Review & Recollection: ‘The Morbid Age’ by Richard Overy

IMG_20150403_185423Though not wishing to morbidly dwell on it, I must first say that my grandmother recently died. I have to say that because it is most of the reason I read this book. I found her death very affecting, which isn’t in any way unusual since she was a close relative, but in actuality I really wasn’t close to her. In fact I hardly knew this woman, and most of what I knew about her I had learned second-hand from my father (she was his mother) – and there were never many positive reports. Even during my own few childhood experiences of her she was never particularly warm, and I have heard of periods in my parents’ life together in which my grandmother was a pretty severe and vocal critic of my mother’s relationship with my father. My parents are still together forty years later, and despite my grandmother’s cruelty they both cared for her in her final years.

In these later years Grandma became more volatile as her memory lapsed and her body weakened, and I could see her shrink and change each time I would travel down to Cornwall to visit my parents. My mother would tell me stories of how Grandma would sometimes confuse her for one of several very committed carers or nurses who regularly visited her, and sometimes even have conversations with my mother about relatives and friends who were long dead, almost confessing to cryptic family secrets before the fog eventually lifted. Grandma would mentally travel back in time within her own turbulent history, believing she was surrounded by old familiar faces and stuck in the middle of a fraught scandal, the secret of which she has taken with her to the grave. Her deterioration and her death has made me realise how little I really knew about her. I don’t believe that in talking to her more during her life I would have found out more or ever understood why she was so unkind to my father, but I felt that I could find more about her formative years through the photographs she left behind, in third-hand stories about her and her family, and in books about that period in history, thereby keeping my distance from her raw emotional edges in a way I think she would have felt proper.

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Left to right: my grandmother, a family friend, and her mother

My grandmother was born a year before the end of the First World War, and in her early twenties by the beginning of the Second. Her formative years took place between two of the bloodiest wars in our history, and she lived in London for all of this time – at the centre of cultural drama during the 1920s and ‘30s, and then of the terrorising dogfights and air attacks of the 1940s. My knowledge of this period is disappointingly limited to a handful of facts gleaned from secondary school lessons and Hollywood movies, so Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age was the perfect education. Sure there are tales of glamorous parties filled with jazz and coke dancing alongside those of poverty and unemployment, but these were symptoms of a greater problem that arose with the devastation left by the end of the First World War – one of how a society can survive a trauma as unexpectedly heavy-handed as this one. The British people believed that civilisation itself could not bear another injury so great, and lived with the anxiety of it every subsequent day.

Overy details the shell-shocked mood of the British in several cleanly organised chapters, each discussing a vital area of importance: the desperate economic situation post WWI which nursed a massing interest in communism and socialism; a growing understanding of genetics and birth control which led a disturbingly large number of people to take a great interest in eugenics; the desire for self-assessment on a wide communal scale brought on by a rising interest in psychoanalysis; the Spanish Civil War and it’s effects on a widely encouraged absolute pacifism throughout Britain; and the rise of fascist power in Europe and its effective quelling of the peace movement. The Morbid Age presents the reader with the intricacies of the mood changes and undeniable passion (both good and bad) of the British people during this period, and the final imperative point that nothing much has changed – we are still now incredibly easily swayed and manipulated by media and politicians, only now we are far less likely to join a society or committee to communicate our feelings. Unless of course it has something to do with Jeremy Clarkson’s career.

The picture of tense chaos that Richard Overy paints is captivating, and my only complaint is that he focuses too much of his attention on the highly privileged classes of the period, though I can see reasons for doing so. Despite this, his writing is…perfect. I honestly loved the way this was written. There were certainly moments where I needed a breather, unable to catch up quick enough, hampered by my modest intellect, but I could still find the moments when the author’s own opinion slipped in through a good-humoured but sardonic tone, although he rarely revealed a clearly defined personal agenda. At some points there are names dropped in connection to certain odious activities I won’t detail here, which gave these passages an almost tell-all quality that was compelling to me. I also commend Overy’s defence of Neville Chamberlain – a man demonised by historians for favouring appeasement at the risk of many European lives, and someone I have also felt was weak and morally careless. He positions Chamberlain in his rightful context: a period in which a huge proportion of the population genuinely felt that another war would literally end civilisation. He was far from the only appeaser, and he strove for peace until peace was no longer an option.

