Craggan Dhu: Time Will Tell, an Interview with Kay McKenzie Cooke

A while ago I interviewed New Zealand writer Kay McKenzie Cooke about the process of writing her first novel. Well, I’m happy to report that it has been published and is ripe for the reading. To celebrate the occasion, I invited her back to talk about Craggan Dhu:Time Will Tell, a sweeping intergenerational tale of love, murder and sleeping secrets set in the far south of New Zealand.

1.      Congratulations on the huge achievement of publishing your novel! In your own words, how would you describe the book?

Thanks, Katherine.

I’ll avoid going down the synopsis track. Instead I’ll surrender to the enticement of the invite to describe ‘in your own words’ and attempt to tackle this question by boiling it down to what I personally think the book ended up being about. I believe one aspect is the impact of truth and time on people and their relationships. It touches on held secrets and the potential damage that can result from holding on to them too tightly. It also describes how, instead of the devastation one might expect when potentially damaging secrets are given up, there can simply be relief from which positive benefits are reaped.

In the novel, family / whanau lines are traced, tracked and developed. The book follows a fairly loose historical thread to reveal how in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, events from the past can intersect and make an impact. It’d be fair to say that this is a story about people and the way that events they have no control over can make or break.

The characters in the book are given both first-person and third-person viewpoints and allowed the freedom to speak from either the past or the present in order to explain, or reveal, truths and reactions.

Place is also a feature, with the seaside town of Craggan Dhu featuring as background.

 

2.   In some ways the central character is Craggan Dhu itself, the (fictional) small South Island town that links all of the main characters. This foregrounding of a small town and entering into the psychological life of its residents is unusual, though I can think of two famous precendents in George Eliot’s Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life and Garrison Keilor’s Lake Woebegone Days. Was there a reason you chose to place so much emphasis, at least in the title, on the town?

I’ve read Middlemarch and loved it. Not as familiar with Lake Woebegone Days, apart from the radio episodes I’ve heard once or twice. The 1960’s TV soap, Peyton Place also comes to mind!

The fictional Southland — or to be even more precise, Western Southland — town of Craggan Dhu (oft-times fondly referred by the book’s characters as Craggie) was always going to be the canvas upon which my book would be drawn, painted, sketched … It helped that it was a place I didn’t have to put much effort at all into imagining, being already housed in my memory and mind. The reason for that is because the fictional town of Craggan Dhu is loosely based on the town, Orepuki, where I lived as a small child.

Wild coastline near Orepuki, the model for Craggan Dhu

I know from my own life how prominently a town can figure in people’s lives. I know this not just in a personal way, but by hearing again and again over many years other ex-residents of my old home town speaking of the town as a character. And I have experienced the almost magical instant bond that can form between strangers; as if you’ve discovered a secret code to unstated commonalities; simply because you learn that they too hailed from your childhood town.

Calling the novel Craggan Dhu (Gaelic for Black Rock) became unavoidable. I did try out different titles, but they never sat right with me. I always came back to the name of the place where the story and characters are largely based. I acknowledge that this is entering the fanciful, but it was like whenever I tried to come up with alternative titles, Craggan Dhu would shoulder them away; shove them off.

Also, I figured that having a central locality for a host of characters in a wide-ranging story, would keep gathered what could potentially be something otherwise scattered. It also helped me in the writing of the book to have a still point. As a writer with so many threads to tie together, having a solid place that I could retreat back to, or launch forward from, was a definite aid.

3.      As a New Zealander, and a South Islander at that, much of the pleasure of reading your book comes from a kind of nostalgic recognition of the speech, mannerisms and habits particular to the rural South Island. At the same time, local references always seem as if they’d be accessible to a reader who is interested in New Zealand life but doesn’t ‘speak kiwi’. I was wondering whether you were writing for either side of this dual readership, one looking in a mirror and the other peering in the window? And if so, were you writing more for one than the other?

You are right in that I was sometimes looking in the mirror and at other times, peering in the window — so true! And I wouldn’t have come up with that myself, so I’m grateful for the gift of this description. It is exactly how I felt writing this book — that at times I was reflecting my own experiences and memories as a Southlander, then at other times, writing from the viewpoint of being outside of this perspective. Was I writing more for one than the other? I am unsure about that. But I’ll acknowledge that I was driven by a perceived need for the voices of people from the bottom of the South Island to be heard. New Zealand is a north-centric country and I’ll accept that wanting (whether consciously or sub-consciously) to address that fact was at the back of my mind when writing this book. I’m glad that you, Katherine, as a reader with a South Island background, enjoyed the familiar flavour. Perhaps in the end, that is all I want to achieve — to give air to a particular place and its people and for readers to engage with what has been created through doing that.

