When I Hit You

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Regardless of your bookish tastes, when a novel carries a title like this it slaps you around the face, hard. Whether this slap will then make you sit up and listen and have a read is another matter. I had personally been orbiting this Womens Prize  nominee for a while but, after a few little nudges in the right direction from various fellow bloggers, decided to take the plunge on a topic which is decidedly not (don’t judge me, I like my nicey nice escapism) my cup of tea. Problematically it took me almost three weeks to finish, purely through life getting in the way. Since this is a novel that begs to be read in, at most, a couple of sittings, this really wasn’t ideal. As a result I’m left wondering whether I really gave it a fair chance…

Our unnamed narrator is an outwardly ordinary, independent young woman; a writer, student and political novice who falls for a university lecturer and Marxist revolutionary who, initially attractive with his sharp intellect and ideological passions, once in the bubble of the marital home proves himself to be an angry, paranoid and violent man. She is all of us. She is not impoverished, friendless, uneducated or any of the stereotypes we may associate with victims of domestic abuse, associations that are deeply flawed when placed under scrutiny. The few words of her new local dialect she knows serve to isolate her in her new domestic role, a role where her cooking becomes a desperate tool to appease the man who eventually cuts off her contact with the outside world – mobile phone, social media accounts – beats her with her laptop cable (amongst other implements) and, eventually, amongst the horrific psychological abuse, rapes her.

I really don’t know what my expectations were of this book, was I, not being one to ordinarily go out of my comfort zone, looking for something to affect me more than it did? For such a hard-hitting topic and a book with some truly harrowing scenes (the graphic imagining of what the rapes are doing to her body sticks particularly in the mind) I was left feeling somewhat distant from the narrator… isolated. Is this intentional or does it highlight some lack of empathy or experience in me? I expected to be blown away, I wanted to be blown away  but was instead left feeling rather flat. A feeling made all the more guilty by the fact that the novel is based on the author’s own personal experience.

Regardless of my own feelings and lack of engagement, this book is nevertheless incredibly important. Important because we experience this horror from the point of view of a woman we can relate to, who has, thankfully, not been silenced. A woman who was asked, bafflingly, by an audience at a feminist publishing house (no less), how she allowed her husband to abuse her. As much as we might condemn such an outwardly ignorant attitude, this novel forces us to confront our own ignorance and assumptions about the victims of domestic violence. With the what ifs and why didn’t shes crowding our mind despite ourselves, we are made to realise that this could, frighteningly, be one of us, and so much more easily than we might think.

Goodnight Gorilla

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When I first had a thought to do reviews for books aimed at babies/young children, I felt like it would be more interesting and helpful to focus on more recently published works. Works we never had as kids and that deserve a bit of attention rather than the solid classics.

Despite that, tripping down memory lane with some of these amazing books has just been so much fun; legitimate, childish fun I can have without embarrassment since I am, after all, reading to my little boy. As it turns out, the pull of nostalgia is far too strong, as will be the need to write a little something about my all-time favourites as we go along.

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Horrifyingly, in this case I had never actually heard of Peggy Rathman’s Goodnight, Gorilla growing up. I say horrifyingly; this is an American book and I was a little old when it was published in the 90s but still. After buying it on the advice of some book list I’d seen somewhere I was initially, and very naively as it turns out, disappointed by the fact that there are barely any words in this colourful board book.

Our zookeeper; ‘Joe’, takes time of an evening to say goodnight to all of the animals under his care, starting with a rather cheeky miniature gorilla who steals his keys and, as Joe makes his way around the zoo, releases the other animals one by one until they all follow him home to bed.

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In what is, for my little man, the most sidesplittingly hilarious page in the book, Joe’s  long-suffering (I reckon) wife discovers all the animals in her bedroom and patiently leads them back home (only to be followed home again by Gorilla and his little mousey mate.)

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This book is wonderful, a true toddlerhood comfort ‘read’ and it is the lack of words that makes it so genius. As well as the illustrations and story needing to be bold and amusing enough to make up for the lack of words, the lack of Mummy or Daddy blithering on actually leaves room for the child to build up their confidence to turn the pages and read for themselves, even to read to you if you’re lucky. For such a deceptively small and simple story, there’s something to spy anew every time you pick it up and the undersized elephant, cheeky monkey, banana-toting mouse and their friends leave plenty of opportunity for animal noises. Winner.

