The Missing List: A Memoir

The Missing List: A Memoir by Clare Best, Linen Press, 2018 

I am one of the lucky ones. I made it through. There are too many who do not – our prisons, hospitals and cemeteries are full of them. And so I give you my story, hoping it may help to break down myths and misunderstandings around abuse and its aftermath.

Clare Best finely weaves together a tapestry of memories, delicately stitching the fragments of a life both lived and lost through the experiences of childhood sexual abuse. Best pieces together a collage of “offcuts”, tackling the struggles of a split self who has fought to navigate the rocky terrain of taboo, shame, guilt, anger, anxiety, fear, love and resilience whilst acknowledging and attempting to accept, process and survive the abuse and “fallout” of her early childhood years. She experiments with written form, refreshingly negating the “conventions” of memoirs that often attempt to “fit” the author’s biography into the narrative arc of a novel. She interchanges between film scripts, transcripts, lists, and medical diagnoses, whilst merging or interlinking past and present events, which arguably creates a greater authenticity to the narrative by truly emphasising the experiences of memory in the throes of dealing with trauma.

Best approaches her experiences with both bravery and sensitivity. She is careful to keep control of her narrative, making sure that it remains her story. There is always a fine line between saying what is comfortable to voice and saying too much, where the story no longer remains the author’s to tell, yet Best treads this line carefully, never detailing the abuse too explicitly and ensuring that what she tells the reader is what she has chosen to share. It is hers, and she is finally the one who can own it after all these years. The result is a carefully written piece, and whilst it may act as a trigger for some readers, it may also give comfort to others in realising that they are not alone in what they are feeling or experiencing.

The narrative intertwines childhood memories with those of her present moments of being a carer to her ailing father. By interweaving the past and present, Best highlights the ongoing effects of her abuse and how difficult it is to overcome, particularly when the parent/abuser is still ever present in her life. Whilst the physical effects of abuse can often be grasped in more concrete terms and perhaps, in some ways, overcome more quickly, the psychological trauma of abuse can be far more long-lasting as remnants remain as internal scars for an individual. It is far harder to truly articulate and understand the psychological impact such manipulation and control can have on a person, in which love is conditional and based on what a child will do, as the child learns early on how to play particular roles. Yet, Best deftly brings this to the forefront of the narrative and effectively communicates this manipulative dynamic and fraught relationship to the reader.

His love, such love as he can show, has always been conditional. Do this and I will love you. Be like this and I will love you. Be my mother, sister, wife, daughter – and perfect at each – and I may love you in every way and none. When I see you in this role you become the role. When I’m finished with you in this role, you will revert to another role. This is how it’s been.

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Best brings to light the psychological impact of abuse in a brave and eye-opening way to the reader, not only detailing memories of events, but equally articulating her thoughts and feelings as an important part of her narrative. She tackles the difference between the lived experiences and the medical diagnosis of symptoms by expressing the way in which abuse splits identity and how one may embody themselves as multiple, rather than whole.

One, the home-child, is emotionally volatile, swinging between fury and contrition; she adores and needs to be adored by her mother. The other, the school-child, is careful, measured, self-sufficient, almost obsessively tidy; she works harder and harder at her lessons, with better and better results, despite the unexplained school absences. And then there’s a third presence, discernible as a space that both separates and holds together the two girls. This space is like the central image of Rubin’s Vase – the black-and-white optical illusion where you can see either a vase or two heads in silhouette, but you can’t hold both at once.

Although it is a common symptom of child sexual abuse to dissociate from oneself, it is often difficult to grasp what this entails. Best explores this with great self-awareness of how her sense of embodiment was altered into three aspects of herself, the “home-child”, the “school-child” and a third presence, a haunting of a self that flitted between the other two that she beautiful portrays as the Rubin’s Vase. This splitting can often be a way of coping with the psychological trauma inflicted; therefore, Best assists in bringing to light what is so often the hardest to explain or articulate to others. It is one thing to understand what dissociating means as a term and diagnosis, but it is another thing to be able to eloquently and coherently communicate the lived experiences of such states.

