How’s your January been? Same as December? November? This corona void is such fun, isn’t it? *Sobs forever.
I don’t do resolutions, because they’re like a dare to myself. The angel on my shoulder is all “Sarah, you can do it. Think how much better you’ll feel after a month without chocolate,”, while the devil is there hissing, “Mate, all the cool people eat an entire grab bag of Twirl Bites in one sitting. Don’t you want to be a cool person?” And in truth, yes reader, I do. I want to be cool. And that’s why I continue to inhale bags of Bites before my brain has even registered the package as open. Anyway, I digress…
Instead of resolutions, I have ‘loose aims’, made at the start of December in order to trick my brain into action. It’s why I always start my diets on Sundays too. Last year’s aim was modest, but essential. Not to harsh your mellow, but your resident reviewer was in a bit of a funk last Christmas. Some medical types may have described it as ‘severe depression’, but let’s just call it a little funk for now. So, my aim was simply to survive and maybe be happy. And despite corona being a total arsehole, I managed it. Yay for me.
This year, my loose aim is to build on that happy. I also have a group of other aims that are dependant on COVID pissing off – if it does, God help the single men of Scotland. But while it’s still hanging around like a bad smell my nose can’t quite pick up, that’s all I’ll say about that.
Anyway, with all that said, we have books to discuss – and not just any books, but those that subscribe to the questionable theory of New Year, New You. Bear with me though, for in these three books the women aren’t changing up their chocolate eating habits. Oh no, they’re sacking off their whole lives in the pursuit of happiness. Which makes leaving a Twirl in the bag that bit more achievable, doesn’t it?
The Vanishing Half
First off, let me say this book has the most glorious cover. Possibly my favourite of 2020. I know you shouldn’t judge a book in that way, but this one is set-the-tone gorgeous, ensuring that as you crack the spine, you know you’re going to be faced with something special.
Satisfyingly, it starts with a bang, as Desiree appears back in her hometown with a child, much darker than she, setting the rumour mill whirring. Why? Well, she and her twin Stella had run far from their hometown of Mallard as teenagers and no one in the town had seen hide nor hair of them since.
Mallard is described as an odd town where “nobody married dark, and nobody left either.” The town had been set up for very light-skinned African Americans by a man who’d inherited sugarcane fields from his father, who had owned him. That little sentence in the book weighs heavier than carrying a car on your back. His mother, a slave, had been raped by her master, and her child was born much lighter in complexion than she was.
With his father dead, the now-freed son turned the fields into a town for people like him, those who would never be accepted as white, but refused to be treated in the same way as darker-skinned African Americans. Lightness was a lonely gift, he thought, so he created a town for people who looked just like him. People like his great-great-great-granddaughters, Stella and Desiree.
Years before Desiree returned, she and Stella both ran. Desiree, at that point, had been the eager one, with Stella hesitant but loyal to her sister. But Desiree married the wrong man, the twins lost touch, and Desiree was left with a child and an abusive man she had to escape from. Back to Mallard. Back to her mother, who is stunned to meet her grandchild, fourteen years after her twins disappearance.
So, we see Desiree settle back into small town life, grudgingly, accepting she had no choice. Meanwhile, we learn that Stella had moved to LA, become a secretary, married her boss and also had a child. But her life has been incredibly different her sister’s. She’s presented herself as a white woman and lived in perpetual fear anyone would find out the secret she’s so deeply ashamed of. She lives a life of incredible privilege with an extremely wealthy husband, thinking about her mum and her twin in only brief, snatched moments.
I’m going to leave it there, for this is a glorious book full of twists and turns and I don’t want to give any spoilers. You deserve to read this book, a beautifully layered story told over decades. You’ll marvel at Brit Bennett’s flawless ability to put you in the minds of women who believe themselves to be complete opposites, but discover they are twins after all…
The Girl with the Louding Voice
When does a girl become a woman? At 16? 18? Or when she starts her periods, at 12 or 13? It depends on where you are in the world. And also on the eye of the beholder, to be fair – I’m going to be 39 in March and still get an advent calendar from my mum every Christmas, so I certainly don’t see a woman when I look in the mirror.
But in this book, Adunni is a woman at 14. Her mum had encouraged education and Adunni’s dreams to one day become a teacher, but her mum is dead and her dad has just sold her for 30,000 Nigerian Naira, or according to today’s exchange rate, £57.48. Her husband to be is an old taxi driver with the ‘face of a he-goat’. She is to become his third wife with an expectation to provide more children, alongside the four he already has.
Her mum’s dying plea to her dad was to not give Adunni up for marriage and to allow her to stay on at school. She spoke from experience. Denied the love of her life because his family wouldn’t accept her without any eduction, she was forced to marry Adunni’s dad and vowed that her daughter would never follow in her footsteps; that she wouldn’t have just any kind of voice, but a louding voice. Then, after she died, her husband broke his promise, so that was that.
