Readwomen2014 Pick of the Year by Joanna Walsh
At the beginning of the 2014, I stared a campaign to highlight issues around women’s writing. The project has gone further than I could possibly have imagined, generating events, collaboration, and discussion in many different countries. While running the news-hub Twitter account, @readwomen2014, I’ve been delighted to be introduced to the work of many writers I’ve never read before, from all over the world.
Here’s my (very personal) pick of 2014.
Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation begins with an echo of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. While Nora, in Messud’s 2013 novel, feels that her ambition to have “Great Artist on my tombstone” has somehow been crushed out of her, the unnamed “wife” in Offill’s book once had plans to be an “art monster” existing, like her heroes, only for her work (“Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”). Where Messud’s book erupts with monstrous possibilities, Offill’s fragmentary, playful writing makes art from a monstrously mundane situation.
Life as a wife is also one the subjects of Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper which is, for me, 2015’s most exciting debut novel. Tiff drifts around Europe, half-heartedly pretending to write a screenplay, tagging after her scientist husband. In Berlin, she says, “I learned that I wasn’t a feminist. Even men in their seventies, talking to me after meetings about an impending block party or the proper sorting of garbage, would raise their eyebrows when I said I had followed my husband from Philadelphia to Berne and then Berlin. I couldn’t come up with a step I’d taken in life for my own sake.” Tiff’s raised consciousness leads her a merry dance. The Wallcreeper is a mordantly, and occasionally brutally, funny tale of sex, drugs, and birdwatching, that morphs into an unexpectedly moving story of love and self-actualisation.
Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the the third installment of her gripping Neapolitan novels that trace the lives of two “brilliant friends”, Lina and Lenu, who embarked on two very different paths from their childhoods in the backstreets of Naples. A passionate and powerful novel that unfolds against a background of the political violence of Italy in the 1970s, it can be read as anything from a family saga to a call for revolution.
Translations from French:
Albertine Sarrazin’s cult classic Astragal reads as part black-and-white Jacques Becker film noir, part Eastmancolor Godard New Wave classic. Cool enough to merit an intro by Patti Smith, Sarrazin’s book is written with a lucid vision that says as much about fresh, painful, and joyful ways of experiencing the world as it does about the painful, joyous, beautiful world itself.
What if you met your friend and didn’t recognise her, then saw her across the street and realised you’d been talking to a stranger? What happens when your sisters, your mother, your children act entirely unexpectedly? How do they become incarnations of the mysterious “women in green”? Man International Booker Prize nominee Marie NDiaye’s Self Portrait in Green is an affecting, novelistic memoir built from short stories that deal with close relations: how much can we ever know of those nearest to us, and can we know ourselves, and our own motives, any better?
Felicitas Hoppe’s tiny Picnic of the Virtues is the perfect stocking filler. Her first work available in English (trans: Katy Derbyshire) these stories are a wonderful introduction to the surreal, comically disturbing and very grown-up fairytale world of this highly regarded German writer. I’d like to see more of her work available in translation.
Christine Brooke-Rose’s Go When You See the Green Man Walking is a long-awaited reissue of the brilliant British experimental writer’s approachable and wry short stories.
Linda Mannheim’s Above Sugar Hill is a jigsaw-puzzle of arresting, involving Harlem voices from the 1960s and 70s. May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break is a transglobal, and very contemporary, neon scream of slick limbs in illicit embraces.
With one foot in prose, but wings pulling free into air, Deborah Levy’s An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell is a prose-poem about the line between prose and poetry. A prosaic accountant meets a poetic angel in the no man’s land of London’s suburbs. It’s not as straightforward an encounter as you might imagine, but it is more beautiful.
Help support #readwomen2014 to continue into 2015 and beyond by buying a set of these beautiful commemorative bookmarks.