Five Feminist Books

Happy International Women’s Day! I thought I’d mark the occasion by recommending some feminist books. Social media has its uses and there are lots of interesting feminist blogs and online forums, but sometimes you just want a well-argued, well-edited volume written by someone who knows what she’s talking about.

I do try to keep up with the latest books from young feminists (for example, I’ve read Princesses and Pornstars by Emily Maguire, Fight Like A Girl by Clementine Ford and How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran), but I often find myself underwhelmed by these books. They tend to be memoirs, heavy on anecdotes from the lives of the authors and their friends, but skimpy on historical facts, scientific evidence and feminist theory. There is nothing wrong with books about the personal experiences of women, but when these authors are white, heterosexual and famous, their experiences don’t necessarily have universal appeal or relevance. Still, these particular authors aren’t writing for me. Hopefully, the young women (and men) buying those books find them thought-provoking and life-changing. And if those readers ever decide they want to learn more about feminism, they could try some of these feminist books from the last fifty years:

1. The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (1970)

'The Female Eunuch' by Germaine Greer

You cannot possibly claim to be well-informed about feminism if you haven’t read this book. Despite Germaine Greer’s scary reputation, this is really not a difficult read. It’s a clever, provocative, funny, infuriating argument about how and why women have been oppressed for centuries, backed up with hundreds of cultural references. It’s not her best book and it contains plenty of statements I disagree with, but it’s a great introduction to her work.

2. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem (1983)

'Outrageous Acts' by Gloria Steinem

While Germaine Greer was busy being a bolshy intellectual, Gloria Steinem was disguising herself as a Playboy Bunny in order to infiltrate the toxic world of men’s clubs. This book is a collection of some of her best-known magazine articles, including I Was a Playboy Bunny, If Men Could Menstruate and In Praise of Women’s Bodies, as well as essays on Marilyn Monroe, Linda Lovelace and Alice Walker. Ms Steinem’s focus is American political and social life, written in a warm, funny, inclusive manner, although there are also essays on international issues including female genital mutilation and the politics of food. Those who think intersectional feminism was invented in the last five years might find their beliefs challenged by this book.

3. Stiffed by Susan Faludi (1999)

'Stiffed' by Susan Faludi

Susan Faludi is an American journalist best known for her 1991 book Backlash, but Stiffed is a great read for those who falsely believe that feminism only benefits women. Ms Faludi began by investigating a group of male domestic violence perpetrators who’d been ordered to attend counselling. Her initial assumption was that “the male crisis in America was caused by something men were doing unrelated to something being done to them.” What she eventually discovered, after years of interviews with male factory workers, athletes, military cadets, sports fans, porn stars, evangelical husbands and more, was that many men felt betrayed after losing jobs, skills and life roles in America’s post-war cultural upheaval, but were unable to work together to form a male equivalent of the women’s liberation movement. Her research is meticulous, but it’s the men’s personal stories that make this so fascinating.

4. Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences by Cordelia Fine (2010)

'Delusions of Gender' by Cordelia Fine

This is a book to press upon people who believe that girls are inherently emotional and chatty and unable to read maps, while boys are innately superior at rational thinking, designing bridges and running the world. Dr Cordelia Fine, an Australian cognitive neuroscientist, analyses the current research and produces a compelling argument that there is very little difference between male and female brains, with the small cognitive variations that do exist easily explained by the different social and cultural worlds experienced by girls and boys from birth. This is often a very funny and entertaining read, especially when she’s taking potshots at Simon Baron-Cohen, but there’s a hundred pages of footnotes and bibliography to back it up.

5. Bluff Your Way in Feminism by Constance Leoff (1987)

'Bluff Your Way in Feminism' by Constance Leoff

You probably won’t be able to find a copy of this, but it’s a little gem of a book, rocketing through five thousand years of feminist history, from Aristoclea and Sappho, through Aphra Behn and Susan B. Anthony and Simone de Beauvoir, to Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou. There are also lots of hilarious feminist quotes, useful explanations about the different types of feminism, and a handy glossary if you’re confused about terms such as ‘biological determinism’ and ‘parthenogenesis’.

You might also be interested in reading:

How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb

‘Lies Sleeping’ by Ben Aaronovitch

'Lies Sleeping' by Ben AaronovitchI’d been saving this latest installment of the Rivers of London series for the holidays, when I’d have time to enjoy it, and it was worth the wait. Lies Sleeping is the seventh novel about Peter Grant, Detective Constable and apprentice wizard – part of an ongoing series of novels, novellas, short stories and comics. Ben Aaronovitch has said that he’ll keep writing the books “till I die or people stop reading them”, and while the last few novels have been enjoyable, they have felt a bit chaotic, with concluding chapters that raised more questions than answered them. Fortunately, in Lies Sleeping, the author chooses to focus on one major story line that has been present since the start and brings it to a satisfying conclusion. There are still villains to be thwarted, but it’s good to see justice done.