The Southland region is known in Māori as Murihiku, ‘the last joint of the tail’

5.       Most of the book’s many narrators are women. They are concerned with things like motherhood, family, navigating romantic relationships, growing up and growing old. Was it your intention to foreground women or was it something that just ‘happened’ organically as you wrote?

I knew that voicing the return to their small, southern hometown by two ageing, female cousins, was always going to be the novel’s foundation. And I knew there would be a granddaughter coming to stay and that her voice would be important. A historical ‘mystery’ was also something I set out to write into the novel. A historical back story that involved a married couple who had immigrated to New Zealand from Scotland, was also a known. And I knew that there would be a male character who would symbolise something good, or something bad; who would bring romance and/or betrayal to the cousins. That there would be a diary-keeping young girl from the past, was also part of the plot I started out with. These were the knowns. The rest I believe did develop organically.

Writing from a female’s point of view came naturally. Writing intermittently about and from a male’s point of view, happened as I launched myself into the writing. Although this never felt difficult, it was more important for me to write from the familiarity of a female’s p.o.v. I also knew that the characters would be ordinary people whose lives bordered on being a struggle rather than a triumph. I wanted to write about the unspectacular day-to-day being forced to come to face to face with the sudden, the extraordinary, the magical, the mysterious or the unexplained. However, I didn’t want this to happen with bells and whistles — or even smoke and mirrors. I wanted these occurrences to be subtle. To be the kind of episodes or events that arrive when the past quietly intersects the present day to day lives and realities of ordinary people.

William Allsworth, The Emigrants, 1844, London. Purchased 1992 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (1992-0022-1)

6.      Without giving too much away, one of the strands of the novel involves Scottish early settlers, immigrants to come to New Zealand in the nineteenth century. It’s an intriguing story and I was wondering whether it has a germ of truth in it?

Purely imaginative. Fully fanciful. However, a useful base for me was the fact that I have Scottish immigrants in my family tree. Some of these people were brought to life for me by stories my late Aunty Lorna would regale. She had a passionate interest in family ancestry and the many conversations I had with her over the years, formed for me a familiarity with my Scottish-border ancestors. This proved useful and authentic solid ground that I could stand on as I flew off (mentally speaking) into the imaginative and fictional.

7.      You’re launching the book when much of the world is still affected by restrictions caused by the spread of COVID-19. I understand New Zealand has effectively eliminated the spread (for now) and that restrictions are lifting. Does that mean there will be a physical book launch some time in the near future?

As I write this today on the 4th of June, there is talk of us moving down to Level One [back to normal apart from border controls] very soon. I did hear mention of the 8th June as a possible date for this change. If that does indeed happen, a launch would be possible! However, I have a poetry book Upturned coming out any day now and I think that will take precedence as far as launches go. Besides, I’d hate to get ‘launch fatigue’ (or cause anyone else to suffer such a thing.) However, never fear, when the paperbacks arrive from Amazon, I shall organise something in the way of celebration.

Soon to be released!

8.      How can people buy your books?

Craggan Dhu: Time Will Tell is available from Amazon as a paperback back for US$9.93 or e-reader for US$2.99).

Note: Postage to New Zealand is very high at the moment, so until this changes, it would be best to order a paperback from me. A paperback from me can be ordered for $20.00 (NZ) plus postage. Email kmckcooke @ gmail. com for details and arrangements.

Upturned is available for pre-order from The Cuba Press for NZ$25.00 (about US$16.00).

Six Pleasures of Reading

Writers of fiction, it is often assumed, derive a solipsistic and almost wizardly pleasure in the mere act of creating worlds, in spending hours and years in “the streets, the factories, the cathedrals of the imagination” as Janet Frame puts it, just for the sake of it. Tolkien spent decades perfecting Middle Earth, and it is quite plausible to imagine that he did so in large part for his own amusement. But even the most self-sufficient authors are usually ultimately writing for others; they want their stories to be read.

Similarly, reading is an act of desire. When you browse the library shelves or open a book, you’re engaged in pleasure-seeking behavior. What sort of delight is desired depends on you, but delight is what you want.