Yes, I’m resilient. Resilience is the other side of shame. I’ve come through loss and pain, and made many adjustments. I must continue, will continue.

Best questions what it means to survive, and although she is not the biggest fan of this word, it is one of the few that places hope into the narrative, rather than labelling someone forever a victim. Her narrative gives hope through highlighting how one can be resilient. She shows strength and perseverance, and whilst the outcome may not have been the one she wished for or felt she needed, she eventually found her ending. Rather than her father having the last word, waiting for his apology, his acknowledgement or his time to talk about it, she took control of her narrative and chose to be the one to end it. This act seems far braver in many respects, as it takes courage to step away and be the one to break the cycle, to finally say “no”.

Click here to order The Missing List direct from Linen Press.

About the publisher:

Linen Press is the only independent women’s press in the UK.

About the reviewer:

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.

 

 

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Autonomy

Autonomy, Edited by Kathy D’Arcy: New Binary Press, 2018

a book about taking our selves back

Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, defines ‘autonomy’ in the book’s Foreword as, ‘our ability to make our own life choices, [which] sits behind the principle of respect for bodily integrity, the belief that our bodies are our own to control and that, providing we cause no harm to others, our bodies are free for us to control’.  The book itself was put together in support of the campaign in Ireland to repeal the Eighth Amendment, and was published several weeks before the referendum vote confirmed the country’s intention to do so.  Amid a rising tide of feminism and growing calls for equality – marked also by the 2015 referendum on same sex marriage – the book engages with the issue from a wide variety of perspectives.  This, for me, is one of the most exciting aspects of the way this anthology about ‘taking our selves back’ has been selected and edited by Kathy D’Arcy.

In almost three hundred pages of stories, poems, plays, memoirs and manifestoes, the book brings together the voices of a strikingly representative cross-section of the community – including cis-gendered women who have and have not experienced abortion first-hand, those born into families wracked by post-natal depression and electro-convulsive therapy as a result of enforced pregnancies, and speakers from marginalised communities including the Irish Traveller Community, the community of Sex Workers and the LGBTQI+ community.  Recognising from the outset that ‘respect for our bodily integrity’ includes far wider issues of autonomy and inclusion that affect people across the intersectional spectrum.  It’s incredibly radical and affirming to find essays such as ‘Repealing the Eighth and why it’s a LGBTQI+ issue’ by Sharon Nolan, which outlines the urgent need to recognise issues of bodily autonomy and reproductive equality for people who are gay, bi, and/or trans, and which outlines the ways that the language used in campaigns such as this can ultimately either exclude or include trans women. The book, with its wide arc of inclusivity and diversity, reminds readers that the struggle for reproductive rights is not only a struggle for cis-gendered, heterosexual women, but a common concern for all those whose bodies make them a target for marginalisation, oppression, violence and abuse.

Opening with the poem, ‘Kindling’ by Sinéad Gleeson, which likens the Irish landscape to the contours of a pregnant body and declares, ‘We light fires, not candles / We choose protest, not prayer’, Autonomy speaks with defiance, tenderness, humour, anger and compassion as it gives voice to those who demand to be heard on the issue of bodily autonomy. The book also contains extracts from Fiona O’Connor’s poetic play, ‘she had a ticket in mind’, which was performed in London as part of the anthology’s launch.  The play explores and interweaves the histories of the Magdalene Laundries, young girls’ journeys to England for secret abortions, children taken away to America for adoption, post-natal depression, and gives voice to some of the silent/silenced women from Ireland’s national history and literary culture.  Autonomy ends with the cautiously-positive affirmation, ‘I do not feel different, after.  Just, lighter’ from Emilie Roberts’ short story, ‘Edges’.  This feels like an appropriate starting point for the post-referendum air of hope granted by the decision to repeal the Eighth Amendment, as Ireland prepares to enter a new era in relation to bodily autonomy, equality and reproductive justice.

