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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock book review

Author:
mermaid mrs hancock

By Anna Hill

Content Note: sex work, sexual violence (in the novel, not in this review), racism

(just a note that I’m white and not a sex worker)

I first came across The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock when I watched a video with the author, Imogen Hermes Gowar, giving a tour and talking about sex work and Georgian London with booktuber ReadingBukowski [content warning for sexual violence and sex work in the video]. I was immediately really interested in checking out the novel on top of the personal buzzword in the name for me – mermaids! When the novel was longlisted for the Women’s Prize For Fiction I decided to listen to the audio book, because it is one of the longest books on the list!

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a historical fiction novel set in the 1780s about a merchant called Jonah Hancock and a courtesan named Angelica Neal and how their lives intermix when the body of a mermaid is swapped for one of Mr Hancock’s ships.

Brimming with detail and interesting descriptions, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is also as far as I can tell a nuanced exploration of sex work. Rather than the many other representations of sex work (which are generally very negative), Gowar has created a novel that depicts the positives and negatives of the profession.

Angelica Neal talks of her love of her job – how “it appeals to her character in a great host of ways: she likes to live closely with other women and share her secrets with them; she likes to sing and drink and dance; she likes to be cosseted; she likes to be looked at […] she likes to be pursued, but she does not feel she is ever captured, for it is only by her own decision that they lay hands on her”.

Whilst I was expecting more focus on the mermaid, that’s not my only criticism of the novel, I also had some issues with the way the plot moved, the first volume was, overall, too thick and too heavy with description and then the second volume felt untethered to any surprising turns – I guessed all of the major plot points throughout, and the third picked up the pace in a way that was so at odds with the rest of the novel it really didn’t work, jarring us further out of the story. As such if I wasn’t listening to the audiobook I wouldn’t have finished the novel.

Although the writing and the complicated character development and exploration was thorough and in some parts beautiful, I find myself frustrated and somewhat confused with the representation of specific characters – namely the two black characters in the novel, Simeon and Polly Campbell. Other reviews have noted the lack of time these characters and their subplot get, as well as their lesser amount of development.

I would also say that the language that Gowar, a white author, used in describing these characters was uncomfortable; and although in The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Gowar is clearly critiquing a sexist and tokenising approach to women and their bodies – paralleling them with the figure of the mermaid – she ends up treating Polly Campbell like a mermaid herself. Described as “a woman entirely out of the common water”, she slips in and out of the story only when needed, trapped in her own subplot that only extends as far as the second volume, quickly dropped when she isn’t deemed interesting anymore.

Sections of the novel showcase a nebulous sea-voice, meant to be a mermaid, and these are the parts of the novel that worked the best for me. They were lyrical and softer, more interesting and dynamic than the rest of the work which was so clearly researched that it made the authorship shine through. Unlike the mermaid’s perspective sections, the rest of the novel suffers rather than enlivens because of the research – the intensity of the detail and the facts shatter the fiction of the book – the specific language and contexts are almost too specific tripping the reader up, forcing us to think about the act of researching the book rather than simply allowing us to enjoy the world ourselves.

I went into this book really wanting to like it, from the beautiful cover to the potential for mermaids; but it ultimately disappointed me, with too many characters, too obvious plot points, it’s spurious representation of a side character and its hyper-detailed set up. Even the beautiful language couldn’t save it.

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy – a review

Author:
when i hit you

By Anna Hill

Content warnings: domestic and sexual violence

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy is the first book I’ve read from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year (you can see the whole longlist and the newly released shortlist here), and it has certainly set a high standard.

