Alix Kates Shulman's black feminist comedy Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen still has the power to shock, fifty years after it was first published.
It's 1950s America. Sasha Davis is beautiful, smart and not short on boyfriends. Despite having it all, she's on an anxiety spiral. Twenty-four years of age, it won't be long until she's thirty when she's sure she will have lost her looks. As a woman, she knows all the cards are stacked against her. It's either marry, have children, play second fiddle to a second-rate husband, or face economic ruin and social ostracism. Sasha marries Frank, an academic, and agrees to work mundane jobs to support his burgeoning career. Eventually she can stand it no longer, travels through Europe, has an affair and decides to leave Frank, only to end up in more financial, romantic and reproductive jeopardy.
First published in 1972, the blackly comic Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was a runaway hit, clearly hitting a nerve with readers. The story is told in a convoluted way, the novel opening with Sasha leaving her husband, then describing her childhood, growing up and finally becoming prom queen, with all its resultant problems with boys. Sasha does hit the dreaded age of 30 and finds life doesn't get easier, especially if you're a woman.
Alix Kates Shulman doesn't hold back in describing all the inequities and horrors facing women and young girls. (One memorable scene has a group of young boys virtually abduct a young Sasha and pull her underwear off in a ritual humiliation). For women in the 1950s and 60s, there are limited job opportunities, sexual harassment, the drudgery of bringing up children and financial insecurity. Women's reproductive issues are brought up in some of the novel's most confronting scenes, with language so coarse (and funny) it can't be repeated here. The depiction of an abortion, and its aftermath, is a true horror, with images that will stay in the mind forever.
Both rancid comedy and feminist call-to-arms, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen may not be to everyone's taste. It's dark, brutal, caustic and funny. It's also a rollicking ride of a book, a take-no-prisoners account of 1950s womanhood and still reads as remarkably modern. An important document of the times and a marker of how much progress still needs to be made.
Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, by Alix Kates Shulman. Published by Serpent's Tail. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Marg Piercy's feminist classic A Woman on the Edge of Time critiques our dominant capitalist, patriarchal model, and offers the reader an alternative future.
It's the 1970s. Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, a Mexican-American woman in her mid-thirties, has been unfairly incarcerated at a New York mental institution. She has had some drug use issues in her past, some domestic problems, but nothing warranting this extreme treatment. In hospital, she is subjected to all sorts of cruelties and indignities. Bureaucracy and form filling permeate everything; the doctors and nurses are self-centred career professionals, interested only in self-promotion and moving up the hierarchy. As mental health care experts they may profess to be governed by the principles of rationality and best practice, but in reality they're highly unstable themselves, plagued with a litany of personal problems.
Connie is in serious trouble. The doctors want to perform an operation on her brain that will allow them to control her moods. She's seen the results on other patients – one committed suicide and another was left but a shell of her former self – and has determined she must escape the hospital. But how?
During her tumultuous detention, Connie has been visited by a being from the future. Luciente, an androgynous woman from the year 2137, makes contact and persuades Connie to visit the future, a better place by far. They time travel to Mattapoisett, an agrarian community that has eliminated most forms of oppressive hierarchy, patriarchy and big government. This future civilisation is gender-neutral, classless and racially diverse. Technology is used conservatively, decision making is consultative and democratic, in a grass roots kind of way, and society is by and large much more feminised. The same old human problems remain – jealousy, impatience, violent impulses – but they are dealt with in a more open and honest manner. Neither has war been eliminated. The people of Mattapoisett are involved in a conflict with an ultra-capitalist, environmentally rapacious enemy – the last remnants of our own society.
Connie learns much from Luciente and her people. The biggest lesson is that, in her own time, in a New York mental hospital, she's involved in a war herself. A war against terrible social and economic forces that keep women like her locked up and tortured. She decides to fight back – to at least try to resist – with devastating results.
First published in 1976, Marg Piercy's feminist, sci-fi classic is a mind bending novel of utopian possibilities. The sections that deal with the mental hospital – its grim wards, defeated patients and sadistic doctors – are rivetting for their sense of realism. Piercy makes a compelling critique of our rational, expert dominated world, which can lack empathy and common sense. (Interestingly, the future world of Mattapoisett has no time for big titled professionals, seeing house work as just as important as neurosurgery.)
Readers may find the utopian world of Mattapoisett a bit of a throwback to the seventies, with its hippie-like eschewal of property, its nature cult and gender fluidity. Nevertheless, Piercy does write a philosophically detailed alternate future, one that provides an illuminating contrast to the mad world of 70s New York. Mattapoisett is a breath of fresh air, an idealistic alternative to our current brutal capitalist model.