Click here to order Autonomy direct from New Binary Press.

 

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About the Publisher:

New Binary Press is a Cork-based small press, publishing work by writers outside the Irish literary mainstream.

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics and performs poetry as ritual to open up [r]evolutionary space for positive transformation.  She teaches poetry and creative writing at the University of Westminster.  Her poems have been published by Adjacent Pineapple, Eyewear, The Projectionist’s Playground and Zarf.  Chapbooks to date: The Unfinished Dream (Sad Press, 2016) and Atha (forthcoming with Knives, Forks and Spoons). Find her on Twitter: @Spaewitch.

Four Books from Hesterglock

Four Books from Hesterglock (2018)

50 // fifty by Michael Harford and paul hawkins

Cocktail Kafkaïne by Mustapha Benfodil translated by Joe Ford

The City Itself by Billy Mills

logbook by hiromi suzuki

 

50 // fifty by Michael Harford and paul hawkins

This short collection of 50 fifty-word poems by paul hawkins with 50 collages by Michael Harford was written as a constraint-based project during Hawkins’ 50th year.  For the constraint, paul wrote a fifty-word poem every day for 50 weeks of the year, sending one text to Michael each week. Harford responded with a collage for each text and the results are collected together here.  The process of collaboration features not only in the constraint but also in the way the texts and images are presented, and, visually, in the collages themselves.  Each page features a single colour collage above a short numbered text, running through from #1 to #50.  The collages immediately alerted my eyes to the juxtaposition of disparate p/arts – each collage being composed of several cut-out images placed together within its own square perimeter to make an ostensible whole, and the overall project being a placing together of individual pieces – both visual and verbal/textual – to construct the whole.

The images and poems are placed together with varying degrees of harmony and dissonance.  Knowing that paul’s previous projects have focused on dissonance, it’s interesting to note the resonances and dissonances between certain texts and images in the collection.  For example, #13 riffs on the idea of ‘painbirds’ mentioning sparrows specifically and swallows obliquely.

‘same old same old

sparrows dive bomb

peck at your ears’

‘drink swallow inhale’

The collaged image depicts two sparrows hanging upside down from the top right corner – in a potentially dive-bombing location as they point towards the two human figures across the centre.  But their body-positions suggest that they’re sitting rather than diving.  The movement in the image is suggested by the postures and gestures of the two human figures, who in the poem are seated. There’s a line of sheet-music and a cut-out letter (as in missive) – perhaps alluding to the poem’s ‘voices without mouths’.  In the background – maybe sand – and a textured stripe of something evoking the ‘front seat of a renault clio’ in the front.

These resonances are oblique and have to be worked at – readers are invited to make connections between two seemingly disparate and dissonant artefacts brought into the juxtaposition of a single page, or book.  Yet we’re also asked to notice where that resonance ends and the dissonance begins.  Neither the images nor the poems are designed to be directly translatable to each other. This book presents readers with many ways in to a potential conversation, but always reminds us that the interlocutors are distinct and individual subjects: each with their own particular language and way of speaking.

50 fifty

 

Cocktail Kafkaïne by Mustapha Benfodil translated by Joe Ford

Conversation and the ‘(un)translatable’ feature heavily in Cocktail Kafkaïne, a collection of Algerian poetry in French by Mustapha Benfodil with accompanying translation by Joe Ford.  The book presents the texts in mirrored translation, with the original French on the verso (left-hand page) and the translation on the facing recto (right-hand page).  This is, in part, to raise questions about the (un)translatability of poetry, and also to give readers access to a full collection of Benfodil’s body of poetic writing in both its original French and in English translation.  Benfodil, a poet whose name English readers may not be familiar with, performs poetry as protest on the streets of Algeria at considerable personal risk.

