Category Archives: Women Writers Reading Project

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar Title: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock
Author: Imogen Hermes Gowar
Publisher: Harvill Secker, Random House
ISBN: 978-1911215721
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical
Pages: 496
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

The year is 1785 and merchant Jonah Hancock has to cope with the tragic news that one of his captains has sold his ship in exchange for a mermaid. Sounds intriguing, isn’t it? I was sold at this premise. But wait a minute. There is more to this story which is more fascinating to me. The side story of Angelica Neal that quickly comes to fore. Neal is London’s most beautiful courtesan who wants to marry rich and secure a future for herself. And who better than Mr. Hancock who has a mermaid to be put on display and make easy money? And all of this is possible through Mrs. Chappell’s brothel (there is more to what meets the eye really) and given she has a soft spot (or so it seems) for Angelica.

Phew! That is not it by the way. There is a lot more going on in the book and let me tell you, that despite its size (500 pages), this is one racy romp of a read. There is a lot of decadence in this book (which I love by the way), there is misery, power, envy and fantasy. If not for the mermaid angle, I would classify this book purely as historic fiction, but let the two merge and work its magic on the reader. Also, might I add the magic of London (and its claustrophobia, its stench, lecherous men and grotesque women) is brought out beautifully by Gowar.

Angelica Neal’s character is so strong that she overpowers everyone else (in some bits and parts) and in a very good way because you’d want her to appear more as the book progresses. There is also a surprise in the form of Polly but I won’t ruin it for you by talking about her. You might want to discover her yourself.

“The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” is set in a vivid and uproarious time. It is the kind of book that must be read again and more than anything for its female characters that stand out and well-deservedly at that. Mrs. Chappell, Angelica and Polly (there is also Mr. Hancock’s niece who makes a brief appearance) are the heroes of this book in all honesty. This is the kind of book that will keep you up all night and you wouldn’t want it any other way. “The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” is all rolled into one – a comfort read (yes, at most times) and a thriller, literary fiction with the much-needed historic setting.

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I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death: A Memoir by Maggie O’ Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am - Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O' Farrell Title: I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death: A Memoir
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525520221
Genre: Memoir, Non-Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

The book is about the author’s seventeen near misses with death. I could say this and explain the book to you but that would not be fair to it. The book is a lot more than just this (though this is the core, mind you, as the title and sub-title will tell you). And yet what I take from it is the fragility of life, sometimes the joy in living and the fact that you still move on, despite the seventeen near misses with death. “I Am, I Am, I Am” is a testament really to living and living with life’s bittersweet moments.

There is no melodrama or sentimentality when it comes to this book. There is a lot of emotion though, but nowhere does it get emotional to the point that it tends to feel fake. O’Farrell’s writing is raw, straight from the core of the heart, to the point of it being exhausting at times (which I was prepared for given the nature of the book) and yet, the book lifts you from the ordinary in so many ways.

Death is something we do not speak of casually or even for that matter most seriously. It is something that we take for granted till perhaps you face it and if you have had close shaves with it seventeen times, then you know better than to think you are immortal or life is long and so on and so forth. “I Am, I Am, I Am” in that sense uproots your ideas of death and life, about how fragile we are and yet as humans we don’t admit it.

Maggie’s experiences could’ve been anyone’s really and even if they aren’t she makes them ours through the power of her writing. When she is on the verge of drowning, so are we. When she suffers, so do we. The book is divided by body parts that were involved in these brushes, sometimes even the entire body and then you see the magnanimity of situations she was in and as a result of that, you empathize no end.

The poetry of prose is also hard to bear, the events intense (some of them) and often drive you to tears. Compassion is strengthened and you bring yourself to find moments of happiness, hope and joy throughout. Maggie O’Farrell has put her heart out on paper and whether or not you have read her novels, you should read “I Am, I Am, I Am” for sure.

The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments by Ann Quin

The Unmapped Country Title: The Unmapped Country: Stories & Fragments
Author: Ann Quin
Publisher: And Other Stories
ISBN: 978-1911508144
Genre: Short Stories, Non-Fiction, Fragments
Pages: 178
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I think my heart skips a beat when I discover a new author. The same happened when I heard of Ann Quin and there was something about her that drew me instantly to wanting to read her. Ann Quin’s work is unlike anything I have read before. I know this is said of a lot of writers in this time and age, but in the case of Quin it couldn’t hold truer. If you are in the mood to read something experimental, mind-boggling and also the kind of writing that makes you emotional, then please read “The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments” by Ann Quin.

Quin does not only break form in her stories and fragments but also goes over the edge in terms of plot. Her writing leaves you with this heaviness in the soul and is ironically also liberating. For instance, here I was reading, the titular incomplete novel (almost 50 pages or so) and I found myself crying and strangely enough smiling (since the story is that of a psychiatric collapse set in an institution quite similar to the ones Quin attended in her troubled years). Her skills of telling a story are crackling and this is a good place to start.