It’s difficult to discuss this book without giving away plot details, but here are my vague, spoiler-free thoughts.

Things I loved:
– I am not usually a fan of fight scenes, but I absolutely love all the bits where Nightingale unleashes his power, whether he’s blasting his enemy through the ceiling or ‘persuading’ a suspect to answer his questions.

– There’s plenty of fascinating London history, going back to the Romans, and it’s actually related to the plot, rather than simply being Peter getting distracted by architecture. Not that I ever mind Peter rambling on about history. The more history, the better.

– Peter’s narration is always so much fun (“I was pleased to discover that the patented acid-resistant soles of my Doc Martens were also vampire resistant”) and I love when his geeky fanboy knowledge comes in handy for interpreting, say, Dwarvish runes (“From the films, though, not the books”).

– Guleed the Somali Muslim Ninja doing … what she does.

– That there was finally some acknowledgement of the immense psychological stress that affects anyone involved in Folly business. You know things are bad when both Seawoll and Nightingale are urging Peter to see a therapist.

– I also liked that there was some discussion of religion, with Peter discussing how he’s an atheist, even though his girlfriend is literally a goddess. I’d really like to hear Guleed’s thoughts on this.

– Seawoll co-operating with Nightingale! And Stephanopoulos being so heroic!

– That thing that happens involving Molly! The backstory was awful, but the end was so lovely.

– All the callbacks to previous books, which gives me hope that my still-unanswered questions will eventually be addressed in a future book.

And things that made me go hmmm:
– Abigail. For all the same reasons I didn’t like her characterisation in The Furthest Station. At one stage, Aaronovitch mentioned a spin-off YA series starring Abigail and I really hope he doesn’t go ahead with that. I know this is a fantasy series, but Abigail is meant to be a regular London kid and yet she’s turned into SuperPerfectAbigail.

– There are always plot holes in these books, which I usually ignore, but there were a few scenes when things obviously happened to create interesting conflict or prolong the narrative, not because they made any sense, and that’s annoying.

– I was also annoyed that readers need to have read all the related novellas, comics and associated works to understand everything in these novels. I’ve read three of the five (or six?) comics, so I picked up some references, but there were other bits where I felt I was missing something. For example, has there been an explanation of the foxes in one of the comics? (The foxes were great, by the way, just confusing.) And the religion discussion takes on a different meaning if you know that Max is an acolyte of Beverley’s, not just her handyman. The problem is that I far prefer the books to the comics, because the comics are the old-fashioned kind, full of Ladies With Implausibly Large Breasts Who Tend To Wear Skimpy Clothes Or Be Naked For No Apparent Reason, alongside a lot of Violent Gentlemen With Excessive Muscles. I don’t want to have to read more of the comics, but now I suppose I’ll have to, and that makes me grumpy.

– I cannot see how anything good can come of Nightingale’s offer to teach magic to that particular character whom Peter correctly labels “entitled”, although I suppose it could lead to exciting magical battles down the track.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this and I’m looking forward to the next book, due in June. If you’ve read this and have any thoughts, please do comment below – just assume there’ll be spoilers in the comments.

My Favourite Books of 2018

Well, that was a year. A year in which a lot of my favourite reads involved escapism and humour, because the real world was not an especially fun place to be. I read 54 books that were new to me (I don’t count re-reads). About a third of these books were adult non-fiction, a third were adult fiction, and the remaining third were books for children and teenagers. Here are the books that I liked the most in 2018:

Adult Fiction

'Behind The Scenes At The Museum' by Kate AtkinsonBehind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson was a brilliantly funny account of a Yorkshire childhood, related by a not-entirely-reliable narrator with a lot of eccentric relatives. I don’t know how I managed to get this far in life without reading any Kate Atkinson novels, but clearly I need to read the rest of her work. I also enjoyed whimsical, meandering Winter by Ali Smith, another new-to-me writer whose work I need to explore. I have read most of Alan Hollinghurst’s books and The Sparsholt Affair was optimistic and heartwarming (not words I ever thought I’d use to describe a Hollinghurst novel), a beautifully observed story about the families that gay men and lesbians construct for themselves.

Non-Fiction

'Girt' by David HuntThe Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, the hilarious story behind one of the worst movies ever made, was a truly fascinating read. I also enjoyed Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia by David Hunt, a very silly and mostly accurate history of the first decades of colonial Australia, and How Not To Be A Boy, Robert Webb’s funny, thoughtful memoir about a boyhood spent absorbing toxic messages about masculinity.

