Tag Archives: Lorna Gibb

Childless Voices by Lorna Gibb: Stories of Longing, Loss, Resistance and Choice

Cover imageBack in 2015 I reviewed Lorna Gibb’s first novel, A Ghost’s Story, a fascinating exploration of belief and longing to believe set against the backdrop of nineteenth-century spiritualism. I follow her on Twitter so knew she was writing something about childlessness and hoped I’d be offered it for review. It’s a state she and I share but I’m childless by choice whereas she had assumed she would have children.

Childless Voices is divided into sections each of which examines childlessness from a variety of perspectives – from infertility to bereavement, choice to enforced sterilisation – against cultural backgrounds which range from tolerant to downright cruel. Each section is followed by short personal reflections. Gibb’s hope is that her book will give a voice to some who are unable to speak freely themselves

As you might expect, it’s an intensely personal book at times but Gibb’s empathy is firmly anchored in careful research and the testimony of others, rounded off with a thorough bibliography. Her experience of living in Qatar and her interviews with women in rural India are particularly poignant, shocking at times. Infertility in the Western world is hard enough to bear for those who wish to have children but in many parts of the world where women are often seen of worth only for their ability to bear them, it commonly leads to ostracism, violence and suicide.  Other cultures have more creative ways of dealing with what they perceive as a problem –  mention of Albania’s sworn virgins reminded me of Elvira Dones’ fascinating novel.

It was a bitter yearning of a few years for me; time passed and there was no more longing, just a sense of absence

Gibb’s own experience of endometriosis, the worst her surgeon has ever seen, is harrowing. She writes eloquently of coping with questions about childlessness which so often results in a gush of sympathy, inappropriate from strangers. In her final section, she reflects on what her childlessness means to her and her coming to turns with it. There’s not a trace of self-pity in this powerful book, entirely excusable though it would. Gibb’s experience has been underpinned with the loving support of her husband who, of course, is childless, too. Her book is dedicated to him.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in October 2016

Cover imageRemarkably slim paperback pickings this October which some of you may be relieved to hear. Just two to look out for one of which I’ve already reviewed. Lorna Gibb’s A Ghost’s Story is somewhat different from the more traditional scare-yourself-rigid variety, not so much a ghost story as the ‘autobiography’ of one of the most famous manifestations of the spirit world: Katie King who first made her appearance at the height of the nineteenth-century spiritualism craze. Couching her story within the framework of academic research, Gibb takes us from London to New York, Russia to the slums of Naples, and back again as she follows Katie from séance to séance, revealing the elaborate theatrical shenanigans employed by mediums and their sponsors. In a clever twist Katie’s is the voice of scepticism, debunking much of what she sees at séances and wary of those who seem to have the possibility of psychic ability. The novel’s fragmentary structure takes a little getting used to but it’s fascinating study of the strange world of belief and longing to believe, and it’s very funny at times.

Steve Stern’s The Pinch sounds very different. It’s set in the 1960s in the eponymous Memphis the-pinchneighbourhood, once a thriving Jewish community. Lenny Sklarew, the last remaining tenant, finds that he’s a character in a novel about the area written by a woman who knew it in its heyday. Stern interweaves the story of the author and Larry’s uncle in what the publishers call ‘a brilliant, unforgettable novel’ – although they would say that, wouldn’t they. I’ve not come across Stern before. He seems to be much acclaimed in the States although the New York Times begs to differ. I’m not at all sure about The Pinch after reading that but the premise does makes it sound worth investigating.

That’s it for October. If you’d like to catch up with the much more extensive hardback preview here it is.

A Ghost’s Story by Lorna Gibb: A matter of punctuation

Cover image‘Tis the season of ghost stories. Halloween’s long past, I know but Christmas, when lots of us are cosily tucked up at home, offers the perfect opportunity for a few ghostly frissons. Lorna Gibb’s A Ghost’s Story is somewhat different from the more traditional scare-yourself-rigid variety such as Susan Hill’s splendidly terrifying The Woman in Black. The hint’s in the title’s punctuation. This isn’t so much a ghost story as the ‘autobiography’ of one of the most famous manifestations of the spirit world: Katie King – or John King as she was sometimes known – who first made her appearance during the heyday of nineteenth-century spiritualism. Gibb has already published non-fiction in the shape of a biography of Rebecca West but this is her first novel, and a very ambitious one it is, too.

