Girl with Dove: A Life Built by Books

Girl with Dove is an uncommon book about an unusual childhood. Growing up in a crowded, ramshackle house where grownups often behaved in ways that were difficult to understand, Sally Bayley read and re-read Jane Eyre, Miss Marple, and David Copperfield, gleaning clues she hoped would help her make sense of her world. Girl with Dove is a memoir, but because Bayley delves so deeply into her childhood imaginings, blurring the lines between fiction, family history, and memory, the book often reads like fiction.

In her short preface to Girl with Dove, Bayley writes, “All stories have backstories, at least all stories worth knowing about, and all readers want to pry into those unlit spaces. We read to get back to those dark and dusty corners, to scrape back to old patterns: the strange symbol beneath the damp plaster, the squiggles on the crumbling wall.”

As I began reading the book, I assumed that this comment was primarily self-descriptive, that Bayley was telling us why she reads, and why she read as a child. But revisiting the preface after my first read through her memoir, I began to suspect that this opening is also a reminder to the reader, a prediction that, as we read this book, we will find ourselves searching for the backstory, trying to pry into dark corners of the author’s memories.

This idea of backstories runs through Girl with Dove, both in the sense that, as a memoir, it is the backstory of the author, a bildungsroman that tells us how she became who she is, and also in that it is a book that requires us to read between the lines, looking for subtext and history, clues to what we’ve missed. Like a crime novel, Girl with Dove relies on the reader’s desire to figure things out. As we read, we both construct a narrative for ourselves and watch young Sally struggling to use familiar stories like Jane Eyre and David Copperfield to understand her family and her place within it.

Through the young Sally’s literary imaginings, Miss Marple’s village, St. Mary Mead, is transposed on top of Littlehampton, where Sally grows up; Sally’s mother, with her shiny black handbag and coiffed blonde hair, becomes Margaret Thatcher from the newspapers, or, wandering around the house in her nightgown, transforms into a ghostly woman from a Bronte novel; and the discreet, reliable doctors from Agatha Christie novels amalgamate into the doctor who Sally visits on Maltravers drive. And then there are family secrets and histories, the kinds of memories that are half your own and half other people’s, stories assembled from things you saw and heard, and things the grownups said when they thought you weren’t listening. Sally recounts the story of her grandmother Maisie’s marriage to Awful Alfred, who “made her do the washing up and cook the dinner for years”; she imagines Maisie as a young woman, working as a maid for someone like Miss Marple; she pieces together stories of Sue, her aunt, who spoke in tongues and delivered prophecies and married herself off to Christ in the front room.

Early in Girl With Dove, Bayley writes, “Miss Marple likes to deal with facts, because facts are concrete. Mum likes facts too. […] ‘You’ve got to get your facts straight, Sally. First ask, what are the facts? You’ve got to get your facts first before you can begin anything!’” But facts are elusive. Girl with Dove is constructed around a rough timeline of facts: the death of baby David, the appearance of Aunt Di upstairs, a visit from a social worker, the arrival of a small inheritance, and Sally’s decision to put herself into care. But a look closer at any one of these facts raises new questions and uncertainties: What exactly happened to David? Who was Sue? Who were the strange singing people she had once brought to the house, and where did they all go off to? Not all of these questions are answered, which some readers may find frustrating; but it’s worth considering whether a memoir with loose ends is perhaps more honest than one that reveals all and wraps up neatly.

Bayley has a vivid, distinctive voice, and I was impressed with how deftly she handled the book’s more fraught moments, portraying her family with affection and humor, even when she has clearly been hurt by them. Girl with Dove is also unique in that it is as much a meditation on how stories and memories shape one another as it is a coming-of-age story, and I’ve found it difficult to think of books that do so in a similar way. The closest comparison I can think of is Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a work of auto-fiction that plays with genre in rather different ways. Readers looking for an inventive exploration of how books shape us will not be disappointed.

‘Am I Normal Yet?’ Holly Bourne tackles love, friendship, and mental health with honesty and humor

Am I Normal Yet? Holly Bourne

After spending weeks eyeing up Holly Bourne’s Spinster Club trilogy in the bookshop where I work, I finally bought a copy of the first book in the series, Am I Normal Yet?, and I was delighted to find that it was nothing short of brilliant. Am I Normal Yet? follows 16-year-old Evie, who is learning how to manage her OCD symptoms, and who hopes that the new school year will give her a chance to finally be a “normal” teenage girl. Evie throws herself into social life, but finds that her flirtation with a guy named Guy is starting to chip away at her newfound sense of normalcy. Yet throughout the novel, her most important relationships are with her supportive, wise-beyond-her-years younger sister, and her two new best friends, Lottie and Amber. Together, Lottie, Amber, and Evie form the Spinster Club, a kind of feminist discussion group that introduces readers to concepts like the Bechdel Test and the Madonna-Whore complex.