I don’t think this book has told me any more about my grandmother, and I would have been foolish to think it would, but I think it has put her in her rightful context. She grew up in a sort of limbo, a time of panic and scaremongering public voices, living in the shadow of a war she couldn’t remember. She was the daughter of a German immigrant during a time when that would have been a frightening thing to be. She was a young woman after Marie Stopes had widely publicised birth control and sexual health. Would she have seen the peace protests through Trafalgar Square? Seen the shops and offices campaigning for Spanish aid? What was she thinking when war was declared? It all fascinates me as much as it did when I first opened the book, and although no one will never be able to answer any of my questions, I feel like my eyes have been opened a little wider. My grandmother wasn’t just a stern old battle-axe. She was once a young woman caught in a strange time. She was the sum of many parts, each as rich and affecting as the other, just like anyone else.

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The Potency of a Beautiful Book

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I can’t read a book on an eReader. I hate doing it. Whenever I have, I’ve felt like this little device has chipped away little bits of my soul, and line by line I would feel more and more disconnected from the text. I once bought a copy of The Blind Assassin in a charity shop, and one morning while I was reading it on the tube a man two seats away from me threw a scrappy little note that landed in my lap, and all it said was, “The Assassin’s great, but you must read The Handmaid’s Tale – it’s much better!” No words passed between us, and I hurriedly tried to concoct a great response before my stop. Sadly all I could come up with was, “I know, I’ve already read it”, which sounded a lot more glib than I intended. Regardless, I treasured this little five minute episode, and when I discovered that half of my copy of the book had been misprinted I was heartbroken. I finished it on my boyfriend’s Kindle, and it was nothing like the same experience.

I realised how much I enjoyed the weight of the book and the sensation of turning a page, as well as the interactions that reading a book in public can bring, and that as long as I was reading a book on this thing no one would be able to talk to me about it, and they would probably all assume I was reading Fifty Shades of Grey like every other woman in the carriage. I enjoy reading a book in the same way that I enjoy going to the theatre. For me, how much I enjoy the play is as much about the mood of the audience, the hubbub, the plush fold-down seats, the architecture, the price of the ticket and the crowded pub you go to beforehand as the play itself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to admit in a weird, coercive way that I’m an undercover philistine and that I actually don’t care that much for the script and performance, but I want it all. I feel that something which maximises your sensory experience, explores avenues of vision and touch as well as your intellectual reflexes, is surely going to be much more fun, and memorable, and engaging. This is how I feel when I pick up a book.

Never underestimate the value of a beautiful book jacket. Humans are sensual creatures, as well as vicious critics, and as a book buyer I come up against this constantly. The value of the content is naturally my number one priority, but there is a market I am trying to serve – my job is to find titles that draw people in, to make them pick something up that they won’t want to put down again for fear of losing it, for fear of what the world will look like once they let go of it. It sounds like the ugly side of the book trade, like indulging unabashed capitalist tendencies and accepting the grim admission that a lot of us just like owning stuff. That’s true of course, this attitude does indulge our more superficial inclinations, but I think it’s more important now for the industry than it ever has been to make a book that appeals on a multidimensional level.

With people departing from physical book purchases day by day, jacket design is imperative to the survival of the physical book, and publishers over the past few years have certainly responded to the flux in physical vs. digital book sales. Suzanne Dean, Creative Director at Random House, is one of the most successful book designers in the UK, and earned a much-deserved nod from Julian Barnes in 2011 for the design of Booker prize-winning Sense of an Ending and the role she played in the success of the book, and Chip Kidd in the US has become notorious as a champion for the value of engaging book design. Recent publications such as S., conceived by JJ Abrams and executed by Doug Dorst is a perfect example of a rising anti-eBook movement, in which writers and publishers want to deliver us artefacts and tangible mysteries wrapped in explosive and multi-dimensional storytelling. Likewise, an upcoming non-fiction title, Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind by David J Linden, is also humorously highlighting the significance of the sensual experience of reading by giving the book a heat-sensitive jacket.

I’m only really writing this because of a recent swathe of authors sending me samples of self-published titles or (very) small publishers sending me samples of poorly produced books, and subsequently either giving me big watery puppy-dog eyes or repeatedly harassing me on the phone for not stocking them. It’s important for an author to know exactly what will make a book buyer want to stock their book, especially a title that they may have spent a great deal of their very precious time writing. David Faulds at Dulwich Books put it perfectly in his recent guide for independent authors – I really couldn’t fault this. The key points for me (aside from content) are of course the discount and, as I have been ranting about, the production quality.