Giving ‘wild readings’ in public places has led to his repeated arrest and questioning by the police. While some poems, such as ‘#Tract’ and ‘TATATATATATATATATA’ refer explicitly to politically radical events and perspectives, other of Benfodil’s poems are personal musings – such as ‘Asset Declaration’ and several poems to his daughter.  Regardless of the content, he tells us in the introduction that it’s possible to be arrested and questioned simply for the act of reading poetry or an extract from a play in a public place without a permit – hence Benfodil founded and developed the concept of ‘wild readings’: unlicensed public poetry readings.  Poetry, in Algeria, is in itself an act of wilful political defiance.  ‘A bullet in the narration’ testifies to the threat posed by literary arts in a fundamentally religious society, culminating in a list of the names of writers murdered for their art since 1962.

These collected poems, written over a period spanning twenty years, have a Beat-style aesthetic: irreverent, radical, personal; in the form of spontaneous-seeming long lines of free verse and variations on the list-poem.  And they’re a brave testament to free-thinking and radical self-expression in the face of a repressive regime.

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The City Itselfby Billy Mills

‘words for this space

a space to frame them

concord of sorts’

The texts framed within The City Itself invite readers’ speculations towards a ‘concord of sorts’, as suggested by the book’s epigraph, above. Comprising poetry, prose and quotation, the mixed genres speak to one another in moments of both accord and discord. The section of fragmented quotations called ‘A Short History of Dominick Street’ immerses readers in the streets of Dublin.  Evoking not only geography and history, but also voice and vernacular, the sounds of the streets are heard in the telling.  The following section, ‘Pensato’ (meaning ‘thought’ in Italian, but also – in music – an imaginary note that is written but never played or heard), presents slight poems often arranged in couplets or single lines that I first expected to be echoes of the language found in the History.  Reading back, however, I couldn’t find a lexical connection. Thinking on it now, I wonder if it’s not the echoes of the language, but the act of listening itself that creates a concord between the two.

‘listen

do not

 

sing

it is

enough’

The poems in this section reflect on sound and silence, stillness and movement, while Mills’ deliberate use of spacing – both the space of the page and the spaces in between lines – invite readers to experience these qualities in the act of reading. The texts weave subtle materialities, often allowing readers to pause and experience ourselves living for a moment. Yet also gently demanding that we do the work of being with these words.

The City Itself

 

logbook by hiromi suzuki

This book of Hiromi Suzuki’s collages is an understated collection of ‘visual poetry’, which, for Suzuki, ‘means invisible poetry’.  The poems, whose text is invisible, are hinted at in the delicate weave of colour, shape and texture with occasional figurative images and fragmented typography of each collage.  Some collages are titled, others untitled.  Some seem linked by resonant images, such as the prevalence of hands in the gesture of holding, while others form loose narratives in concert or alone.

Like the invisible visual poetry of these pieces, Suzuki says the stories are also ‘invisible … in the faint moonlight’, while she hears ‘a voice and melody from the page’.  Each page is a record of daily memory and ephemera, yet each is open enough to speak to us in myriad ways.  These collages rarely reach for mimetic depiction, and instead offer gestures of space and movement by which we might construct our own narrative or poetic resonances with the work on the page.

There’s a youthful and innocent playfulness in the language that is used, sparingly, to give occasional titles and to provide context for the collage work.  One pairing, ‘Where troubles melt like lemon drops’ and ‘that’s where you’ll find me’ depict splashes of light and dark textures with sharp, angular intersections that lend weight to the apparent linguistic levity. Another pair, ‘m for mortal’ and ‘e for embrace’ evoke both visual and textual poetry in their wordplay and images. Displayed together, the two collages read ‘me’ – suggesting the self can be identified as a ‘mortal embrace’ – while sandpaper-like textures in black and white conjure the sense of an abyss.

Suzuki likens her collages to ‘automatic writings’ – creating one each night before sleep.  The simplicity of this gesture belies the depth to be found in the collages, making this a tender and inspiring collection, richly represented in colour by Hesterglock.

