BOOK REVIEWS: Three for May

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The Outside Lands

By Hannah Kohler
Out now from Picador; £12.99 hardcover

Thank goodness Hannah Kohler ignored her MA advisor’s recommendation to shelve this novel, because it required research, and instead, concentrate on something closer to home, which she already knew all about. Kohler is British, and was born after the end of the Vietnam War. Her accomplished debut, The Outside Lands, is set in San Francisco and in Vietnam in the years from 1963 through the fall of Saigon, in 1975 and among other things, its about the effect of that war on the American psyche.

Kohler’s writing is assured, authentic, visceral, and clean, even when the incidents she’s relating are messy, blood-drenched, and heartbreaking.

For much of the novel we toggle between the perspectives of a sister and brother. They lose their troubled, colourful mother young, and are forced to renegotiate their roles in a single parent home. As the only woman, Jeannie is looked to for all things domestic and maternal — it’s the early ’60s and feminism hasn’t taken hold. She’s a teenager, and resents having her childhood truncated by the weight of these responsibilities.

Yet over the next few years her flight path from the constrictions of home lands her in a different kind of straightjacket. She falls pregnant and marries the baby’s father, a young doctor from an upper middle class family whose expectations about acceptable behaviour are even more restrictive than her family’s.

Meanwhile her brother, Kip, who was fourteen when their mother died, and witness to the accident that claimed her life, goes bad. He gets involved in petty, and then less petty crime. On his day of reckoning, a judge hands him a choice: finish high school or join the military. Though the war in Vietnam’s raging, Kip enlists in the Marines and is immediately shipped out.

Unfortunately, the military isn’t the making of him, and doesn’t endow him with instant maturity. He heads to war a surly teen and remains one long enough to clash with his commanding officer. Kip’s immaturity provokes a life-changing act as disastrous — and avoidable — as anything found in Greek tragedy. A stint in military prison winds up saving his life, though what he’s been saved for is a question for debate.

Back home, Jeannie’s adjusting to life as a wife and mother. She chafes at the demands placed on her by a social climbing mother-in-law. She meets a teenager called Lee, who’s mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Their relationship could not only jeopardise her marriage, but lead to even greater disaster, for Lee embroils Jeannie with a group of anti-war radicals set on overthrowing the status quo.

Kohler is terrific at capturing what’s essential. Here she is on motherhood: “Jeannie knew the tricks time played on mothers: the enchanted hours that wouldn’t pass, each solid minute needing picking up, dealing with, and putting away, one by one, until you were sore with the labor; then whole weeks falling away, like a ladder pulled from your heels.”

And here she is writing about Kip, in the jungle: “The silence is breathing sick and hot in my ears. I’m blacked up and lush with bullets, but I feel so naked and skinless. I could be wearing my guts outside my body. My heart’s banging so hard I can feel it bulging at my chest, like a rat in a bag.”

Two thirds of the way through, another voice enters the story and the book threatens to go a bit Johnny Got His Gun (actually that’s a great novel, maybe I shouldn’t complain). Through this third character Kohler brings Jeannie closer to Kip, despite the thousands of miles physically separating them. We discover how powerful a sister’s love can be, and see how it warps her morals. We also get our first real sense of her physical presence. It comes as a bit of a jolt, for by now we feel we know her well, but hats off to Kohler for delivering us her character from the inside out.

The novel’s ending is true, and absolutely right, but also bleak.

I kept stopping, while reading, to say, “Damn, this is well written.” Surely there’s no higher praise?

 

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Dietland
By Sarai Walker
Out now from Atlantic Books, £8.99 paperback, eBook available

In a majority of novels aimed at female readers, a chubby protagonist struggles with life and love until — usually in the prose equivalent of a montage — she loses weight, finds love, lands her dream job and never has to worry about money, or anything, ever again.

Why these books aren’t shelved in fantasy is anyone’s guess.

Sarai Walker’s Dietland is here to set that bullshit alight. It’s the story of a fat woman called Plum who dreams of being svelte, and has put her life on hold until such time as she’s a size 8. Over the course of the novel she does lose a bit of weight but puts it right back on, sans regrets. She learns to embrace her shape and size, and a good deal more besides, but nothing about her awakening is cosy or cuddly, and frankly Plum can occasionally be a difficult protagonist. I suppose that’s the point. Women are not always cuddly, nor do we have to be!

Walker’s ambitious. This novel’s part love story (Plum finds self love), part political treatise, part rebellious rallying cry, and part satire of the dieting industry, taking claws-out swipes at recognisable icons of the American weight loss scene. If, like me, you’ve had close encounters with Weight Watchers et al, you’ll giggle with delight at these sections.

Plum meets Verena, the daughter of a famous weight loss icon, who has rejected her late mother and all she stood for, and now runs a woman’s refuge, funded by the billions that diet scheme generated. At the same time, a group calling itself Jennifer enacts revenge killings, ensuring that no rapist sleeps easily in his bed. Is Jennifer one of Verena’s inner circle? Is she the woman called Julia, who runs the beauty bunker of a magazine empire? Or is she someone else entirely?

