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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.

“On Anxiety” anthology – a review

Author:
on anxiety

By Pip Williams

Content note: Discussion of anxiety

On Anxiety is the first anthology from British micropublisher 3 of Cups. The press was set up by founder Clare Bogen, with the admirable goal of “providing a platform for voices otherwise unheard in the mainstream.” This means that On Anxiety is a diverse project, full of wide-ranging voice and experiences across its central theme.

On Anxiety was crowdfunded in 2017, in order to ensure all contributors could be paid fairly for their work. This merits a mention, as all too often marginalised creators can be exploited in pursuit of the goals of “awareness”, “visibility”, or “exposure.” Not only were 3 of Cups’ original goals met, they were far exceeded, allowing a stretch goal of additional contributors to be realised. Now, the book is available in eBook form, with physical copies to come later this month.

The anthology comprises 24 works from creators both well-established and new to the scene. There’s something for everyone; fiction, poetry, prose, comics, art. Dr. Rachel Kowert’s informative factual essay sits alongside Nicolo Froio’s heartfelt, painful words on the anxieties she experiences travelling as a woman from the global south. There are essays on horoscopes, jewellery-making, bird-keeping; all metaphors for anxiety, in one of many shapes and forms.

On Anxiety serves to provide comfort and companionship to fellow sufferers, whilst acting as an illuminating introduction for those less familiar. Whilst anxiety is perceived as a more palatable and easy to discuss mental illness than many, it’s still fundamentally misunderstood by many who have not experienced it. By including such a variety of works, the picture On Anxiety paints is diverse, inclusive, and easily accessible to those who may not have a thorough understanding of the illness.

As someone who suffers from anxiety, I saw myself reflected in many of the works in the anthology. I also came to understand how my various privileges – whiteness, Britishness, middle class-ness ­– cushion me from certain aspects of the anxious experience. On Anxiety introduced me to these concepts gently and without judgement, opening my mind to the breadth I had perhaps not yet considered.

My favourite contribution to On Anxiety is Sophie Mackintosh’s gorgeous personal essay “Alignment”. Sophie – like me, a Scorpio with an Aries moon – finds comfort from her own anxieties through astrology and horoscopes. The familiarity of her thought processes, couched in beautiful, meandering prose, was like a hand on my shoulder as I read. Anxiety can be a horrendously limiting illness, and the people it preys on come from all walks of life, but we never truly suffer alone. There’s always someone whose story reads similarly to our own, and I suspect many people will find them in On Anxiety.

You can purchase On Anxiety here.

Book Review: My Daughter’s Army

Author:
mydaughtersarmy

By Christiana Paradis

I just finished reading My Daughter’s Army by Greg Hogben and the moment I put it down my heart was pounding—I just wanted more! It’s honestly taken me several days to fully put all of my thoughts about this book together and write the review that it deserves. The book follows Adam Goodwin, an attorney, who finds a baby abandoned in a train station. Goodwin goes on to adopt and single parent the child, Sera. As she ages Sera becomes an international advocate for women’s equality and her dad remains her number one supporter through it all. Here’s a quick run-down of a few of the reasons why I loved it and why feisty feminists everywhere will want to snag a copy!

