This year has
been the year of baby, the year of book baby, a year of anxiety, exhaustion,
and the struggle to be present enough to feel enough gratitude. I have given
birth (again), been hustling my book all over the country, and yet spent a lot
of time alone in my bedroom with my newborn listening to true crime or
politics—perhaps synonymous at this point. Beautiful books have been the balm
to my blistering, sleep-deprived mind when I am parched by Twitter and the
unrelenting, oppressive news cycle. These are a few of the books that gave me a
shot in the arm.
I actually had the sublime experience of slowing down when I realized I was coming to the last pages because I didn’t want Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall to end. More of a novella than a novel, it follows a family who join an expedition with an archeology professor and his students in order to reenact the lives of Iron-Age Britons. It’s a menacing and strange coming-of-age story about authenticity, violence, and what connects us to those that have come long before us.
Anna Burns’s Milkman blew me away. It’s one of those books you have to give into because the repetition and rhythm and digressions of the voice are intimately connected to who the nameless protagonist is. I love that there’s so much pain and honesty and humor in something so constructed—it’s exceptional.
In Brandon Hobson’s Where The Dead Sit Talking the language is economical, sometimes lyrical, and sometimes deceptively simple. The protagonist, Sequoyah, is truly unpredictable, which, I think, is a rare thing in fiction. I was worried for him, a little scared of him, and endeared by what he saw/the way he sees. There’s an ache at the center of this book.
Miriam Toews’s Women Talking felt like theater. In the sense that it is dialogue-led, but also in that something invisible is being channeled. The voices of this group of Mennonite women are sort of floating in the air as they trade jokes and barbs and philosophy while trying to decide whether or not to leave their community. The way that Toews distinguishes between the characters is done so gracefully. It reminds me of something that the author Yewande Omotoso once said to me when I was scared to write something—that you have to “Love that voice into being.”
There are years in which you are a stranger to yourself. This was one of them. I stopped keeping to-do lists, forgot obligations, hit pause on making sense of my life: why I cried when I should have been happy, why I grew angry or listless, why convictions I’d held no longer convinced even me. It was the last year of my third decade on this earth, and it seems that with every passing year I grow increasingly alien to that earth, or it to me. A fragmented year.
This was the year I moved to San Francisco for the third time, ambivalent. A bizarre place. Nowhere else can the simple act of buying snacks or going to a day job trigger in me the question, How to live?, or perhaps, How to live as a human?, or, What is a human?, or, How is humanity defined in a place of enormous income disparity and mind-boggling callousness as well as beauty? I’m not sure we all share the same definition of human these days. I’m not sure that, were I to rap politely on the skulls of those beside me on Valencia Street or in the backseat of my rideshare, I would hear flesh rather than a more synthetic response. A surreal place. In trying to make sense of it, I found conversational partners in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, Sarah Rose Etter’s The Book of X, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror.
This was the year I got engaged, and though publicly I kept it low-key, privately I gave myself license to obsess over my favorite obsession: the impossible paradox of being a good parent in a very bad world. I found dark and delightful and intelligent company in Louse Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Karen Russell’s Orange World, Alex Ohlin’s Dual Citizens, Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, Meng Jin’s forthcoming Little Gods. I sobbed through Mira Jacob’s Good Talk. Though I doubt I want children, I have a perverse desire to marinate in the idea—maybe because children seem to bring with them a sense of anticipatory loss, and so a child might be a tangible thing on which to pin the ache I feel anyway.
This was the year I was so paralyzed by anxiety that only horror could shake me out of it. In the summer, my non-American partner was exiled in Mexico for an unspecified amount of time, awaiting opaque “further processing” on his routine visa run. On my trip back alone, the only book that could distract me was Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone—at least we weren’t being boiled alive or eaten by bears! I read Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, Megan Gidding’s forthcoming Lakewood, Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World. Meanwhile, I practiced pacing my apartment while voicing the very worst possibilities: I could quit my job and move to another country! I could sell our needy puppy! I could delete my digital presence and become a hermit! How soothing to twist reality into its most nightmarish shape, and then study it.
