BOOK REVIEW: SALT SLOW by JULIA ARMFIELD

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Jane Austen once wrote in one of her letters, “Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked”; she might as well have written Salt Slow‘s thesis.

Salt Slow is a short-story collection about problem women. The first line of the book is, after all, “I have my Grandmother’s skin. Problem skin.” Problem skin, problem women. The women of this collection are problem women because they are simply too much: too greedy, too selfish, too obsessive, too dependent. Put another way, they are problem women because they are unruly. And what is so brilliant about Salt Slow is that instead of trying to temper the unruliness of its women, it unabashedly leans into—even celebrates—it. It says, These women are problem women—so what? It never tries to make its women anything less than what they are: ferocious, gross, lazy, needy, careless. Indeed, these are women whose desires and emotions are so extreme they literally push against the bounds of reality: every one of Armfield’s stories contains a surrealist/magical realist element, one seamlessly woven into the fabric of its protagonist’s life.

I mean, look at some of these descriptions:

“Beneath her dressing gown, she is bloody with mosquito bites. Unrazored beneath the arms, unplucked, unmoistured.”

“I had a bad body around that time – creaking joints and difficult digestion, a martyr to mouth ulcers and bleeding gums.”

“Beneath my dress, my skin is churning. My legs feel cracked in half, articulated – a spreading and a shifting, as though my bones are springing out of their intended slots.”

let 👏 women 👏 be 👏 flawed 👏 I didn’t know how much I needed to read about flawed women until I read this book.

Also, Armfield’s writing is MAGNIFICENT. Haunting, dark, beautiful. Truly. Again, I’ll let her writing speak for itself.

“When I was twenty-seven, my Sleep stepped out of me like a passenger from a train carriage, looked around my room for several seconds, then sat down in the chair beside my bed.”

“The jellyfish come with the morning – a great beaching, bodies black on sand. The ocean empties, a thousand dead and dying invertebrates, jungled tentacles and fine, fragile membranes blanketing the shore two miles in each direction. They are translucent, almost spectral, as though the sea has exorcised its ghosts.”

“Nicola watches the gentle pull of outgoing water, the glassy sink and swallow, waves drawing back like lips revealing teeth.”

“The sky is gory with stars, like the insides of a gutted night.”

What more can I say? I fucking loved this. It might be (probably is) my favourite short-story collection ever.

4.5-


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BOOK REVIEW: THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE THE TIME WAR by AMAL EL-MOHTAR & MAX GLADSTONE

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Image result for This Is How You Lose the Time War COVER“Words can wound—but they’re bridges, too . . . Though maybe a bridge can also be a wound? To paraphrase a prophet: Letters are structures, not events. Yours give me a place to live inside.”

This is How You Love This Book:

You start reading it and it’s this cat-and-mouse back-and-forth between two women from two opposing sides of a time war, of all things. But what begins as an adversarial, albeit playful, show of bravado unfurls into something unexpected: a connection. It is a thread that is tenuous, unsure of its presence, but present nonetheless. And then the adversarial becomes symbiotic; these two women hold each other up in and through their letters. They are each other’s confessionals, writing and ciphering, deciphering and reading. The thread becomes taut, asserts its presence, makes itself known—that is to say, these two women fall in love.

Zoom out from the moving, almost effortless beauty of this story and you remember: oh yeah, we’ve got a time war on our hands. There are pasts to modify, futures to alter, courses of history to reroute, to nudge this way or that. This is not a metaphor; this is the world of these women. There is a war to win, agents to outsmart, rules to follow, secrets to keep.

The thing about This is How You Lose the Time War is that it does both those things simultaneously and masterfully; it is both the forest and the trees. You are so absorbed in the almost intoxicating intimacy of Blue and Red’s correspondence, the way they increasingly skirt closer to truths about themselves and what they mean to each other. But this is not happening in a vacuum: they live, after all, in a world where they weave and up down the course of time at their will, where what is at stake is the future of their respective sides. This is a world with its own terminology, its own tangled history, its own rules and fine print. But you finish this novel having such a complete sense of both the trees and the forest; the searing closeness of its protagonists, but also the backdrop which has at once enshrined and obstructed this closeness. The more the trees of these characters grow taller, the more the forest sprawls like a carpet to ground them in their world. That is to say, this novel draws the contours of its world even as it colours in those contours with characters of vivid, layered interiorities.

Reader, I loved it.

4.5-


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BOOK REVIEW: THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE by MEG ELISON

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Image result for the book of the unnamed midwifeI’ve never been a fan of post-apocalyptic stories. It feels like if you read one you’ve basically read them all. So imagine my surprise when I read The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, a post-apocalyptic book, and actually enjoyed it …?

Here’s what I think distinguishes Meg Elison’s take on the post-apocalypse and why I think I ultimately liked this book:

– The Book of the Unnamed Midwife unapologetically foregrounds women’s experiences. Elison does not take for granted what women might go through in a world where 99% of the population—more women than men—has been effectively wiped out. Instead, she addresses the traumatic directly: women are raped, sold into slavery, mutilated, things for men to trade and barter with. Indeed, this is a book that would be vastly different if its main character were a man and not a woman. Its titular “Unnamed Midwife” is a protagonist whose experiences in this post-apocalyptic world are indelibly coloured by the fact that she is a woman.

But the women in The Book of the Unnamed Midwife are more than just their trauma; they are also their desires, their needs, their physical labour, their storytelling. I want to particularly highlight those first two because Elison does not shy away from women’s desires and needs, specifically sexual desires and needs. I feel like in so many books I read, female sexuality is a non-issue; it’s not positively or negatively depicted because it’s not depicted at all. But in her novel, Elison writes a main character whose sexuality is present and explicit and acted-upon. The “Unnamed Midwife” also identifies somewhere along the lgbtqia+ spectrum—at one point she says she’s attracted to the person and not the body, so maybe pansexual (?), but it’s never explicitly stated.

– The Book of the Unnamed Midwife prioritizes the psychological. My aversion to post-apocalyptic stories has always stemmed from the fact that authors seem to write them as some kind of extended metaphor and not much else. In these kinds of stories the apocalypse and its impetus just become ways for authors to make on-the-nose, tired analogies to the current state of Society. For example: in book epidemic turns people into mindless zombies = in real life phones turn people into mindless zombies. Wow! Amazing! Totally-not-obvious commentary! But I didn’t get that at all from Elison’s narrative. She didn’t seem preoccupied with some abstract metaphorical aim so much as she was striving to depict people trying to live in unlivable circumstances: how do you choose to keep living when the world proves to you time and time again that there is not much to live for? These kinds of issues are definitely more my speed than the more “literary”—however you choose to interpret that term—takes on the post-apocalypse that I’ve read.

More than anything, I think The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a compelling and unabashed look at how the apocalyptic does not level its victims equally; when we speak of suffering among men and women in its wake, we speak of two very different things.

3.5-


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