Deesha Philyaw – The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

Deesha Philyaw – The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

Deesha Philyaw’s collection of nine short stories about Black women gives insight in a life behind closed doors, rules unknown to many of us, a secret double life nobody sees or wants to see. The book was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction and was awarded, among others, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Los Angeles Book prize. All stories centre around Black women and Christianity highlighting contradictions and hypocrisy and also a group of women who accept their place given to them by powerful men. They all endure the double discrimination of being Black and being a woman – until they don’t anymore.

What most women share is the fact that they lead a kind of double life they are forced into. For the outside word, they dress decently, lead a God abiding life, do not speak up and care for their children. Yet, at home, behind the closed door, among themselves, they speak freely, they know that even the clergymen have bodily needs they fulfil. They are not perfect, often far from, but they try to make the best of it and teach their daughters what they need to know about life and its double-standards.

The variety of women we get to know is large, from homosexual spinsters still searching for husbands, over half-sisters mourning their always unfaithful father, to a young girl who finally comes to understand that how easily you can be trapped in a situation where wen exert power over you and your body.

The author captures the decisive moment when desires and religious rules collide. They need to cope with contradictions, build their lives around it, always threatened by the verdict of the public and the parish. They are never free, not even those who try to flee from the south, who work and study hard for a better life – ultimately, it all comes back to them.

The tone is funny at times, desperate and harsh at others, always reflecting the characters’ moods on the one hand, which, on the other, will often not leave their house or even their body. The collection shows a life hidden, a life in the shadow of big and strong men, a life worth narrating.

Catherine Prasifka – None of this is Serious

Catherine Prasifka – None of this is Serious

Sophie has just finished her degree in political science and falls in some kind of void between being a student and the future which is totally blurred. All her friends seem to have a plan while she is still meandering and feels left behind. She is waiting for something to happen when one evening, there is a crack in the sky. Quickly the internet is full of photos and comments that she obsessively follows. While the earth does not know what to make if this and if it should be treated like a threat, Sophie’s life goes on or rather: it doesn’t. She has been in love with Finn for a long time, but he is more interested in other women and only needs her for the time between. And then there is Rory who is attentive and nice, albeit a bit boring. Even when the sky opens, Sophie is stuck and cannot advance in her life, so she escapes into the online world.

Catherine Prasifka’s debut novel “None of this is Serious” strongly reminded me of Sally Rooney’s books, not just because it is also set in Dublin and the protagonists are at a similar point in their life, also the style of writing shows a lot of parallels. Just like her sister-in-law, she portrays a generation who is lost when they should finally start their adult life and who struggles of coping with the expectations of their families and the online community which provides them with ideals they should adhere to.

“I refresh the feed every minute and continue to consume, growing fat. I’m like a vampire, leeching off the content of other people’s lives. I’m not even really interested in anything I’m reading.”

Having finished college and waiting for the final results, Sophie has too much time she spends online following her friends but also the comments on the crack. The first thing she does after waking up is checking her twitter feed, the last thing she does before falling asleep is checking her feed. She is addicted and unable to live her real life. Online, she can hide behind the invisible wall, she feels secure when chatting with Rory or others, when meeting them in person, she becomes insecure, shy, and totally inhibited. Without booze, she is totally unable of having any normal conversation at all.

It is not only their struggle with romantic life, successful relationships are rare in her circle of friends, it is also professional life which stresses them out. Finding a job is hard, even harder to find one which would allow them to move out of their parents’ house. Being treated like children, they cannot actually grow up and thus find themselves stuck. They just have their polished social media lives which only make the others feel even worse as they cannot see behind the blinking facade.

I could totally relate to Sally Rooney’s protagonists even though I am a couple of years older. It was much harder for me to sympathise with Sophie as she is much too passive and has made herself comfortable in lamenting her situation without doing something against it. Her best friend accuses her of being selfish and arrogant, an opinion I would agree with. She is too self-involved to notice others and pathetically cries over and over again.

