Circe

Trigger warning for rape

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. Circe is strange – not powerful and terrible, like her father, nor gorgeous and mercenary like her mother. But she has a dark power of her own: witchcraft. When Circe’s gift threatens the gods, she is banished to the island of Aiaia where she hones her occult craft, casting spells, gathering strange herbs and taming wild beasts. Yet a woman who stands alone cannot live in peace for long – and among her island’s guests is an unexpected visitor: the mortal Odysseus, for whom Circe will risk everything.

Circe’s tale is a vivid epic of family rivalry, love and loss – the inextinguishable song of woman burning hot and bright in the darkness of a man’s world.


I do not know a lot about Greek mythology, and I have definitely never read the Odyssey, but as I understand it, originally Circe appeared in Odysseus’s story during a year-long stopover he took on her island, Aiaia. Homer told the tale of her and Odysseus’s relationship, which began when Circe, a powerful witch, turned all of Odysseus’s sailing buddies into pigs. Odysseus himself was only saved from this terrible fate because he had some anti-magic herb called moly that protected him from this very scenario (convenient). Odysseus – in all his manliness – persuades Circe to turn the men back and despite getting off to something of a shaky start, I assume they all become friends.

As I said, I haven’t read it.

In Homer’s version, it seems that Circe is a feature in Odysseus’s story. In Circe, Madeline Miller dispenses with that idea (Homer, we are over you) and weaves a rich and episodic tale entirely of Circe’s own.

In a similar fashion to City of Girls, which I talked about last week, I really loved the sprawling timeline of this novel. We get to grow up with this character and see her through so many phases of her life – Circe as a young person, getting her heart broken for the first time, being exiled from her home, recovering from rape, and eventually her journey into motherhood and everything that happens after the birth of her son – though I can’t get too much into that, cause spoilers. Her character development is rich, with glimpses of the woman she would one day go on to be evident even during her childhood of neglect at the hands of her parents, Helios (as in the sun god) and Perse, a nymph.

Circe is an outcast from the beginning. From the moment of her birth when Helios declares her not good enough to marry to a god because she isn’t beautiful enough (to which her mother’s response is “let’s go make a better one”), Circe is considered the runt of the litter and treated accordingly. As such, it’s hardly surprising that Circe grows up feeling inferior.

Weirdly, having something of an inferiority complex seems to be a common problem among the gods. The toxicity and rivalry apparent in Circe’s own family spills out into the wider community as well, which is driven by men who all have one thing in common: they want power, and more of it, all the time. Even the literal gods feel like what they have isn’t enough. The gods are made up of two communities, Titans and Olympians – basically old gods and new gods. After a devastating war there have been many years of peace, but threat to that peace looms over Circe’s entire childhood, as her father and his friends agitate always for more, more, more.

This idea of power, who has it and what it means is central to the novel. Circe’s entire life has been defined by the unforgiving hand of her father, and she is years into her adulthood and her exile before she really understands how she can reclaim some of that power for herself – and keep reclaiming it, even as men continue to try and take it from her.

It’s a gorgeously written novel of survival, and of carving space for yourself even when you have to do that without the love and the support of those supposedly closest to you. Loss runs through its pages – a side effect of being immortal, I guess – but not all those losses are bad. Changing your life involves a lot of loss, after all. But Circe will tell you more about that.

City of Girls

It is the summer of 1940. Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris arrives in New York with her suitcase and sewing machine, exiled by her despairing parents. Although her quicksilver talents with a needle and commitment to mastering the perfect hair roll have been deemed insufficient for her to pass her sophomore year of Vassar, she soon finds gainful employment as the self-appointed seamstress at the Lily Playhouse, her Aunt Peg’s charmingly disreputable Manhattan revue theatre. There, Vivian becomes the toast of the showgirls, transforming the trash and tinsel only fit for the cheap seats into creations for goddesses.

