Tag Archives: Gabriel Weston

Aren’t We Sisters?: A lesson in not judging a book by its cover

Cover imageAren’t We Sisters? put me in a bit of a quandary. The author contacted me asking if I would review her novel, not an unusual experience as I’m sure fellow book bloggers know only too well. Usually, I politely decline but she’d heard of me through a mutual acquaintance whose opinion I trust and I’d enjoyed her Orange Prize longlisted Peripheral Vision, still on my shelves which says a great deal given the overcrowding issue. So I said ‘yes’ then looked it up and saw the cover. Not my style, I thought, and after long years of reading unappealing books for work I’d vowed not to do that with this blog. What to do? Well, read it for a start and I wouldn’t have written this post if I hadn’t enjoyed it enough to recommend it to you. Phew!

Set not long after the First World War, it opens with Lettie Quick. Proud proselytiser of contraception, she’s a nurse working for Marie Stopes whose work is widely regarded as that of the devil. Lettie is smart, sharp and likes the good things in life but her judgement in men is poor. She knows it’s time to ditch her latest and when she spots a photograph of her childhood home town she decides to set up shop there. She’s soon ensconced with Norah – genteelly poor, virginal and completely ignorant of anything remotely sexual despite her thirty-six years – and not long afterwards has found herself another unsuitable man: Dr Philip Hayward, married, comfortably confident in his entitlement, ‘good at a party, good in a shipwreck’. Lettie has a sideline in discreetly delivering the children of expectant mothers who find themselves in embarrassing situations. Soon she has a rather inconvenient customer in Rae, a movie starlet installed in a crumbling old mansion, once an orphanage. Rae’s story intertwines with Lettie’s and Norah’s in what soon becomes a novel full of secrets and lies.

It took me a little while to get into this book, not because it has a slow start but because it’s busy with storylines running through its often very short chapters. Once I’d got those straight I found it quite gripping, and all the more so as the tension ratchets up. Wrapped up in what becomes a page-turning thriller is a deep concern about women’s reproductive health and sexual ignorance. For Lettie, who knows from bitter experience that it’s so rarely the case, every child should be a planned child. For Norah, even the basic mechanics of sex are a mystery. And for Rae, childbirth and how it can possibly work, is not something to be thought about no matter how imminent the birth of her baby. It’s very much about women – male characters are thin on the ground and, with two honourable exceptions, nasty or clueless. This may sound a little worthy but Ferguson’s skill and clever plotting is such that her novel is completely absorbing. Not a great cover – at least for me – but a brilliant title which proves to have a multitude of interpretations and answers.Those of you alreadyCover image acquainted with Silkhampton will know that this is a sequel to The Midwife’s Daughter but although there are clearly many references to characters in the first novel they’re handled so deftly that you don’t need to have read it to enjoy this one. If Aren’t We Sisters? is anything to go by, adapted for TV they’d both fill the Sunday night drama slot beautifully.

There’s particular scene in Aren’t We Sisters? that brought to mind Gabriel Weston’s Dirty Work, a fine novel much overlooked last year. It explores a very different present day dilemma through the experiences of an obstetrician who performs abortions – legally, of course. I’m sure Lettie would have approved despite the ethical questions it poses. How far things have progressed in the years since Marie Stopes was roundly abused on the streets of London.

Baileys anyone?

The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced tonight. I’m hoping for a Kate Atkinson victory but still reeling a little from the thought that I’ll soon have to refer to it as the Baileys Prize. Perhaps I’m being snobby. Let’s be honest – I am being snobby. But it’s hard to equate a thick, sweet liqueur with the very best fiction by women, even if I have enjoyed the odd tipple of it myself many years ago.

Cover imageIt’s been a pretty sobering week’s reading so far with the excellent Meet Me in Gaza on Monday followed by Gabriel Weston’s powerful first novel, Dirty Work. Direct Red was Weston’s remarkably honest and compassionate account of her training in a large London teaching hospital written in elegant clear-eyed yet sometimes poetically beautiful prose. Dirty Work is written in the same quietly striking style. It follows Nancy Mullion, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, as she awaits a tribunal’s verdict on whether she is fit to continue practising surgery after her patient suffers a catastrophic haemorrhage. Nancy’s work is her life. Not much room for anything else when you’ve spent seven years studying intensively, then working all hours and must not only continue to maintain your knowledge but publish new research if you’re to get on. Her suspension gives her the time to reflect that she does not otherwise have. Weston interweaves Nancy’s thoughts about her childhood, her relationships and her career with her fears about the tribunal’s investigation and her part in its procedures. In vivid vignettes we learn that Nancy was a studious little girl whose happiest time was the years she spent in the States. She is a little obsessive, harbouring a yearning for Tom with whom she shared a night of adolescent kissing until her disappointing encounter with him in adulthood. She has a loving and supportive sister. She lives on her own and has few friends. Gradually we learn that Nancy performs abortions.

In the book’s press release, Lionel Shriver is quoted as describing Dirty Work as a ‘brave book’. Indeed it is, and a very necessary one. Readers will no doubt have strong views about abortion but whatever your standpoint Dirty Work will make you think about it again, perhaps in ways you don’t expect. By taking us through Nancy’s thought processes, Weston forces her readers to think not just about the women who undergo abortion, or about the foetuses aborted, but also about the effects upon the doctors who perform the procedure and how the issue is talked about, or perhaps not talked about, by the profession. After giving her readers the opportunity to skip ahead, Weston refuses to spare those who continue the physical details of an abortion, both the actual process and what has to be done to ensure that it has been entirely successful. And we really shouldn’t look away. Those of us who are pro-choice should understand what we expect of those who carry out our wishes and the toll it takes on them. Dirty Work is not a polemical book for either the pro-choice or anti-choice sides of the debate but it is one that brings you face to face with harsh realities.

Somehow it’s hard to envision the Bailey’s tag attached to a book like Dirty Work even though it’s just the sort of novel that would qualify for the prize. Still, as H said to me this morning – rather tartly, I thought – I should be glad that anyone has stepped into the Orange breach given our current straitened times.