Walker is brave. Dietland isn’t a cosy read, even though it sweeps you up and pulls you along at speed. There is a moment when Plum, in the manner of all heroes, has to complete a series of challenges. One involves a string of blind dates. In a “normal” novel she would magically meet a man who loves her just as she is during one of these encounters. Walker is altogether more brutal, and realistic. The men show up, gawp, and run for the hills, pausing only to hurl insults. It stings, but then reality does bite.

Over and over Walker asks us to think about all the ways women are encouraged to change and modify themselves in order to be “fuckable” by straight men. Without exaggerating one bit she manages to horrify us, which is an indictment of the sad state of play today.

Conventions are overturned, not always subtly, and it sometimes feels as if she’s bitten off more than she can chew. Yet Walker is capable of hitting the nail squarely on the head. For example, after Jennifer murders and mutilates more than a dozen men, her actions draw the attention of every media outlet, and naturally the female characters discuss this:

“‘Did you see the column in the New York Daily this morning,’ Marlowe asked. ‘The columnist argued that Jennifer just needs to get laid, and guys in the comments section were writing things like, ‘I bet Jennifer is fat’ and ‘Jennifer is a ball-busting bitch’ and ‘Who’d want to fuck her?’

“‘I love that their only defence against Jennifer is to label her unfuckable,’Rubi said.

“‘That’s how dudes always try to bring us down,’ Sana said.

“‘Jennifer will give herself up and do a nude spread in Playboy to make amends,’ Marlowe said.”

There’s also a moment when Jennifer demands that a British newspaper stop showing naked women and start featuring cock. It’s played out further, to underscore how screwed up we are (and how much we take for granted): “The French president commented on a British television advert that features a man washing his hair with a new floral-scented shampoo; the man was so excited by the shampooing experience that he made orgasm sounds as he massaged his head. ‘I cannot be taken seriously in such an environment,’ the French president said. . . . and so the G8 Summit was moved from London to Berlin.”

I think Dietland will appeal to readers of Lucy Ellmann’s novels, as well as fans of Lindy West and Caitlin Moran.

 

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The Bridge Ladies
By Betsy Lerner
Out now from Macmillan, £18.99 hardback; £11.99 Ebook

Betsy Lerner is an American literary agent, poet, blogger and author, whose previous books were The Forest for the Trees, about writing and publishing, and a memoir Food and Loathing, about her struggle with depression and compulsive eating.

She is also a daughter. Her marvellous new book, The Bridge Ladies, describes her efforts to reconcile her lifelong troubled relationship with her judgemental mother. She does this by sitting in on the older woman’s Monday bridge club — which has been meeting as regular as clockwork for more than half a century.

Lerner interviews members of the group individually — including her mother — sits and eavesdrops while they play, and learns to play herself, which enables her to occasionally take a seat at the table. She also interviews her sisters, and some of the other bridge club children, to compare and contrast experiences of their mothers’ weekly ritual, and of what it meant growing up with mothers such as these.

She explains, “The Bridge Ladies couldn’t be more alike: They are all in their eighties, all Jewish, and they were all first to go to college in their families. They married young, married Jewish men, and stayed married to them. They had 2.5 children. None worked outside the home during the years they raised their children, except Rhoda. . . .”

These women lived through the Depression and World War II. They saw the world change in unimaginable ways. They’ve known love and loss, been through hell and back with their families, and through it all, have remained resolutely chic.

Now, 55 years on, they’re confronting illness, death and dying. “There was one Monday when the ladies talked about a two-funeral day earlier in the week. ‘You must think we’re pretty morbid,’ Bette laughs. ‘But this is our life.’”

Nevertheless there is still a formality to their interactions. The bridge ladies don’t effuse, they don’t touch, they don’t even air kiss.

Theirs is the story of one generation’s sense of expectation and entitlement, its pragmatism and its compromises. It’s the story of how their children challenged these expectations and beliefs. Lerner asks the bridge club members frank questions about sex and love, delves into their marriages, inquires about their pregnancies. While not in the habit of parading their feelings during bridge club, everyone responds and spills stories —  moving, frustrating, inspiring — into Lerner’s tape recorder.

Most crucially, Lerner probes her mother’s past — which included an abusive father and poverty — and delves into a family tragedy that occurred when she was four years old and about which no one never spoke. She discovers the sessions with her mother are harder and harder to endure, though it’s easy interviewing all the other women. But these encounters, even more than playing bridge, help mother and daughter narrow the emotional gap caused by decades of embattlement. The more she understands her mother, the more Lerner understands herself, and while not all of these revelations are pleasant, she doesn’t flinch from them.

By turns funny and bittersweet, The Bridge Ladies is a winner. Betsy Lerner was dealt a great hand with this material, and plays it perfectly.

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