Beta
X

Bookface Blog

RSS
Archive by tag: Lara FeigelReturn
Jun 16, 2022

An affair drives the author’s highly charged exploration of love in fiction, from marriage to adultery, parenthood to friendship

For many of us, books are an important part of our lives – but do we want them to change our ideas about how to live? Is there a danger that living alongside fictional narrators will make us too reckless? This may be the case especially when it comes to marriage, given that so many great novels are about adultery.

Recently, “bibliomemoirs” have offered a medium in which to think through the relationship between reading and living. Rebecca Mead has charted her changing relationship with Middlemarch; Sophie Ratcliffe resisted the lure of adultery while reading Anna Karenina; Francis Spufford explored the books that shaped him. Now Christina Lupton entwines her own experience of falling unexpectedly into adulterous love with a woman, aged 48, with her experiences of reading about love in books. In the early stages of this affair, she read frantically, both to seek moral guidance and to be turned on. She was in the middle of writing an introduction to Pride and Prejudice, exploring the many kinds of love explored in Austen’s novel. Urgently, she asked herself if her own love affair was the kind that Elizabeth Bennet would have (rational as well as passionate) or the kind her more self-indulgent sister Lydia would have. And she decided to write a book about the broader relationship between literature and love – from marriage to adultery, parenthood to friendship.

Continue reading...
Read More
Apr 28, 2022

Rundell captures John Donne’s unique vision in all its power, eloquence and strangeness

In 1611, John Donne composed a funeral elegy for 14-year-old Elizabeth Drury. It contained one of his most brilliant, unsettling lines: “One might almost say, her body thought.” Donne portrayed body and soul as radically, delightfully commingled.

This is a poem that has long excited Donne commentators. John Carey, in his landmark 1981 Life, Mind and Art, was fascinated by Donne’s conviction that, as he wrote in a sermon, “all that the soul does, it does in, and with, and by the body”. Now the academic and children’s writer Katherine Rundell puts the poem centre stage in a book she describes as “both a biography of Donne and an act of evangelism”. For Rundell, Donne is writing into being a new ideal: a “completed meshing of body and imagination”.

Continue reading...
Read More
Apr 15, 2022

In this atmospheric and gripping fable set in 70s Korea, a fragile young florist dedicates herself to flowers

“Violet, Violin, Violence, Violator,” San reads in an English-to-Korean dictionary in Kyung-sook Shin’s newly translated 2001 novel, Violets. Within a few lines the dictionary goes from the beautiful flowers to “one who breaks rules, invades, insults, rapes”. Violets is a novel built on the proximity of beauty and violence.

Shin became known in the west with her 2011 novel Please Look After Mother, which sold 2m copies and won the Man Asian literary prize. In that book a grandmother disappears after a lifetime of serving others, and Shin said she wanted to explore the values that had gone missing “as we turned to modernity”. There were multiple viewpoints, of people in their 40s and older. In Violets, Shin homes in on the single perspective of San in adolescence and her early 20s. The novel is set in 1970s South Korea, an era in which violence and repression were endemic. We don’t see any large-scale social unrest; instead Shin finds indirect and nuanced ways to conjure the atmosphere of a place where flourishing is thwarted at every turn.

Continue reading...
Read More
Feb 04, 2022

This lyrical debut novel examines the transformations of two women in the aftermath of the second world war

“Pram Boy, pill-boy, you know who… it is you who will be carried / while the others are shed.” Violets begins with a miscarriage and a conception in the final months of the second world war. Violet Hall, a newly married suburban wife who is doing war work in a Birmingham munitions factory, loses blood and the foetuses of two babies into a pail and has her womb removed by callously zealous doctors. At the same time, in small-town Wales, unmarried Violet Owen conceives a child with her mother’s lodger, a Polish soldier. The book weaves between the two Violets, threaded throughout with insistently spirited, half-comical poetic interjections addressing Pram Boy, the baby who will bind these women’s lives together.