Many independently published titles arrive on my desk which look like design and production were the last things on the author’s mind, and they often don’t agree that the profits made by independent bookshops are as important as the profits made by the author, when they are indisputably entwined. As a buyer I am also much more likely to accept a lower discount for a title that is well-finished and attractive, as I would be more likely to give it a prominent position in the shop and it is naturally more likely to sell. An unattractive, poorly produced book by an unknown author will rarely be picked up by customers passing through, no matter how exquisite the text is – they need to want to touch it first. That is the independent author’s first commercial move, and without that they’ve already lost the game.

The release of special hardback editions of classics and success stories, found embossed, cloth-bound, and in slipcases, from fiction to non-fiction, from adult to young adult to children’s, shows the special attention now being paid to the reader and a new culture in the book trade. The tactile and aesthetic experience of reading is being given its due rank, and readers are being treated to a more complex literary journey in order to preserve traditional reading habits, which in turn preserves bookshops, booksellers, and book designers. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Review: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

IMG_20150112_214209~2I yet again splurged a little while ago, and bought The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis that I’d had my eye on. I’d never read anything of hers before, but there was something strange drawing me to this book, and even now I have no idea exactly what it was. I read the blurb while milling around in a bookshop and then made a note to look her up, and the more I read about her, the more I wanted this collection.

When I finally made room in my reading schedule to crack this open (at around 730 pages it felt like a commitment, as I was determined to read it in one go and not take pauses between stories that, given my history, could last months), I found something I wasn’t expecting. I fell utterly in love with it. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read anything by Davis before. Inwardly kicking myself for being so myopic in my literary diet, I jumped from story to story, and by the time I reached the second book in the collection (Almost No Memory) I could no longer doubt that this woman was a genius. Then around halfway through the second book I was considering abandoning my boyfriend to go and seek Davis out, convinced that she was in fact my soulmate.

The book consists of four pre-existing collections of short stories: Break it Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson is Indignant ((2001), and Varieties of Disturbance (2007). Each book consists of intriguing variations on story content, but also what really constitutes a short story. I was recently told by a friend that a short story must be structured using the classic 7 or 8 point arc (or less, if you’re being really dull), which allows a story to build, then climax, then end with a satisfying denouement. He told me that all successful stories work this way. I disagreed, as I felt this didn’t allow for much flexibility – it didn’t give a writer room to create a piece of work that is abstruse and unconventional, because sometimes that’s the only way to explain something complex and unusual to your readers. It reduces all stories to fairytales, when sometimes that isn’t what you need. Although Lydia Davis does use this structure in some of her stories, I found that in this collection this classic arc is hardly ever employed, and it is the richer for it. Davis evidently leans towards a more liberal understanding of storytelling, and aligns a lot of her stories closer to poetry, some stories being a single sentence long, some being 20 pages. Some of her stories have a conclusion, but most don’t. Many of them have a climax where it’s expected, but more don’t.

Through her sparse and subtle emotionally charged pages, Davis consistently encourages you to look beyond the page, to think outside of the proverbial box. To be honest, once you get to Samuel Johnson is Indignant you’ve pretty much thrown out the box, and when you finally reach Varieties of Disturbance you’ve put the box on a pyre, spoken the funeral rites and lit the match. There are certain stories across the collections that stand out for me, particularly the very opening tale of ‘The Fears of Mrs Orlando’ – a bigoted old woman who wanders through her life on the very verge of all-out hysteria because of her remarkable racism. It is where Davis is at her best – she never once condemns Mrs Orlando, and instead presents her often deranged concerns as base fears. She leaves the rest up to us. Without ever explicitly giving any detailed analysis of Mrs Orlando’s assumptions and actions, she shows us how pitiable she is. No matter how much we detest the way she thinks, it is clear that she carries with her an insurmountable weakness that will colour her every movement, and prevent her from honest happiness. Davis’ understated syntax does everything it needs to; her style isn’t romantic or dramatic, because the events themselves are – particularly the small, inconsequential ones. I envy this more than is really reasonable, as my vague attempts at story writing usually result in a lot of talk and not enough substance, and I often wish I could imitate the same terse and gutting literary rhythms, but I’ve found that no matter how hard I try my brain simply doesn’t work this way.

