read any of Zadie Smith’s writing before, so perhaps this amalgamation is simply the way she writes, but it’s a very fun thing to read, particularly because this comedy is contrasted with an incessant intellectualism. (Let’s be real, lots of it went over my head!) Howard is an Art History professor, and he is so embedded in the idea of ideas that he has a quite cynical approach to everything around him. This is interestingly compared to Kiki, who is a hospital administrator, yet has a more emotional reaction to a single painting than Howard does throughout the entire book. Even Rembrandt, his specialist subject, is a half-written book for him. This attitude is conveyed in various ways to his children: Jerome, who becomes stalwartly religious, Zora who copies him completely, and Levi, who tries to disassociate himself from his middle-class upbringing by throwing himself into hip-hop and making friends with Haitian immigrants. In that way, a lot of this story is about judgement and gaze. Looking at paintings, looking at society, looking at each other.
Home – Marilynne Robinson (2009 winner)
Synopsis: Jack Boughton – prodigal son – has been gone twenty years. He returns home seeking refuge and to make peace with the past. A bad boy from childhood, an alcoholic who cannot hold down a job, Jack is perpetually at odds with his surroundings and with his traditionalist father, though he remains Boughton’s most beloved child. His sister Glory has also returned, fleeing her own mistakes, to care for their dying father.
Publisher: Little, Brown
This story is a sequel to Gilead, which I reviewed last month. I do recommend reading that one first, if only because it makes the impact of events in this one much greater. (Also, you may be kind of lost if not). Home is the second part of a trilogy, and I’m very excited to read the next instalment in the series because the writing here is so. good. FYI this review is spoiler-free!
The title very succinctly captures what this story is about. It’s told from the perspective of Glory, a woman who is the youngest of a large family of siblings, returned home after a failed relationship to care for her ailing father and, to her surprise, an older brother who has returned home after twenty years. It’s funny, calling the house and the town of Gilead where they are ‘home,’ because it’s a reluctant one. “They all call it home but none of them stay,” their father remarks; a startling truism about where you grew up. What is home? The place where you grew up or where you grow old? These are questions readers have to answer for themselves.
One of the things I found most interesting about this story was that it was about Glory as much as it is about Jack. Jack is a character in Gilead – the godson of that book’s narrator – who was a youth often in trouble, who separated himself from his family. His siblings all have their own lives but there is a preoccupation with Jack and his wellbeing. He is a great character. At times, I felt irritation towards him, the self-pity of a man who makes thoughtless mistakes; but he is so self-effacing it feels like cruelty to think badly of him. Jack also garners the reader’s regard because he expresses a different kind of empathy to all the others. He is actively concerned about the Civil Rights Movement, not seeing it as an offhand subject to be solved elsewhere. He is trying to bring himself to life in some way, in Gilead. He gardens and plants and attempts to cultivate life in a way he can’t elsewhere.
Throughout all of this, Glory, the youngest child, in a family where “the girls were named after virtues and the boys were named after people,” tries to take care of him. She attempts to mediate between Jack and her father with the awareness that her father rejoices in Jack’s presence, after so long an absence, more than hers. Her identity as a woman – and an unmarried woman – as well as the only child who is in her childhood home, suddenly with a duty to retain its familiarity for all her siblings – is so poignant on the page.
The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht (2011 winner)
Synopsis: A tiger escapes from the local zoo, padding through the ruined streets and onwards, to a ridge above the Balkan village of Galina. His nocturnal visits hold the villagers in a terrified thrall – but for one boy, the tiger is a thing of magic. Natalia is the granddaughter of that boy. Now a doctor, she is visiting orphanages in the war-torn Balkans when she receives word of her beloved grandfather’s death, far from their home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery.
There is a hint of magical realism to this book that is evident from the first page. The story constantly tips between indulging in the fantastical and staying sharply away from it. It is told from the perspective of Natalia, telling the story of her grandfather after she learns he is dead. The grandfather holds so much presence in the book it’s difficult to recall that he is dead in the present; died in a tiny shantytown with no one of his family around him, and a set of unfriendly villagers from the ‘other’ side of a country now divided into two. The war is almost a second character in this book. It occured while Natalia was just a teenager, but its effect was felt then, in the way certain music had to be smuggled, in the way her grandfather was forced to give up his medical practise because he came from the wrong side of the country. Its effects continue into her adulthood: she is trying to rectify problems created from a conflict that ended before she could take a true part in it.
The effect of this war in the Balkans being over is particularly telling. It has become a story, and this book is about storytelling. Albeit, that is in an oblique way. The narrative dips between the present, where Natalia and her friend are delivering medical care to an orphanage, and the past, where she returns to stories of her and her grandfather’s childhood. The story of the tiger’s wife looms over all of this. As readers, we await it in suspense, getting bits and pieces of the way Natalia’s grandfather, a staunchly rational man, nonetheless imbued the supernatural into his live. There is magic here, somewhere, it just needs to be discovered.
I really enjoyed reading all of these books. None of them were too long, so I found it easy to settle into the world each one created. I think I find stories about families appealing because it gives you a full cast of characters, all of whom are inevitably different from one another, and asks you to understand how rich people are, alone or together.
Next month is my final bit of the challenge! I’ll be reading books that couldn’t fit neatly into a theme, lol.
Here’s what I’ll be reading:
Bel Canto – Ann Patchett (2002 winner)
How to be Both – Ali Smith (2015 winner)
Larry’s Party – Carol Shields (1998 winner)
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