At first the two Violets are difficult to disentangle. Both are working class, both live in the shadows of more charismatic family members, both yearn vaguely for more expansive lives. Then we see Violet Owen make the most decisive step of her life. A few months pregnant, she signs on for war work and asks to be shipped abroad. Her time in Naples, vividly evoked with deft details rather than set-piece scenes, changes her but does not hold out the promise of a new life. This is partly because the letters she writes home to her family are flattened versions of her experiences that wilfully leave out the vivid sights she has seen: “No port, no cove, no filth, no decay. No light. No shade.” At the end of the war, she gives birth in a military hospital and is shipped back to England where, after eight months, she gives her baby up for adoption and Violet Hall’s turn for motherhood has come.

Continue reading...
Read More
Dec 30, 2021

Memoir, psychoanalysis, feminist theory and literary criticism combine in a thoughtful essay collection that observes motherhood from every angle

Motherhood has always been central to some strands of feminism, while being wilfully left out of others. From the campaigners fighting for children’s rights to their mothers after parental separation in the 19th century, to literary figures – such as Adrienne Rich in the 1970s and Rachel Cusk in the 1990s – who have made space for maternal ambivalence, women have battled to claim maternity without becoming trapped within it. Now, as issues of surrogacy and trans motherhood pose fresh challenges, feminism’s confrontation with the issue feels newly urgent. Siri Hustvedt joins the fray with a mixture of directness and obliqueness.

She takes on motherhood from every direction, combining memoir with ethnography, the history of science and psychoanalysis, literary and art criticism. The book begins with lovingly detailed portraits of Hustvedt’s mother and grandmother, and moves through essays on Wuthering Heights, the art of Louise Bourgeois, the nature of viruses and misogyny to end with a long tour de force exploration of the horrific death of Sylvia Marie Likens in 1965.

Continue reading...
Read More
Jul 04, 2021

A stay-at-home mother gives in to her animal instincts in this skilful and imaginative debut novel

Giving birth is the closest many of us come to being an outright animal. We crouch on all fours, dripping and howling, and, if it goes well, we are aided by instincts we didn’t know we had to push a snuffling, bloody creature into the world. Yet immediately, we are expected to give up on this new animality and return to society, whether it comes in the guise of work and childcare or maternity leave and baby massage classes. What if we refuse to do so?

This is the question asked with energetic, often joyful urgency in Nightbitch, the first novel by American writer Rachel Yoder. The protagonist known with Kafka-inspired blankness as “the mother” is the discontented, though “ungripy, un-grumpy” stay-at-home mother of a two-year-old, who spends her weekdays cleaning up after her child and her weekends “abiding” her otherwise absent husband. Previously, she was a conceptual artist who ran a community gallery, but after a few months of breast-pumping while her son lay crying at nursery, she gave up her job. She is bored and sleep-deprived, and resents the husband who claims to be too tired from his paid work to help with her unpaid labour. Then, suddenly, she begins to change. One day she discovers a small patch of coarse black hair sprouting from the base of her neck; she develops sharp canines and a taste for raw meat. Her husband dismisses her fears – “you always think something’s wrong with you” – as he disregards her feelings more generally (“feelings were just unreal things that moved through a person”). But then she develops the beginning of a tail and allows herself one good wag a day.

Continue reading...
Read More
May 26, 2021

This insightful and spirited biography of Caroline Norton, who initiated the 1839 Custody of Infants Act, reveals the frustrated life of a powerful symbol of justice

High up in the House of Lords there is a fresco depicting The Spirit of Justice, painted by Daniel Maclise in 1850. It’s a huge portrait of the 19th-century poet, novelist and campaigner Caroline Norton, her eyes cast upwards, the scales of justice held in one hand. As a celebrated beauty of the era, Norton was an obvious choice. But there was an irony to the portrait, because this was a woman who had been denied justice as a mother.