“None of this is Serious” is a perfectly contradictory title as the characters’ believe that nothing they do is of any consequence, thus they remain stuck and constantly hurt each other as they are not the superficial beings who can just put away everything they experience. I do believe the author well captured a generation and their feelings of a hopeless or rather no future.

Antoine Wilson – Mouth to Mouth

Antoine Wilson – Mouth to Mouth

The narrator, an unsuccessful writer, is on his way to Berlin when he coincidentally meets a former fellow student at JFK airport. Jeff, too, remembers him immediately even though they haven’t seen each other for two decades. As their flight is delayed, they decide to spend the waiting time together and update each other about what they have done in the last twenty years. Jeff’s life was marked by an incident on the beach, when he saw a man drowning. He could save him but not forget the occurrence. He starts enquiring about him and soon finds out that Francis Arsenault is a successful art dealer. Jeff becomes more and more fixated on the man, wondering if he remembers that he was his saviour. When he gets to work at Francis’ gallery, this is the beginning of a major change in his life – yet, will he ever get the chance to reveal what brought him there in the first place?

Antoine Wilson has chosen an interesting framework for his story which puts the reader in the same place as the writer who mainly just sits there and listens to Jeff’s account. You know that what he tells is highly subjective, only one side of the story is presented in a way that Jeff wants to put it, but nevertheless, quasi as a former friend, you are willing to believe him not knowing where all this is going to lead to. “Mouth to Mouth” is highly intriguing from the first page, due to a very clever foreshadowing, you are aware that there must be something behind Jeff’s need to tell his life story, but you keep wondering what that could be.

“’Who better than someone who was there at the beginning?’ – ‘You said that before. Only I’m not sure why it matters.’ ‘You knew me then. That I had a good heart.’“

Repeatedly, Jeff stresses that he has a good heart, that he only wanted the best for others, that he did do nothing wrong and just like the narrator, you wonder why he keeps on stressing that point. Saving somebody from downing is surely an admirable act, selfish and courageous. That he started following Francis then and slowing crept into his life is not that honest but he didn’t do no harm. So you keep on reading eager to figure out what will ultimately make Jeff appear in a totally different light.

“Just think, if I had somehow not saved Francis’s life, if instead he’d died on that beach, everything that came after would not have happened like it did.”

The novel raises the big question about what might have happened if just one incident of your life hadn’t happened, or had turned out differently. Many things of our everyday life do not have life changing consequences, but some do. And everybody knows this pondering about the “what if”. Connected to this is inevitably the question of necessary consequences, of a bigger plan behind it all.

In Francis’s case, he was granted more time on earth due to Jeff’s intervention, but did he use that time wisely? He is a reckless art dealer and the closer Jeff gets and the more he learns about him, the more he wonders how that man deals with the big gift he was given. At the same time, he gets insight into the shiny art’s business which is all but shiny behind the facade and which is, well, just a business where money is made.

A brilliantly plotted novel which is thought-provoking and play well with the reader’s expectations and emotions.

Dana Spiotta – Wayward

Dana Spiotta – Wayward

Samantha Raymond cannot say what it was exactly that lead her to buy a house and to move out of the suburban comfort zone with her husband Matt and their teenage daughter Ally. Maybe Trump’s election, maybe the feeling of menopause hitting her or just the fact that she spends her nights awake pondering about her life and all that is connected to it: motherhood, mortality and the country she lives in. Via the Internet, she connects with some radical women whose notions are new to her. But sorting out her new life also means getting more and more away from her old life and her daughter. Has she ever been a good mom? Didn’t she do all that was necessary to bring Ally up? And what did she use her one life for actually?

In her novel “Wayward”, Dana Spiotta portrays a woman at a crucial point of her life. She made some decisions that now come under scrutiny. It is not only the outer, visible elements of her life but much more her inner convictions that have to stand the test. Her first move sets in motion a chain of events that bring her further away from all she has known for so many years and it remains to be seen where this will lead her.