'Depends What You Mean By Extremist' by John SafranI also liked John Safran’s Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables. Safran gets to know Muslims who support ISIS; Muslims who hate ISIS but also hate Jews, Christians and gay people; Jews who hate Muslims; white supremacists who aren’t as white as you’d expect; anarchists who hate racists but think anti-Semitic violence is okay; and conservative Christians who hate Muslims even though there doesn’t seem to be much practical difference between their belief systems. While most of these extremists come across as confused attention-seekers with no real ability to threaten society, Safran makes the serious point that most Australians – secular, rational, democratic Australians – don’t understand “the mindset of the devout: magical thinking, seeing patterns in the world, a sense that there are no coincidences, a determination that friends and strangers must be saved, karma and providence”. This was a timely read, full of Safran being his usual annoying but hilarious self.

Children’s Books

'The Terrible Two' by Jory John and Mac BarnettFor some reason, none of the Young Adult books I read this year captured my interest. I’m sure it was me, rather than the books, which were mostly well-reviewed and award-winning. I had more luck with books aimed at younger readers. I liked The Endsister by Penni Russon, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, and Peter’s Room by Antonia Forest. I also enjoyed the first book in The Terrible Two series by Jory John and Mac Barnett, illustrated by Kevin Cornell, with well-drawn characters, a clever plot and lots of humour.

Thank you to everyone who read and commented on Memoranda posts this year, with special thanks to the Antonia Forest fans who make such thoughtful contributions whenever I do a Forest read-along. I haven’t been blogging much lately due to um, life, but I hope to get back into it now that I’m on holiday. Happy Christmas to everyone celebrating it and Happy End of 2018 to everyone else!

‘Front Desk’ by Kelly Yang

“I used to think being successful meant having enough to eat, but now that I was getting free lunch at school, I wondered if I should set my standards higher.”

'Front Desk' by Kelly Yang (Australian cover)

It’s 1993 and ten-year-old Mia Tang has migrated from China to America with her parents. They’d hoped for a better life in the Land of the Free, but they’re reduced to living out of their car and taking whatever badly-paid casual jobs they can find. It seems like a miracle when Mr Yao, the owner of a motel near Disneyland, offers them accommodation plus wages if they’ll manage his motel. There’s even a swimming pool! But ‘coal-hearted’ Mr Yao exploits them mercilessly, penalising them for infractions of his ever-changing rules (and he definitely doesn’t want Mia or anyone else actually swimming in the pool). Mia’s parents exhaust themselves with the constant cleaning, laundry and repairs, while Mia appoints herself front desk manager, dealing with missing keys, stolen cars and belligerent drunks. Things are even worse for her at school, where her teacher criticises her English and Mr Yao’s nasty son encourages the class to laugh at Mia’s cheap clothes. Mia’s only schoolfriend Lupe, a Mexican immigrant, is convinced the two of them are stuck on a “rollercoaster” of poverty that they can never get off, but Mia, with the help of the motel’s permanent residents, finds a way to improve the lives of her family and friends.

The author does an admirable job of addressing some heavy topics – including racism, immigration and poverty – in an accessible way for middle-grade readers, but Front Desk is also an engrossing and entertaining story featuring a smart, creative heroine. Mia is far from perfect, but she has a good heart and she learns from her many mistakes. The other characters are similarly nuanced. Mia’s mother loves her daughter and wants the best for her, but her ambition combined with their desperate circumstances can make her ruthless. Mia’s father is more sympathetic, but he’s fairly inept. Mia’s teacher, though well-meaning, is clueless about Mia’s struggles. Both Mr Yao and a Chinese-American security guard hold appallingly racist views about African-Americans. And even Mr Yao’s horrible son, bullied by his own father, finds the courage to be compassionate when Mia needs his help.

'Front Desk' by Kelly Yang (US cover)It’s especially nice that books and writing (and an enormous thesaurus) are the key to most of Mia’s eventual successes, whether she’s penning a threatening letter to the exploitative boss of an illegal immigrant friend or she’s writing down her family’s story to win a class competition. I must admit that the novel’s conclusion seemed implausibly optimistic and saccharine to me, but by that stage, I was so happy to see good triumph over evil that I didn’t mind too much. The author, Kelly Yang, provides useful notes at the end of the book, explaining that Mia’s story is based on her own experiences helping her migrant parents run motels in California in the 1980s and 1990s. She notes that these immigrants were “particularly vulnerable to exploitation and hardship. No group of Chinese immigrants before or since came with quite so little and gave up quite so much.” Front Desk offers a strong argument in favour of #OwnVoices, because it rings with authenticity. Its messages about immigration and racism are sadly relevant today, but don’t be put off, thinking this is all Serious Discussion of Worthy Issues – it’s simply a good, fun, heartwarming story.

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.)

‘How Not To Be A Boy’ by Robert Webb

'How Not To Be A Boy' by Robert WebbI really liked How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb, a funny, thoughtful and moving memoir about a boy who absorbed a lot of toxic messages about masculinity – and what happened when he grew up to be a man. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but he’s an English comedian and actor who was in Peep Show and lots of other shows (I also discovered he does a very amusing impression of Mr Darcy). What sets this book apart from most celebrity memoirs is that Robert Webb can actually write and he has much more interesting things to write about than the usual How I Became A Famous Person On The Telly stuff.