  • Hooray for representations of healthy masculinity! This book is told from the perspective of Adam Goodwin, who is a father raising a sweet, caring, and loving daughter who will stop at nothing to improve the lives of women around the world. In presenting the book like this, it highlights the topic of single fatherhood, which is often overlooked. Adam finds Sera abandoned at a train station and takes on the responsibility of raising her along with his brother and three female neighbors. Additionally, Adam’s character never hesitates to express the true love that a father possesses for his daughter. We hear so much about the problems of toxic hypermasculinity and the ways in which it works to stifle male emotion. This book does the opposite. It presents the true beauty of healthy masculinity and particularly this father’s never-ending duty to support his daughter in any way that he can to help her achieve her mission.
  • Not another gay tragedy! Adam Goodwin is a gay single father. The way in which his sexuality is referred to is monumental for two reasons. First, Adam’s sexuality is not the main focus of the book, in fact it is only mentioned in reference to the loss of his partner. Thus, his character’s sexuality is presented just as normally as any other heterosexual character. Often when LGBTQ+ characters are included their sexual identity becomes their only. To the contrary, My Daughter’s Army presents sexuality as any other qualifying distinction and moves on. It was a breath of fresh air to see the normalization of an LGTBQ+ sexuality. Secondly, despite several upsets the character endures throughout the book, his sexuality is never a point of tragedy. Often LGBTQ+ characters endure tragic fates or are continually presented in stereotypical depictions. In this work, Adam’s sexuality is not a cause for depression or sadness, but rather just a piece of the character that is presented in a positive and empowering light, which is a drastic change from most novels.
  • Feminism and Faith. Towards the middle to the end of the book religious connotations begin to make an appearance. (I hate spoilers so I will not tell you how or why.) At first, I was a little reluctant to this addition; however, it is integrated into the text in a way that the reader doesn’t feel forced into understanding or accepting the character’s religion in order to enjoy the work. The religion is presented mostly as non-denominational with Christian undertones. Additionally, once I had finished the book and reflected on it I actually realized that this integration helps reconcile some ever persisting ideas that feminism and LGBTQ+ issues automatically clash with ideas of religion. It was wonderful (even if you don’t have any particular religious affiliation) to see the integration of these two spheres of thought, coming together in a mainstream title.
  • The US isn’t the center of the universe—International Feminist Representation and Inclusion! One of my favorite things about this book is that it integrates international feminist and women’s issues. It tackles everything from human trafficking to honor killings and it presents them in a way that is raw and real; yet takes into account cultural implications for the communities in which they are taking place. Often feminist works tend to stick to one particular issue or present third wave feminist issues only on a national level, this book goes above and beyond to include women’s issues on an international scale. THANK YOU!
  • Powered By Girl! But finally–my absolute favorite thing about this book is that it highlights the amazing accomplishments that internet activism can have and it is entirely powered by girl! This book is a homage to all social justice activists working in the field and behind computer screens to make a difference in the lives of women around the world. It presents how internet activism can make a difference, but also encourage real action offline. The accomplishments and implications of Sera’s work throughout the text are a true testament to the work of feminist organizations like PBG and others around the globe. Sometimes work in this movement can be exhausting—this book put into perspective that we are making a difference and each day at a time, little-by-little, the world is becoming a better and safer place for women.

Please consider purchasing and reading My Daughter’s Army. You will not be disappointed!

Fractured Families: A Review of The Green Road

Author:
the green road

By Anna Hill

Content note – brief mention of: death, bi erasure, aids, white saviourism, physical abuse and childhood neglect and abuse

If The Green Road by Anne Enright had not been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction I wouldn’t have picked it up. The novel is set in the west of Ireland and follows Rosaleen Madigan and her grown and growing up children. The four children: Emmett, Dan, Hanna and Constance start the narrative in various places and states of growing up (Hanna is 8 in the first chapter) – from Dan in New York during the aids crisis to Constance in a hospital in Limerick in 1997.

The Green Road is also about the way families work; the way that we misunderstand and create images of our relatives in our heads. It’s about the gaps between people, between recognition, the space between cliffs and words and darkness of waiting – for say a play to start, or for people to die or be cured. There is so much expecting that everyone is disappointed. The novel is also about what being a mother means; what having children does to you and your life and how that might negatively and positively affect your perspective. Enright offers us some different versions of motherhood, from Rosaleen who is dramatic and difficult to Constance who finds her children comforting and safe, to Hanna who is erratic and messy.

As an opening Hanna’s chapter is beautifully crafted and unlike the messy whirlwind that she epitomizes, or the “dirty protest” of her behavior and life – it is intricate and detailed. The observations Hanna makes as an eight year old girl learning about death and growth are captivating. The rest of the family tease Hanna sometimes cruelly, saying that her “bladder is very close to [her] eyes” and, as every crybaby will have heard (me included) “here come the waterworks”! Hanna’s connection with fluids is interesting because she is associated with them throughout the novel – not just tears, but also blood and alcohol which lends her to a very traditionally emotional feminine body vocabulary and voice.

