It was foolish to think some things were beyond happening

The Secret Life of Bees
by Sue Monk Kidd

A few years back a publisher sent me a book on spec that I completely fell in love with: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. I have been meaning ever since to go back to her famously popular debut novel. As her previous writings were spiritual memoirs, she’s not an obvious candidate for my fandom, but this book also really hit the spot for me.

It’s the story of Lily, a 14-year-old white girl who lives on a peach farm in South Carolina with her perpetually angry father. She may or may not have accidentally killed her mother when she was four. Either way, there’s not a lot of affection in her life and what little there is comes from her black housekeeper Rosaleen. When Rosaleen spits tobacco on the shoes of white men who are racially abusing her, she is arrested and Lily’s father refuses to bail her out. Lily fears for Rosaleen’s life in police custody so she busts her out and they run away together.

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The unreliable measuring device of words

the story of a new nameThe Story of a New Name
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is book two of the famed Neapolitan Novels, which started with My Brilliant Friend. This review does contain spoilers for the first book, which I also highly recommend. Arguably you could come to this book cold – everything you need to know from book one is repeated – but you’d be missing out on a key part of the experience in my opinion.

Elena and Lila are on the verge of adulthood. Married at 16, Lila is gradually realising that marriage is not a quick fix to make her brother rich, and that being married to someone she doesn’t love is fine until she does fall in love.

For Lila, marrying Stefano, the grocer, was supposed to be the lesser of two evils – her other rich suitor in book one being Marcello Solara – but either way Lila is tied up with the dangerous Solara family and not in the powerful position as one of their wives. Did she make the right choice? She spends frivolously and flirts with both Solara brothers despite her husband’s violent temper. Has she shut down all true feeling? She is smart and aware, surely she knows the dangerous ground she is treading?

“She was beautiful and she dressed like the pictures in the women’s magazines that she bought in great numbers. But the condition of wife had enclosed her in a sort of glass container, like a sailboat sailing with sails unfurled in an inaccessible place, without the sea.”

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I can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts

slouching towards bethlehemSlouching Towards Bethlehem
by Joan Didion

I love Joan Didion and had been looking forward to reading this, her most famous work. It did not disappoint. Even her introduction is gorgeously artful, packed with lines I want to write on Post-its on my wall like when I was a teenager.

This book collects together essays Didion wrote between 1961 and 1968. They’re grouped into three sections: “Life styles in the golden land”, all about California, “Personals”, which aren’t really personal but are reflections on a topic, and “Seven places of the mind”, which despite the title are about seven different physical places.

Didion’s sketches of places and people are masterful – and distinctly Didion’s own take. She always takes an unusual angle. For example, her profile of John Wayne is a reconstruction of conversations on the set of one his last films. Her piece on Joan Baez centres around a neighbour’s complaint about Baez’s school, the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence.

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Under the skin

Norwegian Wood
by Haruki Murakami
translated by Jay Rubin

This is the book that turned Murakami from successful author to superstar and sent him running into hiding in the US. It’s certainly a more “straightforward”, accessible narrative than he is generally known for, but it is still undeniably, brilliantly him.

Toru tells us the story of his student days in Tokyo, from 1968 to 1970, and the friends and lovers who mattered to him and even changed him in those formative years. Against a backdrop of free love, student protests and Beatles songs, we learn how Toru’s best friend Kizuki killed himself when they were 17. A year later, completely by chance, Toru bumps into Naoko who had been Kizuki’s girlfriend since they were small children. Unsure of what to say to each other but united by their grief that holds them apart from the rest of the world, they start spending time together. Toru falls headlong in love with Naoko even while he knows she can never love him.

While Naoko’s difficulty in dealing with life gets worse and worse, Toru meets another woman, one who could not be more different. Where Naoko is delicate, feminine and non-communicative, Midori is a blaze of talkative modernity, with short hair and a tendency to get way-too-open about sex. She also has a boyfriend, albeit one Toru never meets, just as she never meets Naoko.

A large chunk of the start of this novel was a short story in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, which I read quite recently, and this threw me at first. The language is beautiful, the characters so very detailed and real, the setting vividly alive but as Naoko and Toru held themselves apart, so I found myself at arm’s length from the story – observing rather than drawn in. It was really only with the introduction of Midori that this book came to life for me. I really loved her character. She is no more “ordinary” or run-of-the-mill than Toru or Naoko, but she has a joy and spirit that uplifted the story, even when terrible things were happening.