At one of their meetings, Lottie brings up the idea of the manic pixie dream girl. “She’s like this invention in men’s imagination,” she explains, “but girls pretend they’re real.” Reading these lines, I wished that I had had these books when I was sixteen. At the time, almost every girl I knew wanted to be Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer: elusive, glamorous, carefree, with smooth hair and a wardrobe of quirky vintage dresses and heels that we magically knew how to walk in. In reality, we sat at our desks in sweatshirts and jeans, sleep-deprived and anxious over AP exam results and the tryouts for the school play. We yearned to be beautiful like Zooey Deschanel, beautiful in the way that One Direction sang about: we didn’t feel beautiful, but maybe we were. Maybe our own inability to recognize our beauty was the very thing that would make us beautiful to the boys we lusted after. Maybe we, too, could be the manic pixie dream girl. It never occurred to us that she might not be real—and that’s exactly why books like Am I Normal Yet? are so important.

As I read, I was blown away by how deftly Bourne writes about Big Issues like feminism and mental health without being heavy-handed or compromising on honesty or humor. Am I Normal Yet? shines a light on OCD and the experiences of recovery and relapse, but it also tells a relatable story about friendship and teenage romantic entanglements. As a teen, I loved to swoon over passages describing protagonists falling in love, and Am I Normal Yet? does have plenty of thrilling kisses and gazing-into-each-other’s-eyes moments; but one of the things that I admire about the book is its refusal to glorify romance or sex as the thing that will ‘fix’ you, while at the same time acknowledging how easy it is to be misled into thinking that, maybe, if the right person kisses you, you’ll feel whole again.

The next two books in the Spinster Club series—How Hard Can Love Be and What’s a Girl Gotta Do?—follow Lottie and Amber, and I’m eager to get a glimpse of the world from the perspectives of two characters I’ve already come to know and love. I’m equally excited to read Bourne’s first novel for adults, How Do You Like Me Now? when it debuts later this year.

Collateral: A Subtly Subversive Thriller

Collateral Carey Mulligan

Collateral, David Hare’s new thriller produced by the BBC, centers on the murder of a pizza delivery man, but as its name suggests, the miniseries is not just about the murder. Though the show follows the police investigation led by D.I. Kip Glaspie (Carey Mulligan), the viewer knows the identity, if not the motive, of the killer from the first episode on. As Kip works to put the pieces together, the viewer has time not only to unpack why the crime took place but to consider what the experiences of the people involved can tell us about our society.

Though the show delivers on plot twists and suspense, it’s more nuanced than your average crime drama. In Collateral, there are no shots of the corpse in the morgue; we see the shooting, but the camera does not linger on the body. Rather, by focusing on the living, Collateral encourages viewers to explore how a crime can harm people who are merely adjacent to it.

Many of the miniseries’ central characters are women, and as they reckon with the fallout of the murder, we see them negotiating sexism in their daily lives, whether it arrives in the form of a snide but harmless comment from a male colleague, or coercive sex. Mulligan was pregnant during the show’s filming, and rather than use camera angles to obscure this fact, Hare wrote the pregnancy into the script. Hare invites us to share Kip’s shrug of annoyance when a male police officer comments on her pregnancy, but Kip herself hardly alludes to the fact that she’s pregnant—she’s too busy getting on with her job.

Hare shows how the characters’ experiences of the crime are filtered through class as well as through gender, emphasizing how the collateral damage of a crime is most severe for people whose economic situation or immigration status makes them in some way vulnerable. This is especially evident in the plot lines devoted to the sisters of the murdered delivery man (Ahd Hassan Kamel and July Namir), refugees who may soon be deported; the sole witness to the murder, a Vietnamese foreign student (Kae Alexander) who has overstayed her visa; and the manager of the pizza restaurant (Hayley Squires), a single woman caring for her dying mother in their council estate flat.

Stories like that of the sisters of the murder victim are thrown into contrast by their more affluent counterparts, reminding viewers how wealth and social status shield the innocent from incidental damage and the guilty from justice. The woman who ordered the pizza, (Billy Piper) can afford to treat the murder and the police investigation as an unwanted intrusion into her chaotic home. Her ex-husband, the local Labour MP (John Simm), makes a statement condemning hate crimes against immigrants, and his job is more or less done. And as the plot unfolds, subplots emerge that hint of government corruption and potential military involvement.