Dan’s introductory chapter was the most heartbreaking – it follows the melancholic sweetness of queer men loving each other and dying. Unfortunately though Dan experiences biphobia from both the characters and Enright’s vision for him – Dan expresses how he loves his partner, isabelle and also says “I’m not actually gay you know”. I’m sure to some extent that Dan’s reluctance could be pegged to internalized homophobia, but it might also be because he’s not gay – because he really does love Isabelle, but he also loves and is sexually attracted to men. Bisexual men will have lost their partners to aids, they will have had aids too and simply because they are not gay doesn’t make them straight, doesn’t mean they aren’t intrinsically linked to the pain in the 1990s. I think you can read Dan’s love for Isabelle as proof of his bisexuality and this chapter contributes to the rampant Bi erasure in queer history.

Other than the lack of awareness of polysexual identities, I think the way the chapter approaches queer issues was sensitive and appropriate. One of the moments that has stayed with me the most is when a character’s mother finally comes to visit him in his last days; after staring into the eyes of her lovely son, Enright writes “he became human again. He became pure.”.

Out of all four siblings, I enjoyed Constance’s perspective best. Never prioritizing herself, Constance devotedly looks after her children and her well meaning but inept husband Dessie who “goes peculiar” when she is sick. Constance and her body are one and the same so when her body has stopped working in the way it should it’s a blip in her life – she thinks she can’t get sick because she has too much to do! Whilst waiting for the test results though there are some delicious sensory descriptions; the beauty of the mammogram with “the map of light that was her left breast” and this wonderful visceral passage on giving birth: “she remembered the undoing of her own bones as the children were born. Her pelvis opening – there was a pleasure in it, like the top of a yawn – as the baby twisted out of her. It was all so simply done. And the baby was such a force, each time.”

Even after she has given birth Constance still sees her body as a “fabulous object” for the enjoyment “for all the family”. And Dessie, clueless, once asks “How is all that?” mystified by women’s bodies.

The one character I really couldn’t stand was Emmett – I found his voice violent and misogynistic and his positioning racist and insensitive. He is living as an aid worker in Segou, Mali, but the whole chapter positions him as the white savior to Africa, which he often refers to as a monolithic, singular entity rather than the nuanced varied continent it is. His misogyny comes out in his approach to his girlfriend Alice, who he undermines and sometimes thinks about hurting physically. He treats her pain in a way that dehumanizes her seeing it as something that makes her “sweet and wild” even suggesting that her abusive and neglectful childhood was worth it because she “turned it all to good”!

The representation of childhood and the long standing affects our pasts have on us is a key thread. And that all comes to head in the childhood home the Madigan’s shared, which, unlike their family relations, is never complicated or harmful, but rather exists soaking up their lives. Here is one of my favourite passages about the house: “It was a question of texture, Dan thought, a whiff of your former self in a twist of fabric, a loose board. It was the reassuring madness of patterned wallpaper under the daily shift of light…. The house made sense in a way that nothing else did.”

Overall I think The Green Road is a delicate and dynamic novel but its structure is where it falls down. The sections can be jarring and in some cases leave too many gaps – for example we meet Hanna as a child and only again at age 37, so her life is not explored in the same way as the other siblings. Family focused novels can offer engaging ideas about growing up and relationships and I definitely think Enright succeeded here – I wouldn’t say I was blown away, but I enjoyed the fragility of the words and the subtlety of the settings.

Fatphobia and food: A review of the improbability of love

Author:
improbability of love

By Anna Hill

Content note: anorexia [breifly], fatphobia, racial stereotyping, very brief mention of rape

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild is a novel ostensibly about the transformative power of art and as such has been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. The novel follows a woman named Annie who stumbles across a masterful painting in a junk shop, and the consequences of her purchasing it. She is plunged into the art world full of salacious gossip and billionaires and a potential new lover.