My conclusion is that if a writer wants readers, the writing should give pleasure. With that in mind, here are some delights to be derived from reading. I’m sure you can think of others—if so, please share your thoughts!

A Kay Nielsen illustration of 1001 Arabian Nights

Friendship

I recently learned about a phenomenon called ASMR (autonomous  sensory meridian response), the tingling feeling that some people get in their heads and spines when something pleases them. I don’t remember ever feeling this myself but my husband says he got it as a child when he saw or read about people being kind to each other. For this reason, he is still particularly drawn to hospitality scenes in movies and literature.

 Sharing a story is a kind of hospitality in itself: the writer wants to offer something tasty, and the reader wants to consume it. A writer wants to guide someone through the land of imagination, a reader wants to follow along and marvel at novel landscapes. If the bargain is kept up happily at both ends, the reader feels befriended and broadened.

Arthur Rackham’s 1908 illustration of Mole and Ratty messing about in a boat

Getting Carried Away

One of the greatest pleasures of reading is being spirited away—that is, temporarily forgetting your physical self and surroundings in order to inhabit a different consciousness and to roam about in a strange land surrounded by unfamiliar people and things. The more vivid and convincing the fictional world, the easier it is to be transported and transformed.

Illustration from 1914 by Maginel Wright Enright for Story Hour Readers, Book Two, by Ida Coe.

Formal Satisfaction

One of the appealing things about formulaic fiction (detective novels, romantic fiction, true crime) is that you know what kind of story to expect. The pleasure here depends on how well the author fulfils these expectations.

Frederic Dorr Steele 1903 illustration for “The Empty House”

Boundary Breaking

Even in fictional worlds, I am always unconsciously gathering experiences and perspectives and comparing them with my own. A story that examines a situation or idea that is ordinarily taboo or ignored or buried and that does so with radical honesty (rather than shock-jockeying) is necessarily interesting because it confronts accepted norms. Books that touch a nerve with their atypical-yet-honest views include Notes from the Underground, andthe works of Janet Frame and J.G. Ballard.    

Crystal World (after J.G. Ballard) by Ann Lislegaard

Humor

A writer who can make readers laugh will not be short of readers, hence Wodehouse. In books like Huckleberry Finn, Mansfield Park and Norwood humor emerges in an ear for mimicry and an eye that appreciates the anomalous and absurd.

E.W. Kemble illustrated the first edition of Huckleberry Finn

Playfulness

Playfulness I would characterize as an author’s willingness and skill in manhandling reality. For a playful author, everything goes: shape-shifting, talking flies, devils incarnate, unexpected inversions and distortions of reality. In the short stories of R.A. Lafferty, for example, certain things happen that you know must be impossible and yet, within the framework of the story, they are convincing and disturbing. Examples of playful novels must include Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Zap Gun by Philip K. Dick and  Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

The Post-Mortem Players

Melinoë took Angela’s hand in hers and pulled her towards the source of the terrifying sound. It seemed to be coming from a corner room. Sure enough, when they entered the chamber, Angela saw an arresting sight. There was a drumkit in the middle of the room, or rather several drumkits, and in the very center was a creature that seemed to have a hundred arms, most of which were beating time in a kind of fractal rhythm that Angela felt in her face rather than heard with her ears.

 

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Standing nearby was a solid looking man with long dark hair and solemn features who seemed to be carved from darkness except for his eye-whites, which were more correctly eye-yellows. His mouth was open in an ‘o’ and the sound emerging was variously like the chittering of millions of bats, the crash of surf echoing in an rock tunnel, the screams of bereaved mothers and the sudden cracking of an Antarctic ice shelf. Next to him was a kind of blue cloud – a constantly shifting shape whose rhythmic movements seemed to create deep and deeply unpleasant bass notes that shook Angela’s bones.  Nearby, nodding his head up and down appreciatively, was a long-haired guy wearing what looked like white face-paint and a black cross on his face. And joining in now and then with a blood-curdling yodel was a skeletal looking boy whose bare torso was decorated with triangular red scratches.

As usual when confronted with anything weird, Angela pulled out her smartphone and started recording the spectacle. A kind of gas started seeping up through the floorboards and a group of demons started dancing to the rhythms—trying to murder each other, but in a jerky, stylized manner.

