It’s all about women this month, as we dive into a selection of fascinating female storylines including Meg Mason’s You Be Mother
Words by Charlotte Griffiths
You Be Mother by Meg Mason
Originally published in 2017, this book from smash-hit author Meg Mason has been republished this summer to build on her new-found fame as the creator of the sublime Sorrow and Bliss. This new-old work is a sweeping epic that grabs your attention and refuses to let go, long after its conclusion. Covering motherhood, friendship, family dynamics, relationships, long-distance connections and the joys of cold-water swimming – it’s an ideal autumn read. Young Abi finds herself in Australia with three-week-old son Jude, having followed his Aussie father, Stu, across the world, determined to avoid the ex-council flat where she was raised by her mentally unwell mother Rae. Resolved to shed bad habits, yet also battling the demands of motherhood, she and Stu live in a meagrely furnished flat provided by his disapproving mother Elaine and quiet, gentle father Roger. To make ends meet, architecture student Stu takes on bar shifts, so Abi finds herself alone more often than not. While out on a walk and looking for somewhere to sit and feed Jude, she hops a fence into a lido, which is where she first meets 70-ish Phyllida – AKA Phil – who admires Jude from the pool and fills Abi with a rush of longing. Phil turns out to be Abi’s neighbour, and their subsequent meeting makes Abi feel as if “the knot in her stomach loosened for the first time in days, or weeks, or her entire life until that moment”. In the rush to be loved by Phil, Abi tells a tiny untruth which immediately ripples out and will no doubt have consequence. But for now, living moment-by-moment, it seems a small price to pay for Phil’s attention and care. This book is a love story in so many ways. Abi worshipping the tiny, helpless Jude; her immediate desire for Phil; and Phil’s mutual adoration of this utterly determined young mother. But it’s also about what grows in the absence of love, and how we cope with those gaps in our lives. There’s Abi’s heartbreakingly, all-too-real relationship with her mother, and the halting, stumbling connection between Abi and Stu. Then there’s Stu’s parents reforming the family unit around the surprise addition of two new members, and Phil’s grown-up family who’ve flown the nest. Full of poignant moments that will make you catch your breath, with tears springing to your eyes, this is absolutely stunning.
The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li
The Book of Goose is a dark, deeply affecting story of intense female connection, told as a retrospective by Agnès after she learns of the death of her brilliant childhood friend Fabienne. From the safe distance of Agnès’ new life in America, we discover that the two girls grew up in poverty together in rural France, spinning extravagant fantasy worlds as a means of escapism. Aged 13, they’re both obsessed with each other – or at least, Agnès is obsessed with Fabienne – spending most of their time together, despite the disapproval of Agnès’ parents. One afternoon, the girls concoct a bizarre plan to befriend the village’s recently widowed postmaster: the need for a reason to speak with him leads them to decide to write a book together and ask for his help. The resulting collection of macabre tales of village life is drawn from the girls’ memories and imaginations. Published under Agnès’ name, it’s an unexpected success, transforming her into a child prodigy. Soon, she’s whisked away to Paris to meet the press – but can she keep up the illusion without her friend and, more importantly, does she want to? Dotted with observations on the duality of friendship, and how the most meaningful connections hold the potential to hurt the most, this is a thought-provoking and gripping read.
The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Ailey Pearl Garfield spends each summer in the small town of Chicasetta, Georgia, where her maternal family has lived since her mother’s ancestors were first brought to America as slaves from Africa, nearly two centuries before. They survived against the odds to create a line of women leading to Ailey and her sisters – one wrestling with drug addiction, one a high-achieving doctor. To better know her present, teenage Ailey begins digging through her past, piecing together truths and trauma that explain why her world is the way it is. The novel jumps hundreds of years, dividing focus between the tale of Ailey’s ancestors finding their feet and forming connections with indigenous Native American tribes – also abused by white colonists – while also telling the saga of Ailey, her sisters, their hard-working mother and tradition-focused grandmother. Taking a break while reading this extraordinary work of art is like coming up for air: you blink into the light, astounded by the centuries and content covered. It gives you a tiny sense of the weight of history, of ancestors who gave all so that you might succeed, of the unbearable pain of knowing of where one is from, of what went before, and how to live with that trauma every day. This book cannot be fully expressed in a few paragraphs – you’ll finish humbled by the distance covered, in awe of the author’s imagination, and grim-faced at the all-too-real truths about the history of America woven within the pages.
Not Safe for Work by Isabel Kaplan
It is a depressing, universally acknowledged truth that a young female executive will – even in the most progressive of workplaces – at some point, be told how pretty she looks by a senior employee, or experience some other interaction that leaves her outwardly smiling and inwardly shuddering. Although Kaplan’s NSFW is set in Hollywood before the short-lived explosion caused by Me Too, many of the events and observations still ring grimly true today, and this book would make timely reading for any fresh-faced hopeful about to head off to seek their fortune. The unnamed 22-year-old Harvard graduate who leads us through this short novel is just starting out at a TV network; a few rungs off the bottom of the ladder, thanks to the influence of her mother – who happens to be a powerful entertainment lawyer. The narrator knows the rules of the game and settles into her desk job, hoping for more – but can she ever really succeed in this patriarchal microsociety, without selling out her feminist ideals?
Hungry for more? Catch up on past Book Club’s here.