I’ve never read anything from Kandasamy before but after reading this I will be picking up her other works. I originally heard about When I Hit You when it was being talked about last year with its full title When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. I was really drawn to it because women, writing, and survival all interest me. The book has a pretty simple plot; it’s about a young wife leaving her marriage with an abusive leftist man. As a survivor of sexual violence I always struggle to figure out if I want to read things that I know will contain some traumatic experiences similar to my own because I’m searching for other ways to explore, survive, and escape from my own life, or out of a place of self destruction – out of an impulse to consume media that I know will be triggering for me. But the way this novel sets itself up – saying from the beginning that the unnamed main character gets out of her marriage – allowed me to read, and even enjoy, the narrative, and to find a kind of sisterhood within the pages, despite our very different experiences.

The reading experience, far from triggering me, was actually surprising, at points funny, and ultimately hopeful. The tone of the novel was something I was absolutely not expecting: it’s this clear-sighted voice, which at times is poetic and at others has a kind of astute dry humour. In part it was the tone of this novel that allowed me to read it, and to read it as fast as I did. There are these accurate, painfully funny moments scattered throughout the entire novel. The opening can provide some kind of glimpse into the irreverence of the narrator and the way she creates in-jokes between her and the reader; when talking about how her mother retells her escape she notes that, “this is how my story of Young Woman as a Runaway Daughter became, in effect, the great battle of My Mother versus the Head Lice”.

As the subtitle would suggest, this book is not just one about domestic violence, it’s also about the act of writing itself and the way that fiction and stories can help you escape. The narrator thinks during an episode of violence from her husband that “I just have to wait for this to end and I can write again”. The instruments of fiction allow an escape from the abuse which is such a relatable impulse, and a really interesting one. Kandasamy is so eloquent about the way that writing your own story and crafting a narrative is an empowering and sometimes life-saving tool, with the young wife talking about her impulse to survive as her “restless urge to tell a story”. This desperate wish propels her out of the pain, and offers her a balm. When she is writing a poem about the situation she says “the poem is the healing, I tell him. It’s by writing this that I can get over it.”

Another aspect of the book that I wasn’t expecting was the way it ruthlessly presents men on the left’s deep misogyny and “distilled hypocrisy”. The abusive husband at one point writes a poem which articulates the horrendous and almost laughable approach to violence against women that they have:

When I hit you,

Comrade Lenin weeps.”

Like so many Leftist men he uses left ideologies as “a cover for his own sadism” – always presuming his own integrity is superior, his own violence is called for – “in this marriage in which I’m beaten, he is the poet”. Later on, the novel covers the difficulty in calling out abusive political men and how consistently people ask you to find kind things to say about abusers. When I Hit You exposes some of the ways that the left wing specifically (but also people in general) facilitate and allow domestic and sexual violence against women – and how it refuses to genuinely listen to women alongside feminist critique.

The novel intensely and clearly debunks myths about victim blaming throughout; why and how women stay in abusive relationships, who is vulnerable to abuse, and even how abuse is underplayed and how the outside world (and language itself) refuses to intervene. In my paperback copy of When I Hit You, one of the reviews of the novel is included at the back, and I’d like to end my review by sharing some of it. The review is formatted as a list of people who should read the book and this is part of number three:

Women who have escaped or those who need to know they have a right to”

This is such a kind book to us. Kandasamy’s affectionate concern for her fellow survivors triumphs over any editorial demands of explicit sensationalism. Trigger warnings are folded in gently at the beginning; I was married to a rapist, he beat me, I left and am living still. This is not the kind of binary story that says the only acceptable survival is escape or death – every tiny rebellion, every pragmatic compromise is documented, meticulously, as the victory it is. Kandasamy understands that winning sometimes looks like just coping.

(emphasis mine)                          

In case you do want to read this and you’re a survivor, as this review and the quoted one covers there’s obviously a general warning for the whole book of domestic violence. More specifically (in the paperback version) there is a mention of sexual violence against the narrator as a child on page 60 and intense description of rape from page 163 in depth for about 20 pages. Please do take care and remember that you don’t have to finish the book if you can’t!

PBG’s Top Queer/Feminist books 2017

Author:
1 we are never meeting in real life the militant baker samantha irby jes baker

By Anna Hill

Do you like feminist and queer books? I’ve read some really incredible stuff this year – some are just new to me in 2017 and some were published in 2017!