 

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This might have gone on for ten minutes or an hour, Angela wasn’t sure. When she looked at the recording time it said 5.22, which shocked her. The end of the song seemed to leave the air in tatters and everyone emerged as if from the fog of war.

“Praises, Lord Erebos!” Melinoë said cheerfully to the singer. “What a delightful tune. Is it new?”

“Yes, we wrote it today,” Erebos rumbled.

“I wanted to show you Angelia, Hera’s daughter, she’s just back from an exchange program with the Overworld.”

“Hi,” Angela smiled shyly.

“Praises,” said Erebos, “Let me introduce you to the band. Over there on the drums is Briareus—he’s a Hundred-Hands, as you can probably tell. Then this,” he motioned at the long-haired mortal. “Is Øystein Aarseth. He’s from a place called Norway. He’s sort of our musical guru.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Angela said politely.

 

oystein

 

Aarseth glared not at her but at the wall, like a cat.

“After he died he went to Christian Hell first” Erebos explained, “But there was some trouble between him and a cellmate so they decided to send him here.”

“That place was a drag, man,” the depth of his emotion forced him out of his pose, “I’m so effing glad I’m out of there. I feel like my music has reached a whole new level down here.”

“Øystein was a musician in the Overworld, you know him?” Erebos asked eagerly.

“Oh, of course,” Angela said, though she hadn’t.

“Yeah, I told you, everybody’s heard of us man,” Øystein said. “We were sick–burning the churches, we, like, took it to the next level. Well Varg had to take it too far because of his complete lack of intelligence, but before that, we were making a name for ourselves.”

“Yes, yes,” said Erebos restlessly, as he’d heard it all before, “And this here, our bass player is Moros, my step-son. It’s sometimes difficult to see him. He’s shy and usually just appears as a sound cloud.”

“Oh, well, I thought that bass playing was great!” Angela enthused in the general direction Erebos was pointing, which seemed a bit hazier than elsewhere in the room. “I play the bass myself, so I appreciated it,” Angela said. The air wriggled a litte. 

“And this here is Alala,” Erebos waved at the boy with red-triangle tattoos. “He does the war cries. He’s exceptionally good at them.”

To demonstrate, he let out a holler that made Angela’s hair stand on end.

“Great,” Angela said. “Oh, hey, I just recorded you guys if you want to have a look.”

“Angelia has a magical advice from the Overworld,” Melinoë explained. “You can see anywhere in the Overworld with it. It’s amazing!”

Øystein, who’d never seen a smartphone, sneered and sulked in the background. Erebos, though, showed a keen interest. He watched the performance with an artiste’s eye and nodded with approval.

“It’s a kind of time-delayed mirror, is it not?”

“Er, yes. Sort of,” Angela said.

“You know,” he rumbled. “After all Øystein has been telling me, I would like our music to be better known. I have a feeling we would make quite an impression up there among the little people.”

“Yes, I think that’s…fair to say,” Angela nodded.

“I have a pipe dream that once the kids have grown up a bit that Nyx and I would go to Norway—see the fjords and things. Maybe we could even do a concert there.”

 

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“I’m not going back to that dump,” Øystein scowled.

“No, no, of course,” Erebos said soothingly. “You could stay here and manage the studio. But what do you think, Angelia, is it a good idea?”

“Oh, I think so. Yes,” she nodded. “But I think, you know, you might need a name for your band.” 

“Yes? I suppose you’re right. How about something along the lines of ‘Hell’s Fellows’. Would that work?”

“Uh…” 

“Or, I know! How’s this: ‘The Post-Mortem Players’.”

“Probably Øystein can help you better than I can,” Angelia took a couple of steps back.

“Skull Worms, Gangrene, Crucifixion Town,” Øystein offered. 

Erebos shook his head. 

“Not very subtle, is it? Do we call ourselves artists or don’t we? I mean to say, we might as well pick ‘Nose Plug’ and be done with it. Where’s the poetry in everyday things?”

“GANGRENE!” Øystein screamed.

Erebos ignored him.

“Listen, young girl, perhaps you could talk to your king and arrange something in relation to that Norwegian tour?”

“Well,” Melinoë interrupted, “Angelia is going to be a bit busy in the next few weeks, especially with Aunt Hera coming, but maybe we can talk about it later. Meanwhile, do you know where Achlys might be?”

“Sulking in his room, as usual. You know, I keep  trying to persuade him to join the band with his lyre—Øystein has a brilliant amplifying system all ready—but Achlys absolutely refuses.”