This was the year I sought to lose myself in worlds I’d visited before. I reread sagas: Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu from the Earthsea Cycle, Cynthia Voigt’s Elske from the Tales of the Kingdom series, and George R. R. Martin’s entire A Song of Ice and Fire series (as far as it exists; George, please). The escapism is not lost on me. Closer to home, I reread Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth—more than one reread, in the case of certain stories. “As ordinary as it all appears,” Lahiri writes of the immigrant experience of shifting from one world to another, “there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
This was the year I grieved and found solace in books that peered closely at the texture of daily, mundane grief. I read Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days, and Miriam Toews’s strangely hilarious All My Puny Sorrows.
This was the year I looked for joy in the last pure place: in syllables. I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor and Jamil Jan Kochai’s 99 Nights in Logar, in which syntax is sheer delight. I reread Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies on a solo writing trip to Hiroshima where, alone in my hotel with a sea view and two beds, no one minded if I occasionally threw the book across the room to yell WHAT THE FUCK when metaphors got too good. Intending it as mourning, I reread Toni Morrison’s Beloved the day the news of her death broke. I felt only elation. It is a perfect book. It is new every single time, as if the language is being birthed in radical shapes as you read—you can’t help but celebrate the life in it.
This was the year I stopped assuming I could see how things would turn out and cozied up to ambiguity. I read books that, rather than force a sweeping lesson, do what good friends do: hold space for complexity. I read Brandon Taylor’s forthcoming Real Life and T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, in which endings are not ends. I reread the lyrical puzzle box that is Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero. I read collections whose individual pieces fragmented, overlapped: Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina, Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias. I read Sarah Elaine Smith’s Marilou Is Everywhere and Alexandra Chang’s forthcoming Days of Distraction, their narrators keeping me company in my state of persistent bemusement. Maybe it’s enough, these books say, to live with integrity through a day, a paragraph, a sentence.
This was the year in which I wondered what happens to women’s rage and hurt when it is no longer as fresh as it was in, say, 2016. What happens as time passes, what ferments or crusts or festers. I read Shelly Oria’s Indelible in the Hippocampus and Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House and Miriam Toews’s Women Talking. One of the first books I read this year was Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, a real mindfuck of a book, too smart and too cynical and too exacting to give its reader the easy gift of catharsis. It won’t let me forget it. I don’t want to forget.
In 2019, I stopped reading more books than I ever have before; life is too fucking short. The books that held my attention this year—that reached out to me—are capsules of strangeness, of varied extremity; what they don’t do is try to convince me that everything is okay. That was a form of companionship I needed very much.
Previously known as the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction (2013-2016) and the Orange Prize for Fiction (1996-2012), the Women’s Prize for Fiction announced its 2019 shortlist today. The award, created in the wake of a 1991 all-male Booker Prize shortlist, celebrates “excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world.” The longlist, which includes seven debut novels, is as follows (with bonus links when possible):The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (also nominated for the 2018 Costa Book Awards shortlist and featured in our September Preview)Remembered by Yvonne Battle-FeltonMy Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (featured in our November Preview) The Pisces by Melissa Broder (mentioned in Marta Bausell’s 2018 Year in Reading and interviewed by The Millions here)Milkman by Anna Burns (winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize)Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (mentioned in not one, or even two, but three Year in Reading posts; Emezi was also a 5 Under 35 honoree this year)Ordinary People by Diana Evans (featured in our September Preview)Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-JephcottAn American Marriage by Tayari Jones (February Preview)Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li (interview with Li here, plus mentions in quite a few of our Year in Reading posts) Bottled Goods by Sophie van LlewynLost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (featured in two Previews and two Year in Reading posts)Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (praised in Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s Year in Reading)Circe by Madeline Miller (Steph Opitz’s , Marta Bausells’s, and Kaulie Lewis‘s Year in Reading)Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (reviewed here and here)Normal People by Sally Rooney (in two 2018 Year in Reading posts)The shortlist will be announced on April 29th, and the winner will be selected on June 5th.
