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.

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.

Reading the Iranian Revolution

House of the MosquePersepolis

Last month, I found myself reading two very different literary takes on twentieth-century Iranian history: Kader Abdolah’s semi-autobiographical novel The House of the Mosque and Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis. My book club had chosen The House of the Mosque as January’s discussion book, and so when I saw a copy of Persepolis at a local charity shop, I bought it—it would be interesting, I thought to read two books that follow the turmoil of Iranian politics through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. This was a period that I knew little about before reading the two books, and even now I’d say that my understanding of Iranian history and politics during this era is rather hazy. Both books use political events as a backdrop for other stories, and in The House of the Mosque, I found it at times challenging to tell how much of the plot was historical and how much was imagined.

The House of the Mosque follows the rising and falling fortunes of the occupants of a house attached to a mosque in Senejan. Aqa Jaan, the patriarch of the family is a traditionalist, but not a fundamentalist, and we see him and other members of the family examining their relationship to Islam, first amid the Shah’s push for Westernization, and then under Ayatollah Khomeini’s religious regime. While many members of my book club enjoyed the novel’s atmospheric vignettes, I found myself frustrated by how characters dropped in and out of the meandering plot, often without a clear purpose. I was also unimpressed by the characterization of most of the women in the novel—Abdolah spends a lot of time depicting various women acquiescing to their lovers, but doesn’t tell us much about the women’s motivations for the actions outside of the bedroom (a plot line in which one woman becomes a brutal interrogator for the secret police is barely explained).

Persepolis, on the other hand, is primarily a coming-of-age story, and its plot follows Satrapi’s life from her childhood to her early twenties. Like The House of the MosquePersepolis shows characters evaluating their religious and political beliefs, but unlike most of the characters in Abdolah’s novel, Marjane and her family are radical leftists, and the graphic memoir is full of discussions of Marxist theory. When Marjane is eventually sent away to school in Austria, she falls in with a crowd of anarchists, thinking they’ll understand and respect her experiences in Iran. She is disappointed to find that her new friends are more interested in getting high than talking politics—for them, Marxism and anarchism are simply a cool shorthand for punk culture.

Though I decidedly preferred Persepolis to The House of the Mosque, I am glad that I read them in tandem. The two books refer to many of the same historical events, and it was informative to glimpse those events through the eyes of two sets of characters with very different values. I also left both books with a renewed sense of curiosity about Iranian history, and I was reminded of how, as a teen, reading historical fiction sparked my interest in studying history more formally. It’s always a good sign, I think, when you close a book feeling eager to learn more.

Rewatching “Girls”

Girls-TV-show-cast

This spring, I watched from my couch in Queens as Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) said goodbye to the city and moved upstate to an utterly unrealistic teaching job. Then, I opened my laptop and began reading the approximately 1,000 think pieces on the show’s final season.

I thought back to April 2012, when Girls had first premiered. At the time, I was a high school senior, one academic year behind Zosia Mamet’s character, Shoshanna. Six months later, I started watching the show because everyone at my women’s college seemed to talking about it: the nudity and cringe-worthy sex scenes, the cast’s problematic lack of diversity, and the gentrifying Brooklyn that it portrayed. The show was fresh and new and flawed but, true to the spirit of millennial hipster culture, no one was sure if it was deeply contrived or deeply honest.

There is probably little I can say about Girls that has not been said before. To rehash some of the key points: The show is at times good and at times terrible, and it is always messy. Like its obvious predecessor, Sex & The City, it features four white, single women living in New York, and it’s frank about sex and dating and love and friendship in ways that often felt groundbreaking. In both shows, characters who are “broke” can mysteriously live in their own spacious apartments. Sex & The City is sometimes described in aspirational terms, with  “I’m a Carrie” and “I’m a Samantha” comparisons, but no one really wants be one a character in Girls. I’ve never heard someone self-identify as “a Hannah,” “a Marnie,” “a Jessa,” or “a Shoshanna.”

This week, I’ve started re-watching Girls, and though I almost always rewatch shows from beginning to end, I found myself watching out-of-order. I skipped most of the season where Hannah is working as a teacher because her lack of boundaries with students frustrates me too much.  I watched Marnie’s (Allison Williams) wedding, and then skipped ahead to the aftermath of her divorce. I watched the season 6 episode where Shoshanna stages a friend-breakup in the bathroom of her engagement party, and the episodes in which Hanna’s father comes out as gay and her parents decide to divorce.