Davis expertly navigates the minute and intricate moments that pull together our lives. She highlights odd moments that seem meaningless when viewed as a whole, such as catching a mouse in the kitchen or sitting through a long car journey, and finds the moments within these moments that perfectly capture former or future pain. She targets her characters’ reactions, the tiny micro-expressions that give us all away – the twitch of an eyebrow or the nibbling of a lip that broadcast whether we are sad or nervous or irritated or amorous. She clings onto all of the tedious details people remember of each other, particularly acquaintances, and uses them to construct the lives and values of her characters. A lot of the time these stories are comical, and sometimes genuinely made me laugh out loud. A little while ago I read an old interview with Davis in which she mentioned that she hadn’t realised until she attended a reading that her stories were often incredibly funny, which I enjoyed. I like that they are really just observations to Davis, and if people say or do something hilarious it’s often completely unintentional. We all really are this ridiculous.

Despite my only recent acquaintance with her writing, I love Davis’ prose like a dear old friend (of which I have few, given the brutal effect ageing has had on my childhood bonds). On the page she is cunning and sardonic, and through some stories she seems to offer a smile to you from the corner of her mouth while a secret trick lurks behind it, and through others she’s poking at your ribs, waiting for you to cry. It often feels like Davis is handing her stories to you with rough edges and incomplete, like she has scrawled a stanza of swiftly devised heart breaking poetry on a warm stained napkin, and left you to decipher her handwriting and wonder what she could have been thinking when she penned it. I have been irrevocably moved by this collection, and I think I can honestly say that Lydia Davis is now one of my absolute favourites.


The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis is published by Penguin, and is available in all good bookshops.

An Extended Rant About Thomas Hardy’s Heroines: The Agonies and the Ecstasies of Tess Durbeyfield and Bathsheba Everdene

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My reading patterns have yet again been corrupted by the toing and froing of Hollywood, as I was recently coerced into reading Far From the Madding Crowd before I was ready, since the new adaptation is due to be released in May 2015. I know I will need to see the film, stalwart fan of period dramas that I am, but I couldn’t let that be my introduction to a book I had always planned to read.

My only other experience of Thomas Hardy was Tess of the D’Urbervilles, published 17 years after FFTMC, and I found it a slog. I felt that Hardy had reeled me in and made me love Tess, all of her endearing naivety and head-turning beauty, and then spent the next 400 pages trampling all over her. By the end of the book I truly hated him for it, and considered never picking up another Hardy novel again. I worried that he would do this to me once more – make me love the central Bathsheba Everdene and then trash her – and in the opening few chapters it looked like it was going to happen. He’d introduced another dark haired, heartbreakingly beautiful woman. He billed her as proud and wilful, amongst many other clichés used to pigeonhole women of Hardy’s time, but her greatest offence? Vanity. Bathsheba was all too aware of the powers of her beauty, and beauty in general, and in her youth she sweeps aside the (slightly creepy) advances of our hero, Gabriel Oak, to protect her autonomy. The worst crime of all.

Gabriel, the finest specimen of a hardworking shepherd, fancies the pants off of Bathsheba as soon as he spies her, so follows her about for a while like a stray dog. She proves her independence and her general vim and vitality in conversation and in activity, and even saves Gabriel’s life once, but is frequently referred to by the narrator and Gabriel as foolish – like all women – but more so because of her embarrassing vanity and independence. Despite this sense that the narrator (Hardy) himself dislikes Bathsheba, she is handed a great dollop of independence in real terms: she inherits her uncle’s farm, and runs it successfully with financial substantiation. She works incredibly hard, gets stuck in whenever she can, and handles her employees with fairness and diplomacy, yet there’s that pesky female foolishness that Hardy keeps reminding us of. Every good deed is patronised, every success undermined. This is what I initially hated about FFTMC, but in the end I think I loved it all the more for it – I felt like Hardy had managed to create a female character who transcended his own condemnations.

Bathsheba falls in and out of love like a real woman, she makes mistakes and misjudgements like a real woman, but she also never shies away from her responsibilities, and she clings onto her ideals in the face of looming pressures and expectations, like any woman would. I think the truly farcical character in FFTMC was in fact the Christ-like Gabriel Oak – a character so flawless, so pure and righteous, that I didn’t find the charm in him that so many have, and found his sublime wisdom at times ludicrous. This is sort of why I find it discordant that Bathsheba, someone I can really understand, is given dialogue that is so strange and self-destructive: she questions Troy over his previous affair with Fanny and he brushes her off, to her response: “Can you jest when I am so wretchedly in earnest? Tell me the truth, Frank. I am not a fool, you know, although I am a woman, and have my woman’s moments.” Good one, Bathsheba. Way to shoot yourself in the foot.