He grew up in a dysfunctional working-class Lincolnshire family, with several older brothers and a violent, philandering, alcoholic father. Robert writes with a great deal of insight and humour about the ‘rules’ of boyhood – boys are loud and boisterous, boys don’t read, boys love sport, boys are brave and reckless, boys hate school, boys don’t cry, boys don’t fall in love with other boys – and how terrible he was at following any of these rules. Eventually, his mother threw his father out and married another man who was still fairly useless, although not actually violent or drunk. But then Robert’s beloved mother died of cancer when he was in his final year of school. Despite being suicidally depressed, Robert managed to become the first person in his family to attend university, became president of the Cambridge Footlights Dramatic Club and began his successful career as a comedian and actor.

But inside, he was a mess, and he took out his feelings of unacknowledged grief, shame, guilt and insecurity on his friends, colleagues and family. Despite being determined not to be like his father, he drank too much, he lost himself in work, and he was emotionally and physically unavailable to his wife and children. Fortunately for him, his wife didn’t give up on him and he was intelligent and introspective enough to go to therapy, cut down on the drinking and eventually, write this book.

He doesn’t actually call himself a feminist, but says he agrees with what feminists say and he quotes from and recommends Cordelia Fine’s excellent book, Delusions of Gender, so top marks from me for that. He also has a lot of sensible things to say to Men’s Rights Activists, who “tend to make a series of valid observations from which they proceed to a single, 180-degree-wrong conclusion.” Men’s documented problems with high suicide rates, alcoholism, imprisonment and premature death are not due to women or to feminism, he points out. These problems are due to the toxic rules of masculinity. Men turn to drugs and alcohol and self-harm because the rules say they can’t admit weakness or ask for help. They die younger than women of preventable diseases because they refuse to take their health seriously and go to the doctor. They’re violent because society tells boys and men to be aggressive and bottle up their emotions. “Feminists are not out to get us,” he says. “They’re out to get the patriarchy. They don’t hate men, they hate The Man. They’re our mates.”

As you’d gather from those pronouns, this isn’t a book aimed at women. It’s aimed at the men who grew up with the same sort of male role models as the author. It’s about and for the men who were similarly unable to follow the impossible rules of masculinity and are suffering the consequences of this. Of course, feminists have been banging on, for a very long time, about how society’s rigid gender rules harm men as well as women, but the men who need to hear this don’t listen to women. In fact, they viciously attack women who say this sort of thing. Still, Robert Webb is pretty good at acknowledging how privileged he is and how some of his unpleasant experiences (for example, being awkwardly chatted up by a gay man on a beach) are fairly mild compared to the constant and sometimes life-threatening harassment of women. How Not To Be A Boy would be an excellent book for teenage boys and men, but women may also gain from reading this insider’s view of masculinity. Apart from anything else, it’s often very funny.

What I’ve Been Reading: Non-Fiction

At the end of last year, I resolved to blog more about books I’d enjoyed. Mmm, that’s been going well, hasn’t it? Anyway, I have been reading more this year, but for some reason, I’ve been underwhelmed by a lot of the fiction I’ve read. Fortunately, I’ve had more success with non-fiction books.

'The Disaster Artist' by Greg Sestero and Tom BissellThe most intriguing and entertaining book has definitely been The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside ‘The Room’, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. I have never seen The Room, a cult favourite “revered for its inadequacy and its peerless ability to induce uncontrollable laughter”, although this collection of scenes gives some indication of its er, unique qualities. The Disaster Artist is narrated by Greg Sestero, a handsome young all-American guy who dreams of becoming a Hollywood star. At one of his acting classes, he meets Tommy Wiseau, who speaks largely incomprehensible sentences in a thick Eastern European accent and has a burning desire to be the next James Dean, despite being a very weird-looking middle-aged man with dyed black hair and no discernible acting talent. Tommy latches onto Greg like Tom Ripley attaching himself to Dickie Greenleaf, and the two become unlikely friends, roommates and (eventually) co-stars in a movie that Tommy decides to write, direct, produce and finance himself. The Disaster Artist describes the process of making a movie with no coherent plot, full of dialogue that no real person would ever speak, designed and shot according to Tommy’s bizarre and inept direction.