“Well, he is so gifted,” Melinoë gushed. “After all, Orpheus himself taught him, and the lyre sounds better acoustic, I think. So soulful. I can see why he’d want to go for a solo career…”

Erebos shrugged.

“Not my cup of nectar, but each to his own. Well, lads, should we take it from the top?”

The music started up again and Melinoë and Angela made a hasty exit.

 

 

The Daemons Next Door

Angela opened the fridge door and took out a vegetarian sausage. She started cooking it on a frying pan when suddenly she saw that the sausage had a little face. The face was furious and started yelling at Angela, telling her that she wasn’t even cooking it properly—she had to remove the plastic casing first and to put more oil in the pan. Angela peeled the plastic off as the sausage continued to berate her. Then she hurriedly got more oil and poured it in but it turned out to be gasoline and the kitchen exploded in a fireball.

Angela woke up with a scream. Sitting next to her in the darkness, watching her intently with big pop eyes, sat Melinoë. Angela screamed again.

 

Gorgona_pushkin

 

“What is the matter with you?” Angela cried.

“Was it scary?” Melinoë asked eagerly.

“Huh? Yes, it was scary.”

Melinoë nodded and smiled a little bit.

“That’s good. I thought it might not work.”

“What? Wait a minute, did you do this?” Angela asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Of course. Nightmares are my forte, I told you. I don’t usually get to see the people dreaming though. It’s usually long-distance, so I have no idea how effective they are.”

Angela clutched her head in her hands and groaned.

“Let’s get something straight,” she said at last. “I may be sharing a room with you, but I’m not your guinea pig. Please don’t give me any more nightmares, OK?”

“Why not?” Melinoë put her head on one side, bird like.

“Because it’s hard enough getting used to this place without bedwetting added to the mix, OK?”

“You didn’t like it?”

“No, I didn’t like it.”

“Well what about when I change shape? Can I still do that?”

“You can do that all you like. Go crazy. Just don’t mess with my slee—agh! For the love of—”

Angela found herself looking at a person who was made entirely of wriggling mice.

“OK,” Angela clenched her teeth, “As I said, that’s totally fine. Just let me get some sleep.”

 

***

 

When Angela arrived at the Hades household dining room, Persephone and her two daughters were already daintily addressing a breakfast of pomegranate smoothies, ambrosia cups and bread made with Elysian wheat. Cerberos was sitting next to Persephone, pitifully resting on of his heads on the table hoping for a scrap of bread.

“Good morning, Angela,” Persephone said. “Did you sleep well?”

Melinoë bit her lip and shot Angela a warning glance.

“Oh, yes, I slept great, thank you,” Angela smiled.

“Good,” Persephone smiled. “I thought later, you might come up to the women’s room; we want to prepare you for your ceremony tomorrow.”

“My what?” Angela said.

“You know, your ceremonial dipping in the Acheron, to symbolize your homecoming.”

“Ah.”

“We need to dress you and do your hair and make-up,” said Elpis, “You will look so beautiful!”

“Oh, a kind of makeover?” Angela asked. “That sounds fun.”

“But before that,” Melinoë interrupted, “I can take Angelia over to introduce her to the next-door neighbors.”

Must you?” sighed Persephone, “They’re so ghastly.”

 “Yes I must,” Melinoë pouted. “They’re really cool and Achlys said they all want to meet her.”

“All right, but be sure you get back before dinner.”

 

Locri_Pinax_Persephone_Opens_Likon_Mystikon
Pinax of Persephone opening the “Likon Mystikon”

 

Melinoë took Angela’s hand and the two hurried out of the great cold mansion, down the steps and down the street to a house constructed of grey-veined black marble. Running along the top of six great black columns was a golden architrave engraved with scenes of murder and mayhem. As they entered the courtyard, Angela gasped at the sight of a rectangular pool filled with some viscous red liquid.

“Is…is that blood?” she whispered.

“Yes,” Melinoë murmured. “Isn’t it amazing? I really like the aesthetics here. Oops, there are the Keres—get back behind this pillar. They’re real hellions. One’s full of violent death, the other one’s the personification of disease in wartime.”