What I liked most was the combination of metaphors the author uses. The old house that Sam finds and is attracted to immediately mirrors her body. Just like the cosy new home, life also has left traces on her body. Just like she renovates the house, she starts to train to get stronger. However, all the renovation cannot hide that the years have left their marks on it and some things simply cannot be redone.

Just as she analyses her complicated relationship with her own mother and also with her daughter, she analyses the state the country is in. The opposing parts become obvious through the segregation between the white and better-off parts of town and her new place which is quite the opposite. Coming from a protected life, she is now confronted with crime which has always been a reality for other parts of society, but not the suburban housewives she has known for so long.

The novel has a clear feminist perspective. Sam volunteers at a small museum that was the home of a 19th century feminist who ignored societal constraints and followed her ideals, also Sam’s mother is an independent woman, whereas she herself had given in to a life that she now is running from. Her daughter also tries to rebel against Sam’s life choices and wants to free herself –  in her very own way. All women make choices that have consequences, all woman have to decide between conformity and rebellion, they want their life to be meaningful – but what does that mean and what is the price for it?

An interesting read from a point of view that is slowly expanded to show the bigger picture.

Max Seeck – The Ice Coven

Max Seeck – The Ice Coven

The disappearance of a famous blogger does not seem to be a too interesting case for Jessica Niemi and her team of Helsinki police. After a big music business event, she did not come home and has since vanished into thin air. Her roommate also cannot contribute anything to Lisa Yamamoto’s whereabouts. When the body of a Ukrainian prostitute in Manga clothing is washed ashore, the investigators do not link the two events immediately, but, bit by bit, they untangle the complex web and soon find themselves confronted with a network of ill doings which goes far beyond the city limits. While working on the most challenging case of her career, Jessica is still mourning the loss of her former boss and friend while Erne’s successor openly hates and threatens to expose her, thus destroying her carefully constructed life.

Already in the first case for Jessica Niemi, Max Seeck masterfully crafted a highly complex plot which was great to follow as a reader. “The Ice Coven”, too, seems to be not too mystifying at the beginning but then it slowly unfolds its whole potential and turns into a high-paced thriller. The short chapters add to the suspense which rises and only climaxes at the very end even though long before you were fooled to believe you know what is going on.

Apart from the crime story, the book’s most outstanding element is the protagonist. Being familiar with the first instalment, you already know her backstory, the things she hides from her colleagues and the demons that haunt her. Still, there are some white spaces to be discovered in further stories which I am eagerly looking for.

A multi-layered thriller which is hard to put down once you started.

J. Courtney Sullivan – Friends and Strangers

J. Courtney Sullivan – Friends and Strangers

After becoming mother for the first time, journalist and author Elizabeth agrees with her husband’s wish to leave busy New York for a quieter place closer to his parents. Yet, the new life does not really seem to fit to Elizabeth. She feels exhausted from the baby and finds it difficult to make friends in her new community, the other women seem to be happy with dull pseudo-occupations and spend their days gossiping. When she decides to hire a babysitter to gain some tome to work on her next novel, things change finally since she immediately bonds with Sam, an art student in her final year at the local college. Sam herself comes from a decent background and is fascinated by the woman who seems to get everything done easily, who has style and taste and has made an astonishing career. Despite the age gap they become friends, but there are things they just ignore which, however, become more and more apparent the better they get to know each other and when they need each other most, a gap opens which is unsurmountable.

I totally liked J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel from the start. Sympathising with Elizabeth was easy since I can imagine a lot but not leaving a big town to become a full-time mother and spend my day with gossiping neighbours. Sam, too, was easy to like, still young and unsecure but with a good heart and totally in love with her British not-so-boyish-anymore boyfriend. From the start, it is a challenge between two characters who actually like each other but where there is an imbalance in power in several areas which puts at time Elizabeth, at times Sam in a better situation.

The author explores a lot of aspects in her novel which give you food for thought. First of all, Elizabeth’s move to a small town which does not offer much. Also her struggle with being a mother is something a lot of women surely can emphasize with. Quite interesting also the dynamics between her and her husband who cannot really cope with a more successful wife on the one hand, on the other he is relying on her financial situation to realize his own dream. Elizabeth looks down on him since he has never really accomplished anything in professional ways – not a good basis for a new start in a new place.

