I’m a sucker for any book or article that promises to speak honestly about motherhood. I found my own initiation into motherhood incredibly hard; it’s only now, six years down the line, that I can really examine how profoundly it affected me. So I was keen to read this collection of essays telling truths about motherhood, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so moving and vital. I read it in 24 hours and when I finished, I sat for a while. I cried and wasn’t sure why. Was I crying for these mothers or for myself? All of us, probably.
One of the things that is so brilliant about this collection is that it presents such a wide range of mothers, and gives a platform to some of the mothers who don’t have much of a voice. We hear from a disabled mother, a stepmother, a black mother, a mother who didn’t carry a baby to term, a second-generation immigrant mother, a single mother, and many more. I am not any of these things, and yet I related hard. I felt seen, and understood. These women are not only these labels, but these labels play a part in the kind of mothers they are, and these essays address that. They address sexism, racism, ableism and the dreaded mental load.
In every single one of these essays, I found passages I wanted to send to friends. So many, I decided in the end that I’d be better off buying copies for some of the mothers I know and love. Because this is that kind of book. The kind you want to give, the kind you think could well make a difference to someone’s life. I’d go so far as to say that every mother should read this book. If only it could be given out by midwives, as medicine.
Reviewed by Laura Pearson
It’s hard to believe this is a debut. The writing is smooth and striking, invisible when the story needs to take over and beautiful when it’s time to be noticed. Russell has got it, and I hope she writes a dozen other novels and I hope they’re all as sharp and important as this one.
My Dark Vanessa is made up of two narrative threads. In one, protagonist Vanessa starts out at fifteen, going away to boarding school for the first time and about to be groomed and repeatedly assaulted by her English teacher, Jacob Strane. In the other, she is thirty-two, working at a concierge desk in a hotel, living alone, still in regular contact with the man who abused her. In this second thread, another victim of Strane’s has come forward, and Vanessa is forced to re-examine the relationship she has always considered her great love in the era of the Me Too movement.
As both threads unspool, the reader is invited to watch Vanessa’s downfall and examine her later life simultaneously, and it makes for difficult reading. Early on, Strane says: ‘I’m going to ruin you.’ And that’s exactly what he does.
Russell’s examination of predator and victim is fascinating. It’s uncomfortable and challenging to read, as it should be, but impossible to look away. In a clear, unfussy way, she shows how Strane’s abuse has infiltrated every aspect of Vanessa’s life: her studying, her career, her friendships, her relationships, her family. How it has resonated for decades. How it has shaped and stalled her.
Russell could have written a protagonist who was angry about her abuse. Who was clear, even, that it was abuse. But I don’t think it would have been as powerful as this. In blurring lines and making Vanessa confused about what she wants in the present and what she wanted as a teen, Russell lit a fire of rage in me, and I’m sure she’ll light one in many, many readers.
Reviewed by Laura Pearson
Like so many of you, I found One Day in December delightfully charming. So I was all over Josie Silver’s new novel, The Two Lives of Lydia Bird. I love Silver’s smooth but sharp writing, and I love a dual narrative, so I was pretty sure I’d be a fan. And I was. Lydia loses the love of her life, her fiancé Freddie, on her twenty-seventh birthday, when he is involved in a fatal car crash. Freddie’s best friend, Jonah, escapes with a very minor scar. The trio have been in one another’s lives since school, and Lydia is absolutely broken by the loss.
Now, all dual-narrative books have to have a device which allows the two narratives to be told, and Silver’s is quite unusual. Lydia discovers that when she takes her prescribed sleeping tablets, she ends up in a parallel universe in which Freddie is alive and well. Of course, she wants to visit all the time, and begins to neglect her waking life. But she soon learns that life in the dream world isn’t perfect either, and that, despite her enormous grief, the ‘real’ world does have some things going for it, too.
Silver draws characters brilliantly. Lydia, Freddie, Lydia’s sister Elle and Jonah are all real and flawed and so compelling. I adored spending time with them. Will Lydia find a reason to stay in her real life? Will she attend her own wedding in her dream world? Will she ever find love again? All of these questions are answered brilliantly in this big, warm hug of a book.
Finally, there’s a line in this book that I can already picture being in a film version and becoming iconic. Let me know if you agree when you’ve read it.
Reviewed by Laura Pearson
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