Tag Archives: Female friendship in fiction

Expectation by Anna Hope: Testament of friendship

Anna Hope’s new novel is very different from Wake and The Ballroom, her first two, both of which I enjoyed and both of which were set in the early twentieth century. Expectation opens in 2004 and has the kind of structure that I find irresistible, exploring themes of friendship, motherhood, love and feminism through the lives of Hannah, Cate and Lissa who share a house together in their twenties.

Hannah and Cate met when they were twelve. Rivals for the top place in their English Literature set, they became firm friends and remained so despite Cate winning a place at Oxford while Hannah found herself at Manchester. There she met Lissa, beautiful and sassy, the daughter of a ‘70s feminist. All three settle into a house overlooking London Fields after university, living lives full of hard work and enjoyment. Hannah becomes the deputy director of an NGO, marrying Nathan, Lissa’s childhood friend, apparently the perfect couple. Cate involves herself in the anti-capitalism movement, leaving her lover in the States when her visa runs out while Lissa becomes an actor with all the insecurity that entails. By their mid-thirties, their carefree life has slipped away: Hannah and Nathan are into their third round of IVF; Cate has a baby with a man she barely knows, marrying him and moving out of London, and Lissa makes ends meet with whatever work she can find. These three are bound together in friendship, meeting regularly, sometimes sharing problems, sometimes donning a brave face and sometimes looking enviously at each others’ lives. Much has changed by the end of the novel – betrayal, grief, disappointment, pain have all been suffered along with forgiveness, joy and hope.

You must keep hold of your friendships, Lissa. The women. They’re the only thing that will save you in the end  

Hope bookends her lovely, empathetic novel with two sunny Saturday mornings, the first in 2004 when Hannah and Cate buy breakfast to share with Lissa at home and the second in 2018 when the three, now in their mid-forties, meet for a picnic. Each of the friends’ lives are followed in narrative threads which intertwine, interspersed with snapshots from their past filling in their stories. The result is a pleasingly immersive novel which is a clear-eyed testament to the value of enduring friendship while far from romanticising it. Hope has a good eye for character: Hannah, Cate and Lissa are all perceptively drawn with depth and care but Lissa’s mother Sarah, who castigates her daughter at one point for how little her generation have made of the advances achieved by ‘70s feminism, is particularly affectionately portrayed. A quick check of Hope’s acknowledgements touchingly reveals that her mother, like Sarah, was a Greenham Common veteran. This is such an enjoyable piece of fiction. Steering well clear of the saccharine, Hope rounds it off with a satisfying ending to a novel filled with wit, humanity and compassion.

For those interested in the Booker Prize longlist, I managed to outdo myself this year and score a big fat zero. Here’s what I’d hoped for – here’s what the judges have decreed. Ah, well…

Blasts from the Past: Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson (2005)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Linda Olsson’s Astrid and Veronika is as near as it gets to a perfect read for me: lean, elegantly beautiful prose which shows never tells all topped off with a gorgeous jacket fitting the novel beautifully. Books rarely move me to tears – it’s cinema that reduces me to a sniveling mess – but this one did.

In the hope of coming to terms with the death of her partner, Veronika has rented a small house in the Swedish countryside in the middle of a bleak, harsh winter. She wants to be alone, seeking the quiet stillness needed for thought, contemplation and writing. Her arrival is watched by Astrid, her reclusive elderly neighbour, who tentatively reaches out to Veronika, cooking her delicious meals, Theirs is difficult friendship which takes time to root itself but when it does these two find an affinity, confiding past loves, losses and secrets.

Astrid and Veronika is such a beautiful book. Olsson’s descriptions of the Swedish countryside are lyrical and poetic; her depiction of these two women, both immersed in sadness, heart-wrenchingly poignant. I wish I could urge you all to take yourselves off to the nearest bookshop and buy a copy but sadly, for UK readers anyway, it’s out of print here. The rest of you might have better luck.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Before Everything by Victoria Redel: A gorgeous paean of praise to friendship

Cover imageEvery now and then a book comes along about which it’s hard not to gush. Victoria’s Redel’s lovely Before Everything fits that bill for me. I was very much attracted by its premise – five women, friends since school, come together when one of them is dying – but I hadn’t expected the bonus of such graceful, elegant writing.

Anna’s cancer has recurred. She’s been in remission several times but is done with invasive surgery, debilitating chemotherapy and the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. She’s the lodestar of the Old Friends, the name the five adopted when they were eleven. Beautiful, clever and vivid, Anna can also be selfish, manipulative and bossy. They all know that but they love her, regardless, as do the many others that Anna has drawn into her orbit over the two decades she’s lived in her neighbourhood. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the never-ending conversation the five of them share, taking her out on an ill-advised outing, stepping a little carelessly on the toes of the women they think of as her new friends and struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Each of them has their own lives, troubled and otherwise, but Anna has always been at the centre. Meanwhile, Anna’s husband continues with the hard graft of caring for his dying wife despite their estrangement.

Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – smoothly switching perspective between Anna, her friends and her husband. These are women who have seen each other through joy and misery, difficulty and triumphs, for decades. None of them can envisage a world in which they won’t rush to tell Anna of their news, fashioning the latest mishap into a story, confiding a fear or a hope. Redel neatly avoids the saccharine, portraying the women with all their flaws and capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a beautifully crafted novel. There are a multitude of quotes I could pull out but here’s a smattering to give you a flavour: ‘They have done so much laughing, these five, they’d managed to laugh their way through even the unlaughable’; ‘Fear was always there, a gauze between her and the vivid rest of her life’; ’She imagined her dresses flouncing through town, a flutter of hems waiting at a crosswalk, an A-line flare pressing a code at an ATM’ and perhaps my favourite ‘We are here. And then we’re not. For a little while, we are a story’. A gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin, Before Everything is the first of Redel’s books to be published in the UK. I hope that Sceptre have plans for her other four.

It came as no surprise to find that Redel is a poet which often turns out to be the case when I’ve particularly enjoyed a novelist’s writing, the most obvious example being Helen Dunmore. It may be a little presumptuous but I like to think that she would have loved this novel as much as I do.