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samanth Irby

I read this at the very beginning of the summer and it was so enjoyable, incredibly funny and heart warming. It had me crying and laughing regularly. I also loved the honesty with which Samantha Irby talked about her life as a marginalised person – the book is a collection of personal essays basically talking informally about Irby’s life as a queer poor fat black woman and about life (lessons) in general. Some of it was so relatable! Some of it was a little heartbreaking and tender in this very self-depreciating voice.

Irby is so so funny and I would 100% recommend this to everyone but especially people who enjoy reading memoirs by women. There is some cissexism, especially in the first chapter and ableist slurs used throughout as well as some depictions of abuse, vomiting and drug/alcohol use.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

This is such an incredible book!! It’s a mix of memoir and queer theory and it focuses a lot on pregnancy and motherhood. Nelson’s style is really poetic and the work she does in making space for motherhood to realise its queer potential is really beautiful, and I personally found it pretty accessible.

Her work comes down to a discussion about caring, how we care, who cares for us – that’s something we all need to consider within our lives. Never to undermine or erase carers or care work but also to see the radical potential mothering has. I really think all feminists should read this and also all queer theorists – most of whom love to misogynistically disregard mothers as heteronormative and disregard people with wombs as irrelevant to true queer futures!! Which they aren’t!!

Sea-witch Volume 1 and Volume 2 by Never Angel North

Sea-Witch Volume 1: May She Lay us Waste is an experimental trans-memoir graphic novel about love, community, girl-ness and pain. It speaks to the experience of Sara and the time she spent living inside a witch god named Sea-Witch. It’s also about family and Sea-Witch’s community of sisters and the 78 Men Who Cause Pain (78MWCP) via making laws and being cops and fighting against so called monsters like Sea-Witch. The story is told through scribbles and sigils, words, quotes, drawings and photographs.

Sea-Witch Volume 2: Girldirt Angelfog is just as weird, interesting and beautiful as the first one! Both are so expansive and monstrous, creative and painful, confusing and challenging. The second volume continues Sara’s journey but linear narratives aren’t particularly important to Never Angel North, who is such a fearless breathless author.

These books are for all the freaks who love mythology and all the sapphic witches and lovers of the sea. Its for all the people invested in caring for one another and in creating and sharing hope even in the face of holding pain.

I was lucky enough to read the second volume via pdf because I support Never on patreon, I would just say its difficult to content warn for this series because it so tumultuous and open but there is definite discussion about trauma and pain laced throughout both volumes. I’m so excited for the third volume to come out in 2018!!!

Small Beauty by Jia Qing Wilson-Yang

Small Beauty is a short but poignant and affecting novel about grief, processing and ghosts. The book tells the soft and introspective story of Mei, a mixed race trans girl, whilst she is mourning and evolving, unearthing the lives and deaths of some of her relatives. Its also about this deep love and community, about support and identity, rage and, yes, sorrow too. The writing is subtle and quiet and lyrical – I marked so many of its pages because I found it so beautiful.

The novel is an own voices story and it consistently refuses to cater to cisgender people, Mei isn’t forced into narratives that eroticise or fetishise or simplify what being trans is like and Mei and all the other characters, including a transphobic dyke, are treated with forgiveness and represented with nuance. It’s a book for folks who are growing but not grown and for those who are new to adulthood. Content warnings for grief and death as well as a depiction of a transmisogynistic physical assault on pages 66-67.

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

This year I became invested and interested in care and mothering in a way I never was before and as such I couldn’t resist listening (via audiobook) to this novel about a woman named Yejide and her husband, Akin, trying to get pregnant and have a family together.

This was on the shortlist for the baileys women prize for fiction and that’s how I became aware of it, and I’m glad I did! It’s a very readable book chronicling tragedies and peaks in Yejide’s attempts to create a family and its complex representations of the behaviours and wishes of people are interesting and emotional. The prose is animated and so is the dialogue – it’s a very enthralling if sorrowful read. 

