Women’s Fiction from the Small Presses

To celebrate International Women’s Day here at The Contemporary Small Press, our editors and reviewers have selected a few works by women writers to comment on and recommend.

Anna Kavan, Ice (1967, Peter Owen)

The British novelist and short story writer Anna Kavan (1901-68) was introduced to the independent publisher Peter Owen in 1956, after her previous publisher had gone bankrupt. Peter Owen, like his contemporary John Calder, was interested in publishing new and experimental writing, and had founded his press in 1951. He was particularly committed (as the press still is) to bringing writing from abroad to the UK, and to making connections between British writing and writing from the rest of the world.

Anna Kavan published her first work with Peter Owen, Eagle’s Nest, in 1957, and then a book of short stories, A Bright Green Field, in 1958. Peter Owen has continued to champion Kavan’s work since her death, has reissued a number of her works, and has published work by Kavan not published during her lifetime. Also published by Peter Owen during this period was Anais Nin, who was a great admirer of Kavan. She included Kavan in her The Novel of the Future (1968), and Kavan’s work features prominently in her list of recommended reading.

While Kavan published with other small presses in the 1960s, and her relations with Peter Owen were not always easy, Owen’s role as an editor was vital in the publication of Kavan’s best known, and perhaps best, work, Ice (1967). This novel is both engrossing and deeply unsettling. It is set in the future, and shows the world descending into apocalypse, brought on by the sinister and irrevocable creeping of ice and the conflicts and violence that are the result of it. In the midst of this, the narrator, a tormented and asocial man, fights and then succumbs to his obsession with a fragile, ice-like young woman. As huge numbers of people, in panic, take boats to escape the inescapable ice, the narrator follows the young woman, glimpsing her, searching for her.

She, in the meantime, is ‘rescued’ and then kidnapped by a sinister, cruel and despotic man. The circling dynamics of desire, sadism and masochism structure the novel as it acts out questions about the relations between fiction and the real, between fear and desire, between dreams and perception. The first reader employed by Peter Owen to assess the manuscript called it ‘a mixture of Kafka and the Avengers’. Its strange, half real quality indeed defies the boundary between genre and the literary. It is a powerful, uncomfortable novel, utterly unlike anything else.

Buy Anna Kavan’s Ice from Peter Owen here.

Review by Leigh Wilson



Una, Becoming Unbecoming (2015, Myriad Editions)

A graphic novel “dedicated to all the others” and published by Myriad Editions, Becoming Unbecoming parallels the sexual violence inflicted upon the protagonist Una – “meaning one, one life, one of many” – amidst the overarching social sexual violence against women epitomised through the intermingled narrative of the Yorkshire Ripper case.

Una breaks through the silence often encompassing this topic where too few speak out, or those who do are often misheard or ignored by justice, giving a frank, self-aware and knowledgeable account of the issues, trauma and personal struggles of She who has survived sexual violence. This intertwining of both the intimate experience of one, and the social experience of too many, is utterly heart-breaking. Its unshakeable honesty in both image and text makes you feel like you need to speak, to find a voice and not be afraid to use it even when society tries to shout back louder.

After finding the confirmation from Joan Smith’s Misogynies, “that the hostility, hatred and disgust directed towards me as a child was not in my head, and that I might be perfectly justified in feeling angry about it,” Una exemplifies the strength of women in a misogynistic climate.

Buy Una’s Becoming Unbecoming from Myriad Editions here.

Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley



Lindsay Parnell, Dogwood (2015, Linen Press)

Lindsay Parnell’s debut novel is a visceral assault on the emotions from the first page to the last.  Exploring the wounds that are inflicted from girlhood into womanhood and the powers and possibilities of a small American town and its relationship to the church, Dogwood tells the story of three young friends – Harper, Collier and Caro – growing up in Virginia.  At the heart of the novel is the piercing pain of friendship, loyalty and love as it is pulled and stretched beyond all reasonable limits by violence, abuse and addiction in the dusty landscape of the American South.

Parnell experiments with an innovative non-linear narrative structure, offering flashes of memory grouped around the ages of the three friends at the time of each significant event intertwined with epistolary fragments of a letter from Harper to her younger brother Job.

As with so many of the recommended reads in our International Women’s Day feature series, Dogwood inscribes the body in agonizingly sensitive ways – ways that can’t fail to imprint themselves within the cells and tissues of the reader’s own physical experience.

Editor Lynn Michell at Linen Press is passionate about taking bold risks to publish innovative and challenging women’s writing such as Dogwood, and long may that continue.

Buy Lindsay Parnell’s Dogwood from Linen Press here.

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow


We’ll be posting three recommendations a day for three days, so stay tuned for more.  Which books from the small presses would you recommend for International Women’s Day and why?  Please leave your comments below!


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