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Click here to find these books at Hesterglock.

About the Publisher:

Hesterglock publishes work from poets / artists / writers of any/all gender(s), colour(s), sexual orientation and dis/ability.  Work that is anti-systems of oppression, intersectional, across form(s) and across discipline(s).

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics and performs poetry as ritual to open up [r]evolutionary space for positive transformation.  She teaches poetry and creative writing at the University of Westminster.  Her poems have been published by Adjacent Pineapple, Eyewear, The Projectionist’s Playground and Zarf.  Chapbooks to date: The Unfinished Dream (Sad Press, 2016) and Atha (forthcoming with Knives, Forks and Spoons). Find her on Twitter: @Spaewitch.

PRETI TANEJA WINS 2018 DESMOND ELLIOTT PRIZE

 

Great news for small press publishing! Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, published by Galley Beggar, has won the 2018 Desmond Elliott Prize for new fiction.

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Sam Jordison of Galley Beggar has known that Preti’s work was special from first reading it. He says that ‘ever since Andrew Macdonald from Gatehouse Press called on us with a copy of Kumkum Malhotra and a chapter from We That Are Young, we have loved this book, believed in Preti and known we had something wonderful on our hands.’
Praise for her work comes too from the chair of this year’s judging panel, Sarah Perry, who says that after reading the novel the panel ‘were left shaking their heads, saying “If this is her first novel, what extraordinary work will come next?”‘
Many congratulations to Preti and to Galley Beggar!

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If you would like to buy the novel, please go to https://www.galleybeggar.co.uk/shop-1/ehisxs910lbr9bpmdvl044yhkaofz7

Who Likes to Be Beside the Seaside?

The Stone Tide by Gareth E. Rees. Influx Press 2018

 ‘Whatever that thing was, I didn’t want to deal with it. I would not die in my pants.’

 Have you ever been laughed at by a duck in the middle of the night for pondering the end of civilisation as we know it? Gareth Rees has. Join him as he moves to Hastings and discovers a town on the edge, both literally and figuratively. This ‘rebel without a clue’ is a writer who, with his fortieth birthday looming, sets up home in a dilapidated Victorian townhouse. With his wife, two daughters and pet cocker spaniel in tow, he soon realises that this is no ordinary residence.

A mysterious white orb appears in the garden at night. He hears girls giggling in the bedroom but when he checks on his daughters they’re fast asleep. His wife Emily makes the grisly discovery of a mummified heart in the attic. Even the décor is sinister, as beneath the 1970s wallpaper lies a room ‘the colour of dried blood.’ Absence hangs heavy but apparently there are no ghosts, only subsidence.

Feathered creatures are not Gareth’s friends. Upon venturing into his neglected back garden, he endures filthy looks from a malevolent seagull whom he suspects to be the house’s eccentric architect reincarnated. Stubbornly reluctant to live and let live, he ends up embroiled in a pointless oven glove-clad battle whilst dodging ancient animal sculptures hidden among the weeds.

On his regular wanderings outside of this madhouse, Gareth notices that Hastings seems to emit a strange magnetic pull, attracting ‘magicians, addicts and dreamers.’ With a creeping sense of dread, he worries about being swallowed up whole by a sinkhole, suspecting that he may be destined to join the surprising number of other visionaries who ended their days in the area. Apocalyptic weather adds to the vague sense of unfolding doom, although it’s hard to tell whether his fears are real or a result of the ‘hot dog and candy floss fumes’ of the seaside going to his head.

‘Sooty, Soo and Sweep were trapped in a glass box, playing synth-pop cover versions for a pound a go to feed their crack habits.’

Gareth is in danger of losing his grip on both his health and home life.  He frets about ageing and losing his sense of adventure, reluctant to allow the mundanities of daily life to erode his curiosity. The past catches him unawares at the local beach where among the detritus washed up on shore are his long-buried memories and aspirations.