I suppose my real question, after all of this prattle, is: despite his attention to female struggles of the period, was Thomas Hardy a misogynist?

My problem is that the casual dismissal of anything deemed feminine comes not only from the thoughts and dialogue of Hardy’s starring characters, but also from the narrator. It is this detail that makes me feel so uncomfortable, because it stops feeling like simply a portrait of what people of the area and period believed, and more like a shared opinion. When an omniscient narrator offers an opinion it becomes difficult to divide the objective intentions of the book from the nature of the author – yet, by knowing small titbits about Hardy’s life it seems as though he was incredibly romantic, pro social reform (a fan of John Stuart Mill, and married to a suffragette no less), anti the constraints of strict marital laws, so everything points towards someone who was at least considering the favourable outcomes of greater gender equality. Despite this, some things that Bathsheba comes out with are so incongruous with the rest of her character and so unlike something a real woman would say, like punctuating her refusal of Gabriel Oak’s proposal with “It wouldn’t do, Mr Oak. I want somebody to tame me; I am too independent; and you would never be able to”, that it sounds like Hardy never really spoke to a woman – or at least never listened to one. At that point she had spent the last page explaining that she didn’t want to marry him because not only did she not love him, but she didn’t want to relinquish her autonomy. Never in my life have I heard a woman say she needed her independence curbed, and I doubt many Victorian women who experienced any social or financial independence would have either.

Looking back, it’s been quite a while since I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, so my views may admittedly be a little warped. In my mind, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is less aggressively presumptive about women than FFTMC, and relies much more upon the harsh truths of their situation during this period, no more so than in the conversation Tess has with her mother after she has been assaulted by Alec: ‘”O mother, my mother!” cried the agonized girl, turning passionately upon her parent as if her poor heart would break. “How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to fend hands against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance o’ learning in that way, and you did not help me!”’

I feel now that Tess had a far more refined and complex characterisation, which seems somewhat fairer to the novel as a whole. The struggles between Tess and the men in her path are more explicitly a demonstration of the strains of their society, and not a personal summation of Hardy’s generic understanding of women. The abuses against her are not justified by her narrator – I never felt I was being convinced that Tess’ foolishness was determined by her sex, but by her class and her pastoral heritage, combined with the preconceptions of her gender, all detrimental to her formal and social education. This is the broader message our author is famous for, and maybe this was Hardy looking to a sort of proto-intersectional thought – Tess is angry because she wasn’t more street-wise, because she knows very well that if her society ranked her just a little higher she could have at least learned about this stuff in books.

My grievances against Tess of the D’Urbervilles seem a little misguided to me now, particularly after reading FFTMC. Although I do still feel like Tess was treated uncommonly cruelly by her creator, I don’t think her treatment was at all unrealistic given the era and her specific circumstances. She’s the stuff of poetry, of folk songs that were born during that period. After all of the bloodshed towards the end of the novel, I think I just felt furious with Hardy for subjecting me to such a tragedy. He knew his readers would love her (except for those who felt she was morally loose), and the only way to show them the error of their ways was to present them with the brutal truths behind their social hierarchy through poor Tess.

I don’t really believe that Hardy was a misogynist, but I do still feel that his representation of women in FFTMC was pretty simple minded – his intentions were good, but his execution was sometimes misguided. I think the characterisation of Tess really feels like the product of 17 more years of personal growth. There’s something distinctly telling, too, about the disparate happy ending for Bathsheba and the sack-load of misery for Tess; whether this is representative of Hardy’s personal experiences of the time I will have to investigate, but I am aware that he married his first wife the year FFTMC was published, and wrote Tess some years into an apparently rocky marriage, so, you know. Anyway, after this rant I think I can finally put my Hardy theories to bed, and move on with my life. And maybe in a few years I can read The Return of the Native and start the whole sorry cycle all over again.

Review: ‘Heroines’ by Kate Zambreno

IMG_20141011_110348I’d been trying to get myself in the mood for this ever since a friend gave it to me for my last birthday. We both refer to ourselves as feminists, but whenever we speak about feminist issues I always feel a little guilty for being too mainstream, too unimaginative, and still unintentionally bogged down in the expectations of my society. I almost rely on her to pick me up on these things, to shame me into thinking less laterally, and I think this is just one example of how infinite and multi-faceted feminist theory is. Every person has a completely unique perspective, as with any area of political theory, entirely dependent upon their individual experiences and backgrounds, whether you are black, white, Asian, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, working class, middle class, upper class, Southern, Northern, British, American, Somali, Swedish, male, female, etc etc etc. It is all important, and every person’s perspective can inform any other’s for the better.