I will be up front with you – I didn’t think this should have been shortlisted; it’s not that I didn’t enjoy it at all (for example, some chapters where written from the paintings perspective which was fun), I just felt like any kind of authenticity or innovation was missing. Not only was it structurally and linguistically dull, but it also employed tropes and traits that are actively harmful, repeated everywhere in media.

In some novels it doesn’t matter if the characters are two-dimensional because you are reading for the plot, but with The Improbability of Love, neither the characters nor the plot where interesting enough to really propel the story. Even the main character Annie is fairly simplistic and more disturbingly there are racialized caricatures throughout the novel. For example “Filipino servants”, who are only ever mentioned in connection to their race (and never say a word) and the wealthy Arabs; The Emir of Alwabbi and his domineering wife Sheika Midora who supposedly have links with Al-Qaeda. Add to the racist stereotyping an incredibly stereotypical representation of queerness, and more lazy and uninteresting writing occurs. There is one token queer person in the book – Barty is a socially mobile, white cisgender gay man who, unlike the majority of the other characters is left with no relationship and is seemingly only motivated by what he should wear to the next ridiculously extravagant art world event.

The book, as you might assume, features descriptions of art, but almost more intensely describes food – Annie works as a chef so we often hear about her love of food and her work in creating banquets for rich art dealers, collectors and historians. As a self-confessed food lover (I will consume as much chocolate as humanely possible in my life time!!) I tend to enjoy great descriptions of food that revel in the sensuality and vibrancy and fun of food and eating, like how Ruby Tandoh waxes lyrical about fast food in her vice column Dirty Eating, or how much I enjoy anyone talking to me about the pleasures of butter. Unfortunately though I have some major issues with Rothschild’s descriptions. Firstly a lot of the descriptions are incredibly contrived with clichéd phrases such as “each variety of vegetable suggested a story” or moments when Annie asks herself: “how could anyone think of an aubergine in such a disparaging way?”. And secondly, they are harmful in the simultaneous elevating of slim people who enjoy food and denigrating of fat people who do the same.

The fatphobia of the Improbability of love first comes to light with the overweight and lonely art historian Delores. Described in unfavourable terms and often supposed to provide comic relief, because, for example, she has leftover food on her face or clothing, Rothschild plays into the hegemonic idea that fat people and especially fat women are jokes and are not deserving of respect. Delores’ size is remarked on multiple times and in a lot of ways her fat body is seen as something to consume, something to watch, to point at. At her birthday banquet Annie describes her as “a vast animated sea anemone shimmying across the floor”, whilst all the other (slim) guests’ outfits are described in detail and without immediate judgement or animalisation. The representation of Annie’s love and obsession with food is palatable and serious only because she is slim; if a fat woman were to describe food at the length Annie does it would be comedic. When Annie gets a bit of food on her face Jesse (the love interest) finds it charming, but on a fat body it is repugnant, unattractive, gross. Annie herself is described in incredibly anorexic terms, for Jesse, the main love interest, “she had an ethereal dreamy quality, as if she wasn’t quite grounded but floating above earthly matters”. In other words it looks like she was light, thin, not heavy and full, the opposite of fat.

The other, even more worrying representation of fatness, comes in the form of Delia – a textbook example of fatphobic assumptions; Delia knows the TV schedule off by heart, is uncaring, eats too much food (according to her husband, “you…eat enough for nine”), is unintelligent (when she asks what a word means she is met with silence) and is jealous of the conventionally attractive slim women she sees on TV. In a really disgusting moment Delia says “he might have been a rapist” of Jesse when she refuses to let him in the house and her husband replies, disgustingly; “in your dreams woman, in your dreams.”.

When we consume media about food, particularly those that celebrate the creation and consumption of it, we need to keep questioning who is palatable and who isn’t. Fat characters and fat people are mistreated and affected negatively in most texts that focus on the pleasures of eating (and even those that don’t, such as the Harry Potter series). And this affects fat people’s quality of life. Fat people are more likely to struggle with employment and bullying/death threats or being told that the one way to solve any kind of illness or disability is to lose weight. Next time Hannah Rothschild writes a novel I hope she radically deconstructs her views on fatness and desirability instead of regurgitating tired, boring and harmful views.

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