As a writer, I know I’m on the right path when I feel afraid to sit down to work every day; and as a reader, I’m most drawn to stories that confront the terrors, as well as the beauties, of being human. Horror and its handmaidens—fear, disgust, revulsion, dread, panic—are great teachers; by daring us to look away, they invite us to look closer. If you want to know what sickens a society, investigate its most disturbing art; the answers, usually, are there.
None of the following titles would be classified as horror in your local bookstore, because horror itself is not the point of these narratives; rather, their power to disturb is the result of their unflinching insistence on exposing the horror (which in daily life is treated as mundane, if it is treated any way at all)—of life, sex, and love under patriarchy. Representing work from Japan, Canada, Argentina, France, Austria, England, and the U.S., speaking from the 1930s to today, these 10 women writers are just a handful of storytellers whose work has kept me up at night, wondering about my own relationship to the fantastic horrors they depict.
1. The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns
“She just stood there. Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so, if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.” So begins Comyns’s harrowing tale about Alice, the daughter of a highly disturbed vet, who discovers a secret power she will eventually use against those who seek to humiliate her. Alice’s voice, speaking to the reader with an eerie calm, belies a lifetime of suppressed rage; and her ability to recognize the animal nature in everyone around her is a reminder that the bestial need not be a symbol of debasement, but of a source of power and solidarity. The Vet’s Daughter reminds us that the man who thinks he’s superior to all Others—animal and otherwise—is often the most dangerous animal of all.
2. The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
Spark’s The Driver’s Seat is an awfully funny and disturbing story about a woman intent on destroying herself by convincing a man to murder her: but first, she has some errands to run. Viciously degrading everyone who stands in the path of her desire, whether it’s a hapless clerk in a department store or her fellow passengers on an airplane flying her to her ultimate rendezvous, Lise is repulsively unlikable. Likewise, Spark’s prose provokes extreme discomfort; everything is pushed to a grotesquely sensuous hysteria; colors clash, sounds scream, and emotions run the most exaggerated highs and lows, making Lise’s longing for annihilation seem both terrible and logical at the same time, a cancerous response to the objectification and erotic limitations placed on the female body.
3. The Embalmer by Anne-Renée Caillé (translated by Rhonda Mullins)
A brief, impressionistic novel recalling the narrator’s father’s memories of his work patching up the dead, this slim book is made up of just as much white space as actual text, and it is in these gaps between scenes of extraordinarily vivid evocations of deaths that the experience of The Embalmer begs the question: How, in the face of certain death, do we make sense of life? In what ways does our suffering connect to the experiences of our families, friends, neighbors, and strangers? And what is the nature of work, artistic and otherwise? The deaths described, whether freakish or mundane, do justice to the pathos of all loss, giving the reader a singular experience of her own mortality. Timeless, plotless, disjointed, there is just the slimmest sense of a cohesive narrative connecting the second-hand tales, as fragmented, and fragile, as life itself.
4. My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye (translated by Jordan Stump)
Two schoolteachers in a small-town French community slowly become, for reasons unknown, intolerable to their neighbors; abandoning her husband, who seems to be rotting from the inside out, strange physical ailments and unexplained transformations force Nadia to seek refuge at her son’s ominous mountaintop estate, while something inside her belly grows and grows. More gothic than Dracula in mood, and ten times as terrifying, this is a novel whose horror—physical and atmospheric, precise yet inexplicable—feels timeless; it could have been written at any moment in the past two hundred years. A nightmare of a book that raises plenty of questions about community, class, and motherhood, but offers no answers.