Kate Zambreno’s Heroines is far more than an inquiry into the shining beginnings and bitter ends of the wives and mistresses of the Great Writers of the modern age. It’s a deeply personal investigation into Zambreno’s own life and role as a writer, as mirrored in the lives of the women whose work was (and often still is) neglected and passed over by critics because of their gender. Their ovaries. Their XX chromosomes. They were considered mad and unstable, and frequently became so as a result of the strange restrictions put upon them. This is Zambreno’s experience of life, which informs her position as a feminist – she has experienced the diagnosis (and mis-diagnosis) of various mental conditions, and has naturally gravitated towards the treatment of mental illness amongst women. The concept of female ‘hysteria’ in the late 19th century was a very singular and spectacularly damaging prognosis that could be offered to any woman deemed not quite up to scratch by her peers and men-folk. The origins of the word suggest that the very womb itself is our enemy, a mischief-maker, as well as a burden for any man who dares share a life with one. Zambreno candidly discusses the brutality of menstruation, the pain and mess that women wade through every month, and the abhorrence of the men who witness it. She expresses the disappointment and shame often felt when a male partner is so openly disgusted or bemused by an event that is so intrinsically bound to female life, and while reading her words I could hear myself making the same point in unison.

In Heroines Kate Zambreno examines the turbulent literary experiences of people like Zelda Fitzgerald, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, Virgina Woolf and Katherine Mansfield (among many others) and their unique, but also tragically commonplace, treatment at the hands of their male competitors. Their key competitors were unfortunately also their husbands and lovers – the likes of Scott Fitzgerald, Paul Bowles, and Leonard Woolf – privy to the emotional mechanics of these women and always with a tenacious doctor at hand. Zambreno makes it painfully clear that these men had altogether too much power. She tells us of her Heroines’ stratospheric literary peaks, times in their lives where they could do nothing but write, in stark contrast with their hellish lows, incarcerated, begging for a pen and paper.

Zambreno’s style emulates the modernist prose of the period she writes about, slipping in and out of spleeny automatic writing, the blood and sweat of it, though I sense that this is her usual style. It is not calculated mimicry, but an intimate method used by many women before her to express things that often feel inexpressible. She writes articulately about her own concerns with writing as a profession and how this relates to her fears of falling into the same patterns of her Heroines, as she moves with her husband to parts of the country she has no desire to live in, as witness to his increasing professional success. At times she seems to spiral into an emotional chasm, acutely aware of the sacrifices she has made for him and fearing failure of any flavour. There is something so familiar about her grievances, yet my experiences haven’t been the same, or even comparable. There is just something sort of universal about some of her fears, something inherently reassuring about reading another woman’s voice set completely free.

As a small aside, I can thank Kate Zambreno for reminding me of some of the writers I was so fascinated by several years ago, while I was studying at Goldsmiths. Her occasional references to the work of Kathy Acker, Clarice Lispector and ecriture feminine take me right back to my final year at university, when I took a module titled ‘Writing, Gender & Anxiety’ and wrote my final dissertation about Helene Cixous and Lispector’s seminal Hour of the Star. Thinking of Hour of the Star instantly makes me feel bleak and sort of hollow, because although it’s a masterpiece, it’s just so unbearably sad. It’s also a wrench for me as I no longer have my dissertation anywhere. It’s completely lost, swallowed by my deteriorating laptop a few years ago, so all I have is this fading memory of it, and I genuinely (melodramatically) consider this a personal tragedy.

Although I don’t feel like the sentiments in this book are entirely revelatory, it does feel important, like a milestone. I think it feels important because not enough people write like this, with such fierce candor about how it feels to be a woman caught in the binds of a patriarchy, and with unabashed anger over the treatment of female artists of the past – it doesn’t matter how much time has passed, these wrongs can never be righted. All we can really hope for is that things will improve for future generations. Zambreno thankfully ends on a positive note: an encouraging treatise on the future for literary women. She implores us to write, and write, and write, and write… Because we have plenty to say, and so many women are still fighting to be heard.

Heroines is published by MIT Press and is available from all good bookshops for £12.95.