Interspersed with the film-making melodrama is an account of Greg and Tommy’s strange relationship, as Greg tries to figure out why Tommy is the way he is. Tommy gradually reveals something of his background, although the more we learn, the more confusing his story becomes. Is he suffering from PTSD caused by his experiences when escaping from behind the Iron Curtain? Did the near-fatal car accidents he claimed to have been involved in cause brain damage that has left him unable to remember and recite the simplest lines of dialogue (which he wrote himself)? Is he a deeply repressed and unhappy homosexual? Is he simply a refugee struggling to belong in a foreign land? At times, it seems Greg is being a bit mean, making fun of a man with such obvious problems – but Tommy is more often a bully than a victim, manipulating others to get his way, throwing massive tantrums, humiliating the young actress who plays his on-screen love interest, screaming homophobic abuse at the one crew member who calls out Tommy for his blatant lying. And Tommy, far from objecting to Greg’s account, has welcomed the attention the book and its recent movie adaptation have brought to him. He’s still friends with Greg – in fact, they’ve just made another movie together (in which Tommy plays an eccentric mortician, which seems more appropriate than the all-American hero he tried to portray in The Room). The Disaster Artist is a fascinating psychological study of a very strange man, but it’s also an interesting look at creativity, ambition and the American Dream.

'The Durrells of Corfu' by Michael HaagI also enjoyed The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag, about the family who produced two celebrated authors – Lawrence Durrell and his even more famous younger brother, Gerald Durrell. I was especially interested to read about the Durrells’ life before and after Corfu, which turned out to be far less amusing than Gerry implied in his books. Both parents and all the siblings were born in India, where the eldest daughter died of diphtheria, choking to death in her mother’s arms while four-year-old Larry watched. Then, when Gerry was still a toddler, their father died and their mother decided to ship the family ‘home’ to England, which proved to be cold and unwelcoming. Their subsequent escape to Corfu wasn’t a whim, as Gerry depicted in his books, but a desperate attempt by Larry to save his mother, who had fallen into alcoholism and a deep depression.

Fortunately, life improved somewhat in the sun. This book has lots of excerpts from the siblings’ books, letters and journals, as well as fascinating family photos, but the author also sorts out fiction from facts. For example, while Gerry portrayed all his tutors as bachelors, most of these men were actually husbands and fathers – in fact, Theodore’s daughter, Alexia, was Gerry’s best friend and both families hoped they’d get married (they didn’t). Larry himself was married to Nancy Myers, a beautiful English artist, and there are descriptions of visits from their famous bohemian friends, including Henry Miller, which caused local outrage due to naked sea-bathing and other scandalous goings-on. Sadly, war broke out in 1939 and the family’s carefree life was over. Gerry and his mother left for England immediately, but Larry, Nancy and their baby daughter ended up fleeing from the Nazis in an overcrowded boat to Egypt; Margo married a pilot and ended up in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp in Ethiopia, where she “gave birth by Caesarean section, without anaesthetic, to their first son”; and Leslie, having impregnated and abandoned their Greek maid, went on to a life of depravity. This book is a good introduction to the real story of this fascinating, unconventional family of mythmakers.

‘The Endsister’ by Penni Russon

'The Endsister' by Penni RussonI really enjoyed The Endsister, a thoughtful and beautifully composed ghost story for young readers. The Outhwaite family decide to uproot themselves from their comfortable semi-rural Australian life when they inherit a large, dusty house in London. Of course, this house turns out to be haunted, although the two girl ghosts, Almost Annie and Hardly Alice, drift about harmlessly, noticed only by the youngest Outhwaite, four-year-old Sibbi. But there’s something far more malevolent lurking behind the locked attic door: “a cobwebbed thing, tattered and dusty, so long forgotten, so long forgetting.” This dreaded Endsister seems to be sucking the life out of poor lonely Sibbi and feeding on the unhappiness of the older Outhwaites, especially teenage Else, trying to discover who she is now that she’s abandoned her once-beloved violin, and Olly, their mother, who’s left behind her friends and teaching job and is toiling fruitlessly at her PhD thesis.

All of the characters are vividly drawn, with the story told mostly from the perspective of Else, Sibbi and their stoic, nature-loving brother, Clancy. The descriptive prose is lovely and the family’s squabbles are both funny and sadly true to life. I was interested to read that this story was initially conceived as a weekly serial, because the narrative is complex and cleverly constructed, neatly looping back on itself – as Clancy concludes, it is “a story that ends where it begins: a story about coming home.” The revelation of the Endsister’s mystery is poignant and deeply satisfying, and there’s a lot to contemplate in this book about memory, creativity and belonging.

In fact, this novel is so intricate and ruminative that it won’t be for all young readers. It’s also quite spine-chilling in parts (the scene with Sibbi in the study gave me the creeps, although admittedly, I am easily spooked). The publisher says it’s for 10-14 year olds – I’d recommend it for readers in that age group, and older, who enjoy thoughtful, character-based stories.