It was a classic story at the time. Married women had no rights – over their property, possessions or children. If husbands tired of their wives, they were entitled to throw them out and deprive them of access to their children. Caroline’s husband, George Norton, was an abusive man who had beaten her for years (allegedly causing a miscarriage); in 1836 (when their sons were two, four and six), he locked her out of the house, sued for adultery and shipped the children off to his relatives.

Continue reading...
Read More
Apr 29, 2021

Wohl’s novel about a taboo relationship takes the style of contemporaries such as Sally Rooney and gives it new twists

A woman in her late 30s asks her much older partner for a six-week pause in the relationship. She wants to do nothing in the sun; to have other lovers without having to account for herself. She returns home to New York after only a single one-night stand with a man with a vomiting fetish, grateful to come back to the touch of the man she missed. He tells her he has fallen in love with another woman.

These are the scenes with which the American writer Isobel Wohl’s debut novel, published by new indie Weatherglass, begins. It’s as though Wohl has awarded this great, classic plot to herself as a pleasurable question, like Henry James does with Isabel Archer’s inheritance in The Portrait of a Lady. In both cases the novelist steps back and asks: what will she do next?

Continue reading...
Read More
Mar 09, 2021

Can solidarity among the marginalised bring about social change? A novel set amid the brothels of Soho explores the answer

Soho remains tempting territory for novelists, with its brothels, sex shops and seedy pubs still nestling among the private members’ clubs and sleek cocktail bars; it’s an inspired choice as the setting for Fiona Mozley’s second novel.

The Booker-shortlisted Elmet established her as a writer of wildness, at home in the most remote of rural settings, whose characters lived off the land. The switch to an urban location is decisive, but she’s brought her dispossessed cast along with her. The prostitutes and drug addicts and out-of-luck magicians who populate the Soho of Hot Stew are trying to get by, as the characters in Elmet were, without succumbing to the values of the rapacious capitalist world surrounding them. There is violence here, as there was there, but Mozley is interested in the idealism and adherence to principles possible at the margins. Together the novels ask us to envisage a society no longer defined by what happens at the centre, but where the types of solidarity modelled on the edges remake possibilities for everyone.

Continue reading...
Read More
Mar 03, 2021

A young Irish woman looks back on a toxic relationship in an impressive first novel with a niggling strand of moralism

“There was no religion in my life after early childhood, and a great faith in love was what I had cultivated instead.” The narrator of Acts of Desperation is in her early 20s, living a makeshift, hungover life in a Dublin bedsit, when she falls in love with Ciaran. Happiest when in a sacrificial role, she gives everything to pleasing him, though he is cold, sometimes cruel, and still in love with an ex-girlfriend. Intimate scenes from the 2012-14 narrative of their relationship are interspersed with essayistic commentary by the narrator from 2019. Megan Nolan is a journalist whose New Statesman column tackles some of the issues of millennial womanhood the book addresses, but the essayistic sections aren’t quite in her journalistic voice.

There is so much to admire in this extremely impressive first novel, which captures an intense experience with clarity and style. It is fully itself, and flawless in its way. I also found it claustrophobic, and airless. This is obviously the point – the narrator wilfully removes herself from any sources of energy, letting life narrow to the flat she shares with Ciaran: the effortful meals she assembles in the kitchen, the increasingly joyless sex they have in their bed, the masochistic fantasies described in her diaries, the bottles of wine drunk secretly. These are scenes that Nolan evokes powerfully. But there’s more to the airlessness than the narrator’s claustrophobia. I found, as a reader, that there was also an airlessness in the moral vision.