A Woman on the Edge of Time will challenge and shock. The world looks different having read it.
A Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marg Piercy. Published by Penguin. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Edna O'Brien paints an unforgettable portrait of the lives of African women.
A group of Nigerian girls are abducted from their school by a militant jihadi group. They are taken to a secret camp and undergo all sorts of horrors, including genital mutilation and pack rape. To show the girls their possible fate should they not submit to the militants' authority, they are made to witness a woman's public stoning.
The focus of the novel is Maryam, who narrates her story. She has been through so much trauma and hardship that she is not even sure of her age. Married off to a jihadi soldier, she has a baby girl, but manages to escape the camp. Finally reunited with her mother after much danger, it would seem her ordeal has ended, but it's only really just begun.
Irish novelist Edna O'Brien's new novel is a work of great courage, integrity and artistic risk-taking. Taking on the voice of a young African woman (the story is based on the Boko Haram abductions) is a brave step, but in such skilled hands it pays off. O'Brien's novel has urgency, fire and anger. Written with consummate skill, even grace, it's an unforgettable portrait of the shocking abuses of girls and women.
Girl, by Edna O'Brien. Published by Faber. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A young woman goes on a journey of self-discovery in this intimate, understated debut from Chinese author, An Yu.
Jia Jia lives in her Beijing apartment with her husband, Chen Hang, a successful businessman. It's more a marriage of convenience than love, and there are suggestions that not all his business dealings are above board. One morning Jia Jia walks into the bathroom of their apartment to find her husband in the bath, his head submerged. Nearby is a strange, enigmatic drawing he has made of a man with a fish's body, what comes to be called “the fish man”. Was it suicide, or accidental death? Maybe something more sinister?
Left alone in the world with a large, four-bedroom apartment, Jia Jia embarks on an uncertain new life, one of self re-creation. She strikes up a friendship with Leo, who runs a bar near her apartment, and takes on some freelance work as an artist. The idea then strikes her to take a trip to Tibet, replicating the exact journey her husband had taken before his untimely death.
In Tibet Jia Jia meets some new people who help her unlock the mystery of “the fish man”, the strange picture her husband had drawn before he died. In the process, new information is also revealed about her troubled mother, who died young.
Braised Pork is the first novel by 26-year-old An Yu. She was born and raised in Beijing, moved to New York as a teenager and now lives between Paris and Hong Kong. She writes her fiction in English. This is an engaging and elusive debut - elusive in a good way. The story is set out in clear and simple prose – it’s a dream to read – and is rich in ambience, describing city life and its feelings of isolation. As the story progresses, it becomes more evocative and contains many dream passages where Jia Jia falls into what is described as a “world of water” that is linked to “the fish man”. This world of water could be described as a state of being, almost a state of nothingness, that offers relief from Jia Jia's grief and depression. In the world of water, Jia Jia doesn't have to be anything, but can be happy to simply exist. It's a dark, yet meditative place.
Some readers may find Braised Pork too abstract and intangible. The more evocative dream sequences can leave you scratching your head as to what it all really means. But too much explanation could have tipped this sensitive and delicate story, with its strong vein of magic realism, into something more blunt and prosaic.
A highly enjoyable debut and an author to watch.
Release date 21st January, 2020
Braised Pork, by An Yu. Published by Harvill/Secker. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Jarrett Kobek explains what’s wrong with the world in this cathartic, darkly comic novel.
It's impossible to place the novels of Turkish-American writer Jarett Kobek in any kind of category: they seem written in complete opposition to contemporary literary fiction. His anarchic style, which eschews story arcs and character development, has strong overtones of Kurt Vonnegut, and even Charles Bukowski. Kobek’s books are part razor sharp diatribe against the capitalist system, part riff on modern mass media and technology and part biting satire on just about everything. All this is loosely held together with mercurial plots and zany characters, picking their way through the debris of modern life.
Only Americans Burn in Hell begins by introducing the reader to the work of Elizabethan hack writer, Richard Johnson, and his 1599 Arthurian romance, Tom a Lincoln. That work features an island inhabited entirely by women called Fairy Land, with its reigning queen, Celia. Jarett takes some of the characters from Tom a Lincoln and revives them as supranatural beings who live for centuries, ending up in modern day California. Only Americans Burn in Hell spins madly out of control as a myriad of different elements are thrown in: a rich Saudi, a cult film-maker, Guns and Roses concerts, rants about Donald Trump and a blistering, thoroughgoing attack on the publishing industry. Indeed, the book is a major j'accuse against the liberal media, seen as nothing more than a money making machine for its amoral corporate masters. Kobek does a great job of following the money, explaining who pays for liberal opinion and reportage. (There are paradoxes aplenty in this: tax dodging, anti-union Jeff Bezos owns the left-leaning Washington Post, while the liberal entertainment industry created Donald Trump.)