Adunni has no choice to marry and move in with the taxi driver and his two wives, and the stories of her time in that house are hideously heart wrenching. What were you doing at 14 or 15? Drinking lime Bacardi breezers before under 18s discos? No? Just me? Whatever it was, is unlikely to mirror what she has to do. Her pursuit of education, of a better life, is what sustains her, before her hardships go from bad to worse as she escapes to Lagos. No matter what life throws at her though, she keeps her spirit, her dreams, her belief that she’ll find a way to her louding voice. To take on the world, to not accept her lot in life, to instead transform it into something on her terms, no matter what anyone tells her.
This is a beautifully told story, and Adunni will stay in your thoughts long after you finish the book. The setting of Nigeria lets us see the story of a country in two parts. One with overwhelming poverty, the other swimming with wealth, privilege and gated communities. It seems impossible for anyone to bridge the gap between the two, but if anyone can do it, it’s an educated girl – the most powerful thing of all.
The Henna Artist
In a continuing theme of teenagers being forced into abusive marriages, we head from Nigeria to Jaipur, in 1950s India, where 17-year-old Lakshmi has fled her own rural domestic hell. With nothing but the clothes on her back, her talents as a henna artist and an unwavering belief in herself that her life will be better and that one day she will have a home of her own, she is a girl with a plan. It’s so heartening to read about her, so convinced her circumstances are temporary, that she is not a product of them, and that despite overwhelming pressure to the contrary, she is in control of her own destiny.
Thanks to her talent and her ability to make her own luck, she quickly gains a reputation within the community of the housewives of Jaipur. It might be the 1950s, but the housewives are no less severe, sharp-tongued, unforgiving or dramatic as their contemporary counterparts in Atlanta or New York. The house starts to become a feasible goal rather than a pipe dream, and as the clients pile up and the money starts rolling in, like a bad penny, her ex-husband turns up. He demands his wife back along with all her money which, as an extension of her, he believes rightfully his. As if that wasn’t stressful enough, enter stage right a younger sister she didn’t know she had. Suddenly the money and her independence have been thrown right down the shitter.
Lakshmi is formidable, and to paraphrase those great philosophers Chumbawumba, when she gets knocked down, she gets back up again. She faces the battle of her life just to own her own home, to choose the tiles in her own kitchen, which, like Adunni’s quest for education in The Girl with the Louding Voice, seems like it should be a simple goal. Of course, most of us can do those things, but let’s replace the house or the school with any of our own hopes and dreams. Using their ambition, their blind faith and their refusal to accept the limits placed on them by society, these women don’t just inspire us – they also provide the complete kick up the arse we need to get cracking in 2021. We can’t go outside much, but there’s sure as hell some things we can hustle for. If you want it, go get it.
What would Beyoncé do? What would Adunni, Lakshmi or Stella and Desiree do?
The Flock Book Club in February
With the vaccines heading our way, I’m hoping February will bring a metaphorical springtime of hope, rebirth and renewal (and similarly wanky sentences). So, with that in mind, I’m taking us to the most romanticised of times and places, springtime in Paris.
Recently, I’ve found myself wondering – would I be mocked mercilessly for wandering down Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street in that big floofy dress Carrie wears in Paris? Yes, reader, I would.
So, lets get our historical fiction on and travel back in time to a Paris that hasn’t been clichéd to death by Netflix and SJP…
The Paris Wife
Telling the tale of Hadley, wife number one of Ernest Hemingway, on one hand, this book is a glorious time machine into Jazz Age Paris, where F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are some of the Hemingways’ drinking buddies. But on the other hand, it’s a compelling tale, as relevant today as then, with familiar themes of heartbreak and betrayal, of divorce lawyers, of women feeding the ego of insecure men and putting their own lives and careers on hold to raise the kids and provide a lovely home. It’s a tale as old as time, only with a side of French fancy…
The Paris Hours
This also tells the tale of Jazz Age Paris, only this time from the perspective of some ordinary Parisians situated just on the periphery of the dazzling deco decadence of the famous artistic legends. A group of suburbs, if you will. The action takes place over 24 hours and is a beautifully woven tale of hustle, of trying to make it, of being the people behind the scenes, propping up the dazzling stars and allowing them to shine. As with The Paris Wife, the themes here are as relevant today as they were then. Think of it as a historic precursor to all those Insta influencers trying to be a Kardashian, or whatever it is people do online these days. TikTok, that’s a thing. I know a thing…
The Paris Library
Janet Skeslien Charles
This is based on a true story of some bad-ass librarians taking on the Nazis in World War II Paris. I’m not sure there’s any more I can even say about it as a trailer. If you’re not hooked by that one sentence then I don’t know what’s wrong with you, you’re dead to me and we can no longer be friends. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.
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