As I was reading The Endsister, I was reminded of Come Back, Lucy by Pamela Sykes, a very spooky children’s book written in the 1970s that I’d thought no one (except for me and presumably Pamela Sykes) had ever read, although I have just discovered that it was made into a terrifying-looking television series and that there was a sequel novel called Lucy Beware! (because apparently Lucy didn’t learn anything from her first experience of being haunted). Here’s my beloved Puffin paperback copy:

'Come Back, Lucy' by Pamela Sykes

Lucy is an unhappy orphan sent to live with her youthful aunt, uncle and cousins, who are renovating a large Victorian-era house in London. Up in the dusty attic, Lucy encounters ghostly Alice, who at first seems to be the only one who truly understands and cares for Lucy. Alice, though, is gradually revealed to be capricious and self-centred, with sinister plans for Lucy … But does Alice really exist? Are Lucy’s experiences actually due to repressed grief and loneliness? Come Back, Lucy would be an excellent companion read for The Endsister, if you can get hold of a copy. As added incentive, the Puffin edition has lots of fab 1970s illustrations by Tessa Jordan:

'Come Back, Lucy', illustration by Tessa Jordan

'Come Back, Lucy', illustration by Tessa Jordan

‘End of Term’, Part Seven

Chapter Nine: Right Way Round

The narrative point of view in this book is all over the place, in a way that would exasperate most of the editors I’ve worked with. While the story is mostly told from Nicola’s perspective, it’s not uncommon for the reader to find herself suddenly inside the head of a completely different character for a single paragraph (for example, look at the end of Chapter One, when there’s an abrupt and unnecessary change to Ann’s point of view, before it swaps back to Nicola for the final two paragraphs). But I think Antonia Forest chose well when she decided the Nativity Play should be seen (mostly) through Patrick’s eyes. He knows enough about the people in this chapter (those on-stage and off-stage) that it’s not too confusing for him, but we get extra insight into them from his outsider’s perspective. He also understands more about the religious story than many of the participants – certainly more than Lawrie, and even many readers (for instance, I had only the vaguest notion about St Stephen before reading this).

Anyway, this chapter starts with the Merrick family arriving at the Minster to watch the play. Daks has been rescued from Esther’s house and is curled up happily in their car, waiting to be transferred to the Marlows. The Merricks sit up the front of the packed Minster (Three thousand people! No wonder Esther was terrified!) beside Mrs Marlow, Madame Orly, Karen and Rowan. Patrick is shocked when the exquisite voice leading the choir procession turns out to belong to Nicola, although not half as shocked as Nicola’s grandmother (“Surely not”, she keeps muttering, even when Nicola’s walking right past her). Patrick’s also impressed by the Reading Angel, until he realises it’s Evil Lois and then he thinks:

“…how queer it was that what people were like had no connection whatever with what they could actually do. Like Coleridge: like Mozart: and now here was this dire twerp of a Lois Sanger…”

At this point, Rowan and Patrick chivalrously give up their seats to some querulous old women, but luckily find their way to the empty gallery, where they can look down the central aisle to the whole scene and give us a lovely description of what’s going on. Patrick is impressed by Miranda, an unmoving falcon-angel who reminds him of Regina, and by Ann’s serenity, and by the sight of dear idiotic little Sprog being carried in by the King’s page.

But it’s Lawrie who steals the show playing the youngest shepherd, forced by his brothers to guard the sheep instead of visiting the infant Christ, then rescued by the Archangel Gabriel and sent off to the stable, where he gives his only possession, his shepherd’s crook, to the baby, “Lest He too, one day, should be a shepherd”. Lawrie’s performance has lots of clever links back to real-life scenes in the book, most clearly when Lawrie decides not to weep noisily in disappointment as the stage directions say, but to use the “pit-bottomed blackness” she’d felt when she discovered Nicola was to be Shepherd Boy:

“But she knew how she’d behaved: she remembered perfectly how she’d put her hands over her face; she’d rehearsed it quite often in her bath cubicle.”

Even Rowan gets choked up at this scene. Of course, being Lawrie, she’s completely aware of how good she is in the role, running up to see Patrick and Rowan when she’s not on stage and gloating about Esther’s absence and how it’s “maddening I didn’t know in time to invite Ellen Holroyd”, her theatrical mentor. As Rowan says, Lawrie really is a ghastly child.

We get some glimpses of Nicola’s viewpoint – her relief that Sprog is behaving himself on stage, her sudden terror when the entire congregation rises to its feet in place of applause, then her deep breath as she prepares to sing her final solo:

“Try to sing it with regret,” Dr Herrick had said. “Once in Royal David’s City. Not now, you see. Now we have only been pretending. But once, long ago, if only we’d had the luck to be there, once, just once, this thing really happened.”

Nicola, for the first time, manages to do it as he asked, and there’s a lovely description from Patrick of her “immaculate succession of notes, lifting and drifting among the soaring pillars and arches as he had seen thistledown lift and drift one evening in the watermeadows, floating away at last above the trees”. Patrick watches her silent, brief conversation with Miranda and muses how different people can be in different situations, “as if everyone had a spoonful of chameleon blood and changed colour a little, depending on their companions.”

