In times of uncertainty, even more than usual, I find literature comforting to soothe the soul and keep on keeping on. What else can we do?
Susan B. Choi, Trust Exercise
Can someone’s attention and love be so visceral, so passionate, so overwhelming, that it ends up deforming us? One the characters in Susan B. Choi’s fifth novel ‘Trust Exercise’ finds herself living with this predicament.
Marked as a #MeToo novel, the story weaves in ambiguities of the heart, our own inabilities to see the consequences of our actions on others, and the ways our inadequacies can come to deny and eventually destroy us.
Reading this novel, I felt as though I was being taken by the hand and led through chambers; door after door after door after door. The story opens in the eighties; an ordinary love story between two teenagers. Enter charismatic and illustrious drama teacher. Mr Kingsley. Things are not what they seem. This novel has been described as one that pushes the boundaries.
The language is magnetic and gorgeous. The storylines weave in and out and travel across time. I felt a dizzying frustration and delight at different points throughout. This one is gripping until the very last line. Experimental fiction? No. Just writing that deserves its place in the literary canon.
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi has won the 2019 #NBAwards for Fiction!
— National Book Foundation (@nationalbook) November 21, 2019
Meena Kandasamy, ‘When I hit you, Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife’
What is imagination and what is memory? Despite the memoir-like cover of this book, the author clearly wants readers to know; this is a work of fiction. It is about the ways we cling to a fantasy.
The allure of safety after a lacerating heartbreak. Love and abuse are not two separate acts, but rather, fish that swim in the same pool of water. Reading this book, I found my mind clouded with a searing list of questions about my own personal history; what have I done in the past because I believed I was falling into safety? Was it self-preservation? Or self-harm? Are they really two distinct and opposing things? How have I centred the men I’ve loved in my life at the expense of my own wellbeing?
“He is becoming the first semblance of a plot,” the nameless narrator expresses. Perhaps loving someone is a perpetual contention for validation, dignity and affect. It’s not lost to me that all these stories told by women are about their abuse and destruction by the assumed power of men. But as a reader, I want to believe that our stories, even when co-opted by others as ‘survival narratives’, can have power, can have strength to move people towards a kinder expression of themselves.
Sophie Hardcastle ‘Below Deck’
Recommended by two colleagues Madeline Hislop and Georgie Dent, ‘Below Deck’ is Sophie Hardcastle’s third book.
A Northern-Beaches native who now resides in the UK, published her first book at 21, followed by a second a year later. In her third book, the former Provost scholar at the University of Oxford, examines love, loss and trauma, with the ocean a constant theme.
PSA: This, out today, is a masterpiece. Breathtaking, gripping, haunting & so beautifully crafted that I continually found myself re-reading pages and paragraphs just to relive their glory. Its author Sophie Hardcastle is not even 30. Frankly, her talent is frightening. pic.twitter.com/QiaR5UwAfr
— Georgie Dent (@georgiedent) March 2, 2020
In ‘Below Deck’, we follow Oli, a deeply introspective 21-year old as she navigates the turbulent seas (literally and figuratively) to discover her own courage and build a life after trauma.
“Estranged from her parents, and living with her grandfather who is drowning in sadness, Oli faces the reality of life beyond university alone. When she wakes on a boat with no recollection of how she got there, she accepts the help of two strangers who change the course of her future forever. With Mac and Maggie, Oli learns to navigate a life upon open ocean and the world flowers into colours she’s never seen before.”
Hardcastle’s unique way of seeing the world (like Oli, she has synesthesia which means she hears in colour) is channeled through her writing with unflinching grace. It is a gripping, breathless read.
Kate Russell, ‘My Dark Vanessa’
Kate Russell’s novel ‘My Dark Vanessa’ explores questions of memory and legitimacy of self-prescribed narratives.
The story is about a high school teenager and her sexual relationship with her English teacher. She is 15. He is 42. Already, I can think of a few other titles with the same storyline: Emily Maguire’s “Taming the Beast”, Wendy Ortiz’s 2014 memoir, “Excavation” and the character of Maggie in Lisa Taddeo’s extraordinary book “Three Women”.
Of course, there are countless others I haven’t yet had the time to pour my attention into.
What troubles me most about the reception of this novel is that, upon publication, Russell reluctantly took to her website to write a short statement confirming that the book had been inspired her own experiences. Why should that matter? Almost everything Raymond Carver wrote was directly inspired by his own personal boyhood, adulthood and so on. Why does women’s fiction require different metrics to be ‘legitimised?’ My relationship to fiction is always shifting and always blurry, but I’m immensely indebted to extraordinary writers like Russell who create deeply unsettling situations between characters through her writing. This book took her 18 years to write. That alone, warrants my attention.
I struggled with this novel, but it was a worthy, delicious struggle. It made me re-assess my own memories and past trauma, and brought me towards a deeper understanding of my own fatal flaws as a human. That clarity and resolve only makes me a kinder, more compassionate friend, daughter, lover, citizen. And isn’t that what good fiction ought to do?