With Collateral, Hare has artfully constructed not only a gripping thriller with a Dickensian web of interconnected characters, but a thoughtful commentary on issues as diverse and complicated as sexual harassment in the workplace, the refugee crisis, immigration policy, class disparities in gentrifying London, and the consequences of UK military involvement in the Middle East. The show’s emphasis on the perspectives of women, minorities, and marginalized members of society is subtly subversive in a genre which frequently turns a voyeuristic gaze towards these kinds of characters. Smart, empathetic, and unsettling, Collateral charts a course that prestige crime dramas would do well to follow.

Short Story Renaissance: Carmen Maria Machado & Jeffrey Eugenides

For me, as for many people, reading fiction usually means reading novels. Writers have a tendency to think of short stories as “practice” for longer works; and many readers, I think, associate short stories with either high-brow literary magazines or the mid-century American fiction read in high school literature classes. However, the past few years have seen a kind of rebirth of the short story—walk into any bookstore and you’ll see recent short story collections displayed prominently, and just a few months ago Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” went viral after being published by The New Yorker.

In recent months, I’ve found myself reading more and more short fiction, too. Short story collections, I’ve found, fit the rhythm of my day nicely. I tend to read while commuting, and I can usually finish a story or two on one journey. If you don’t want to commit to a 250-page novel, a short story collection gives you the freedom of reading a story, putting down the book, and then returning to it days or weeks later.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been reading:

Her Body and Other PartiesHer Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

By the time I got my hands on a (signed!) copy of Her Body and Other Parties, I’d been eagerly awaiting the book’s release for several years. The first short story in Her Body and Other Parties, “The Husband Stitch” was originally published in Granta in October 2014, and when I read it, I sent it to my best friend in an email full of exclamation points. The story is beautifully written, haunting, and emotionally astute. Her Body and Other Parties was nominated for a National Book Award, and I’ve seen Machado compared many times to Shirley Jackson, another master of the short story form. I think characterization is, in many ways fitting—like Jackson, Machado uses elements of the supernatural to write about women and their experiences, but Machado’s writing delves much more frankly into sex and sexuality than any of Jackson’s short stories that I’ve read. In many interviews, Machado is asked about her approach to writing about sex, or if she considers her stories erotic. While sex is certainly an important element of many of Machado’s stories, I think it would be tragically reductionist to consider the collection a work of erotica. Machado never presents sex voyeuristically; the sex scenes are sometimes sexy, but they are not there to arouse the readers. Rather, the sex scenes give us a deeper understanding of the characters and their relationships. My current favorite in the collection is “Inventory,” in which a woman’s memories of past lovers give shape to a futuristic story of biological apocalypse. On my first reading of the collection, I found some stories easier to digest and understand than others. Perhaps because I’ve never watched SVU, I found it difficult to make sense of the novella Especially Heinous, which spins a ghost story out of characters and circumstances taken from the show. However, I’m certain that it will reward re-reading, and I’m looking forward to returning to the collection in months and years to come.

Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey EugenidesFresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides

After discovering Jeffrey Eugenides during my sophomore year of college, I read The Marriage Plot, The Virgin Suicides, and Middlesex in a matter of months. I adored The Marriage Plot in particular, and when I picked up Fresh Complaint at the library a few weeks ago, I assumed it too was a novel. In fact, the book is a short story collection. Some were written as recently as 2017; others as early as the mid-1990s. Some of the older short stories feel more than a bit cringe-worthy given changing social mores—”Baster,” in which the narrator secretly swaps his own sperm for the sample his friend intends to use to get pregnant, is one of these. But I was touched by “Complainers,” which charts a friendship between two aging women, one of whom has dementia; and I enjoyed “Airmail,” which gave me a chance to revisit Mitchell Grammaticus, a character from The Marriage Plot, on a beach in Bali. Still, Fresh Complaint left me slightly disappointed; Eugenides might have done better to leave some of his older stories in the drawer.

Also on my list of short story collections to read:

  • Emerald City by Jennifer Egan
  • Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
  • Difficult Women by Roxanne Gay
  • The Complete Short Stories by Muriel Spark

 

 

End of an Era: Reading the final installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

Elena Ferrante My Brilliant Friend The Story of a New Name Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay The Story of the Lost Child

Last night, I arrived home from work, heated up some leftover takeout curry, and finished The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. The books follow Ferrante’s narrator Elena and her friend, Lila, from their shared childhood in a poor, Camorra-controlled neighborhood in Naples; into their teens and twenties, when Elena leaves the neighborhood, attends university and establishes herself as a scholar and writer; their thirties and forties, when they are once more living nearby in the neighborhood; and into their fifties and sixties, when their friendship begins to disintegrate.

Ferrante’s narrative accumulates details, gestures, and interpersonal histories in a way that allows her to imbue a pair of shoes or a glance between friends with devastating meaning. Near the end of the first novel, one of the Solara brothers—Lila’s enemy and one of the most powerful figures in the neighborhood—arrive at a wedding reception wearing a certain pair of shoes. I gasped aloud. Without Ferrante saying so, I knew that a terrible betrayal had taken place, and I was stunned by how deftly Ferrante had given me all of the details that I needed to be able to understand what the shoes meant.

