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Book Review: The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones

The tragedy of death was distance. Death cleaved the world in two, leaving the living and the dead standing on either side of some impassable chasm. 

Drowned woodsSet in a fantastical version of ancient Wales, The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones tells the story of Mererid, the last water diviner. She is living on the run, having escaped from the prince who branded her, after she realized he was using her as a weapon: he had her find the sources of the wells in a community, and then he would poison them.

When Renfrew, the spymaster from the prince’s court who trained her, finds her working at a tavern, he offers her a chance to gain some of the prince’s power by stealing some of his treasure. Along the way, they meet Fane, who is an iron fetch in the control of the fey, Ivanna who is the princess of the guild of thieves, and several other characters. The story weaves into the old Welsh legends but doesn’t feel like a retelling, per se. 

I listened to this during the week of Thanksgiving and it was the perfect companion during trail runs, gardening, and all of my cooking. The narrator has a European accent that went perfectly with the story. I haven’t read any of Emily Lloyd-Jones’s other books but I am glad to have discovered her work. The Bone Houses is set in the same world as this one, so I will try it next.

Book Review: Happening by Annie Ernaux

(If I had to choose on painting to symbolize that episode in my life, it would be a small table with a formica top pushed up against a wall and an enamel basin with a probe glowing on the surface. Slightly to the right—a hairbrush. I don’t believe there is a single museum in the world whose collections feature a work called The Abortionist’s Studio.)

HappeningWhen I read about the French writer Annie Ernaux winning the Nobel Peace Prize for literature, I didn’t know anything about her work. She received the award “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements, and collective restraints of personal memory,” which resonates with me. I decided I needed to read something by her immediately, and chose Happening.

This book is a short memoir that details the back-alley abortion the author had in Paris in the 1960s, when abortion was still illegal. It relates the details of the abortion very clearly (which was hard to read) and in doing so brings to vivid understanding the reasoning for why abortion needs to remain safe and legal.

Ursula K. Le Guin (another of my favorite writers) has an essay about the abortion she had when she was at college. (It is called "What it Was Like" and is in her collection Words are My Matter.) She writes about how that abortion made it possible for the rest of her life to happen; without it, she would’ve had to leave school and abandon her ambitions. She never would have written the works that she did, nor met her husband—and thus never had the children she did have.

I thought about that a lot as I read this book. Ernaux doesn’t say the same thing, but the concept is hinted at. My mind crowded with the arguments of the pro-birth movement, which would say that the consequences of unprotected sex are the woman’s fault; she shouldn’t have had sex, she should have been more careful. The altering of her life matters less, they would argue, than the survival of the fetus’s life. (Except they would say “baby,” not fetus.)

Or, of course, the suggestion: “She should just place the baby for adoption.” So much hinges on that word, just. The simplicity it suggests. The lack of difficulty, the allusion to an easy way out. Adoption is easy and simple for literally no one. 

What this book reminded me of, over and over, was just this fact: there is no easy solution to an unplanned pregnancy. Every choice is difficult. And a woman who has decided that an abortion is the choice she needs to make? That woman should be able to have that procedure. Her life—her real, breathing, existing life—matters, and if she does not want or is not able to alter it by becoming a mother, that is a valid choice. 

But, as the book details, it is not an easy one. Ernaux, like many other women, nearly died because she didn’t have access to the medical care she needed. It was horrible and bloody and painful. 

And, as the Nobel Prize committee suggests, Ernaux writes it with such stripped-down language. She writes this story not as a quest for pity or as a dramatization of a horrible experience. She writes it, instead, as a sort of experiment with memory and with language itself. How can you write about the complicated experiences you had years ago, make them feel real to the reader in the sense of how it actually felt to her, what she saw and smelled and experienced, without manipulating the reader’s emotions? She revisits the places she went to; she rereads her journals and appointment books from that time. 

I walked along the city streets, she writes, my body harboring the secret of that night of January 20-21 as something sacred. I couldn’t decide whether I had reached the outer fringes of horror or beauty. I felt proud. A feeling not unlike that experienced by lone sailors, drug addicts or thieves, who have ventured where others fear to tread. A feeling that may partly have contributed to my writing this book.

And the ending:

I have finished putting into words what I consider to be an extreme human experience, bearing on life and death, time, law, ethics and taboo—an experience that sweeps through the body.

I have rid myself of the only feeling of guilt in connection with this event: the fact that it had happened to me and I had done nothing about it. A sort of discarded present. Among all the social and psychological reasons that may account for my past, of one I am certain: these things happened to me so that I might recount them. Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing, in other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people. 

I learned as much about writing, in other words, from reading this book as I did about abortions in Paris in the 1960s. 

And I begin to understand why she won, and to think I will seek out more of her work.

Book Review: Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher

Nothing is fair. Nothing is right…Nothing is fair, except that we try to make it so. That’s the point of humans, maybe, to fix things the gods haven’t managed.