Girls doesn’t go as far as Master of None in exploring the potential of tv episodes that function as short films, but many of the best episodes of Girls can be watched as stand-alone stories. Marnie’s night walking through Manhattan with her ex, Shoshanna’s business trip to Japan, Hannah’s visit home to see her dying grandmother, and her interview with a manipulative and famous male writer are all slightly disconnected from the show’s central narrative.

As I zig-zagged through six seasons of a show that is, for better or worse, a voice of a generation, I wondered if this could be where a certain type of tv is headed: 25 minute mini-films that can be watched together or apart, in or out of sequence, neither pure comedy nor pure drama.

Revisiting Dodi Smith’s I Capture the Castle

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When the film adaptation of Dodi Smith’s I Capture the Castle appeared in my Prime Video recommendations last week, I couldn’t help but add it to my queue. I’ve loved the novel for years, and I have a distinct memory of reading the novel for the first time, sitting in a green-and-white striped armchair in the driveway in front of my parents’ house (it was summer vacation, and the living room floors were being redone).

At the time, I was a methodical diarist, and I believed myself to be in unrequited love with a boy who was two years older than me and to whom I barely spoke. I Capture the Castle felt like exactly the book I needed: an Austen-esque bildungsroman, the novel is told from the perspective of seventeen year old diarist Cassandra Mortmain, who lives with her eccentric family in a decrepit castle that her father, a struggling but famous writer, has not paid rent on in years. When two brothers, Simon and Neil, inherit the castle and move in next door, they seem to offer a way out of poverty and boredom: a strategic marriage between Rose, Cassandra’s twenty-year-old sister, and Simon, the eldest son could keep the family financially afloat. Simon and Neil seem like Darcy and Bingley. Rose tries to flirt like girls in classic novels and at first fails miserably—she doesn’t know how to be a modern woman of the 1930s. Matchmaking plans are set into motion, and it all feels like a romantic game—until, suddenly, it isn’t fun anymore.

Reading the novel as a young teen, I identified with Cassandra’s aching desire to be a writer, to understand her family and the adults around her, to fall in love, to become an adult herself. In one scene early in the novel, Cassandra overhears a conversation between Simon, the man who she falls in love with and who becomes her sister’s fiancé, and his brother. The two remark that she is “a cute kid” and “a bit self-consciously naive.” Cassandra is furious, and when I first read the novel, I was furious on her behalf. Revisiting the story now, I still recognize those feelings, but I see something else, too: that Cassandra, who says she “feels older” than seventeen, is very, very young. This isn’t to say that her feelings and observations should be disregarded—Cassandra’s teenage perspective and her voice as a narrator are exactly what make the novel so compelling and relatable.

At 23, I hardly possess years of worldly experience, but I think I’m now a bit wiser than Cassandra or the equally sheltered Rose. At fourteen, I saw the Rose-Cassandra-Simon love triangle as tragically romantic, but last week, watching the film, I was struck by how deeply inappropriate it is for Simon to kiss Cassandra. He is a grown man, engaged to her sister, and she is seventeen. Simon sees this as no big deal, and though Cassandra is distraught by the idea that she has betrayed her sister, she still sees Simon as essentially a good man, someone worthy of her love. Suddenly, Simon seems more Wickham than Darcy.

And then, there’s Stephen, the son of the Mortmain’s former housekeeper and love interest Cassandra by all rights should end up with. Yet, when he takes a modeling gig so he can save up to buy Cassandra a radio, he ends up sleeping with a much-older, married photographer. When Cassandra discovers this, she finds herself inexplicably upset. She and Stephen talk it over—how love and desire are messier, more complicated than either of them had imagined. Yet neither Stephen nor Cassandra seem to see that their older partners of taken advantage of their idealistic views of love and sex.

In spite of the novel’s nods to Austen and classic marriage plots, only a few characters in I Capture the Castle have traditionally happy endings. At the same time, no one really gets a tragic ending either—instead, they go on with their imperfect lives. Cassandra has been unlucky in love, and she says she was a fool to ever think she could “capture” the world on paper—but we readers know she has grown up, grown wiser, and that she is certainly a writer.


A few final notes:

  1. In case you haven’t read the novel, you can read an excerpt of the first chapter here. In my opinion, it has one of the best opening lines of all time.
  2. In the film adaptation, Rose is played by Rose Byrne. It delights me that before she was in Bridesmaids and X-Men, she was a supporting character in several British period dramas (she’s also in the David Tennant version of Casanova).