5. House of Mist by María Luisa Bombal
A dreamy ghost story about a woman who marries a heartless husband, reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight, this haunting, disorienting story is like a body wrapped in endless layers of gauze; you know there’s something solid at the core, but you can never quite touch it. As Helga, first an orphan and then a lonely bride, tries to make sense of life on a fog-enshrouded estate in the woods, cruelly but subtlely bullied and taunted by Daniel, fantasy and reality become hopelessly—or, perhaps, hopefully—blurred; by the end of the novel one feels that the fantasies Helga indulges in aren’t about escapism, but truly about escape; for a woman trapped in a world where her body is never absolutely her own, the only way out is through the imagining of a new world, where she is the teller of her own tale. House of Mist is often described as an early example of magical realism, and I agree that term works beautifully here; this is a novel that proves that sometimes the best way to depict the real is by way of magic.
6. Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories by Taeko Kono (translated by Lucy North)
Family curses, dangerous obsessions, and sexual violence saturate this collection of startling imaginative stories. In the title piece, a childless woman who despises little girls becomes obsessed with the desire to dress little boys in beautiful, expensive clothes; in “Theater,” a wife estranged from her husband develops a dark attachment to a cruel hunchback and his beautiful, masochistic wife; and in “Snow,” a family tragedy drives an unwanted daughter to fulfill a deadly wish. What is most remarkable about Kono’s work is how she treats taboo subject matter; without sensationalism or surprise, and never with the aim to shock, but rather to gently instruct us in all the ways in which shame can destroy, and desire liberate. Creepy, sympathetic, and strange, these masterful stories unsettle, comfort, and devastate in equal measure.
7. In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
Written in 1947, this noir masterpiece is narrated by a chillingly rational psychopath who stalks Los Angeles in search of young, single women. Hughes resists the sensational, keeping the violence mostly off-stage; instead, what makes Hughes’s novel so compelling and so disturbing is its focus on the mundanity of her killer’s life and motives; many readers will recognize the toxic masculinity seething beneath the surface of a charming, intelligent man who, feeling the world has not given him what he is owed, unleashes his rage on the bodies of women. It’s fast-paced, beautifully written, and almost suffocatingly dark in tone, and yet In a Lonely Place manages to resist cynicism, embracing instead a message of empowerment at its climax, refusing to glorify violence at the expense of its female characters—a truly radical stance that ennobles the murder-mystery genre.
8. The Necrophiliac by Gabrielle Wittkop (translated by Don Bapst)
A genteel, mild-mannered antiques dealer details his romantic and sexual obsessions with the corpses he digs up—and the result is less disgusting and more emotional than one might expect a (fictional) necrophiliac’s diary to be. A stunning example of how the most precise, unflinching descriptions of horrific acts can push a reader beyond terror into the realm of understanding, sympathy, and, even, tenderness, revealing, through its examination of a particular perversion, the perversion of all desires born of loneliness. A troubling, exquisite gem of a book that has been unnerving European audiences since its publication in 1972.
9. Greed by Elfriede Jelinek (translated by Martin Chalmers)
This nearly plotless novel, about a girl who is drowned by a policeman in rural Austria, takes a typical murder mystery/detective story and turns it viciously inside out; there is no mystery, and the protagonist of the story is not the victim or those seeking justice for her, but the polluted lake in which she dies. Jelinek describes the toxic body of water with an intensity of sensual detail that is both ravishing and sickening, as if the lake itself was the body of a beautiful murdered girl. A relentlessly bleak examination of patriarchy, bourgeois values, and violence against women, it is also an elegy for the natural world, polluted by the metaphorical murderer’s indifference to all Others, human and otherwise: This is horror with an uncompromising moral vision.
10. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
Smart, socially isolated teenager Silvie and her family join a class of archaeology students in the woods to re-enact the lives of a pre-industrial tribe. As the males of the group split off from the women, engaged in more and more violent and mysterious pursuits at the base of the Ghost Wall, Silvie wonders if her father’s worldview—that psychological and physical violence must necessarily be inscribed not only on female bodies, but all bodies of nature—is her only inheritance. The tense realism of Moss’s prose, juxtaposed with the increasingly mythical movement of the text, begs the reader to question the ways in which we are willing to sacrifice ourselves, and others, in the name of preserving male supremacy. A potent, exquisitely written reminder of how effectively a horror story can expose and reflect contemporary social concerns.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Unsplash/Christian Widell.