While there’s no surrealism or magical story twists here, what there is plenty of is Murakami’s uncanny ability to get under the skin of people and everyday life. Even when nothing much is happening, I was thoroughly enjoying every word. A simple description of daily life in a student dorm could have me laughing out loud, a casual conversation over a noodle lunch have me grinning in recognition. But there is also a lot of pain – the ordinary pain of growing up and facing adulthood plus the added pain of death, loss, unrequited love, psychological trauma. It’s a beautiful and moving story.

First published as Noruwei no mori in 1987 by Kodansha Ltd, Tokyo.
This translation published 2000 by the Harvill Press.

Voices

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett

Audiobook narrated by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer and Cassandra Campbell

A few weeks ago the Guardian offered readers this audiobook as a free download via Audible. Well, I couldn’t say no to that, could I? This book was even on my wishlist. Perfect.

This is the first audiobook I’ve listened to in years and it’s a very different experience from reading, so I still can’t say for sure whether I would have enjoyed reading this book. Probably, but I can’t be certain. However, I loved the audiobook. It’s a gripping story, with lots of wonderful characters and the narrators did a fantastic job of bringing it to life. Really, this felt more like a radio play than a read, but it was more immersive and captivating than any radio play I can remember.

The story is narrated by three characters, plus there is one chapter told in third person, and those are the four voice actors. Each narrates their own chapters in full, putting on different voices for the different people they talk about, so you hear some characters voiced three or even four different ways. It sounds confusing but it isn’t really.

The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. White women throw themselves into the busy schedule of society events, setting up their unmarried friends with suitable partners and having babies, while their coloured maids raise those babies, clean their houses and cook their meals. No-one questions this state of things or tries to change it, even while the rest of the USA is discovering civil rights, but beneath the surface, tensions are high between the communities. Nasty things happen to anyone who steps out of line, and the line is narrow.

Narrator number one is Aibileen, maid to Elizabeth Leefolt, a vacuous woman whose eagerness to please centre of society and “League” president Hilly Holbrook makes her an increasingly difficult and even dangerous employer. Narrator number two is Minnie, another maid, who near the start of the book is fired by Hilly Holbrook on behalf of her aged mother and must find another job while Hilly is spreading lies all over town about her. Narrator number three is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, an old schoolfriend of Elizabeth and Hilly and the only one to make it through college – the others left to get married. She is a slightly awkward woman, convinced by her mother’s constant sniping that she is too tall, too plain and too lacking in taste to ever attract a man. So instead she lives with her parents and sticks to her routine of League events and tennis at the country club, keen to be a part of it all.

At the start of the book Elizabeth and Skeeter seem quite similar – nice enough, thrown by Hilly’s nasty comments about black people but pretty clueless about the world really. But a combination of things make their paths diverge. Skeeter is intelligent while Elizabeth is dumb, but Elizabeth is a central member of society by being married and a mother, while Skeeter, by being single and resisting attempts to change that, is held at arms’ length from society. When Skeeter pitches article ideas to a New York publisher and touches on civil rights, she is only raising the topics she thinks the publisher wants to hear about. But then she starts to look around her and find out what is actually going on, and is shocked into taking sides.

The three narrators are warm, funny, wonderful characters – at least, once they get to have their own say they are. But there’s also a large cast of further characters running the whole gamut from scheming and vindictive, complacent and therefore complicit, genuinely good but afraid to stand out from the crowd, and many others inbetween. There’s a violent husband, a loving husband, an absent husband. There’s white outsiders besides Skeeter. All are fully fleshed out and real (though that may be due to good acting as much as good writing).

I thought I knew the facts about civil rights, about the divisions and the violence and the politics, but this book brought to life what it must have really been like, the genuine life-threatening danger of being different, just 50 years ago in a so-called civilised country. It’s terrifying but it’s also wonderful to see how brave people could be, had to be, in the face of awfulness. And yet, in spite of the huge, dark issues, this is a warm, uplifting book.

When I first downloaded the audiobook I didn’t know how I would find time to listen to over 17 hours of it. That’s a lot of time. But I downloaded the Audible app so I could listen on my phone and it has been my companion for two weeks – walking to work, doing housework, taking the train – all to the soundtrack of Mississippi accents drawing me into a world that I was genuinely sad to leave behind.

The film rights were snapped up pretty quickly and I believe The Help (film) has already been released in the US, while in the UK we have to wait until October. I’m intrigued but so much will have to be cut. Hmm.

Book first published 2009.

UPDATE: There has been some controversy surrounding this book and a great discussion has started over on Amy Reads and Wolfs Howl, who are also running a related reading project. Very illuminating.