I really thought I would love this book; it simply didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t. Julia Armfield’s debut, Salt Slow, is one of my favourite short story collections ever; the inimitable SARAH WATERS blurbed this novel; every author who I’ve seen talk about this novel online has given it nothing less than a stellar review–all signs pointed to my loving this. And yet, quite frankly, I just didn’t.
Our Wives Under the Sea was, for me, the kind of novel that you forget about the second you finish it–honestly, the kind of novel you forget about as you’re reading it. The biggest issue with this book is that its story doesn’t have any meat, nothing to really sink your teeth into. You’re given descriptions and vague impressions and feelings and moments and snippets of memory, but none of this ever feels like it’s attached to anything solid, to any kind of substantial foundation. The result is that the novel feels like a collection of disparate parts rather than a cohesive whole, a bunch of jumbled elements that never really coalesce into anything that feels like a proper narrative. (Luce’s review sums up my feelings perfectly.)
More than making the story forgettable, this lack of substance also makes Our Wives Under the Sea so hard to get through. This is a very short novel, and yet it felt like such a drag to read. There’s no sense of momentum, here, nothing to make you want to keep reading. The novel is split into two timelines, and rather than becoming more complex or interesting as you go on, they just end up stagnating. Bad things happen, and then bad things keep happening, and then the characters keep thinking about how bad things are, and none of this feels particularly compelling because it’s all so samey.
I know a novel is a favourite of mine when I can look back on reading it and distinctly remember all of its best moments: the moments that moved me, the moments that surprised me, the moments that made me think. Our Wives Under the Sea is not a novel you can distinctly remember anything about because nothing in this novel ever feels distinct in any way. It all goes by in a blur, and then you’re just left with a sense of nothingness that doesn’t go anywhere.
Thanks so much to Picador for providing me with an e-ARC of this via Netgalley!
Self-Portrait with Ghost is a strange and elusive collection, slippery and compelling, defying easy understanding and so drawing your attention all the more.
First: Jin’s writing is so impressive, at times keen and direct, at others more reflective and analytical. Her stories are elusive in the sense that they don’t easily give you that aha moment at their end, that moment that clinches together the whole point of the story and, in doing so, makes it immediately understandable. Instead, they make you look twice, go back and try to put your finger on what eluded you the first time, or else try to make sure that what you got out of the story was in fact in line with what it was trying to do. More than anything, they’re just really interesting stories: I didn’t fully “get” all of them, but rather than that alienating me, it just drew me to them all the more. I didn’t “get” all of them, but I wanted to–and that’s what ultimately made them so compelling to me.
Though all distinct in their own ways, these stories also feel like they’re echoes of each other, particularly in the way that some of them reconfigure themes and ideas from other stories. “Suffering” and “Self-Portrait with Ghost,” for example, both deal with the troubled (?) distinction between reality and unreality, what is real and what is not. In the former story, the narrator attempts to give us an account of Ling, a woman overtaken by an increasing sense of paranoia; in the latter, the narrator encounters the ghost of her dead friend, who forces her to question her approach to her academic work. “Philip is Dead” and “First Love” are another pair that felt complementary to me, both stories that explore how romantic relationships shape–or indeed warp–your sense of self. Where “Philip is Dead” examines this in the context of artistic practice, “First Love” delves more into the nature of want and longing.
“Alone, she inched toward that feeling. It was painful, unbearable, to not have another against which to orient herself. It was also the closest she felt to free.”
Thematically, the stories of Self-Portrait with Ghost are concerned with how we know ourselves through others: in contrast to others, in opposition to them, in imitation of them, or simply alongside them. It’s a collection that’s interested in how we construct our sense of self not just through relationships–friends, lovers, family members–but also through narrative and art more broadly. In some stories like “Suffering,” “First Love,” and “The Three Women,” this is more of a thematic focus, whereas in a story like “The Odd Women,” it’s very much literalized through the inclusion of speculative elements (the only story that’s overtly speculative). When it comes to thematic focus, the title of the collection also effectively gestures at what it’s interested in exploring: “Self-Portrait with Ghost” speaks to how self-portraits, this conception of our selves by our selves, can be based on illusory images we may have of ourselves, or even of others. (That’s my interpretation anyway ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
“Who are they, and who is he? The patches on Ling’s face are real–this I can see. So she has summoned me in, to read her life, so what is boring and endless might achieve the grace of plot. Because I do pity Ling, pity her suffering and its intractability, how she’s wound her life around herself in these most exquisitely foolproof chains. I pity her so much, I envy her. Would my own mind ever be capable of such imaginative feats as these?”
My favourite stories were “Suffering,” “First Love,” and “The Odd Women,” though honestly I felt like all of them had something that I liked or was drawn to. “The Odd Women” is the real standout here, in my opinion. It’s the longest story, and the most ambitious one, and it absolutely sticks the landing–which is doubly great, because it’s also the concluding story, ending the collection with a nice flourish.
Self-Portrait with Ghost was a collection whose stories I wasn’t necessarily emotionally invested in, but rather one that intellectually engaged me; a “thinking” book more than a “feeling” book–and a really great one at that.