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Hastings emerges as the unlikely star of the story. A former suicide blackspot framed in gothic faded grandeur, this was the place where John Logie Baird drew inspiration for the experiment that would eventually develop into television. There’s even a Wetherspoon’s named after him. Rees deftly parallels the historical story of the dawn of television with the modern communications age and the current unsettling sense of epoch shifting times.  Baird stands accused of unwittingly enslaving people and allowing the huge positive potential of his idea go to waste, with TV instead becoming a modern-day opium of the masses.

‘Other people’s lives were so compelling when framed in a well-lit window.’

Multiple narratives flip in and out of the past as events are expertly transformed from the ordinary to the surreal. Bizarre stories are told about little-known historical figures of dubious moral character, such as notorious fraudster Charles Dawson. An enthusiastic amateur palaeontologist, he falsified fossils to sell to museums, setting up whole scenes in caves around Hastings’ coast. Big names like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are casually thrown in as co-conspirators until eventually it’s difficult to tell what’s made up from what really happened. Rees parodies the unreliable nature of historical narrative by presenting outrageous liars in an almost heroic light. Even Gareth’s late best friend Mike is posthumously praised for his ability to exaggerate to make events sound more entertaining. Whilst searingly relevant, this constant blurring of the lines between fact and fiction does get a little exhausting, a constant reminder of the post-truth world in which we’re living.

‘When I once told (my children) that the moon’s gravity caused the ocean’s tides they found the concept bizarre and far less believable than the myth of Father Christmas and his army of elf slaves. They had not yet erected a barrier between perceived reality and fantasy, if there were such a thing at all.’

The moment you turn the first page to find a contents list with chapter titles like ‘The Eel with a Head the Size of an Armchair,’ you know this is going to be no ordinary reading experience. The eclectic format features photos as well as text and even a full-length comic strip. There are frequent laugh-out-loud funny moments and Rees’ genius lies very much in his comedic details and observations. I’m not sure what a ‘smoke dried Tudor cat’ even is but found the image of a pair on display in a pub highly amusing. The author isn’t afraid to tackle the big questions about death, parallel universes and how the choices we make impact other lives and the world around us. Men with metal detectors, disappearing lollipop ladies, and Rod Hull and Emu are amongst the many unexpected characters to make an appearance in this exhilarating, truly original and highly entertaining alternative history of Hastings.

‘It’s all coming to the surface.’

 

About the Publisher

 Influx Press are an innovative independent publisher dedicated to taking risks and producing radical, exciting books. They ‘publish stories from the margins of culture, specific geographical spaces and sites of resistance that remain under explored in mainstream literature.’

About the Reviewer

 Becky Danks is an avid reader, creative writer, book reviewer, and dog lover. She is currently organising a UK and Ireland-wide poetry and short story competition for adults and children for a London charity. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyD123 or visit her website: www.beckydanks.com

Recipe for Being a Woman

Recipe for Being a Woman, Hermione Cameron: Ampersand Publishing, 2018

Recipe for Being a Woman is a playful and pithy debut collection from a poet whose awareness and grip on language allows her to create a concise and deeply ironic sense of being in the world. Hermione Cameron speaks of, to and for the modern age in 28 poems, in which she shows us the world anew, as if standing on our heads. The collection is published by Ampersand, a newly established independent literary publisher who print their own books from Seven Sisters, North London.

The edition is beautiful, made with care and attention to its contents. The decadent decay of flora on the cover reflects decaying ideals of beauty and femininity that the poems present: they offer something brave and honest.