Continue reading...
Read More
Feb 25, 2021

A mother’s moving account of her struggle to adopt concludes with her daughter’s memories of finding a home

Wanting to have children and deciding to have children are acts of imagination that border on egotism. To be a child is to be a particular child but to want a child is not to know who that child will be or how to grant it agency. For Margaret Reynolds these issues were unusually complex because she started grappling with them aged 45 when, single after the breakdown of a relationship, she suddenly experienced the urge to be a mother. She was longing for purpose and joy, for a “commitment that tries and shapes the self”. Yet this was not an urge to procreate. She had already undergone the menopause and wasn’t invested in reproducing her DNA.

The Wild Track is an account of Reynolds’s five-year struggle to adopt a child and of the painful pleasure of becoming the mother to a troubled six-year-old daughter. It’s an extremely moving, sometimes baggy book (I wish its editor had been more ruthless in cutting the history of ambivalent motherhood injected into its first chapter). It has many great merits, among which is its ambivalence about the British adoption system, which Reynolds portrays as serving parents and children with admirable rigour that itself results in obstacles that cannot be in the interests of the numerous children brought up in care.

Continue reading...
Read More
Jan 21, 2021

This slow-building debut novel from the Irish short-story writer investigates intimacy and estrangement

“She used to think that if she lost in love, it would be – on a scale of one to ten – to an eight or a nine. Cora Wilson she would put as a four.” Thus Nessa reflects on her husband’s adultery with the bothersomely dowdy mother of their daughter’s best friend. This is the mood of half-bitter, half-spirited humour familiar from the previous work of Irish writer Danielle McLaughlin.

In the short stories with which she made her name McLaughlin wrote, as many of her compatriots do, about the cycle of boom and bust that has left a generation in Ireland untethered. McLaughlin is in her 40s, half a generation older than Sally Rooney or Naoise Dolan, and her stories are about people who have gained money and then lost it. As they fall financially, they find themselves in freefall in their personal lives as well. It’s not surprising that she likes to use the word “falling” in her titles. There was her 2015 New Yorker story “In the Act of Falling”, republished in her collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets. And now here’s her first novel, titled The Art of Falling.

Continue reading...
Read More
Sep 30, 2020

The captivating story of the secret agent who travelled the world with kids in tow, fooled MI5 and passed atomic secrets to the USSR

In November 1930, the 22-year-old Ursula Hamburger was visited at her Shanghai home by a good-looking man with a strong German accent, and three fingers missing from his left hand. Here was the stuff of spy movies and Ursula was delighted at the sudden drama. Born Ursula Kuczynski, she was a well-educated German newly married to an architect husband who didn’t share her passion for building a new world. Bored of expatriate life among women she described as “little lapdogs”, she allowed the visitor, Richard Sorge, to recruit her as a communist spy and soon became his lover as well. Some women might have been deterred from the danger by being six months pregnant; Kuczynski was pleased that her maternal appearance would make her less suspicious.

Over the next decade, Kuczynski had three children with three different men and moved to the Soviet Union, Switzerland, London and rural Oxfordshire, spying relentlessly and brilliantly in all of them. She rose to the rank of colonel in the Red Army and was responsible for passing on the scientific secrets that would enable Russia to make an atomic bomb (with the code name Sonya, she was the handler of physicist Klaus Fuchs, with whom she went on country walks; they held hands to look like trysting lovers). Throughout she was also a wife to two husbands (she divorced in 1939), tending to her children, baking scones.

Continue reading...
Read More
Aug 18, 2020

The confusions and clarity of female adolescence are explored in an astonishing novel set in Ferrante’s familiar Naples

Elena Ferrante is so good on the bodily feelings of female adolescence: the sweaty, clotted skin, the sudden bulges as breasts form, the awkwardly exciting transformations. She is good, also, on the way that childhood friendships change, becoming infused with desire and longing. Her characters startle themselves with their readiness to betray their friends for the newly discovered opposite sex, but they startle themselves too when they jettison their heavy, often rather insulting male suitors and return to their nimbler companions.

