Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez and A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier
I’ve been on several weeks holiday and have divided my time between gardening, socialising and unpacking a house after a recent move. Oh, and I’ve found some time for reading.
Invisible Women is a rousing call to action that addresses a glaring blind spot in the data collection that increasingly dictates our lives: information about women. Across a whole range of issues, from transportation to work, medicine to machines, women’s experiences are not being tracked and therefore not being accounted for. As a result, half the world risks consequences that range from frustrating to fatal as we traverse a world that is not built for us. Criado Perez writes in an engaging and readable style, with appropriate sarcasm and humour balancing the rage that is induced by her comprehensive attack on the many gender gaps in our knowledge. The economic, social and medical costs of excluding such a large portion of humanity are drawn starkly and I hope that the recent awarding of the Royal Society of Science prize means that this book engenders future change.
Speaking of invisible women, Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, A Single Thread, kept me entertained and fascinated by a group of women often forgotten in history: the unfortunately named ‘surplus women’, who lived between the wars in the UK without men to give them substance or protection. One such woman, Violet, moves to the town of Winchester to escape her difficult mother in an attempt to strike out on her own. She becomes involved with a group of ’broderers’ at the cathedral, who are working on a large scale project to fill the pews with kneelers and cushions. Chevalier skilfully brings to life a range of characters who demonstrate the limited options available to women of the time, but who manage to make their mark in spite of the unfavourable circumstances. A deeply enjoyable holiday read that has enough meat to take to your book club.
The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie
I don’t know if this happens to you but I am having a period of not reading as much as usual. I know it will pass and meanwhile I’m listening to lots of book podcasts. But I did read Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s Stella prizewinning book, The Erratics. This is the memoir of a family that is dominated by a narcissistic personality disordered mother, although was not diagnosed until very recently. Vicki returns home to Canada following 18 years of estrangement from her parents. The visit is preceded by her mother being admitted to hospital after a fall. Vicki and her sister arrive to find their father in very poor health. Despite their mother’s charismatic and compelling personality – she tells astounding lies – they take the opportunity to ensure that their mother does not return home again. Well this is a tragic story of the devastating impact that this mother has wrought on her family, but it is told with some humour and spareness of detail.
Irma Voth by Miriam Toews and Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
I stayed up all night reading Irma Voth by Miriam Toews and now I’m at work in a daze, still in the strange and wonderful and distressing world of Irma. A customer ordered in this book and then lent it to me saying she think I’d like it and I think I may honestly have found my new favourite book. Irma is nineteen and her family is part of a Mennonite community camp. She is quietly rebellious, astute and hilarious in her perception of the world. She marries an outsider Mexican man, unacceptable to her family and is moved to a house nearby. There is an empty expansiveness of the Chihuahuan desert scrublands in Mexico. Her husband soon tells her she is a bad wife and leaves. Irma is lost and aimless until a chaotic film crew arrive, with idealistic plans to make a film about Mennonites. She is drawn in to their artistic life and ideas. As her role as translator for the lead actress leads her to experiment with her view of the world as she deliberately translates incorrectly and drives her own narrative. While the book is subversive and humourous, the oppressiveness of her Mennonite family is not ignored. She literally runs for her life with her sisters to Mexico and begins to start a new life there. This book is such a unique and compelling story of finding your own way and overcoming adversity. I already miss Irma!
I’m also chipping away at Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann, a contender for the Man Booker prize this year. It is 998 pages and is written in eight sentences. I didn’t know this when I started it and it took me a while to notice. An Ohio housewife who was once a teacher, but after recovering from cancer, now bakes pies at home and takes care of her family, is our company for these eight long sentences. This compelling and witty book experiments with what stream of consciousness writing can do and made me think about how sculpted narrative usually is. I enjoy the honesty and immediacy of this structure and feel like I’m in an intimate space with the narrator. I suppose it’s close to being inside someone else’s head. The narrator jumps from subjects erratically and tackles things such as cinnamon rolls, a good time to plant nasturtiums, the Black Lives Matter movement, the death of her mother and the fact that apparently teenagers check their phones 2000 times a day. Ducks, Newburyport is an original and refreshing read. I would recommend to people who are usually drawn to writing and characters over plot. I am totally hooked – will report more next month.