The Other Mother is, to me, a perfect novel: a masterclass in character work and prose, skillfully structured and thematically rich. It’s a multigenerational family saga, one that embodies just how capacious and powerful that genre can be. In saying that this novel is a “multigenerational family saga,” I’m also saying that it’s able to encompass so much: the thorny and complicated family dynamics, the tangled threads that by turns connect and bind these characters together, the change and growth from one generation to the next, and the expansive sense of time and place that is facilitated by a narrative that unfolds over the course of decades. What’s more, it all comes together with such impressive command; it is a real testament to Harper’s skill that she is able to write a story that is so large in its scope and yet so intimate in its focus; the narrative is at once sweeping and minute, giving you access to a plethora of interconnected characters and colouring in their histories for you, but also allowing you to get to know and understand them in an incontrovertibly real and grounded way. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”–what we get here is both a sense of the whole and of the parts, of the family entire and of the person in particular.
“He wondered if time was a form of love, a way of dolling out affection in reasonable pieces, in parts small enough that you weren’t aware of their size, and of what was slowly disappearing from your own form as you gave them away.”
Part of why The Other Mother manages to so effectively balance scope with detail is because of the way it’s structured. The novel is split into seven “books,” each of which consists of seven chapters, and which focuses on a specific family member. We begin with Jenry, who is the linchpin of the narrative, and then branch out to the key characters connected to him: his mother, his “other mother,” his uncle, his grandfather, his other grandfather, and so on. And there is not a single section in the novel that is even close to lacking in any way. Certainly, some characters are more important than others–Juliet, Jenry’s “other mother,” in particular is the real heart and soul of this book–but regardless of how much they shape the narrative, every one of them gets a section that fleshes out their inner life and highlights their place within the novel’s core family. Usually, with stories that switch POVs from one character to the next, I tend to dread that switch because I inevitably get attached to a character and don’t want to leave them for another’s POV. With The Other Mother, though, that was never the case. Part of why I adored this novel is because I trusted it so much: I had complete faith in Harper’s writing, and so I was never nervous going from one POV to the next. That is to say, I had complete faith in Harper’s writing, and her writing never let me down. (That being said, my favourite sections were easily Juliet’s and Jasper’s–Jasper’s especially I will probably never forget; it was that poignant.)
“She fingers a groove in the soft wood, wonders why time wears some things down, makes them softer, more malleable, yet other things like bones and brick–things that make up structures, that are designed to carry weight–become more brittle.”
Implicit in everything I’ve praised so far about this novel is the fact that it is extraordinarily well-written. Harper writes with piercing clarity, her prose lean and lucid, allowing the story to organically and seamlessly unfold over the course of the novel. And she has such remarkable control of this story, too. A lot happens in The Other Mother–there is plenty of loss and grief, secrets and lies–and in another writer’s hands, it could’ve easily been a morose, overwrought melodrama. Under Harper’s control, though, the prose and tone are pitch perfect, measured without being cold, moving without being sentimental. Every once in a while, I read a novel that makes me want to stop for a second to process just how impressive its writing is, and The Other Mother is one of those rare novels. Scenes with dialogue–literally any conversation between these characters–are especially brilliant. You’re able to glean so much about these characters by how they talk, what they take from conversations, how they interpret what’s said to them, what they notice, and what they don’t. The way that Harper renders the minute details of her characters’ demeanour and mannerisms throughout these scenes is just exquisite; it’s what I mean when I talk about the piercing clarity of the writing, and what’s more, these details–observations, habits, quirks–recur throughout the novel, adding to the sense that these are fully fleshed out characters whose idiosyncrasies carry on throughout the years that the narrative spans.
“His mother used to always say, I can recover from any death but my own, but he thinks now that it’s the other way around: your own death is the easy one; what befalls the people you love most in the world, that is the most difficult thing to survive.”
The last thing I want to talk about is the thematic focus, because The Other Mother is incredibly sympathetic and tender in the way that it approaches its very complex exploration of family. As I’m sure is evident from the title, the novel is interested in examining what motherhood looks like outside the bounds of what’s dictated by patriarchy and everything that attaches to it. In taking motherhood as one of its central thematic concerns, though, the novel is also able to more broadly interrogate and look at the family as a unit. It’s interested in asking what makes a “mother,” yes, but it’s also interested in asking what makes a family. We look at all sorts of family dynamics, here–mothers and sons, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters–and to be sure, none of those dynamics are ever simple or straightforward. It’s a book that very much underscores how family at once drains and sustains us, holds us up and lets us down, and the story is adamant in depicting these family members as flawed. After finishing the novel, I watched a bunch of interviews where Harper talked about how she really had to take her time with this novel because she wanted to be able to embody every character’s POV without judgement, regardless of whether she agreed with their decisions or not. And that’s really the crux of the novel, I think: you don’t agree with all these characters’ decisions, but you do sympathize with all of them, and understand why they made those decisions. The beauty of the story is that you always have to hold these two things in tension: the fact that these characters hurt each other, and the fact that they do so not out of malice, but out of love.
The Other Mother is so many things, but more than anything it is a novel that is just brimming with love. Heartbreaking but hopeful, it’s written so feelingly, a product of such care and nuance on the part of the author, that what you get in the end is just nothing short of brilliant. I cannot recommend it enough.