From their hiding place, they observed twin girls running at top speed around the blood pool. Both wore black tunics and wings reminiscent of black swans. One was brandishing a knife and, judging by her ferocious expression, fully intended to do the other one an injury. The other was surrounded by a mist of mosquitoes, black smoke and an indescribably rotten stench. After three or four circuits of the pool, they stopped running and paused to gather up handfuls of blood, which they drank thirstily.

 

keres

 

“Let’s go to the women’s room. It’s usually quieter there.”

Quietly, so as not to alert the twins, Angela and Melinoë walked upstairs and found themselves in a large room containing a big loom. Around it sat three serious women, all dressed in white. One was heavily pregnant and had a distracted air. Another held a long piece of wood with notches in it. The third held a pair of scissors.

“They’re the Moirai,” Melinoë murmured. “They decide how long people live. The pregnant one is Clotho. She’s spinning thread of a life from a distaff onto a spindle. Lachesis has the measuring rod—she decides the length of a life. And Atropos holds the shears—she does the snipping.”

Angela gaped at them, fascinated.

“They do that for every single person?” she asked.

“Yes, they’re always working. Come on, let’s find Nyx.”

 

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Melinoë took Angela’s arm and pulled her along a corridor toward a bedroom with richly painted walls. A woman dressed in diaphanous dark blue reclined on a richly decorated couch. She had long silky dark hair and her face was alarmingly pale except for black eyes, from which there flowed rivulets of what looked like black ink. She barely noticed the girls come in but made a slight gesture with her wrist, which seemed to acknowledge their presence.

“Praises Auntie Nyx,” Melinoë curtsied, “Angelia is back.”

This made Nyx pay attention. She lifted herself on her elbow and surveyed the newcomer.

“That’s not Angelia,” she said. “She doesn’t have that catastrophic aura. Who is this?”

“You’re right auntie,” said Melinoë, “Her name is really Angela. But you can’t tell anyone, OK? Persephone’s planning to fool Hera into thinking she’s her long-lost daughter Angelia.”

“Oh, I see. Because the real Angelia has gone AWOL,” she sighed and lowered herself back. “What a lot of trouble. Persephone has so much energy. Well, never mind. Welcome to Hades, dear. Will you girls have some grapes?” she indicated a golden tray overflowing with black grapes.

 

N1.3Nyx
Nyx in her chariot in a lekythos from around 500-475 BCE

 

Nyx inspected Angela again, her eye lingering on her sweater and jeans.

“What extraordinary clothes! Are you an eastern person?”

“No ma’am, Kansas is pretty central.”

“Have you ever done any babysitting by any chance? My children are wearing me out.”

“Well,” Angela started, but then looked at Melinoë, who was shaking her head and making the cut-throat sign. “I’m…I’m not really very good with kids.”

“What a shame. I believe I will go out of my mind as it is. Melinoë, darling, would you be a dear and tell Erebos I won’t be down for lunch. I have a terrible headache.”

“Will do, auntie, bye for now,” Melinoë kissed her hand and the girls left her apartment. As they walked the halls, an ear-splitter roar rent the air. Angela nearly jumped out of her skin.

“What was that?” she was going to say, but a deafening racket ensued, accompanied by drums so low and loud that they seemed produced by a giant’s heart. She noticed that they were steadily moving towards the infernal din, and she worried that they would be engulfed by some hitherto unimagined monster, or an army of millions.

Note: This is chapter 4. Click here for chapter 1, here for 2 and here for 3.

 

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Attic black-figure neck-amphora from Vulci. Leagros Group, 510-500 BC

Ten Women whose New Writing will Stop You Climbing the Walls for a Little While

There’s a chance you may be experiencing some emotional stress right now. You need distraction, relief and mental stimulation. Luckily, reading a story offers an easy way to access all three. One study claims that just six minutes of reading slows the heartbeat and lowers blood pressure. That might be poppycock, who knows, but if you like reading anyway. Here are new works–in many different genres–by ten women to get you through this seriously strange spring.

 

jenny brown

 

  1. Without Apology: The Abortion Struggle Now

Jenny Brown

In the early stages of the spread of COVID-19 in the United States, right-wing media and abortion opponents were already exploiting the crisis to attack abortion access. This week the Trump administration announced that Planned Parenthood, a major abortion provider, will not be receiving any of the coronavirus-relief funding earmarked for small businesses struggling with the effects of the pandemic. This is just the latest of countless attacks that have been growing in number and ferocity for a few decades.