It begins with Katie’s first glimmerings of consciousness – a collage of graphic, chaotic images, many gruesome and full of death, ending with the vision of an extraordinarily empathetic little boy touched by the death of a mill hand. This is Robert Dale Owen, son of the philanthropist Robert Owen, who Katie comes to love and yearn for many years beyond his death. Couching her story within the framework of academic research, Gibb takes us from London to New York, Russia to the slums of Naples, and back again as she follows Katie from séance to séance, revealing the elaborate theatrical shenanigans employed by mediums and their sponsors. It’s a story which spans a century and a half, ending in 2013 with Katie’s impressions of the life she ‘has not lived’. Gibb’s novel is made up of seven computer printouts which appear on an Italian bookshop’s printer apparently without human intervention; bits and pieces of ‘spirit writing’ courtesy of the Magic Circle’s library; analyses of documents by Adam Marcus, an academic – now dead; and correspondence between the Magic Circle’s librarian and Lorna Gibb, the academic who has taken over from Marcus.

The novel’s fragmentary structure takes a little getting used to but the device of academic research gives Gibb’s fiction a nice touch of sceptical analysis making Katie’s voice all the more vivid. At times it’s very funny – Katie sniffily decries the theatrics and sexual titillation of nineteenth-century spiritualism with its scantily clad young women and levitating tables, often finding humans intensely irritating. In a clever twist hers is the voice of scepticism, debunking much of what she sees at séances and wary of those who seem to have the possibility of psychic ability. Gibb injects a poignancy into Katie’s story with her yearning for connection and physicality, and her constant devotion to Robert Dale Owen. It’s a novel firmly rooted in research, peopled with prominent historical figures – from the renowned scientist Alfred Russel Wallace, who becomes convinced of Katie’s existence, to Florence Cook, a celebrated Victorian medium – and if I have a criticism it’s that at times the research threatened to overwhelm the story. That said, it’s a fascinating study of the strange world of belief and longing to believe all wrapped up in a very clever, sophisticated piece of fiction.

Books to Look Out For in November 2015: Part 2

Cover imageThe second instalment of November goodies begins with a debut – Sloane Crosley’s The Clasp – although you may already know her from the delightfully named set of essays I Was Told There’d be Cake. Crosley’s novel follows a set of college friends as they make their way in the big wide world of jobs, romantic entanglements and friendships. This structure is catnip for me as regular visitors to this blog may have already noticed. Michael Chabon likes it too, apparently

Lorna Gibb’s A Ghost’s Story is just the sort of title publishers bring out for Christmas. Often they’re to be avoided like the plague but Gibb’s novel sounds intriguing. The Katie King spirit was famous in the 19th and 20th centuries for her appearances at séances and this is her fictionalised autobiography, ‘an examination of belief and a spectacular insight into what lies on the other side’, apparently. It’s also the story of a scholar who attempts to understand the Katie phenomenon. If Gibb manages to pull it off this could be a wonderfully original novel. We’ll see.Cover image

In Karine Tuil’s The Age of Reinvention successful Manhattan attorney Sam Tahar has built his life on a lie. The son of a Tunisian living in Paris, Tahar threw off his impoverished background making friends with a Jewish student at law school until they both conceived a passion for the same woman. When Nina chose Samuel, Tahar took off for America assuming Samuel’s identity. Many years later the three meet again with disastrous consequences. Tuil’s novel was a Prix Goncourt finalist and sounds well worth a look.

Set in Copenhagen just before the 2008 crash Martin Kongstad’s Am I Cold follows food critic Mikkel Vallin. Divorced, deserted by his girlfriend, sacked and unhappily middle-aged, he’s sworn off fidelity and his new girlfriend agrees. All seems fine and dandy until Vallin thinks he may be falling in love. Kongstad’s ‘debut turns the last, glorious, debauched days of pre-crash decadence into a wild satire of modern life’ Cover imagesay his publishers and if it lives up to that billing it could be very entertaining.

Having said so many times that I’m not a short story fan, here I am again including another set. This one’s from Shena Mackay many of whose novels I’ve enjoyed, particularly The Orchard on Fire which was shortlisted for the Booker way back in 1996. Her settings are often suburban, sometimes surreal and she has a fine line in dark humour all of which makes this collection something to look forward to.

That’s it for November hardbacks. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more substantial synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with part one it’s here.