In the afterword to The Last Tudor Philippa Gregory says she may not revisit what has been an incredibly successful series of novels about women during the War of the Roses and the Tudor Ascension. And while I have really enjoyed this series – its easy to see why. She is stretching a little here in this final installment.
There are actually three narrators in The Last Tudor – all of which have part of a story to share about Elizabeth’s coming to power. The first is Lady Jane Grey – who was crowned queen for all of nine days. She was then imprisoned in the tower by Queen Mary and later executed for treason. Lady Jane is an uninspiring narrator, and it is actually a pleasure to move on to the second narrator, her younger sister Katherine.
When Elizabeth comes to the throne it is still amongst talk of her unmarried status. And as time speeds by and she remains unmarried (clearly due to her love for Robert Dudley in this text) pressure mounts for her to name an heir. Unfortunately for Katherine, she is too likely a successor. Elizabeth, portrayed as tyrannical queen desperate to hold on to the throne at all costs, sees Katherine as a threat. When Katherine marries into another high-ranking York house for love and in secret, she makes herself a target. Elizabeth imprisons her, her husband and her children.
Although we follow Katherine’s tragic yet touching history for some years and long into her confinement, the youngest sister Mary takes her turn narrating. Mary is the most interesting of the three sisters – a pragmatist with a unique perspective. Pretty as a doll but likely what would have been referred to as a dwarf in those times, Mary is incredibly wary and astute about Elizabeth – who never let any of her ladies marry. Mary too weds in secret, but far below her. She too incurs Elizabeth’s wrath.
It is interesting to see each of the sisters through each other’s eyes, and their damning portrayal of Elizabeth, who is long considered to have ushered in a ‘golden age’ in British history. The last section is by far the best, but it’s clear this is wearing thin. A novel parallel to this, set from Elizabeth’s perspective, would be most welcome though.
Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheepwon the 2015 Miles Franklin – and is one of my favourite reads of recent years. So when I was offered a review copy of her latest, The Choke, I could not say yes fast enough.
The Choke is destined to win awards too.
Laguna excels at writing complex child narrators, and placing them in dangerous worlds. But thats where the similarities between these two books end.
Justine is a girl abandoned by both father and mother and living with her ailing grandfather in a remote place known as the choke – where the bush meets the river. She’s not neglected, but certainly lives a simple lifestyle in a man’s world. It’s a violent world too – and Laguna makes this apparent even in describing children’s play in the opening chapter.
School is no refuge either – at least, not until she befriends a young disabled not who is also an outsider. But not even this can save her from the violence in her world. Before she is 14 she has witnessed and experienced abuse. And your heart will break. I doubt anyone could read this story and not be moved by what Justine experiences – and perhaps more powerfully, how she turns something just awful into something potentially beautiful. There were tears in my eyes as I closed the final pages. This is not to be missed.
Many authors stumble when it comes time to follow up a phenomenally successful first novel – but instead, Paula Hawkins has no doubt given her legions of fans more of what they are looking for in the intriguing, if lightweight, Into the Water.
Into the Water is set in the fictional town of Bickford in the gloomy north of England, famous only for it’s drowning pool and the dark history of troublesome women finding their end in it. Years ago, it was accused witches but more recently, a young mother and in just the past few weeks, a young local girl and the mother of her friend. It is the death of this final woman, Nel Abbott – a writer and photographer fascinated by the history of the drowning pool – that sparks this story. Although Nel’s death and the one that proceeded it, have all the earmarks of a suicide, the motives for such actions are a mystery to those closest to them.
The story eventually unravels through multiple narrators, and it has the same feminist bent of The Girl on the Train, where poor women are suffering for the choices of violent and disturbed men.
Behind all of this though, is the story of two sisters. Estranged for years, as one uncovers the reasons for her sister’s death a tremendous family misunderstanding is revealed, leading to a period of renewal amongst the grief.
There’s a lot to like here and Into the Water won’t fail to engage Hawkins’ legion of fans. The same dark sense of mystery and foreboding accompanies this tale. It might even pick her up a few more.