Kobek's book won't be for everyone. It's acerbic and often full of profanity. One thing is sure: you won't read it in a state of torpor. It will keep you eyes pinned open in shock to the very end.
Only Americans Burn in Hell, by Jarett Kobek. Published by Serpent's Tail. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Siberian bears, ruthless oligarchs, crashing ice sheets and corrupt officials come together in this splendid contemporary thriller.
Investigator Arkady Renko is worried about his girlfriend, Tatiana Petrovna. She's a journalist and often disappears for dangerous assignments. When she abruptly leaves for Siberia, with only a few clues as to her whereabouts, Arkady takes on an assignment that allows him to follow and check up on her. He discovers that Tatiana has been working with oligarch, ex-political prisoner and now presidential aspirant, Mikhail Kuznetsov. She's doing what she believes is the right thing, supporting Kuznetsov's anti-corruption platform, but it's a murky world of money, politics and terrorism.
Arkady, too, has his hands full. Sent to Siberia by Prosecutor Zurin, he's tasked with investigating suspected Chechen terrorist, Aba Makhmud. He also starts inquiries into another oligarch, Boris Benz, which takes him deep into Siberia, to the city of Irkutsk, where he sustains some serious injuries. When two politically motivated murders are uncovered, Arkady is given orders by Zurin to perform some nasty – and illegal – business. If he doesn't follow through, Zurin threatens dire consequences. Caught on the horns of a dilemma, Arkady doesn't know what to do, until fate provides some spectacular twists of its own.
The ninth in the Arkady Renko series of thrillers, which began with Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith's latest is a sophisticated, neatly organised and well paced mystery with enjoyable characters, crisp dialogue and moody atmospherics. For those interested in the politics of modern Russia, there is plenty to satisfy, with brief discussions of Putin, corruption and the murderous oil economy. And just when you think the story may be running out of puff, the last fifty pages delivers a breathtaking finale.
Classy and enjoyable stuff.
The Siberian Dilemma, by Martin Cruz Smith. Simon and Schuster. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Child prodigy Barbara Newhall Follett wrote The House Without Windows, a song in praise of nature, at the age of twelve.
A young girl, Eepersip, finds living in a house – restrictive doors, windows, rooms and their attendant rules for living – repugnant to her. She decides to leave her parents' house and live in the wild. At first Eepersip roams the woods and meadows, making friends with animals and exulting in the plant life. She eats berries and roots, drinks freshly gathered water and makes comfortable beds in the wild for sleeping. Eepersip lives in a kind of ecstasy; a pure joy inhabits every waking minute of the day. She can't imagine going back to living in a house. Her parents, Mr and Mrs Eigleen, have different ideas. In a comic game of cat-and-mouse, they try to capture Eepersip and bring her back. But their half-hearted, ill conceived strategies always fail, often farcically. In one episode Eepersip actually jumps over her father and runs in the opposite direct.
Having experienced the wonders of the woods, Eepersip decides to discover the delights of the sea. For the third part of the novel, Eepersip treks to the mountain tops, where she experiences a near transformation, giving the novel a mesmerising, glittering finish.
Barbara Newhall Follett began writing The House Without Windows when she was eight and finished it at age nine. The manuscript was destroyed in a fire and so she began re-writing it from memory. Where memory failed her, she recreated, letting her writing go off in new directions. She was only twelve years old when her novel was published in 1927.
The House Without Windows is certainly an astonishing feat, for a writer at any age. The book is suffused with a magic and wonder; the descriptions of fish, animals, plants, insects all convey an utter ecstasy of experience. The book also offers psychological lessons. Eepersip eschews identity – there are sections where she doesn't even like to be called by her name – in favour of merging with the natural world. To achieve happiness and oneness with all things, the ego must be erased. By the novel's end, Eepersip, as a solid personality, with name, family history and place in society, has almost disappeared, replaced with a humming presence, a oneness with the world.
A book of mind boggling originality from a preternaturally gifted writer.
The House Without Windows, by Barbara Newhall-Follett. Hamish Hamilton $22.99
Staff review by Chris Saliba
A Swedish classic of psychological drama.