There are then staccato pieces in the book: “Never Trust a Man Who Bathes with His Fingernails” and “Ghostworm” – which are also very vague and make sense when read over and over again. Quin’s pieces are like wine I suppose or an exotic cuisine that one grows to like or love or not. There cannot be in-between emotion when it comes to her writing (or so I think).

There is this sense of unease, this constant shuffling from one reality to another that all-pervades this collection of stories and fragments. Reading this collection reminded me of the urgency of Virginia Woolf, the resplendency of Elizabeth Bowen and the sense of loneliness of Katherine Mansfield. Not that I am comparing (because really Quin cannot be compared), I am just providing a reference or two. All said and done, I know for one that I will be looking out for more of her works (she left this world too soon) and cherish what she had to offer.

Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith

Feel Free - Essays by Zadie Smith Title: Feel Free: Essays
Author: Zadie Smith
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978-0241146897
Genre: Essays, Non-Fiction
Pages: 464
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

My association with the works of Zadie Smith started somewhere in 2003, with White Teeth. It was one of those books that are actually unputdownable (I have always been of the opinion that terms such as these are nothing but marketing gimmicks). Since then, Smith has been one of my favourite writers and with good reason. Her prose is like biting into a plum – tart and sweet and almost awakens you from your stupor. It makes you stand up and take notice of how the world works and perhaps what it always was. Smith doesn’t mince her words. Her characters are everyday people who speak their mind and this is also reflective in her new collection of essays, aptly or ironically (given the world we live in) titled, “Feel Free”.

“Feel Free” to me is one of the books of our times. The kind of book that doesn’t preach but makes so many relevant points that you want to see the world and put it so eloquently as Smith does. It is the collection of essays which are spread over five sections – In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf and Feel Free. These sections pose questions that we recognize and perhaps want answers to: What is the Social Network? What is joy and what is the tolerance of it, if there is something like it? How many kinds of boredom make up life? Who owns the narrative of black America? There are many such questions over a diverse range of topics and that’s what makes Zadie’s essays stand out.

Feel Free speaks of pop culture, culture, social change, political debate, the ever-changing fabric of society and what it really means to be human in the 21st century. Some of these essays have appeared before and some are new. At the same time, all of them are relevant and essential to most areas of our lives.

Smith’s essays are sometimes written with the perspective of an insider, but mostly she is an outsider looking in. It isn’t difficult to understand Smith and to me that was the most brilliant aspect of this collection. For instance, when she writes about a book, you want to get up and go read it. When she speaks of Joni Mitchell, you just want to listen to “River” and “Circle Game” on loop. To me, that is the power of great writing.

Essays are often tough to read and since they are so personal in nature, it becomes even more difficult to gauge the place they are coming from. This does not happen when you are reading “Feel Free”. Zadie’s essays are personal and yet appeal to all. The universal quality of her words is too strong to not be understood and related to. “Feel Free” is the collection of essays that needs to be savoured and pondered on. The one that you will not forget easily.

The Armenian Champa Tree by Mahasweta Devi. Translated by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee

The Armenian Champa Tree by Mahasweta Devi.jpg Title: The Armenian Champa Tree
Author: Mahasweta Devi
Translated from the Bengali by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee
Publisher: Seagull Books
ISBN: 978-8170461463
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translated Works
Pages: 54
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I remember reading my first Mahasweta Devi book at the age of twenty-two I think. It was a long time ago or so it seems like. Since then, I have read and re-read her works. I have tried to make sense of her world or the worlds she creates from reality. I have often found myself helpless, not because I can’t do anything for the under-privileged but because I am perhaps lazy.

At the same time, reading her makes you feel so many things that you just feel them – you don’t fight her writing and you mustn’t. However, “The Armenian Champa Tree” is the kind of book which is layered by politics and caste system and yet doesn’t seem like that. It is one of those books by her which is easy to read (also given that it is so short) and yet makes you think about what she is trying to say.

Mato is a young Buno tribal boy of ten and all he does is daydream, which is mother despises. He is most attached to his pet baby goat, Arjun. A tantric saint demands Arjun’s sacrifice to the goddess Kali and thus begins Mato’s quest to save the baby goat, even if it means entering the Armenian church for it. This is where the stroke of genius of Mahasweta Devi lies. She talks of religious superstitions and makes us see the world for what it is through the eyes of a young boy and a goat. To me, just that was enough to pick up the book.

Also, might I add that the translation by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee is spot on. The reason I say this without reading this in the original form is that some words and phrases are as is which only add to the flavor of the book, at the same time, leaving not wanting for more.

“The Armenian Champa Tree” seems to be an easy book to read and absorb on the surface and it is. Till the layers start peeling and you enjoy it even more.