Like many, I was spellbound by the love of writing that was apparent in Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites – a detailed and meticulously researched portrayal of the last woman sentenced to death for murder in Iceland. Burial Rites was a novel destined to take the international stage – one that blended physical and emotional realities masterfully and explored a complex character and the reactions of those around her with sophistication and deftness.
The Good People, Kent’s follow-up, holds all the same magic.
Set in a remote village near the Flesk River in Killarney, The Good People explores the superstitions of simple folk – and the many ways in which they can lead to tragedy. Kent came across the real event in her research for Burial Rites– the story of an aged woman whose defence for murder was based upon her belief that the murdered boy was but a changeling and thus she should not be held accountable. While it is easy to believe this is madness or an excuse for cold-blooded murder, once again Kent creates real human warmth and invites readers to feel sympathy or at least acknowledge the complexity of such cases.
Beautiful prose, complex but real characters and thought-provoking ideas about being a woman in a backwards time make The Good People another likely best-seller. I challenge anyone who loved Burial Rites to not see this as yet another demonstration of Kent as one of the greatest writers of our time.
Yes, I know I’m gushing. But this is worth getting excited about. Comes out in October.
There has been so much press about Charlotte Wood’s Stella Prize winning novel, The Natural Way of Things. And deservedly so – it is thought-provoking, lyrical in places and has well-rounded characters. It also has some serious concerns about how we treat women and sex scandals in the media.
Two women – Yolanda and Verla – awaken in a strange place. Far in the remotest part of Australia, they find themselves imprisoned by people they do not know. This is the start of a most unusual friendship.
Soon they realise that they are just two of a larger group of women being kept apart from the world – and the one thing they have in common is that they were all embroiled in some kind of sex scandal.
As time passes they are forgotten by the world, and their jailers find themselves just as isolated as the women. Verla seeks refuge in two things; a dream horse who she longs to ride off into the sunset on, and the hunt for mushrooms to murder the worst of the prison guards. Yolanda though embraces the isolation, turning into a wild creature. Her strength sustains the women – and although she retreats into herself, she provides them with meat to sustain themselves.
You think you will know how this book will end, but you don’t. And its nice to be surprised. This is definitely worth a look.
There is something delightful about a novella, and the way it hones in on only the most key moments in the lives of the characters. And the narrator of Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday is a unique one, the type of woman I enjoy reading about.
An orphan and maid, Jane Fairchild quietly defies her status and the morals of her time. We meet her on a particular Mothering Sunday. Where other maids might be visiting their mothers, Jane’s lack of family actually gives her the freedom to engage in her two great passions. The first is her love of books, particularly the kinds of stories not really considering fitting for a young woman. The second is the passionate affair she is having with the son of a local landowner. This will be their last assignation, as he is shortly set to marry a woman closer to his station.
As Jane wanders through the stately home, naked and unashamed by her modern thoughts and attitude, the reader comes to understand the Jane’s life – past, present and future – and the hint of tragedy to come. For this is no ordinary afternoon – it is one Jane will come to look back on in the years to come.
No doubt the reader will think back often on Jane’s afternoon as well. This is a beautiful story and my introduction to Swift’s work. I can’t help but think it will just be the beginning of our affair though.
This collection of essays on feminism by women under 30 is an interesting read. Although not all essays resonated with me, there were some stand outs including pieces exploring the connotations of the word, the journey young women are taking towards feminism, the role of feminism for women from other cultures and how men can support feminism. Some of the ideas were new, and others just expressed in fresh new ways.
Interspersed through all of these are excerpts of novels and biographical texts by women that explored feminist concepts – and it was these snippets that I enjoyed the most between the longer essays. What would a book on feminism be without hearing from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Roxane Gay, Simone DeBeauvoir, Virginia Woolf , Amy Schumer and Gloria Steinem. However, it was also a delight to hear from Jane Austen, Joss Whedon and Eleanor Catton.
This is one you could read in snippets for inspiration, or from cover to cover.