The collection opens with the title poem, ‘Recipe for Being a Woman.’ It is a prose poem that is pithy in both senses of the word, substantial and fruitful like the pulp of an emollient peach: “Her skin should be clear and peachy, her features should be elegant and refined.” Cameron treats femininity with uncanny, at times potentially abject, consideration: “Measure the organs, skin, form and facial features into a bowl and stir together to form a dough. The dough should be firm yet pliable, once she is fully baked.” The result is a manual of tongue-in-cheek aphorisms that elbow-nudge ideas of ready-made gender moulds:

Fold the dough in half and knead it, making sure that all the beauty is contained. Beauty is a woman’s most powerful asset and must, under no circumstances, be wasted.

The language is formal and antiquated, a pastiche of domestic cookery books, which are, in terms of syntax, instructive and imperative. A woman should be edible. The ideal of beauty is upheld by a multi-billion-dollar cosmetic industry that depends on that image. Women consume industry in order to be consumable themselves. The poet’s irony insists that, rather than being told how to be a woman, we be let alone to figure out how to be own separate selves.

Recipe for Being a Woman

Cameron is playful with poetic form. ‘ID,’ for example, is a concrete poem dealing with Freudian psychoanalysis. It seems to put neuroses on the page, wherein the lines that make up the poem warp and scatter in a cerebral formation. The poem looks like a brain and may visualise chatter in the skull that we endure and struggle to silence: “all I have and all I ever really had / is something I can’t hold in my hands.” It is difficult to read the lines in any coherent order, which is representative of a chaotic mind.

She is also playful with language. Such as in ‘Cliches,’ “gone are the days / When we’d sit praying for it to rain / Cats and dogs / Barking up all the wrong trees / in the hopes we would reach our dreams,” she reissues passé habits of language to speak for a new generation in crisis. She shows that a modern or “millennial” existence is far more troubling and complex than we imagine. These poems suggest, with a subtle spirit, that the future is in the hands of a youth who struggle and strive with being born into an accelerating world: 

We never run from the spider

That lures us

Into the World Wide Web

Come let’s see the sites he says

This world he weaves

Words we read

Emoticons over emotions

The collection is political, philosophical and psychological and, at the same time, accessible and relatable. Cameron handles issues of heartache, grief, and self-identification with humour and kindness; in the sense of having things in-kind and an understanding of each other. Her poems are honest and generous with real gumption.

Click here to order Recipe for Being a Woman direct from Ampersand Publishing.

About the Publisher:

Ampersand is an independent literary publishing house based in Seven Sisters, London. Their selection encompasses everything from innovative contemporary fiction, poetry, and criticism, to new editions and translations of literary classics.  Ampersand own their own press and their books are handmade using a combination of traditional and contemporary methods.

Review by Kirsty Watling

Kirsty Watling is a writer, bookseller and recent Literature graduate specialising in twentieth century literature, visual culture and critical theory.

 

Grief’s Sudden Grip

L’Anglaise by Helen E. Mundler: Holland House Books, 2018

It’s not easy being difficult.

The language of families is often confusing. Ella is a successful British academic based in Strasbourg who, following her father’s death, takes a sabbatical to finally start writing her first book. Attempting to tell her mother’s story based on remembered snippets, she chips away at the polished version of events to uncover the harrowing reality. Her distant parents happened to reside under the same roof but rarely communicated, living separate lives within their outwardly prim London townhouse. Life stories intertwine as Ella attempts to make sense of the present by translating the past and exploring what home really means to her.

Intimacy is elusive to Ella. Her late father, Hugo, conversed like an automaton leading to constant misunderstandings. Close in blood ties but little else, she was never introduced to his parents and when she went to boarding school, his young boyfriend quietly moved in to the family home. Her mother, Margaret, is impervious to sarcasm or argument and renders Ella an intruder at the funeral by inviting her along only if she wants to come.

Ella’s alienation is further emphasized by her struggles with language. She speaks French but at emotional moments loses her fluency, revealing a vulnerable disconnect. As she begins a halting relationship with Max, the owner of a cat she is looking after, words – or the lack of them – threaten to create a gulf between them.

She felt again bizarrely self-conscious about speaking French, groping for words, seeing herself uncomfortably like a parody Englishwoman in a French film.

