Lockdown Reads – Pt 1.

Earlier this year I decided I was going to start writing book reviews – lockdown had helped me get out of a huge reading rut and I’ve read (and more importantly enjoyed reading) more this year than I have in a long time. Unfortunately, life and other responsibilities meant that suddenly this intention was relegated to a handful of half finished posts in my drafts – I’m not in the habit of doing anything much other than thinking/feeling about whatever book I’ve just finished in my head, rather than writing about it… With that said I’ve collated a few lil reviews/reflections on some of my lockdown reads below and there’ll (hopefully) be more coming soon…

Lanny by Max Porter – I’d had this on my to read list for a while because it sounded wonderfully strange/intriguing and I loved it even more than I expected to – it was both familiar and otherworldly… and utterly brilliant.

Not far from London, there is a village. This village belongs to the people who live in it and to those who lived in it hundreds of years ago. It belongs to England’s mysterious past and its confounding present. It belongs to families dead for generations, and to those who have only recently moved here, such as the boy Lanny, and his mum and dad. But it also belongs to Dead Papa Toothwort, who has woken from his slumber in the woods. Dead Papa Toothwort, who is listening to them all.

Lanny, Max Porter.

I feel like any attempt at a review couldn’t quite give a sense of this novel – its use of language, its magic, its rhythm and its unpredictability. It really stuck with me and was such a joy to read – I passed it onto my boyfriend afterwords and he loved it too, finishing it just as quickly as I did. Whilst it’s a short read, it’s also one that brims with sensitivity, with the mythical, with the bitterness and the hopefulness of human life and somehow Porter manages to make all this feel effortless. A new favourite that I’m sure read again and again.

Sally Rooney’s Normal People feels too obvious to even talk about, but it was something I finally read early on in lockdown, after the hype for the new BBC series became unavoidable. I fell in love with everything about it – the soft, tender and understated portrayals of emotions that can feel so huge, the settings, the characters themselves (which were portrayed absolutely incredibly by Daisy Edgar Jones, Paul Mescal and the rest of the cast)… So many people have already articulated why far better than I will here, but briefly I’ll say that I loved the way in which Rooney writes dialogue, the way that she explores and expresses those moments that get inside of us and shape who we are as we grow up, and how closely bound that is with where we grew up and the world we thought we knew. Connell’s feelings of being out of place both back home and at University were something that really resonated with me and were probably the moments that made my heart ache the most within it all – that familiar feeling of everything seeming to unravel, leaving you scrambling and rootless is something that will always stick with me.

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld – Set across three different periods of history, from the 1700s to the modern day, the novel follows Sarah, Ruth and Viv as their lives are shaped by the violence of the men surrounding them. The book is not an easy read, it is filled with brutality and violence and brimming with anger. Men are mostly cruel within its pages, in a relentless way which almost loses impact after a while (though that’s relevant to the ways in which we become desensitised to a constant stream of tragedy in our every day lives). Women aren’t the only ones to suffer at the hands of men in the novel and I really appreciated the explorations of the ramifications of war and of childhood abuse – I actually felt like the characters of Michael and Christopher were the most touching in the book in many ways. The narrative following Sarah did not materialise in the way I anticipated, but there are clever echoes and plays upon history throughout and its impact is there in a subtle way. My favourite thing about the book was the way that Wyld captured the fragmentary nature of the way in which we and our families and our pasts all exist together… Part of me definitely felt frustrated by the ending – though I’m not entirely sure that this is a bad thing… Ultimately, this novel felt like a remembrance, an act of defiance against the way in which suffering is so often erased from society, rather than simply a tale of multiple narratives woven together in a necessarily satisfying and palatable way…

My Dark Vanessa – A Review

Hello! Today I thought I’d give writing a book review a go – this isn’t the kind of post I’m used to writing but I’m mainly doing so to see if it’s something I’d enjoy – reading and writing are my favourite things to do so maybe writing about reading will end up being something I do more of!

I’ve had my eye on ‘My Dark Vanessa’ since peach covered proofs started to hit my Twitter and Instagram feeds months ago. Exploring protagonist Vanessa Wye’s relationship with her English teacher, Jacob Strane, and its ongoing impact on her life as, many years later, accusations of sexual assault towards him and others begin to role in, it’s definitely a jarring read. Part of me was admittedly sceptical about whether the novel would bring anything new to conversations regarding abusive relationships, consent and current movements and I steered away from reading about the author or the novel’s controversies, not wanting anything to influence my initial reading. But ultimately, I found a novel that tackles issues of victimhood, consent and how this all fits into the #MeToo era in a nuanced and incredibly emotive way.

One of the things that struck me most about the novel was Vanessa’s struggle with the idea of victimhood – her painful inability to reconcile her expectations of what a victim should be with her own perceived agency and consent in her relationship with Strane. It’s something I think anyone who has ever been in abusive or toxic relationship might be able to identify with – that uncomfortable feeling that something bad has happened to you but that your own behaviour must surely negate from the validity of any resulting trauma. This, combined with Vanessa’s vulnerability during her years at private school left me feeling, in some ways, more connected with her character than I expected to.

That vulnerability and it’s complete exploitation, which Russell expresses so well, is what makes the novel truly devastating. Vanessa, like so many of us when at high school, struggles with feeling unseen and disconnected from those around her. The cruelty of the novel is that, not only is it this very human feeling that allows Strane to groom her in the first place, but it is his manipulation of this feeling; always creating the illusion that Vanessa is in control, able to consent, possessing agency, that not only results in a feeling of ‘otherness’ throughout Vanessa’s adult life, but leaves her feeling as if she is to blame – as if it is that ‘difference’ that means such a relationship could happen to her. The way this manipulation drips through the novel, happening slowly and becoming increasingly apparent as the relationship progresses, leaves you feeling all the more empathetic for Vanessa. The nervousness, the excitement, the familiarity of having a crush portrayed alongside the sinister and increasing cruel behaviour of Strane makes the situation feel truly heartbreaking.

The #MeToo movement’s involvement in the novel fit well with the overarching plot and I found the portrayals of what the movement means for different women to be really well expressed – the opportunistic journalist using awful experiences as a ticket to some sort of woke success, the victim empowered by identifying and exploring her experience, the woman just trying to get through and build her life up and away from abuse. The awful ramifications that women suffer through when they come forward were something I wish any sceptic of the #MeToo movement could read – because this novel is not just a blanket ‘believe women’, it’s an exploration of the ways in which they are failed by the institutions with a duty of care towards them and the way in which their experiences, and their coming forward, are painful and conflicting and far more complex than whether they are a victim or not, whether they are empowered or vilified.

Part of me often felt a little frustrated with Vanessa’s character, though this is no failing of the book at all – whilst it might have been easy to add in traits that would have made her more endearing or likeable, it would’ve also undermined one of the messages of the novel itself. Vanessa should not need to be a palatable character, one who is always easy to empathise with and pity (though she is often that, too) – she should be a human, just trying to understand herself, her experiences, what they mean for her and how she can go on to live a life she is content with. And the public aren’t to own victims, to lay claim to their lives.

I’ve been wondering if, after finishing My Dark Vanessa, I should re-read Lolita for the first time since high school, and how a second reading might impact my perception of both books. It still feels deeply unsettling to hear the occasional reference to Lolita as a love story, and I’d hope that a copy of My Dark Vanessa falls into the hands of any who perceive it so… Not only is it challenging, but My Dark Vanessa is thoughtful, devastating and nuanced – a brilliant sit down and devour kinda’ read.