Nettle and boneWhen I first started reading Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher I came across these words and almost put it down:

Marra carried the knowledge that her sister hated her snugged up under her ribs. It did not touch her heart, but it seemed to fill her lungs, and sometimes when she tried to take a deep breath, it caught on her sister’s words and left her breathless.

Books about sisters are out right now for me…due to some recent life developments they are just too painful. But a book about a youngest sister who thinks her sister hates her? (Thinks that because her sister tells her “I hate you and I hope you die.”) Way too close to those developments.

But I pressed on, because a librarian friend had loved it so much.

And I’m very glad I did.

Nettle and Bone tells the story of Marra, who is the youngest of three princesses in a small kingdom whose power is that it includes a port city–and the two nations next to it do not. Her oldest sister, Damia, is married to the prince of the Northern Kingdom, the marriage lasts only six months, as Damia dies only a few months after the wedding. Soon the middle sister, Kania, is betrothed to the same prince, and Marra is sent to live in a convent. She likes living there, until she realizes that Kania is suffering. The prince is abusing her and only keeps from killing her because she has yet to produce an heir (but manages to get pregnant fairly often; it’s not described but you can imagine why she has so many miscarriages). Not only is Kania suffering, Marra realizes that she is the backup sister: if Kania also dies, she will be wedded to the prince.

And so Marra sets off on a quest to find a solution to saving both her sister and herself.

Very much not really a book about sisters hating each other, Nettle and Bone is a mashup of sorts of some fairy tale tropes. Namely a princess setting off on a quest to do three impossible tasks in order to earn the skill or knowledge to do something else impossible. There are godmothers, although not like the ones you already know. A dust-wife, who I think is wholly invented in this story and whom I loved almost more than Marra. A dog made of bones, a cloak of nettles. It is also a very feminist tale; it was a good follow up to The Marriage Portrait because it covers some of the same ground: too-young girls being married for political or financial reasons and the way that women are historically (and still, of course) not particularly valued as individuals or even actual people, but as vessels or coins or contracts.
Plus: it was funny.

(I am the worst reader to advise on humor. Almost everything that is supposed to be funny is not funny to me. The humor here is subtle and dry, provided mostly by one character, but I did literally laugh out loud several times.)

And the sister’s dislike of Marra? It almost becomes invisible. It’s just a thing they resolve as they grow up and have other experiences and realize they can rely on each other. Kania isn’t wholly a victim, either; her sister does save her but she also uses her own strength and wisdom to make the saving more feasible.

I loved this book and am so glad I read it. It is one of those that is full of images, situations, and characters who will stay with me.

Book Review: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell

She is doing this: she is about to do it. She does not want to but she sees no other path open to her. If she doesn’t do it, someone else will, and she will not let anyone cut the hair from her head. If it must happen, she will take charge of it herself. It is her hair. It is her head. They can take away her pictures and her paints; they can fill her body with medicines and cold foods and other things besides; they can poke and palpate her stomach and peer down her throat; they can lock her up in her rooms, but she will cut the hair from her own head before she lets anyone else near her with shears. 


Marriage portraitAt this point I will read anything Maggie O’Farrell writes. (Not just read it but buy it.) One of the reviews I read of The Marriage Portrait panned the book because the reviewer thought it was overwritten—that she never just writes something one way, but always three. 


I think that is one of the reasons to read Maggie O’Farrell’s work; I don’t find them overwritten but immersive. They are lush and detailed and the setting comes to life along with the characters. And the stories always strike me; they resonate with my reading personality.

So I definitely bought my own copy of The Marriage Portrait (I got the British copy because I liked the cover better). Set in Italy when it was ruled by the Medici family, it is a very meta book: “My Last Duchess” is a poem by Robert Browning about a painting of Lucrezia di Medici, a real woman of the time; the novel is a story about the woman and the painting and the themes in the poem.

But even if you’ve never read Browning’s poem or know the painting it describes or even are familiar with this time period, the book is excellent.

When her oldest sister dies before her wedding, Lucrezia is betrothed to the Duke of Ferrara in her stead. Lucrezia has grown up as a very different sort of child than her siblings. She is fearless; she wants to know why things happen. And she loves art. She has no desire for marriage but of course at that time she had no choice. The story is told in flashbacks to her growing-up years and her current situation: she is in a secluded hunting lodge in the Tuscan forests with her husband, who intends on killing her.

There is much I could say about this book. The images that might stay with me: Lucrezia and the tiger; Lucrezia cutting her hair; her crossing the mountains to get to her husband’s castello after their wedding. The descriptions of her art process. 

But what struck me the strongest was the absolute entrapment Lucrezia faced. The fact that her life wasn't actually her life; she existed as collateral, as a political piece to move for power and wealth. And, of course, a womb: the danger in her marriage grows and grows as she continues not getting pregnant. She was a 14-year-old girl (barely) married to a man in his late twenties. That is child molestation and rape no matter how you look at it, but it was just normal then. The scene where her wedding night is described absolutely gutted me, especially as, once it is over, she thinks “at least I’ve done it and won’t have to do it again.” 

This is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year.