Power And Magic : The Queer Witch Comic Anthology edited by Joamette Gil

I loved this comic anthology so much!! All the comics are centered around queer witches, were made by women, demigirls and bigender writers and illustrators of colour. The 15 different comics all vary in tone and size. Some are adorable and sweet and others are sad but powerful or healing and kind, they cover themes of love, community, family and recovery.

My favourites were Your Heart Is An Apple by Nivedita Sekar which was a fairytale inspired love story including an ex-mermaid who was now a cane user and a girl with an apple for a heart. I cried at its utter loveliness. I also really enjoyed As The Roots Undo by Joamette Gil, especially the line “They called her witch. I called her moon.” And lastly the tender and gorgeous Songbird for a vulture by Naomi Franquiz. There are content warnings for each story on the contents page.

Here’s to a 2018 filled with beautiful, educational and healing reading!! If you want to diversify your reading in the new year you could continue looking for suggestions via this list of books to be published in 2018 by women of colour!

PBG’s Best of 2017: Young Adult Fiction

Author:
sophia1

By Sophia Simon-Bashall

The Young Adult (YA) community in particular has been blessed this year with some wonderful and diverse reads, though all we’ve really heard about is John Green’s latest (which, granted, is pretty fantastic). It seems a shame that many talented writers and their incredible stories may have been overlooked because a few of the big names had releases this year, so here’s a few in case you missed them.

Wing Jones – Katherine Webber

sophia2

Wing Jones will warm your heart, and break it. It’s about a girl caught between worlds. It’s about a girl who loves to run. It’s about a girl who doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t entirely know what she wants to do sometimes. It’s about a family navigating a tragedy, navigating their differences, navigating love. It’s about brothers and sisters, about friendship, about passion, about race, about love, about growing up. It’s about everything.

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

sophia3

No doubt you’ve at least heard in passing about The Hate U Give by now. Amandla Stenberg loves it and is set to star in the movie adaptation. Everyone who cares about YA has been talking about it. If you’re wondering why… well. It’s inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. It is relevant and important, particularly in Trump’s America. It manages to be funny, though the subject matter is not at all light. It’s excellently written. It will make you think. It’s incredible.

It Only Happens in the Movies – Holly Bourne

sophia4

We love Holly Bourne. She brought the Spinster Club – our best friends – into our lives, made us feel angry and empowered and happy and sad and triumphant and vindicated and so many other things with that trilogy. Her latest book, It Only Happens in the Movies is equally wonderful, and deals with a whole range of issues such as mental health, addiction, divorce, and relationships. The main character, Audrey, navigates her parents’ separation and supporting her alcoholic mother alongside her own love life, school, and friendships. The book also examines romantic-comedies with a critical feminist eye, whilst also admitting its love for the genre and feeling incredibly cinematic in itself. Vivid writing, lovable or at least sympathetic characters, plenty of poignancy and laughter. A true treasure of a book.

A Change Is Gonna Come

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A Change Is Gonna Come is an anthology featuring prominent YA authors alongside new voices, and all of them are BAME writers. It is filled with stories and poetry, and centres on the theme of ‘change’ – and it is certainly something which will spark change. In itself, it signposts a change – it is proof that there are people in publishing who genuinely care, who know not just what we want but what we need as a community of readers. There’s something for everyone in this collection, whether you’re into contemporary fiction, dystopian, or historical; whether you want to hear about love, anger, politics, or all of the above. This is a special book which will be well worth your time.

See our pick of the best music of 2017 here, and the best film and TV of 2017 here.

Summer reads 2017

Author:
sophia3

By Sophia Simon-Bashall

It’s that time of year again. If you’re lucky, the sun is out and shining gloriously down on you. If you’re British, it’s occasionally poking through the clouds a bit – and you’re chasing the patches of light whilst simultaneously groaning about the ‘heat’.

Oh yes. It’s Summer.