In an early scene from Sarah Moss’s newest novel, Ghost Wall, the teenage narrator notes one of many logical holes in her family’s unconventional vacation: “Within days, our feet would wear a path through the trees to the stream, but that first night there was moss underfoot, squashy in the dim light, and patches of wild strawberries so ripe and red they were still visible in the dusk, as if glowing.” Silvie and her parents have joined a university archaeology class to reenact Iron Age life in the Northumberland countryside, but even as they return to an earlier era, they’re making their own contemporary marks on the landscape. She rarely dares to point such details out, however, especially in the presence of her father, a bus driver who independently studies the pre-Roman history of Britain.
Of course, that description itself makes little sense; modern concepts of “Britain” and “Britishness” have little in common with their ancient counterparts, as the archaeology professor condescends to remind Silvie’s father during a discussion of Hadrian’s Wall. “Dad didn’t like this interpretation,” she observes. “He wanted his own ancestry, a claim on something, some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.” Silvie’s asides gently illustrate the impossibility of experiencing the Iron Age through present-day camping: she and her family continue to use toothbrushes and tampons; they wear uncomfortable tunics with no historical backing other than the assumption that Iron Age people must have been uncomfortable; they gather food in a landscape entirely different from that of the ancient Britons, with little of the knowledge they would have possessed. At one point, Silvie sullenly thinks that if they wanted to get truly technical, men like her father and the professor wouldn’t even have lived to their current ages.
Moss’s simultaneously taut and supple writing allows for many truths to coexist in the narrative. Silvie recognizes the absurdity of their undertaking, but also that there’s nothing absurd about wanting a closer connection to nature—she can grumble, but she’ll appreciate the glowing strawberries along the way. And her father’s instinct to select the elements of history that support his chosen narrative, although transparent and destructive in his case, hardly makes him unique. Humanity as a whole can’t resist telling stories in a sometimes futile, sometimes noble attempt to frame life, to somehow contain it.
Ghost Wall, published on Jan. 8 by FSG, is a tense, nimble novel. But given that it’s Moss’s seventh book, and only the first to be released by a major U.S. publisher (two of her earliest were released in lovely editions by Counterpoint Press), American readers could be forgiven for having overlooked this eloquent British writer. Her backlist includes five other novels—Cold Earth (2009), Night Waking (2011), Bodies of Light (2014), Signs for Lost Children (2015), and The Tidal Zone (2016)—as well as a memoir, Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012), recounting her year teaching in Reykjavik.
For Adam, the narrator of The Tidal Zone, the story he tells himself is that his daughter will be all right. Miriam, age 16, collapses with no warning at school, and doctors can’t determine whether or not it will happen again. “It was important to tell people,” Adam reflects, part frantic, part despondent. “To let people know that this can happen: your child’s body can stop. Stop breathing, stop beating … I needed to tell people that the world was not as they believed it to be.” A stay-at-home father, Adam struggles to return to the cycles of everyday life now that he understands the certainty of those cycles to be illusion; as long as Miriam lives, they can never be sure that she’ll stay alive. Moss’s portrait of parenthood is equally tender and blunt, with Adam both cherishing and ruing the endless laundry, cooking, and pick-ups that define his life as a father.