One of the things I love about Ferrante’s writing was the way that she captured what it feels like to be simultaneously in your own mind and in a world made up of other people. We all know what it feels like to be half in a conversation and also thinking about something else: how handsome the man you’re talking to is, what your best friend would say if she were here, how secretly uncertain you are of the opinions you’re expressing.

I’ve been reading my way through the series for the last six or seven months, interspersing Ferrante’s novels with other books along the way, and I felt a sense of both completeness and emptiness as I reached the last page of The Story of the Lost Child. In a sense, the process of reading the novels seemed to mark out an era of my own life. Like the narrator Elena, who has furiously written pages and pages of text recounting her friendship with Lila, I couldn’t believe it was over.

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West—an empathetic, allegorical story of the refugee crisis

Exit West Mohsin HamidI have been eager to get hold of a copy of Mohsin Hamid’s slim and timely novel, Exit West, ever since reading a November review in the London Review of Books, and this past week finally I sat down and read it, devouring the book in three days. I’d previously read The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and I was impressed by how he had created a measured and idiosyncratic voice for his narrator, a man who may—or may not—be a terrorist. Exit West is a very different kind of novel, but it shares with The Reluctant Fundamentalist a slightly abstracted, allegorical sensibility.

The premise of Exit West is simple: in an unnamed city that we can guess is located somewhere in the Middle East, a young man and a young woman meet in a continuing education class and fall in love. Nadia and Saeed listen to music and cook for each other and smoke weed and dream of traveling. When war breaks out and the city is taken over by fundamentalists, they decide they will try to flee the country. This is where an element of the surreal comes into play: Nadia and Saeed have heard a rumor that doors around the city are transforming into portals that lead to other parts of the world. They pay a smuggler who takes them to a dentist’s office. They open a cupboard door, step through, and find themselves on a Greek island. The couple stays in a refugee camp there for a while before finding another door, which leads them to London. Months later, they pass through another door to California. The story of Nadia and Saeed’s journey and their relationship is interspersed with vignettes about other migrants in other places.

This conceit allows Hamid to explore the idea of migration without actually describing the arduous process of crossing borders. It feels almost impossible not to read the story as a commentary on the current refugee crisis, and the portals themselves suggest that borders, as delineated by the state, are arbitrary and impossible to enforce. In Exit West, the world remakes itself to allow migration to take place; like it or not, people always have, and always will, move from place to place. In London, Nadia and Saeed witness the fury of UKIP-esque nativists, but the locals eventually realize that they must find a way to live alongside the migrants who have come to their city.

Late in the novel, Hamid writes of a woman who has lived all her life in one house, and who nonetheless finds that much of the world around her seems foreign. “We are all migrants through time,” he writes, and I see meaning in Hamid’s choice to use the word migration throughout the novel rather than immigration or emigration. In Exit West, migration isn’t always a matter of where you are leaving from or going to. By the time Nadia and Saeed leave the city where they grew up, it must seem to them in many ways unrecognizable. Even if we ourselves don’t move, places will remake themselves about us.

Visiting the Library

For the first time since graduating from college, I have a library card once again, and for the past few weeks, I’ve been relishing my visits to my local library here in London.

Growing up, one of the few reasons I went “downtown” was to visit the library. In the summer, the library offered an escape from slow days at home with nothing to do. I would spend hours combing my way through the stacks in the Young Adult and Fiction sections, and then lug home enormous tote bags full of books, which I kept in a stack beside my bed until I had to return them.

Recently, I’ve been reliving this routine: I work from home most days, so a trip to the library is an escape from freelancer cabin-fever. Unlike getting a cup of coffee, it costs exactly nothing, and since the library is walking distance from my flat, it’s also a chance to stretch my legs. But best of all, I get to bring home a glorious stack of books.

This week’s picks, in the order that they have been haphazardly stacked on my bookshelf:

  • Fresh Complaint, by Jeffery Eugenides
  • How to Eat by Nigella Lawson
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  • My Cat Yugolavia by Pajtim Statovci
  • The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
  • A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

I won’t get through all of these books this week. I’ll renew some, browse some and return some. I think part of what I love about libraries is this sense of abundance—you can borrow any book on the shelves, and there are more books on the shelves than you’ll likely ever read. Libraries are one of the best public resources we have, and I can hardly believe that I went so long without visiting one.

In the spirit of celebrating libraries and all that they offer, I want to close by sharing an iconic (in my mind) clip from the children’s tv show, Arthur. If you are moved to do so, feel free to join me in chanting the refrain.