View From The Top (of the Book Pile) – January 2018

I feel determined to make more of an effort to read, watch and enjoy stories by women, about women, this year. And I’ve made a good start with these three:

Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

I’ve had a bit of girl crush on Mary Beard for a while. A Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, I first encountered Beard as a presenter, hosting a BBC documentary series on ancient Rome and was blown away by her knowledge, her passion and her commitment to looking beyond the heady heights of the rich and examining what we know and can learn about the forgotten everyday people of history. She strikes me as an extraordinarily level-headed human being, and I desperately want to be her best friend.

In this very slim book, Beard has compiled two of her past lectures into the one work, making the very strong case that women and women’s voices, in the Western tradition at least, have been silenced, marginalised and infantilised since the very beginnings of our written culture. Firmly linking history to our present day predicaments, it is a damning and taut statement, but also an inspiring one; a call to action bolstered by the proof of history.

If you’d like to know more about Professor Beard, I recommend listening to her episode of Desert Island Discs, which you can find here.

Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

Not only is this story my favourite format (a novella, at a crisp 90 pages), it is brutal and devastating and left me a little bit broken when I finished it. And even days later, I find it lurking in my head, revealing more and more to me as I think about what it was all supposed to mean. Right now, I am agonising over the fact that Dorothy’s ‘frogman’ lover was in his own harrowing way a physical manifestation of her fated inability to ever meet her most basic emotional needs – a husband who loves her, a child who’s alive, a friendship built on trust and belonging – all things that will forever be out of her reach. Like Larry, her desires are a complete fantasy inhabiting a foreign world, yet unlike Larry, there is no real place for her, nowhere for her to eventually find peace.

It reminded me a great deal of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. While both are very different books, they are nevertheless startling statements about the experience of womanhood – quiet, unassuming prose that guide us through utterly earth-shattering experiences, eviscerating worn stereotypes of hysterical, superficial women.

I couldn’t tell what era Mrs Caliban was set in (while the book was written in the early 80s, it could have been set in the 40s or 50s) but it didn’t matter as it still felt powerfully contemporary in its depiction of emotion and relationships. I was particularly struck by the excellent and heartbreaking depiction of friendship between two women, too. I so look forward to reading more of Ingalls’ work.

After writing this, I came across this piece by Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) on Rachel Ingalls – including the text of a letter she recently wrote him.

Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr

I have a soft spot for stories based on or built around ancient mythology, so seeing all the fuss about this title made it an easy buy (it was the winner of the 2017 NSW Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Children’s Fiction, and an Honour Book in the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards of the same year).

Set during the Bronze Age, this coming of age novel tells the tumultuous story of Aissa, a high-born girl who is cast out as a baby because of a minor birth defect, and instead of being flung off a cliff to die, she is saved by a wise-woman who places her in the care of doting peasants so that she may at least live. From there, Aissa’s life becomes only more complicated and tragic, as she navigates the world as a ‘cursed child’ on a remote and superstitious island somewhere in the Aegean Sea.

I was fascinated to see how deftly Orr had used the springboard of the Bronze Age, and the mythology of the time, to construct this story. While I admittedly struggled with the language at first, the immediacy and dynamism of the story, and the authenticity of the main character (sorry, ‘authenticity’ feels like such a meaningless word these days, but I hope you know what I mean), pulled at me the whole way through.

I recently read someone describe this as a ‘Cinderella story’, and it is, but it also offers an expansive sense of rejection, redemption and triumph that the usual riches-to-rags-to-riches tale. And while I often found myself frustrated by the way it skipped too quickly through key dramatic moments in the story, I can’t shake the imagery or my feelings for the main character. This is a wonderful novel that will no doubt creep back into my mind over and over again in time.

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