Exile in New York is no exile at all: here in this strange wartime city of girls, Vivian and her girlfriends mean to be free, to drink the heady highball of life itself to the last drop. But there are hard lessons to be learned, and bitterly regrettable mistakes to be made. Vivian sees that to live the life she wants, she must live many lives, ceaselessly and ingeniously making them new.

“At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time. After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is,” she confides. And so Vivian sets forth her story, and that of the women around her – women who have lived as they truly are, out of step with a century that could never quite keep up with them.


A work colleague leant me City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert the day before lockdown started here in the UK. We’d just both been furloughed and she had made the decision to go and be with family for the foreseeable, while I was staying in the house share where I currently live. My family are shielding (high risk), and since I had until a few days previously been going into the office and I live with six other people (it has now dwindled to three as everyone jumped ship to their respective families), not to mention the various trains and taxis I’d have to take in order to get home, staying put seemed like the best idea at the time.

That being the case, she said, City of Girls was going to be exactly the lift that I needed.

She was right.

I had never read any of Elizabeth Gilbert’s fiction. I love her non-fiction. I know it’s not cool to like Eat Pray Love but despite all the God stuff, which I could never really get behind, I loved the writing. Big Magic, her book about creativity is always an inspiring read, and the short lived podcast that accompanied it was one of my favourites.

A few years back I read that she had left her husband – the guy at the end of Eat Pray Love – for her dying best friend, another woman, who she had realised she was in love with when suddenly faced with the possibility of losing her. It was and is the saddest story – Rayya, the woman in question, passed away a year or so ago now – and it was from this devastating loss that City of Girls was born.

Now – and I don’t mean this to sound as glib as it does – I don’t think I was alone in expecting a heart breaking memoir of love and loss to come out of this experience. But that is not what Elizabeth Gilbert produced. Instead, she wrote City of Girls to feel better. When your day to day is making it through the depths of all that unimaginable grief, you need a place to escape to, right? For Liz, that turned out to be 1940s Manhattan – and it is excellent.

City of Girls is a story that begins with a question. In 2010 a now elderly Vivian receives a letter from the daughter of a friend with a single request. She wants to know “what were you to my father?”

What follows is Vivian’s account of her life from the age of 19, when she arrived in New York. A college drop-out and a disappointment to her parents, she is shipped off to NY to begin her life as an independent woman (sort of. Her parents still pretty much pay for everything) – and that is when things start to get interesting.

There are people in life who the second you meet them you know they are going to be important, people who change you and drag your entire life in a direction you previously hadn’t considered for yourself. They might not be around forever – in fact, they almost certainly won’t – but they will leave a mark. Then there are also those that sneak up on you, people who perhaps existed on the periphery of your daily experience for long enough that you hadn’t considered them, but who slowly creep into your bones until one day you look up and realise they are the most important people in your life. In City of Girls, Liz Gilbert explores this particular phenomenon in a way I’ve never experienced before. It’s because the book is so expansive, yes – it begins in the 1940s and ends in 2010 – but it’s much more about the seeds expertly sown in the earlier chapters that don’t blossom until much, much later on. So much later on you didn’t even realise they were seeds in the first place.

Which makes a lot of sense if you think about it.

It is a book of two halves – the early, crazy years of sex, partying, rising fame and all the drama that accompanies it. Then the story gets split – Vivian makes a terrible mistake, one that will flip the entire narrative of her life and ultimately send her down a path that is just revelatory to read. The long road to the eventual answer of that initial question is a story of how to build a life – an adventurous, devastating life of entirely Viv’s own.

When I eventually go back to work and have to return City of Girls to its owner I will be purchasing my own copy. It’s the sort of story you want to keep around.

The Vanishing Stair

The Truly Devious case – an unsolved kidnapping and triple murder that rocked Ellingham Academy in 1936 – has consumed Stevie Bell for years. It’s the very reason she came to the academy. But then her classmate Hayes Major was murdered, and though she identified his killer, her parents quickly pull her out of school. For her safety, they say.

