It was that eye-catching jacket that attracted me to Hannah Vincent’s She-Clown and Other Stories although I’d spotted Amanda at Bookish Chat was interested and she has a sharp eye for short stories. Vincent already has a couple of novellas under her belt but this is her first collection of stories which are all about women, many of them in tricky circumstances of one sort or another.
The sixteen pieces that make up She-Clown and Other Stories stretch over a mere 160 pages, some briefer than others beginning with Portrait of the Artist in which the parents of a bright young girl are called into her school to discuss her disturbing writing. Several explore the gender power imbalance – Carnival sees one woman accept the her boss’ initiation rite while her friend does not, having chosen to impersonate him at the office fundraiser. Others portray coercive relationships in a more tangential way: in Connie and Me a friendship between a Chinese student and an ageing ex-model living with a gambler ends poignantly. Two more of the sixteen stood out for me: Camel Toe in which two ageing sisters come alive at a netball match, one shedding her relentless caring role, and the eponymous She-Clown who performs to a sceptical audience then has her own cynicism overturned when a children’s birthday party gig doesn’t end quite as she expected. Perhaps the most satisfying, though is the final story, Woman of the Year, in which the preceding pieces’ main protagonists are all brought together at an awards ceremony.
Vincent explores her feminist theme with wit and humour, occasionally bringing her readers up short with a touch of the surreal. It takes quite a degree of discipline to tell a story in ten pages or fewer, as so many of the pieces in this collection are, but Vincent carries it off beautifully. Her sharp attention to detail, smartly demonstrated in Woman of the Year, and clean, spare writing coupled with the delivery of more than a few surprises, small twists and subversive details, make this a pleasing collection. Just two stories didn’t work for me, a pretty impressive hit rate for a collection of sixteen.
If you’re keen to get your hands on a copy of She-Clown and Other Stories, you can order one direct from Myriad Editions. They’re a small publisher who will be struggling in these difficult times. This is their 100th publication and I’m hoping they’ll be around to publish 100 more.
I often look for a theme on which to hang these posts and seldom manage to find one but this is one of those rare occasions. All the titles that have caught my eye for this second March instalment seem to be about women, marriage and relationships, or both beginning with Jami Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours in which a daughter is determined to unearth the secrets of her difficult father who is dying. Alex grills her mother who thinks about her stormy married life while fending off her daughter’s incessant questions. Alex’s brother has kept himself firmly out of the proceedings while his wife has a meltdown which seems to involve buying huge amounts of lipstick. ‘As each family member grapples with Victor’s history, they must figure out a way to move forward – with one another, for themselves and for the sake of their children’ according to the blurb. Given that it’s by Jami Attenberg, I’m expecting some sharp writing.
Daughters are the subject of Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow which is to be published for the first time here in the UK. Much acclaimed in the States at its 2011 publication, Jones’ novel explores the friendship that grows between two half-sisters only one of whom knows that they share a father. ‘Elegant and wise, compassionate and profound, this is an unforgettable novel from the winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction’ according to the blurb. It’s a very promising premise and although I wasn’t such a fan of An American Marriage as the Women’s Prize for Fiction judges it certainly impressed me.
Frances Leviston’s The Voice in My Ear is all about women, by the sound of it – ten of them, all called Claire, all leading very different lives and all living in their mother’s shadow, apparently. ‘With startling insight and understanding, Frances Leviston offers a frighteningly perceptive slice of contemporary womanhood. In forensic, indelible prose that is often bleakly funny, The Voice in My Ear reveals a brilliant new voice in fiction – and invites us to consider our own place in the relationships that define us’ say the publishers. Very much like the sound of that, particularly as Leviston’s a poet and I’ve a weakness for novels by poets.
Pauline Delabroy-Allards’s debut, All About Sarah tells the story of just two women who embark on a tumultuous affair – the eponymous Sarah and the woman she meets at a New Year’s Eve party. While Sarah is something of a hellraiser her thirtysomething lover leads a more constrained life, working as a teacher while raising her daughter alone. ‘Sarah enters the scene like a tornado. A talented young violinist, she is loud, vivacious, appealingly unkempt in a world where everyone seems preoccupied with being ‘just so’. It is the beginning of an intense relationship, tender and violent, that will upend both women’s lives’ say the publishers of a novel which took literary France by storm, apparently.
The blurb for Sarah Butler’s Jack & Bet reminds me a little of Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack with its story of a very long marriage. After seventy years together, Jack and Bet plan to see out their old age in their flat but their son wants them safe and sound in a residential home. A friendship with a young Romanian woman seems to offer a solution that would suit them all but Bet has a secret that must be dealt with first. ‘Tender, moving and beautifully told, Sarah Butler’s Jack & Bet is an unforgettable novel about love and loss, the joys and regrets of a long marriage, and the struggle to find a place to call home’ according to the publishers. I rather like the sound of this one.
Ryan and Emily are at a very different stage from Jack and Bet in Hannah Persaud’s The Codes of Love. With successful jobs and a lovely home, theirs is a happy marriage as long as they stick to the rules. When freewheeling Ada comes along, both Emily and Ryan find themselves drawn to her unbeknownst to each other, apparently, reminding me of Joanna Briscoe’s Sleep with Me and Simone de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay, both of which I loved.
Well known in Ireland as a newspaper columnist, playwright and memoirist, Hilary Fannin’s name was new to me until her first novel, The Weight of Love, started popping up on my Twitter timeline. Shifting between 2017 and 1996, Fannin’s novel follows Robin and Ruth whose marriage is haunted by Robin’s friend Joseph with whom Ruth had a brief, passionate affair before she and Robin got together. ‘An intimate and moving account of the intricacies of marriage and the myriad ways in which we can love and be loved’ say the publishers promisingly.
I’m winding up March with Hannah Vincent’s She-Clown and Other Stories which explores the lives of women – some ordinary, some extraordinary – trying to cope with the many demands put upon them, apparently. ‘Women in these stories are exhilarated to discover the joy and surprise of other women’s company, they make bold sexual choices and go on night-time excursions. As grandmothers they give their grandchildren unsuitable presents’ say the publishers of what sounds like an excellent collection, and a particularly appropriate one with which to end this preview in which women have played a starring role.
As ever, a click on any of the titles that take your fancy will lead to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…