The best thing about Summer – in my humble opinion – is that there’s time to read, and no restrictions on what it is that you read. It makes me nervous that in a few years, my life won’t be structured around academic years, and I won’t have this open space to dedicate to lounging around, reading book after book. But I’m trying not to think about that too hard – I’ll save the breakdowns about my impending adulthood for more convenient times, such as exam season.

I’ve just finished my first year at university, where I study English Literature. I have read a few books for pleasure here and there, but I’ve found that when I’ve had free time I’ve wanted to spend it on other pursuits – by which I mean Netflix. I never thought I’d say this, but I haven’t wanted to read that much. I’ve been excited by new books and blew my student loan in Waterstones at the beginning of each term, but I haven’t read many of them. I’m generally very content to spend 85% of my time reading, but when I have no control over my TBR pile and said pile is full of pretentious essays that make little sense, and unsatisfying poetry written by white men I’m less keen. I love my degree, but it does suck some of the joy out of my favourite hobby.

However, now that I’ve had some time to decompress – and exhausted everything of interest on Netflix – I’m ready to read again. And I’m excited about it. Hopefully, you’re also feeling excited about it. It’s exciting. Books mean that not going on holiday doesn’t matter – you can travel all over the universe and across time, from the comfort of your home.

If you’re looking for some summer reading recommendations, you’re in the right place. I’m not going to patronise you and suggest nothing but novels about romance, shopping, and chocolate (which can be great fun, of course, but I’m tired of the assumptions that these kinds of lists tend to make). There are plenty of places you can go to for that. Powered By Girl is here to give you an alternative.

If you’re a fan of graphic novels, try….

PERSEPOLIS by Marjane Satrapi. All of Marjane Satrapi’s work is wonderful, but this is definitely the place to start. It’s an autobiography of her childhood and young adulthood, depicted in a beautiful and distinct style. Marjane grew up in Iran, during and after the Islamic Revolution, and PERSEPOLIS provides a great insight into what that was like. It is situated in personal experience but it also reveals a lot about the history and politics of the time. If you’re looking for something more lighthearted, EMBROIDERIES is fun and engaging, and is a completely unique work. It’s also a personal favourite of mine, just saying.

sophia1

If you’ve been watching The Handmaid’s Tale, try…

THE POWER by Naomi Alderman. This book has the greatest concept ever. Women can kill men with touch. If that isn’t the ultimate superpower, I don’t know what is. I also love ONLY EVER YOURS by Louise O’Neill, a novel heavily influenced by Margaret Atwood’s feminist masterpiece. It thoroughly critiques beauty standards and diet culture through compelling storytelling. It’s dystopian and yet hits incredibly close to home – it reflects the reality of our world and that is disturbing. If you struggle with an eating disorder, please be careful as it is brutally honest and does use numbers. Look after yourself and please reach out for support if you are triggered.

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If you’re pissed off about bi-erasure at Pride, try…

BI: NOTES FOR A BISEXUAL REVOLUTION by Shiri Eisner – a validating and thought-provoking manifesto for bi babes, everywhere. Reading this will make you feel powerful. It will remind you that it is not you that is wrong. They are.

If you miss One Direction and those solo careers aren’t quenching your thirst, try…

GRACE AND THE FEVER by Zan Romanoff. In case you’d forgotten, I love One Direction. And yes, I’m enjoying their solo careers, for the most part. But I miss them being THEM. To fill the void, I am reading a lot of boy band related fiction. YA authors sure do know how to fulfil a gal’s needs. GRACE AND THE FEVER DREAM does fangirls justice. It doesn’t patronise us. It doesn’t laugh at our expense. It is written FOR us. It is an ode to us and the way that we love wholeheartedly. It is fun. It is wonderful. I’m so completely obsessed with it. I think anything that I can relate back to One Direction is something I’m going to be obsessed with, but this book stands on its own in its brilliance.

Here’s to a summer of thousands of pages. Enjoy!

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