Is it possible the fog that descended on me with the Covid pandemic is lifting? For most of the past two years I've been binge watching television shows for hours each night rather than reading, and when I did read, it's been almost exclusively fantasy novels (and there have been some great ones, many of which I featured in my last What Am I Reading Blog post), but at long last, I am less inclined to tv (is it my imagination or are there really not nearly as many good shows as there were a year ago?)and turning again towards literary fiction.
One highlight was Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell. When I try to describe it, I feel I will fail, because really, who wants to read a book about a child dying in a pandemic, especially right now? Yes, that's the story. But somehow it was just what I needed - a beautifully written book about dread, loss, regret, self-recrimination, and survival. A tale of how enduring great loss includes a long process of mutation - the changes different for each person affected - until we become someone fundamentally different from who we were.O'Farrell shines a piercing light on the complexity of it, not shying from the difficulty but also not indulging in the maudlin. This story is a fictionalized fleshing out of what little we know about William Shakespeare's marriage and the loss of one of their children at a young age. Could it have been the way O'Farrell imagines? Perhaps. The ending suggests that the play Hamlet was at some level Shakespeare's response to the death of his child, Hamnet. An intriguing possibility, that almost works. I will let you guess what hole I see in this hypothesis. But hole or no, it's a masterful and engaging work.
Nightbitch, by Rachel Yoder, is probably the most surprising book I've ever read. It starts out with the all-too-common story of a new mother struggling with the challenges of sleep-deprivation, too much time alone with a young child, and the loss of a beloved career. It's a tale of love tinged with frustration, guilt, insecurity, and anger. Lots of anger. But. One day she notices patches of hair on the back of her neck, and is it possible that her canines are sharper? Sure enough, she becomes not just a metaphoric bitch in the evenings, she literally turns into a feral dog who kills rabbits and eats them raw, blood dripping down her face. In the day she becomes Mom again, but gradually even her daytime persona morphs into something other. She is scared; she is worried. But mainly she feels incredibly happy and powerful. She introduces her son to the pleasures of a dog existence. Her husband objects to the kennel she buys for their son to sleep in. But the boy sleeps so well in there. She finds a book written by a sociologist on the phenomenon of feral woman, which is, in this fictional world, a real thing. This sociologist becomes her guru, and although despite an extensive search she can't find the author in person, the book becomes her guide, reassuring her that her less-than sane situation is . . .normal? Maybe even a gift. As she accepts and embraces her Nightbitch persona, she gains confidence and strength in both the night and the day. We can try to read this as metaphor - a message about embracing your feral side, a sort of Women Run With The Wolves --except that it's not. The book overflows with uncomfortably (wonderfully?) graphic descriptions of the joy in ripping raw flesh off a freshly killed body, the overpoweringly intense appeal of the smell of blood and the many other odors of the world. In this novel, this woman is really truly a night bitch. Someone aptly described Nightbitch as Franz Kafka meets Virginia Woolf. What's most impressive is that Yoder can maintain this degree of surrealism for a full novel. And sustain it she does, with some fantastic twists and turns, and an ending that is performance art.
In contrast, enter A Ghost in the Throat, by Doireann Ni Ghriofa, whose prose is so luminescent I am not surprised to learn she is primarily a poet."A Ghost in the Throat is also a book about a young woman, newly a mother, newly not working outside the home, but this young mother is content with her lot. She take satisfaction in the self-abnegation of motherhood. She checks off the items on her daily to-do list with increasing pleasure as she gets closer to crossing out every single item: "an obliteration I observe in joy and satisfaction" She keeps her list close at hand, saying,"The list is both my map and my compass." In and of itself, this close examination of the pleasures of self-abnegation is startling and seems to encompass the opposite message of Nightbitch, which could be summarized as "claim your power." But the book further complicates because Doireann is obsessed with an Irish poet from the 1700s, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, and spends her few scattered minutes of down time reading her poetry and searching for information about her life, until this poet becomes a "ghost in her throat." A ghost because so little is known about this poet. Her most famous poem is a lament for her murdered husband - a poem of lust, rage, and loss. When she found her husband murdered, she lay grief-stricken by his side and drank his blood. What an odd link to discover between these two very different books - drinking blood. Is it in both cases a sign of a raw desperate need? Another link is the use of an absent other woman, available only via a written text she has left behind, to comfort and guide our heroines. I have not yet finished A Ghost . . . but I look forward to continuing to compare these two books and will report back once I'm done.