We know women’s history month is over but we have one last addition: Natalia’s book club picks. As we were all caught up in research we forgot to post about it in March – but why not continue the celebration of women and literature?!
As someone who is both a student in the Institute of English Studies and a feminist, it is perhaps not that surprising that I belong to a book club, nor that we have ended up prioritising works by women in our (roughly) monthly picks.
That is not to disregard the great works by men, but to try and tip the scale of how many male to female writers we were taught about and consequently read into something a bit more equal. As a kind of bonus post, I’ve listed all of the books we’ve chosen so far along with a bite-size review. Happy reading!
Achilles’ Fiancée by Alki Zei
Achilles’ Fiancée by Alki Zei was first published in 1987 in Greek. This is the 2015 edition published by Bookboom. 410 pages.
In scenes often drawn from the writer’s life, this book explores the major political events in mid-twentieth-century Greece through the eyes of our protagonist, Eleni. Swept up into the resistance movement as a teenager, the course of Eleni’s life changes when she meets Achilles, a Communist kapetanios, and becomes Achilles’ fiancée. We see how over twentyish years Eleni begins to formulate her own political consciousness and to question the party line. A great read that offers a window into modern Greek history.
Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym
Often thought of as a Jane Austen for the 1950s, Pym dissects the eccentricities and ridiculousness of middle-class England with surgical precision. A comedy of manners, Jane and Prudence is a breeze to read, the book equivalent of a mug of tea on a rainy afternoon.
Dearly (poems) by Margaret Atwood
Perhaps more well known for her novels, Atwood has continued to publish poetry alongside her fiction, and this is her latest offering. It deals with subjects as varied as the climate crisis, violence against women, ageing, and the animal world. Although it takes a bit of time to get truly interesting, the last section of poems is by itself worth the price of admission.
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
If you could distil the essence of a French New Wave film into a novel, this would be it. Sarrazin’s dreamy, evocative writing fictionalises events from the author’s tragically short life that was nonetheless full of adventure. Featuring a prison escape, a half-doomed romance and a captivating if not always likeable protagonist, it is a forgotten classic that deserves your attention.
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner
The winner of the 1984 Booker Prize, Hotel du Lac is part-travel escapism and part-unconventional romance. The plot centres on Edith Hope, a novelist who has left London in a hurry for the shores of Lake Geneva for a reason that only becomes clear as the book progresses. Brookner never allows the story or the writing to stray into saccharine territory, preferring twists on the tropes of romantic novels and a good dose of acerbic turns-of-phrase.
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
Considered one of the first LGBTQ+ novels, Hall’s book is in part inspired by the author’s own life. A scandal when it was first published, it is rather a moving study of someone who was made to be an outsider. Although it veers at times into melodrama, it is nonetheless an important and interesting read.
The Well of Loneliness. Edition published by Penguin Random House, Penguin Classics in 2015. 512 pages.
Dominicana by Angie Cruz
We were lucky enough to talk to Angie Cruz as part of last year’s International Women’s Day Symposium and this was the book that introduced me to her work. At its core, Dominicana is an immigrant tale, and depicts a very personal story against a backdrop of bigger issues. Rather than a simple narrative of finding a so-called “promised land”, Cruz probes the realities and difficulties in making that transition, which results in an ultimately far more realistic depiction.
The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
Whilst not as experimental in form and style as the work of her modernist contemporaries, The Edwardians was still a bestseller upon its publication and it is easy to see why. It is set around the turn of the century, when the class system was starting to lose its stranglehold on society, and offers both a critique of the aristocracy and a reflection of the author’s experiences growing up in that environment. In Sackville-West’s deft prose, those days of decline are brought to life for later audiences.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
The Idiot is located precisely at the point when having left school, you’re trying to figure out what you as an adult looks like, and due to this “figuring out phase”, the plot can appear to dawdle without really going anywhere. However, in terms of capturing that particular time and making a lot of spot-on observations about university life, it hits the mark.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
This was a book that I had been meaning to read for some time, hoping that it would live up to its reputation, and it 100% does. Once you familiarise yourself with the vernacular that Hurston writes in, you are immersed in the novel, and the pages don’t seem to turn quickly enough. The transformation of Janie, our protagonist, from voiceless and accepting to defiant and bold is enthralling, as is the dramatic ending that you won’t see coming.
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Hayes
A Thousand Ships. Published by Picador in 2020. 368 pages.
Part of the current wave of feminist retellings of Greek mythology, Hayes’ work recounts of the events of the Trojan War, though, notably, from the perspective of the women involved. In doing so, she challenges the notion that the stories of epic poetry are the stories of great men, and are actually something far more complex.