Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
Over the summer break I read two big fat engrossing reads that couldn’t be otherwise more different (except that they’ve both won the Man Booker Prize).
Wolf Hall is the first in a captivating trilogy (soon to be complete) that follows the life of Thomas Cromwell. Mantel has clearly researched her subject deeply and one is immersed in the royal court during one of its most tumultuous periods – separation of England from Rome and Henry VIII’s succession of wives. Although it is set in the 16th century, the characters leap to life immediately and what struck me was how thoroughly relevant and modern it seemed. The political machinations, greed and personal enmity that drives many of the decisions made throughout the book seem to find a mirror in the cut-throat political landscape of today.
The depiction of Cromwell’s character, however, is what really endeared me to the book. His difficult childhood, the love he had for his wife and children, and the home he fostered for many waiflings or other rejected children stand in stark contrast to the violent and conniving portrait we are presented with in the history books. Women, too, get more credit than usual through Mantel’s lens as we see the scope of women’s influence; for example, Anne Boleyn using what subtle tools she has to rise to power. Mantel’s third book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, has just been released and I’m so excited to dive into some more meaty historical fiction.
A much more 21st century book is the winner of this year’s Booker Prize, Girl, Woman, Other: a chorus of voices that weaves together to create a whole. We meet 12 different people over the course of the book, mostly women, mostly black, in London and its surrounds. Evaristo creates an enchanting portrait of each person as we fill in their backstory to understand where they have come from and how that dictates where they end up. Egos jostle together with understated personalities and the qualities of each person are displayed alongside their foibles and biases, even if they can’t fully recognise these traits as such. Often collections of stories struggle to form a coherent whole, but this narrative comes together pleasingly as you place each person within the ecosystem of the novel. A great book club read full of entertaining and diverse voices.
Welcoming the Unwelcome by Pema Chodron and The Reunion by Fred Uhlman
Two books from my summer reading are gems to be shared. Whilst I was struggling with the horrors of the fires and feeling anxious and concerned and quite helpless I read Pema Chodron’s latest book. Welcoming the Unwelcome not only reminded me to continue with my meditation practice but also gave me a way to keep feeling connected with others and compassionate in hard times. Her wisdom and experience is perfect for these heartbreaking times.
I also read a 1960 classic, Fred Uhlman’s The Reunion and thank you to the lovely customer who made me aware of this little book. It is somewhat autobiographical and tells the intense story of a friendship between two schoolboys, one a Jew and the other a Christian. Set in Germany just as Hitler and anti-semitism is rising, the tension between the two teenagers becomes excruciating. Hans, the Jewish boy is sent to New York by his family to keep him safe. The book is beautiful and sad and at just 74 pages, is a perfect story of friendship, loss, betrayal and growing up.
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
I was planning to write about Girl, Woman, Other but Annie beat me to it. I can’t recommend it enough, it is a fabulous book. Also a fabulous read that challenges preconceptions of gender and sexuality is Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor. Paul can morph into any body he likes, crossing gender and sexuality borders to fit his mood of the moment. This is an adventurous and hilarious romp through Paul’s adventures in partying, politics, making zines, leather bars, women only music festivals, travelling from New York City to Iowa to Provincetown.
Lawlor explores queer struggles and pleasure in this charming coming-of-age speculative fiction. What I found most interesting is how Paul changes in personality as his body changed. Andrea Lawlor is coming to Writers’ Week and I’m looking forward to getting more insight into where this idea came from.