Sam lives the typical student life, yet, her fellow students all come from rich families and can afford things she can only dream of. She manages to live in both worlds, but feels often closer to the women in the cafeteria kitchen she works with than with the girls she shares the dorm. Her relationship with Clive is mysterious form the start, yet, totally in love, she forgets to question his behaviour and falls prey to him. She is still young and simply makes mistakes young people make.

Both characters as well as the plot have a lot to offer, yet, at times I found the backstories a bit too long, a bit too detailed since they always slowed down the main action. Nevertheless, a wonderful read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Lauren Oyler – Fake Accounts

Lauren Oyler – Fake Accounts

When the unnamed narrator seizes the chance to snoop through her boyfriend’s phone – which he normally does not let out of his sight – she discovers that he has a large Instagram account on which he spreads conspiracy theories. She is confused but admittedly, she was already thinking about splitting up and now she’s got a good reason. However, her plan – telling him after returning from the women’s march against Trump – fails totally because when she’s still in Washington, his mother informs her of his fatal bike accident. Even though she already was detached emotionally, this hits her hard and literally throws her out of her life. She quits her job and travels to Berlin, the city where they first met and where she hopes to find out what she expects from life and what she actually wants to do professionally.

Lauren Oyler’s novel is a portrait of a somehow lost generation who lives a double life: one in the real world, where many of them are lost and orbiting around aimlessly, and one in the online world, where they can create an idea of themselves, a person they would like to be and play a role according to their likes. Yet, the more followers they generate, the more narcissistic they become and inevitably, the fake life in the world-wide web has an impact on reality, too. Slowly, they also start to create fake personalities there and increasingly lack the necessary authenticity and sincerity it needs to have serious relationship with others.

The narrator lives such a life in both spheres at the same time, her job involves roaming the net for good stories she can re-use and pimp for the magazine she works at. After leaving her old life behind and moving to Europe, she does not even start to create a new life in Berlin, neither does she try to learn German nor does she really make acquaintances. She dates people she gets to know online simply to tell each one a different story about who she is – she successfully transfers the possibility of a fake online account into real life. However, this does not make her any happier.

In a certain way, this is funny and ironic since it is so much over the top that it cannot be real. But is it really? Are people still able to make a distinction between the two? And which consequences does this have for us? We are all aware of how photos can be photoshopped, how information online can be embellished or simply wrong and we pay attention when we are approached by someone online whom we don’t know. In real life however, don’t we expect that people tell us the truth at least to a certain extent? And especially in a relationship, aren’t sincerity and truthfulness necessary foundations to build trust in each other?

An interesting study in how far our online behaviour may fire back – not something we can really wish for. Even though the tone is light and often funny, is leaves you somehow with a bad aftertaste.

Annabel Lyon – Consent

Annabel Lyon – Consent

Saskia and Jenny are twins but only equal in looks, their personalities could hardly differ more. Where Saskia is diligent and studious, Jenny enjoys life at the fullest and is always looking for some more thrill. Only a car accident in which she is seriously injured can put an end to her posh and impulsive lifestyle and brings the sisters back together. Mattie and Sara are sisters, too, the first with an intellectual disability, the second striving for academic success and the life she knows from stylish magazines. The latter sister pair, too, moves apart only to be forced together by fate again. Looking for reasons behind the tragic events, Saskia and Sara recognise that there is an unexpected link between them which goes far beyond the parallels of their sisterhoods.

I totally adored the first half on Annabel Lyon’s novel. Showing four young women emancipating themselves, developing personalities and ideas of who they want to be and how they want to live their life was wonderful to read. Even though the parallels show quite from the start, they are two quite unique sets of siblings which do have complicated but nevertheless deep bonds. Especially when Saskia and Sara come to the critical points in their sisters’ lives, they themselves are hit to the core, too, and have to make far-going decisions which also deeply impact their own lives. Throughout the novel, we see a great elaboration of characters with very authentic nuances and facets.