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

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On 4th August 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden, a prosperous bourgeois couple living in the Fall River area of Massachusetts, were bludgeoned to death with a hatchet in their own home. Andrew Borden’s face was so severely destroyed that he was unrecognisable. The culprit? According to the police, the daughter; 32-year-old Lizzie Borden.

This brutal crime and subsequent sensational trial (which ended with Lizzie Borden’s acquittal – women just weren’t capable of such violent crimes after all) is so well-known in America, they even have a song:

Lizzie Borden took an axe,

And gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

Shudder. (US readers – it isn’t a nursery rhyme or something horrendous is it? Like ‘ring a ring o’ roses??!’):

It is so hard now, with the passage of time and the no doubt questionable and inadequate  investigative techniques of yor, not only to know for certain who actually committed these gruesome murders but to understand the woman who was most likely the culprit. It is for this reason, along with the sheer infamy of these crimes even today (seriously, just have a quick Google there are some absolute diehard ‘fans’/theorists out there) that Sarah Schmidt is a brave woman to take on this crime as her subject, as ripe for retelling as it inevitably is.

This was April’s choice for the Manchester Book Club and I honestly thought we were in for one of those chats where, because everyone loved it, beyond explaining why we loved it there really wouldn’t be much left to say. This wasn’t to be so. To my delight (quite frankly, because I love a good discussion) some found the oppressive, sickening atmosphere that Schmidt so deftly builds up to be a little too much to stomach. I personally thought it was genius, and so cleverly done. This novel is less about the ‘whodunnit’ (covered so many times), ‘howdunnit’ or even necessarily the ‘whodunnit’ (that is kind of left up to the reader) than the hot, sticky, sickening atmosphere of the Borden house in the height of the Massachusetts summer.

Along with the heat, the actual illness of the main characters in the house (bar, ever suspiciously, Lizzie herself) helps to exacerbate the stomach churning feeling. A pot of mutton stew sits on the stove throughout the novel, to be reheated again and again. Watching the family tuck into the meat is disgusting enough in itself… are they making themselves ill? Or have they been poisoned?

The Lizzie Borden story will always be a guessing game. Schmidt paints her as a needy, vulnerable, slightly manic character who we can perfectly place with a hatchet in her hands. But why the mania, why the murder? Mr and Mrs Borden are not the most endearing of characters, particularly Andrew Borden, who Schmidt shows to be both distant and abusive. We can only wonder at what went on behind closed doors. We are also introduced to the creepy uncle ‘John’, in real life the only ‘outsider’ known to be staying in the Borden house around the time of the murders. His relationship with his ‘girls’ is, again, painted as a little off. Is he an abuser? Or, indeed, is he capable of murder himself?

I loved this book and promptly lent it to Mummy Relish (with a warning not to read it when in the house on her own, ironically I found the creepiest bit to be the epilogue where Schmidt describes her own stay in the murder house). The only part that jarred and I felt was thrown in just for the sake of throwing up the question of Lizzie’s guilt was a random character called ‘Billy’, whom John hires to hurt/threaten Andrew Borden (he never gets the chance). There is mystery enough in the Bordens’ sad story without throwing in an extra character, and an unendearing one at that.

This is more than worthy of the Women’s Prize Longlist. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for her for next week’s shortlist!

 

 

Books That Take Place Abroad

Courtesy of That Artsy Reader Girl, I’ll be dipping into books I’ve read that take place abroad (i.e. not the UK) this week. It feels a bit of a cheat really because, when I think about it, I don’t read a great many books set in England in the first place!

For these purposes, therefore, I need to think a little deeper. About those books with the greatest sense of place, that would be devoid of meaning without it.

A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

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The first time we went to India my other half and I were determined to read literature to go along with our trip. He read Shantaram (ridiculous, apparently) and I read Rohinton Mistry’s chunk of a novel. It is a phenomenal book, capturing India and its hierarchical society in all its glory. Brilliant, evocative and added a perfect extra layer to the holiday.

Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

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I read this classic so many years ago that the details are vague. However, what has easily remained with me is both how much I adored it (maybe time for a reread?) and its deeply evocative sense of place.

The Tiger’s Wife – Téa Obreht

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It seems odd I suppose to include a book here that I, controversially given its prize-winning status, didn’t much care for. In reality I found Obreht’s surreal tale to be unnecessarily confusing and meandering. That said, the bleak portrait she paints of an unknown Balkan state, with its icy weather, traditions and folklore has stuck with me ever since.