Relationships between parents and children feature prominently in most of Moss’s work, and even the best of these relationships are never idealized. Night Waking is a particularly honest look at the contradictory emotions experienced by parents of young children, with Anna (another first-person narrator) attempting to raise two boys and reenergize her stalled career without any meaningful support from her husband. At one point she openly admits, “I don’t like motherhood and you don’t find that out until it’s too late. Love is not enough, when it comes to children. Bad luck.” Snippets of Moss’s memoir, Names for the Sea, although lacking this kind of pessimism, echo her characters’ struggles, like her offhand mention that she hasn’t visited Iceland’s National Gallery because she’s “vicariously traumatized by [her husband’s] account of trying to take the children there on a day when they didn’t like each other.” Parenthood means nothing is simple anymore—sleeping, preparing to leave the house, finding time to work. For every adorable interaction with your child, there’s an infuriating one.
We see the other side of this dynamic in Bodies of Light, her first foray into historical fiction (and, along with its sequel, Signs for Lost Children—her only novels in third person). Here we inhabit the perspective of a girl who knows that her mother has never enjoyed raising her. Growing up in 1860s Manchester, Ally fears her mother’s tight-lipped displeasure and fanatical austerity. Through some fate of personality, her sister, May (whose letters appear as historical artifacts in Night Waking), remains untouched by this same disapproval, even as Ally strives for the love and affirmation she’ll never be given. This is my favorite book from Moss; as insightful and funny as her contemporary work is, her Neo-Victorian novels showcase how feathery her authorial touch can be. Signs for Lost Children, the richest and most complex of her books, continues Ally’s story after she becomes one of Britain’s first female doctors, and offers one of the most generous passages I’ve ever read of a child reassessing a parent. When her friend, Annie, claims that “the politics of women’s pay” doesn’t absolve Ally’s mother of parental negligence, Ally mentally replies:
There is no separation between what Annie calls the politics of women’s pay and the formation of women’s minds. Mamma was trained to philanthropy, not to a professional life. Mamma was taught to set no price or value on her own time and effort, to understand her own labours merely as the justification of her existence … It is not as if Mamma had the choices, or indeed the Dutch rubber device, available to Ally. Mamma also is a creature of circumstance, of history and location, as are we all. Mamma works, Ally sees, because she does not believe that she deserves to live.
Signs for Lost Children is also a novel of separation, with Tom, Ally’s new husband, traveling for temporary engineering work in Japan. Their early longing for each other slowly transitions to remoteness, and Tom grapples with the foreigner’s paradox: feeling gauche and childlike in a new culture at the same time that he experiences a growing estrangement from his own. Clearly, Moss’s time in Iceland, and the probing, self-deprecating way she frames her own foreignness, filter into her fiction. The same can be said for her fascination with cultures of the north Atlantic. In addition to her Icelandic memoir, and her academic nonfiction on Arctic exploration, Night Waking, is set in the Hebrides, and her debut, Cold Earth, takes place on an archaeological dig in Greenland.
These isolated locations appear by turns peaceful and forbidding, both graced and haunted by their histories. This is never truer than in Cold Earth, where an international team assembles for a four-week dig and begins sensing strange forces around their campsite. Reports of an epidemic in the wider world leave them worried they’ll be stranded with winter approaching, making this the most suspenseful of Moss’s backlist. But it’s the musings on the uncertainties of archaeology that shine in this otherwise uneven novel. “Archaeology is reading, just earth rather than text. And you could argue there’s less slippage reading words than land,” claims a lit student on the dig. “It does have a scientific grounding, you know,” counters another character. “There is a legitimate claim to objectivity. History only tells you what the people who wrote it want you to know.”
History, legends, folktales, family stories—these slippery, inescapably human constructs form the spine of Moss’s work. Therein lies one of the brilliant aspects of her writing: she herself feels driven to create stories, to capture life in narratives, even as she deconstructs this same drive in her characters. Ghost Wall, in its artistry and timeliness, is the perfect place to start. Here’s hoping that its publication will bring more readers on this side of the pond to the rest of her cerebral, moving work.
Out this week: Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin; Looker by Laura Sims; Sugar Run by Mesha Maren; Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss; and An Orchestra of Minorities by our own Chigozie Obioma (whom we interviewed on Monday).