The second half did not convince me that much which, I assume, was mainly due to the fact that the central aspect of the relationships between the sisters was lost by then. Even though here the link between the two pairs was established and some secrets revealed, I found it lacked a bit of depths.

I found the title quite interestingly chosen, very often, “consent” is immediately associated with relationships and intercourse, but in the novel, however, also other aspects, e.g. to what extent the sisters approve of each other’s choices and decisions is explored. Especially Saskia investigates her sister’s life and by walking in her shoes, detects new sides of herself.

Emily Houghton – Before I Saw You

Emily Houghton – Before I Saw You

After a fire at her work place seriously injured her, Alice finds herself in St Francis’s Hospital in a very poor state. She does not even want to look in the mirror for fear of what she might see, and she definitely does not want others to see the monster she has become. Thus, the patients in her ward have to live with the voice coming from behind the drawn curtains. At first, she refuses contact but over the time she realises that old Mr Petersen and especially Alfie Mack next to her are likable people who make staying in hospital a lot more acceptable. Alfie is the good soul of their small community, always funny and entertaining, spreading warmth and hope. At night, however, he is haunted by the accident which made him lose his leg and all the negative emotions he pushes back during daylight. Slowly, the two of them bond, yet, without ever seeing each other.

Emily Houghton tells the story of two people who have to go through a very hard time: the lives they had have ceased to exist from one second to the next and now, they find themselves in a kind of void between before and after. Quite naturally, sharing the similar experiences makes them bond easily, on the other hand, how can you open up to another person and make new friends or even more when you haven’t come to grips with your own situation, yet? The author gives her characters the time they need to adjust and to stretch out a hand.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Even though there is a lot of sadness due to the accidents the characters had to go through and the hardship they have to endure while healing, the plot is full of love and care which makes you believe in the good in mankind and – of course – in love. Beautifully narrated by highlighting the anxieties and thoughts Alice and Alfie go through which again and again keep them from doing what should be done but which is simply a hurdle too high to take at that moment. What I liked most was the fact that Alice and Alfie fell in love other without seeing each other, they can surely say that it is the character that counts and which attracted them.

A heart-warming story providing hope and confidence when life seems to be too hard to endure.

Andrew O’Hagan – Mayflies

Andrew O’Hagan – Mayflies

Tully Dawson is the best friend one could ever wish for. When James’ struggles with his parents become unsupportable, he takes him to his home. Their friendship is based on music and the bands they admire and what both of them are sure of: they never want to become like their fathers. Ayrshire sooner or later becomes too enclosed, simply too small for them, so together with some friends they plan a weekend in Manchester, one of 1980s hot spots of music. And they do have the time of their life in only a couple of hours. Even though they all move on afterwards, the friendship between Tully and James goes deeper and even though they live on different ends of the island, thirty years on, James is the person Tully calls first when he has bad news.

“I suppose we could have (…) asked his opinion, but being young is a kind of warfare in which the great enemy is experience.”

Andrew O’Hagan’s novel oscillates between celebrating youth and the time of total light-footedness and the darkest side of human life. In the first part, we meet a bunch of youngsters for whom the Tenth Summer festival at the G-Mex centre in Manchester is the biggest event in their life so far. In 2017, they have not only aged but also acquired another attitude to life. Both have their time and place, it is the privilege of the teenage years to be carefree and live for the moment, harsh reality will come later, and it does.

“ ’It’s like an explosion of life happening and then it’s gone,’ he said. ‘We had our time, buddy. I’ve come to terms with it (…)’”

What I enjoyed most was to see how James and Tully had formed a bond for life. They shared the good times and also the bad ones. Nothing, not even their wives, could come between them since only with each other they could talk openly. Tully is a truly charismatic character which you come to like immediately which makes it even sadder to see how fate does not grant him more time on earth. The end is deeply moving, but seeing how full of emotion and life the first part war, you can accept it even if you don’t like it. It raises some very core questions each reader has to answer for himself, the way O’Hagan confronts us with them, however, is brilliant.