A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

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Another one that I read years and years ago but whose images; dusty courtyards, bombed out houses, women gazing through the mesh of their burqa, have seared themselves in my mind. And I haven’t even read The Kite Runner yet. Yey.

Ruby –  Cynthia Bond

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As tough as some of the scenes are in this tale of abuse and betrayal in America’s Deep South, the atmosphere and imagery of rural East Texas are undeniably beautiful.

The Orchard of Lost Souls – Nadifa Mohamed

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I’ve said it countless times but I really need (still) to read more African literature. Somalia is a real black hole on a map for me, thankfully less so after reading this Mohamed’s thoughtful, complex second novel.

Wild Swans – Jung Chang

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This task is so useful for reflecting on books I read years ago. I stared at this one on my auntie’s bookshelves for years before finally picking it up. It is an absolute must read. Epic.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

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An entirely different side to America than Ruby, Donna Tartt’s doorstop novel, which I dog-eared to bits, is phenomenal, ranging from a cosy, antique New York to a cold, hard Los Angeles, whose dusty streets and sterile homes magnify the sense of unease and foreboding.

Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

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This classic really gets mixed reviews so I felt rather dubious when it was chosen by the book club one month. To my surprise I really loved it and that was helped by the vivid picture Rhys paints of life in nineteenth century Jamaica/Dominica. Hot, oppressive and delirious.

Carmen – Prosper Mérimée

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I was so excited to read the novella that inspired Bizet’s famous opera. Mérimée is always good for a short story and Carmen is no exception. It also helps that I lived in wonderful Sevilla for a very short time and have LIVED that famous cigar factory. Yas.

Oh No, George! – Chris Haughton

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Ah George. Your perfectly rounded dome head, your dopey stare, your perfectly floppy ears…your great big clumsy body….hang on, I’ve seen you somewhere before….

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Inspired by our very own dome head, my other half bought Chris Haughton’s book on a whim whilst loitering around Waterstones one chilly afternoon. This tale of doggy mischief and mayhem is hilarious and heartwarming and another absolute fave in the Relish household at the moment.

George the Labrador (this isn’t specified by the way, I just like to think of him as a lab) lives with owner, Harris (who is, I’d like to note here, both smaller than George and rather green around the gills) who decides to leave poor George to his devices one day. I say poor George as the prospect of being left alone in the house with a cake, a cat AND some lovely potted plants makes him incredibly nervous.

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What follows are the disastrous consequences of Harris’ departure, as George, unable to resist his doggy instincts, makes mistake after mistake, all accompanied by the cry ‘Oh no George!’ Reading to a toddler every day you swiftly come to realise the value of Repetition, with a capital R.

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Harris of course has to eventually come back, George is rumbled and absolutely devastated by his behaviour. In a scene that I think is simply the saddest I’ve read in a long time (yes, more than THAT scene in One Day) George, with a tear rolling down his cheek, apologises and offers his beloved Harris his toy duck. Oh George, you break my heart.

Being a sensible sort of chap Harris suggests going for a nice walk to clear the air, a walk where George redeems himself by ignoring all temptation. What a good boy. But wait……an overflowing bin looms on the horizon. Baby is left with a nerve-wracking cliff hanger. Will he go for the rubbish? I personally like to think he does.

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I love this book. From a personal point of view it makes me feel like I understand our great daft dog a little better and, I hope, makes me a little kinder to him when he snaffles in the rubbish bin. Ish! I wasn’t overly keen on the Microsoft-paint style illustrations at first but the naive style really does grow on you and after a while, I cottoned on to what I think Haughton is trying to do here. And its charming.

But never mind me, does baby like it? The answer is a big fat yes. The colours are bold and the characters recognisable (it helps that we have our very own teeny black cat and great big dog at home). The constant repetition of ‘oh no George!’ (and, later, ‘well done George!’) is something he’s waiting for, the anticipation making it all the more hilarious. I also think it’s important for young children to get to know characters like George, who make mistakes despite their best intentions. It seems an important message to send that we’re not all perfect after all and that, if you’re genuinly sorry for stealing that slice of cake and make a big effort to redeem yourself afterwards, everything’s probably going to be absolutely fine.

Warm, funny, colourful, relatable, all we need in a baby book.

 

‘Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of one’s desires, but by the removal of desire…No man is free who is not master of himself.’              

 EPICTETUS   (and George, the dog)