Chapter Ten: And After

Afterwards Mrs Marlow does the usual Marlow thing, refusing to acknowledge how amazing her daughters were, but fortunately Mrs Merrick is there to praise Ginty’s beauty, Ann’s sincerity, Lawrie’s acting skills and Nicola’s singing. Mr Merrick reminds Mrs Marlow he has a puppy for her and Mrs Marlow has quite a lot to say about Nicola’s “frightful impudence” in asking him to collect Daks. Mr Merrick kindly points out that Nicola asked for a favour, rather than ordered him, and it was all to help Esther. None of the adults are very impressed with Esther’s “neglectful mother” (there is no mention of Esther’s even more neglectful father). Finally, Mrs Merrick asks if Madame Orly, who’s been strangely silent, is all right and Mrs Marlow explains that it’s just that her mother is in shock that her “grand-daughters could be anything but a grubby nuisance”.

Meanwhile, Nicola and Miranda are discussing how the play went as they walk back through the silent, snowy grounds. They think Lawrie was excellent (“Of course, Lawrie is frightened of lots of things. I suppose that’s how she knew.”) and Miranda says she enjoyed being in the play, once she got over her initial terror, but that the whole Christmas story seemed so unbelievable:

“And then it seemed so queer, that p’raps that was the reason people believed it … I mean, it’s either complete nonsense, or else it’s so unlikely, it would have to be true.”

I don’t see why things being extremely unlikely make them more believable, but then, that’s why I’m a sceptic and an atheist. Earlier Miranda had explained her family wasn’t Orthodox, but even if she’s from a Reform Jewish background, presumably she does believe in a God and follows some ‘God-ordained’ rules. Hopefully there’ll be more about this in future books, because Miranda’s such an interesting character.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and a furious Miss Keith is waiting for them. She thanks Miranda for her help but “shall, of course, be writing to your father to explain” (why not Miranda’s mother?) and orders them all to see her in her office on Monday. Blood for breakfast! But Nicola’s natural optimism comes to the rescue:

“…after all, Monday was a long way off, and Thursday and end-of-term, by some curious converse, really quite near. And after that came Christmas. So it couldn’t be too awful.”

THE END.

And a big happy sigh from me. This has been my favourite Marlow book so far. I liked the first school book, but this took it to a new level, with such clever plotting and complex characterisation and thoughtful observations on life and lots of humour. Now I just have to wait for Girls Gone By to publish the next book.

You might also be interested in reading:

‘End of Term’ by Antonia Forest
‘End of Term, Part Two
‘End of Term’, Part Three
‘End of Term’, Part Four
‘End of Term’, Part Five
‘End of Term’, Part Six

‘End of Term’, Part Six

Chapter Eight: As It Turned Out

The play looms and there’s further discussion about it in the art room. Miranda says it’s odd they’re all so unreligious about the play and Lawrie makes an unexpected contribution:

I should have thought,” said Lawrie decidedly, “that it was more important to make the audience feel religious than be it yourself.”

When Miranda asks if that’s possible, if you yourself don’t feel religious, Lawrie says that of course you can – that’s acting. Lawrie has the occasional thoughtful observation, but it has to fight its way through the tangle of ridiculousness that fills her head. No wonder she drives her teachers round the bend. I bet there are lots of priests and vicars and pastors who have given up believing what they preach, but have to fake sincerity each Sunday at the pulpit because leaving their career would be too much of an upheaval in their lives.

Lawrie’s observation only deepens the “chilly sense of inadequacy” Nicola feels in her Shepherd Boy role, especially as even Bunty, the Second Former carrying Sprog in the play, says Nicola and Lawrie should swap roles. But then on the morning of the play – major drama! Esther gets a letter from her terrible mother saying they’re moving to a new flat which doesn’t allow pets, so not only does Esther have to stay at school for the first part of the holidays during the move, but Daks will be sent “to the kennels”, which Esther interprets as the poor puppy being killed (not an unreasonable notion, given the way her parents have behaved so far). This is just too much for Esther on top of everything else, and when neither Miranda nor Nicola can console her, she’s taken off to the san by Matron, who for once, sounds “quite kind” because Esther is so obviously distraught.

I have to say, as someone who was sent off to board when I was ten, LEAVING MY DOG BEHIND, I am having ALL THE FEELINGS about Esther right now.

Anyway, Miranda and Nicola come up with a clever plan. Miranda will invite Esther to her house for the first part of the holidays (Nicola can’t because of Grandmother) and Nicola will buy Daks and then Laurie can bring him to school next term as her pet. They’ll have to phone various parents to organise this, though, and Nicola’s mother loathes the phone, especially phoning strangers, so Nicola has the good idea to call Mr Merrick. The only thing is, he might be at work and “if you telephoned the House of Commons the person who answered would, obviously, be Mr. Churchill”. (I could just picture Churchill, sitting alone at a desk in the foyer, answering phone calls in a fog of cigar smoke.)