Swedish novelist Stig Dagerman's A Moth to the Flame (1948) opens with a funeral. Twenty-year-old Bengt's mother, Alma, is to be buried. It's a time of guilt, anger and mixed emotions as the family remembers the often neglected Alma. Bengt tries to cope with the loss of his mother, and he has his sympathetic and gentle fiancée, Berit, to help. But things take a dark turn when he discovers that his father, Knut, has been seeing another woman, Gun, a cashier at the local theatre. Bengt becomes both attracted to and repulsed by Gun. His emotions bounce violently between love and hate, keeping him in a state of permanent, unresolved distress.
Stig Dagerman wrote a series of highly regarded novels in his early twenties, suddenly stopped writing, and five years later tragically committed suicide at the age of thirty-one. A Moth to the Flame, a work of staggering emotional maturity, was published when the author was in his mid twenties. It's a brooding, dreamlike work of psychological interiors. The novel has no real centre of gravity and rather floats like a miasma, drenched in Freudian gloom, with its themes of guilt, desire and traumatic family relationships. The deeply conflicted Bengt has much in common with Shakepeare's Hamlet as he tries to avenge his mother's memory but is unable to set out on any definite course.
A mini masterpiece from a gifted writer who died too young.
A Moth to the Flame, by Stig Dagerman. Penguin Classics. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Peter Polites second novel is a witty exploration of class, race, sex and money, firmly set in gay Sydney.
Pano is slumming it, his work as a poet barely making an income. When he sees an advertisement on a gay website, he moves in with Kane, an IT specialist. The designer house, in upwardly mobile Pemulwuy, is everything he's ever aspired to. When Pano and Kane fall into bed together, Pano almost allows himself the fiction they are a happy couple. Kane is more interested in a proposed Albanian mosque, to be built across the road. He talks Pano into a plot to discredit the mosque. Meanwhile, Pano has taken on work as a ghostwriter for a dodgy property developer. Can Pano maintain this middle-class facade, or will it all come undone?
Peter Polites' second novel is a dry, witty exploration of class, race, sex and money, firmly set in Sydney and with a cast of mainly gay men. The Pillars drips with an irony worthy of Jean Genet and Joe Orton. One of its main concerns is artifice and the presentation of self. Everything – clothes, décor, cosmetics – are described in mesmerising detail, working up a picture of a superficial, branded world and its deluded denizens.
An astute work of social observation that entertains with a seductive, sly humour.
The Pillars, by Peter Polites. Hachette Australia. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Irina Odoevtseva fled Russia soon after the 1917 Revolution and lived in Germany, then France, not returning to her homeland until 1987. She was a poet, memoirist and novelist. Isolde, published in 1929, was her second novel. It has now been translated into English for the first time.
Pretty, doll-like Liza lives in Biarritz, a seaside playground for the rich on the coast of France. She is fourteen-years-old and is much sought after by other boys. One day on the beach she meets Cromwell, an English lad who is a few years older than her. Cromwell professes undying love for Liza, calls her his “Isolde”, and is quickly drawn into her group, which includes her older brother, Antonio, and friend Odette. This young group of carefree youths live the fast life, dining out at restaurants, drinking and generally seeking pleasure. The truth of the matter, however, is that they are all short on money, or if they have money, then it is soon enough running out. The group sponges off Cromwell, while Liza, an innocent, free spirit, talks about meeting up with Andrei, a former boyfriend.
Everyone is riding an emotional merry-go-round, even Liza's mother, Natasha. She has a needy boyfriend, Bunny, who has drained his bank account for her and even started embezzling money. The slavish Bunny is not enough for Natasha, and she takes up with Boris, who is emotionally abusive.
Everything spins faster and faster for this group of children and adults. Pleasure, money, indulgence, fast cars, sex. But as the money runs out and the discarded relationships pile up, everything seems on a crash course for disaster.
Isolde caused a scandal in its day, with its air of delicious decadence and beautiful yet tainted youth. Odoevtseva captivates with her descriptions of the beautiful Liza, her trilling laughter, languid afternoons and breezy, uncomplicated character. The scene in Biarritz is painted as an enticing, voluptuaries’ playground. It’s hard not to be seduced. But as the novel progresses, one feels the hangover of such excesses, until such a dissolute lifestyle catches up with everyone. Ultimately Isolde is a moral story. Living for pleasure, on other people's money, with no consideration for the feelings of others, is the fastest route to hell.
Odoevtseva writes in a light, breezy tone, skilfully weaving into her spirited narrative an impending sense of dread, decay and doom. What a treat for English readers to have this long ignored Russian classic now available in translation.
Isolde, by Irina Odoevtseva. Published by Pushkin. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books