Her latest novel, The Lying Life of Adults, is set over the protracted years of adolescence, from 12 to 17. The confusion of bodily change provides a murky backdrop for the lucid mental clarity this period of life can bring. These are years when you are an outsider to yourself, unable fully to recognise the person you are becoming, and an outsider to the once familiar figures who surround you. So it’s not surprising that these are often the years when the novelist is born. In this case, Giovanna becomes a novelist through observing the lies of adults , and through learning to tell her own.

Continue reading...
Read More
Jul 04, 2020

Reading novels about groups of friends can be an emotional lifeline in times of isolation – from pandemic lockdown to the aftermath of divorce

What claims do friendships retain, as family life takes over? How much do we live in our friends’ shadows, comparing our relationships, jobs and versions of motherhood? These were questions I asked myself, getting divorced in my late 30s just before having my second child. I was used to turning to my husband for practical help; seeking help from friends feels awkwardly regressive when you’re not used to it, and burdensome when they’re caught up in childrearing. As I emerged out of the turbulence of my 30s, I asked myself what remained of earlier friendships, and chided myself for allowing so many to take on sparse outlines, structured by occasional catch-ups rather than continuing shared experience. It was hard to know who to ask to come round when I was ill, to look after the baby when I was desperate for sleep, or just to leave their family for an evening when I hadn’t spoken to another adult for days.

Anxiously grateful for the friends who were there, sad about the ones who weren’t, I sought out fictional friends. I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, glad when Lila and Lenu’s bond reignites during Lenu’s single motherhood, curious about how much more alive their friendship seems than their marriages. There’s always been an element of friend-making for me in reading, though the writers I love are as maddening, as disquietingly alien as actual friends.

Continue reading...
Read More
Apr 09, 2020

A staid teacher and a flamboyant violinist embark on a destructive lesbian affair in this bestselling French debut

Two women meet at a dinner party. One is a teacher, the generally sensible mother of a young girl; the other is a flamboyant, beautiful violinist who talks loudly and exudes a captivating spontaneity. The teacher, who narrates the story, falls for Sarah with a consuming, destructive passion. “It’s all about Sarah the impetuous, Sarah the passionate, Sarah the sulphurous.” They are both overcome by their desire, losing their bearings in their lives. And then Sarah is overcome by breast cancer, and the novel begins and ends with them clasped in an embrace in which Sarah may or may not be dead.

This is Pauline Delabroy-Allard’s first novel and it became a massive success when it was published in France last year: titillating with its frank descriptions of sex and erotic paeans to the female body (“her earlobes. Her moles. Her thighs. Her violet vulva”) and captivating with its investigation of the suffering involved in passion. It’s a brief, intense read. There is no world beyond the physiological experiences of the lovers. We see into the narrator’s mind only when she is experiencing the effects of desire, or falling apart in its wake. Other characters – the lovers’ parents, the narrator’s daughter – appear but are not given a chance to exist.

Continue reading...
Read More
Apr 01, 2020

The American artist has written a compelling memoir and meditation on human interaction relevant in the coronavirus era

What do we expose ourselves to when we touch another person? How vulnerable are we when we make our bodies porous or penetrable to others? When he wrote My Meteorite, Harry Dodge wasn’t to know how fraught these questions would be by the time it was published, or how contentious his pleas for a tactile, mutually contaminating community might become. “To wit, we’ve been on the move – mixing with each other and things – forever,” he says, assuming this is an ongoing state. It has turned out to be more complex.

To the literary world, Harry Dodge is best known as the partner of Maggie Nelson. In her groundbreaking memoir The Argonauts, Nelson gives memorably powerful descriptions of Harry arguing about the limits of language, enduring the process of his mother’s death and having a lot of sex with Nelson. There, Dodge was presented as the one who mistrusted words, who yearned for invisibility only to be brought into lambent visibility by Nelson. In fact, though, Dodge has all along been making himself visible through his art: playfully corporeal sculptures and cryptic, experimental films.

Continue reading...
Read More

Search