What I’ve Been Reading: Novels by Women

'The Gathering' by Anne Enright

The Gathering by Anne Enright was an engrossing novel about a dysfunctional Irish Catholic family and specifically, about the terrible consequences of covering up abusive behaviour. It was often frustrating to read because the narrator was so unreliable – how can we hope for justice when we can’t be sure of the truth? – but this is entirely consistent with how a child’s memory of trauma works. The back-and-forth timeline was effective, if occasionally confusing, and the prose was visceral and vivid. It gave me nightmares, but I’m glad I read it and I think it was a worthy winner of the Booker Prize.

'Winter' by Ali Smith

Winter by Ali Smith was even more confusing, but provided a more pleasant reading experience. It’s a meandering, whimsical piece of writing about an elderly woman who is being followed around her Cornish mansion by a disembodied head. Sophia and Head then find themselves hosting some unwelcome family guests at Christmas. It’s not a conventional narrative, but it’s often very funny and the author has a lot of thoughtful things to say about politics, art, feminism, climate change, family relationships, social media and much, much more. I was struck by how contemporary this book was – it was published last year and contains references not just to Brexit, but Trump’s speech to the Boy Scouts, the Grenfell Tower fire and the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.

'Clock Dance' by Anne Tyler

I don’t think Clock Dance by Anne Tyler is her best novel, but it’s enjoyable and thoughtful and ultimately satisfying in a way I didn’t expect. Much like Ladder of Years, it’s the story of a middle-aged woman with a horrible husband and unappreciative offspring, who travels to a new community where she makes friends and is valued for her kindness and home-making abilities. It has a few too many self-consciously quirky Baltimore characters and is a little too willing to avoid some dark topics, but I liked it very much.

'Bluebottle' by Belinda Castles

Finally, Bluebottle by Belinda Castles was an intriguing read. It’s another dysfunctional-family-forced-to-confront-past-trauma story (Are there any happy families in novels? Would there be any point in writing about them?), but this one is set in the northern beach suburbs of Sydney and contains some beautifully vivid descriptions of the sea and beach. The cover suggests it’s a thriller, but while there is tension in the narrative, it builds slowly and the Big Revelation is not exactly a surprise. I was more interested in the skillful depiction of some believably flawed characters doing their best to cope with a terrible situation. (Although I do think the author let Tricia off too lightly. I despised Tricia.)

5 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Reading: Novels by Women”

  1. Interesting! I read The Gathering a couple of years ago, can’t remember much about it except that I didn’t enjoy it. Ali Smith is one of those authors I keep meaning to read one day but haven’t got around to yet. Anne Tyler is pretty reliable and I find her books soothing. I am going to read A Spool of Blue Thread when my daughter has finished it. Don’t know anything about Bluebottle and I’m not sure I’m in the right mood at the moment, but it’s on my radar now!

    1. I really enjoyed both A Spool of Blue Thread and Clock Dance, although Clock Dance is more comforting and hopeful. I’d recommend both but I’m a big Anne Tyler fan!

      Winter was the first book of Ali Smith’s I’d read and I was pleasantly surprised.

      Bluebottle felt like a Serious Literary version of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies – I don’t want to give away too much of the plot but it dealt with similar themes, so definitely not a happy read – but an interesting one.

  2. I read The Green Road by Anne Enright and How to be Both by Ali Smith lately and enjoyed them both. Haven’t read any Anne Tyler for yonks.

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