In Without Apology, Jenny Brown provides historical and political context for this intensifying struggle between feminists and the anti-abortionists. She describes what the United States used to look like without legal abortion — when feminist collectives organized abortion care — and what women face trying to get an abortion today. Part of Verso’s Jacobin series, it is a vital text for those wishing to learn more about serious threats to civil liberties faced by many in the United States today.

Jenny Brown is a National Women’s Liberation organizer and former editor of Labor Notes. She is also the author of Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight over Women’s Work.

Verso Books is having a RED MAY sale, with 50% of all print books and 80% all ebooks, so why not browse their backlist while you’re there?

 

2. Becky’s Bash

Becky Dahl

Becky Dahl is a wonderful writer who has started a substack named Becky’s Bash. So far the pieces are short, satisfying tales that transport you to vivid, sometimes shocking places. She grew up in Perth, Western Australia but now lives in Vancouver and both locations feature in her writing so far. In fact, her latest story “Flash and Bang” is a terrifying true tale of drama in her apartment building. I encourage you to subscribe!

 

 

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  1. The Girl with the Louding Voice

Abi Dare

Adunni is a Nigerian teen who longs for what her mother calls a ‘louding voice’—the ability to speak for herself and decide her own future. The way to get this, she believes, is getting an education. Her dad has other ideas and sells her to be the third wife of some schmo down the street. Adunni runs away and discovers her only option is working as a servant to a wealthy family, where she is inevitably mistreated. She realizes that the time has come to find her louding voice and tell everyone to back the heck off.

 

  1. It’s Not All Downhill from Here

Terry McMillan

Sixty-eight-year-old Loretha Curry is a wife, mother, business owner, loyal friend to a diverse group of women and all that jazz. She refuses to accept that life is over at sixty-five and good for her, I say. This is the latest offering from the author of How Stella Got Her Groove Back and promises to be similarly uplifting and full of pep.  

 

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  1. Actress

Anne Enright

A woman in her late 50s reflects on her late mother’s life, trying to understand the person behind the famous actress and to find answers to aspects of her own history that have never been clear. Who was her father, the nameless man she imagined as a lost hero?

Anne Enright is a prolific Irish author who won the 2007 Booker Prize for the novel The Gathering, which she described as “the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepie.”

 

 

  1. Motherwell: A Girlhood

Deborah Orr

Deborah Orr was a Scottish journalist who died last year at age 57. This is her memoir of a childhood in a working-class neighborhood during the 1960s and 70s. With sensitivity and biting wit she details her relationship with her formidable mother, her laborer father and indeed the town of Motherwell itself. There’s a very good, sympathetic review of it here by Andrew O’Hagan, from which I provide the following quote:

 

Motherwell is a searching, truthful, shocking (and timely) observance of the blight that monetarist policies can bring about in a community of workers, indeed on a whole culture of fairness and improvement, while also showing – in sentences as clean as bone – the tireless misunderstandings that can starve a family of love.

 

 

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  1. Wow, no thank you: essays

Samantha Irby

Samantha Irby is a popular essayist and seems to talk about stuff that actually happens in her life, which is refreshing and nice. Also there is a bunny on the cover.

She is also the author of we are never meeting in real life and has a blog called bitches gotta eat where you can get a feel for her TMI breath-of-fresh-air style.

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8. The Silence

Susan Allott 

If you’re looking for a hot-off-the -press thriller, you might consider The Silence, which was published two days ago and won’t be getting an irl book launch.

In Allot’s own words, “The Silence is a literary thriller set in Australia, about long-buried family secrets that are caught up in the mistakes of Australia’s colonial past. When Isla’s dad calls in the middle of the night to say the police have been to see him, Isla goes back to Sydney for the first time in a decade. She starts to ask questions, and soon everything she believed about her childhood, her family and herself is in doubt.”

 

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  1. The Moment of Tenderness

Madeleine L’Engle 

It turns out that the celebrated author of A Wrinkle in Time  left some unpublished stories in a drawer, which one of her nosy-parker granddaughters found and decided to share with the world. I haven’t read them yet but allegedly they reveal the emotional arc of L’Engle’s early life from her lonely childhood in New York to her life as a mother in Connecticut.

 

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  1. If I Had Your Face

Frances Cha

Four young women who live in the same building in Seoul seek refuge in friendship as they separately endure intense societal, sexual and economic pressures. It’s a world where plastic surgery is the norm, where

You can listen to an audiobook excerpt here.