The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley
I didn’t finish this. I got to the bit where the character in the Hrothgar role got killed, and the character in the Beowulf role is in a car with the character in the Wealtheow role, considering kissing her. I did not want to read on because the dips in and out of the Beowulf narrative were so confusing, and really not playful at all. It’s a grim novel, about PTSD and a mother keeping her son alive in a disused train station in the middle of a mountain above a fancy gated residential complex called Herot, in which the Wealtheow character is a Stepford wife policed by the matriarchal Stepford Norns, as John Clute called them when we were talking over the novel, both relieved to find that the other really didn’t like it either. The character playing the Grendel role is not the voiceless devouring monster from the dark that the Anglo-Saxons wanted to hear about. He’s a baby born from wartime rape (we assume), and he doesn’t look at all like anyone else. So I didn’t want to read on and find his arm being ripped off. However, given that nothing at all about the novel follows the narrative in Beowulf, I probably needn’t have resisted. But I didn’t want to go any further into this particular kind of dark.
Molly Keane. A Life, by Sally Phipps
I also didn’t finish this. It’s a biography, but not as we know it. It’s of a writer, a much-loved author who wrote many novels set in similar places and with similar people, so where is the list of the titles, or even their publication dates, as an anchor to the narrative? Not present. This biography by the subject’s daughter, who is described as a journalist, but is more interested in painting word pictures than supplying facts and figures. The narrative is more or less linear, but is written from the perspective of one who knows the subject and her life intimately, and expects the readers to all be dyed-in-the-wool fans who don’t need the obvious things explained. It is deeply annoying, and though I blame the editor more than the author, it’s a poor way to persuade newcomers to her mother’s works to buy them.
Flâneuse, by Lauren Elkin
I longed for this book, having read the reviews and heard friends talk about it with pleasure. It arrived by request at Christmas, and I leapt into it just as someone I follow on Twitter reported that she’d just been hanging out with Lauren Elkin in Paris and I was SO EXCITED. That was before the book turned into an entitled American memoir of not knowing who she was because she wanted to live in country 2 rather than country 1 where she was born or country 3 where her partner was happily posted. The time this woman took to get over her relationship, or fail to understand even the easy stuff about country 3, lost me any sympathy I should have had for her trying to get through country 2’s visa and citizenship hoops. It’s not a good time right now for anyone to try and move countries, and to read an American’s struggles, in this political climate (which I am sure Elkin objects to as much as any right-thinking human), to acquire the national identity of her choice, doesn’t make me as empathic as I might have been, had I read Flâneuse when it was first published.
What the book was supposed to be about was women walking, and the ways cities are opened and closed to women socially, architecturally, culturally, legally, when they choose to use their feet and navigate for themselves. Elkin’s case studies of famous women who have walked on their own – George Sand, Jean Rhys, Martha Gellhorn, Sophie Calle – are good and useful and detailed and relevant and interesting, but Elkin kept putting her own life in the book, and I did not want to read about her, but about where she was and the cities she was trying to navigate. Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust is a far better book about women and walking. Flâneuse ended up being the story of Elkin alongside Sand, Rhys, Calle, etc, and I don’t think she belongs in that company. That may not have been what she intended but that’s what I came away with, whether I wanted it or not. I finished Flâneuse; if it had bothered with an index I might have kept it.
The Lost Letters of William Woolf, Helen Cullen
Another dud that I put on my Christmas list myself, and feel guilty about because I have to sneak it into the charity shop bag. I liked the idea of a Dead Letters Depot. I loved the idea of tracing people through letters and the possibilities of stories and lives opening up through letters. But, the depot isn’t believable, or even magical; William is written as though he’s expected to be played by Hugh Grant (always a turn-off); the letters from the mysterious Winter to her Great Love are just gush; and the prissy, uptight, overworked lawyer who has no time for her poor shambling husband or neglected home was overdone back in the 1990s and is still very boring. It’s an overworked and overpraised relationship drama borrowing a little too much from Possession with not enough of the skill.
This is the latest episode in an irregular series on books I haven’t enjoyed. You can work backwards through the others here.