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The novel’s backdrop is both unique and relatable and the story will particularly resonate with people who, like me, moved to another country or dream of doing so. Having lived in Rome, I found Mundler’s vivid imagery illustrative of the light and shade of European life. The sunlight that comes through Ella’s bedroom window is ‘thrown over her bed like a perfectly unruffled quilt.’ As her perceptions of both France and England become less set, so does her sense of affiliation to either place. Unsure where she belongs, she feels like a foreigner in the country of her birth. Nationality, sexuality, and identity all seem fluid and old labels are called into question in what is a richly complex and thought-provoking read.

Ella’s feeling of transience as an expat is subtly drawn out. While she has a much-coveted permanent university job, she is still perceived as somehow ‘other’ despite speaking the language and setting up home. She battles everyday misogyny and her attempts to object achieve mixed results. She is inevitably defensive during these encounters but at times is herself harshly critical of the more traditional choices made by other women. Her personal brand of feminism seems to allow for routinely dismissing women who disagree with her. Despite her frustration at being judged for choosing not to have children, for instance, she seems to look down on other women regarding everything from their lifestyle choices to their appearance.

Narrative voice changes frequently as Ella attempts to see things from the point of view of her own mother and Max’s mother.  Margaret spent time in a psychiatric ward before being married off, engagement viewed as her only possible route to social acceptance. She therefore views Ella as incomplete without a husband, rather than as the successful woman she actually is. There are parallels, too, with Max’s artist mother who committed suicide, providing a compassionate insight into the impact of post-natal depression on the mother-child relationship.

There are frequent references to suicide as a sort of security blanket that has become a regular part of life. Bereavement sometimes catches Ella unawares, leaving her ‘howling on the kitchen floor,’ and she keeps enough medication in the house so that she could take an overdose at any time.

At bottom, however, it was herself she doubted most, the depth of the black holes of her own soul.

Ella’s introspections reveal her isolation as she searches for a sense of belonging. At times there are multiple inner voices whom Ella addresses directly in her head.

‘Well?’ she enquired, sharply, within. But at this the bluestocking and the soul-keeper exchanged a glance and then only lowered their separate eyes, each with the merest and most lady-like of shrugs.

These slightly cringe-worthy inner monologues jar with the overall tone of the novel. Fifty Shades of Grey did unexpectedly spring to mind! Ella’s character is brought to the surface better through her interactions with other people, subtly revealing her thoughts through her reactions. Her character is eloquently drawn and her voice is clearest when unimpeded by clumsy narrative tricks. There are laugh-out-loud funny moments, too, like when she imagines reducing her patronising manager to six inches high and ‘banging him into the ground like a tent peg.’

L’Anglaise is a profound exploration of the damage caused by parental neglect and the ensuing struggle to rebuild self-esteem. Painful snapshots capture this perfectly, like when a very young Ella is told to kiss her Daddy and ‘paralysed and powerless to perform as required’ she holds her arms up to the wrong man. But it is ultimately a hopeful story as time and experience allow the main characters to comprehend a little more about each other’s experiences and find forgiveness. As this intensely personal story unfolds, the rich prose and beautiful details ensure that the reader will be captivated from beginning to end.

Click here to order L’Anglaise direct from Holland House Books.

About the publisher:

Holland House is a bold, dynamic publisher of high quality literary and genre fiction. Investing time and energy into producing books by unique voices, they are not afraid of advancing new and challenging work, as well as great books written in the classic style. ‘We want to produce quality writing and to work with good people’. Imprints include Caerus Press for historical fiction and Grey Cells Press for crime fiction.

About the reviewer:

Becky Danks is an avid reader, creative writer, book reviewer, and dog lover. She recently won the City Writes competition for her short story, The Anniversary. She is currently organising a UK and Ireland-wide poetry and short story competition which will launch very soon. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyD123 or visit her website: www.beckydanks.com