Luckily, Miss Kempe spots her two most “sensible, reliable” pupils and sends them into town to shop for last-minute play requirements, so they can call from a phone box. (So much easier to create plot complications when no one has a mobile phone.) Nicola then learns more about Miranda’s life – that she lives at a very grand address and must be “really rich”, but also that “very, very occasionally you get people who don’t like being friends with Jews”, including a girl in IV B who “talks about Jew girls” and “Marie Dobson would like to”. Nicola is shocked and horrified:

“She had a muddled feeling she ought to apologize for the stupidity and bad manners of her countrymen, only, since they were Miranda’s too, it would sound pretty silly.”

Given Miranda is one of the chief bullies of Marie, I wonder what’s cause and what’s effect. Does Miranda bully Marie unmercifully because Marie is anti-Semitic or does Marie use (or think, as she doesn’t seem to do it aloud) anti-Semitic abuse against Miranda in retaliation for the bullying, or are the bullying and the anti-Semitism unrelated? (Miranda also refers to the IV B girl as “that common little soul with the perm and the Jaguar”.) These characters are all so complex, with complicated motivations – even the admirable ones (and Miranda is mostly admirable) are far from perfect.

It also turns out Miranda’s family is Polish and her real family name is some long, unspellable Polish name. I wonder if that’s why Antonia Forest used the example of Polish Catholics being persecuted earlier?

Mr Merrick, by the way, agrees to collect Daks from Esther’s mother and deliver the pup to the Marlow house, even saying he’ll adopt Daks if Nicola’s mother won’t. Mr Merrick is pretty much the only kind, sensitive and sensible adult in this entire series.

Back at school, the girls try to tell Esther they’ve started sorting things out, but Matron refuses to let them disturb Esther or even give her a message. Then there’s a great bit when Val the Head Girl comes in, in utter disbelief, to tell Nicola “Your Member of Parliament wants to speak to you” and hooray, it’s all sorted with Mr Merrick! But when they try to find Esther to tell her, they discover she’s run away home, leaving a note for Miranda! Should they tell the teachers? Will this get Esther into terrible trouble? What if Esther manages to make it back in time for the play?

Then Nicola has her brainwave. She gathers Lawrie and Tim and tells them the news, astutely leaving it to Tim to put it all together and say it out loud. With Esther away, Nicola and Lawrie can swap. Lawrie will be Shepherd Boy, Nicola will go back to singing her solos, and Miranda will be Candle Angel instead of Esther. But they can’t tell the teachers, otherwise they’ll use “ghastly drip Helen Bagshawe”, the official Shepherd Boy understudy.

Miranda would love to be in the play, but worries everyone else will mind, with her being Jewish. She tosses a coin to decide, “tails I don’t”, then when it comes down tails, decides to do it anyway. They make it to the Minster all right, but are pulled up outside the changing rooms by the teachers, including Miss Cromwell, who’s just spoken with Esther’s mother. Then it all comes out. Tim is in big trouble for lying that Esther was on the other bus. Then Lawrie puts her foot in it when she realises they won’t let her be Shepherd Boy after all:

“But I must. It’s why I let Nick play in the match. I made a bargain. I said if I let Nick have one match, They’d got to let me do the Shepherd Boy –”

Miss Cromwell asks with whom Lawrie made this bargain and Lawrie “waved her hand vaguely at the ceiling”, presumably at Athene and Jupiter and St Luke and Zeus and St Therese, and Miss Cromwell nearly explodes. Blood for breakfast! All is lost!

Except, no, here comes Dr Herrick, who explains that Esther’s understudy is Nicola, so of course, Nicola must sing and no, of course, Helen can’t be the Shepherd Boy, she’s hopeless. So it’s sorted, except who will be Nicola’s Candle Angel partner? Miranda is the only logical choice, but Miss Kempe worries that “some people would take great exception” to a Jewish angel in the Minster and anyway, what would Miranda’s father think about his daughter “being shanghai’d into a Nativity Play”? Janice is again the soul of reason, pointing out that outsiders won’t know and a Jewish angel is hardly like “the Oberammergau Christ turning out to be the district’s leading Nazi”. (I forgot to say earlier that Grandmother’s Christ figurine in her bedroom is an Oberammergau Christ, and I wondered at the time if that might be a subtle hint at her Nazi-sympathising.)

Miss Kempe moans that she “can’t start arguing the metaphysics of the case” (you should probably be in a different book series, then, Miss Kempe), but helplessly agrees to go along with it as long as Miranda’s father won’t object. So Nicola finds Miranda, who’s furious about being snubbed earlier, but Nicola manages to convince Miranda that they were only worried about her father. Miranda says he won’t mind:

“I mean, it’s only a play to me. It’s not as if – well, as if I was going to believe anything different, or anyone wanted me to, or anything.”

But as they’re waiting in the Minster for the play to start, a small child is mesmerised by Miranda’s convincing angel-impression and Nicola starts to feel a bit overwhelmed by the responsibility of re-enacting the first Christmas.

Next, Chapter Nine: Right Way Round