Stevie’s willing to do anything to get back to Ellingham, be with her friends, and solve the case. Even if it means making a deal with the despicable Senator Edward King. And when Stevie finally returns, she also returns to David: the guy she kissed, the guy who lied about his identity – Edward King’s son. But larger issues are at play. Was Hayes’s death really solved? Where did his murderer hide away to? What’s the meaning of the riddle Albert Ellingham left behind? And what, exactly, is at stake in the Truly Devious affair?

The Ellingham case isn’t just a piece of history – it’s a live wire into the present. The path to the truth has more twists and turns than Stevie can imagine, and moving forward involves hurting someone she cares for. In New York Times bestselling author Maureen Johnson’s second novel in the Truly Devious series, someone will pay for the truth with their life.


This review will contain at least a few spoilers for Truly Devious. Sorry about that.

When I started reading Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series I sort of assumed it’d be like the Shades of London books – each new release a fresh mystery to unravel. Not so. Truly Devious and the mystery of Albert Ellingham’s missing daughter is the overarching theme of the series, and for every question The Vanishing Stair answered it raised at least three more.

I loved it, obviously.

At the end of the last book we saw our favourite wannabe detective, Stevie Bell, yanked from Ellingham Academy by her parents following the revelation of Hayes’s murderer. She is not okay with the situation. The Ellingham case remains unsolved and the whole Hayes affair at least somewhat unfinished. So when the opportunity to return comes up in the shape of a dodgy offer from the worst sort of Republican Senator Edward King – boss to Stevie’s parents and (surprise) father to Stevie’s on-again-off-again love interest David – despite her misgivings she’s prepared to do whatever he wants.

That particular decision looms large over everything else that happens in The Vanishing Stair.

I flew through this book. Continuing the split narrative of Stevie’s present divided by snapshots of the unfolding mystery in 1936 – the one Stevie came to Ellingham in the first place to solve before all the Hayes business – Maureen builds ever more layers of complexity onto a mystery that has already confounded everyone who has tried to solve it in the 80-odd years since it began. New and intriguing figures enter into play, from the possibly murderous runaway Ellingham students of the past, Francis Crane and Edward Pierce Davenport, to Dr Irene Fenton, the probably alcoholic true crime professor as eager to solve the Ellingham case as Stevie herself.

David continues to do the most. I’ve read several reviews where readers aren’t so keen on Stevie and David’s dynamic – some going as far as to describe it as insta-lovey and thin. I couldn’t disagree more. David and Stevie are pulled towards each other in a way that read electric to me – though they both remain defensive weirdos they can’t help but keep circling, each one taking turns to pull back in the other when they pull away. They share a similar sort of darkness, I think. It may not be the healthiest basis for a relationship, but for reading purposes it is delicious. Don’t believe the rumours: Stevie and David are a pairing you ship hard, however unlikely their resolution turning out to be a happy one is at this point.

A lot of pieces clicked into place during The Vanishing Stair, but there are a lot of questions still to be answered in the Hand on the Wall, and I for one cannot wait to see where Maureen Johnson’s twisting mystery takes us next.

Beloved

It is the mid-1800s. At Sweet Home in Kentucky, an era is ending as slavery comes under attack from the abolitionists. The worlds of Halle and Paul D are to be destroyed in a cataclysm of torment and agony. The world of Sethe, however, is to turn from one of love to one of violence and death – the death of Sethe’s baby daughter, Beloved, whose name is the single word on the tombstone, who died at her mother’s hands, and who will return to claim retribution.


“I decided that the single most uncontroversial thing one can say about the institution of slavery vis-à-vis contemporary time, is that it haunts us all. That in so many ways all our lives are entangled with the past – its manipulations and, fearful of its grasp, ignoring or dismissing or distorting it to suit ourselves, but always unable to erase it.”
– From The Source of Self Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations by Toni Morrison

The first thing you should know about Beloved, the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature Winner by Toni Morrison is that it is a ghost story. Number 124 is a ‘spiteful’ house, ‘full of a baby’s venom’ where Denver and her mother Sethe spend their days isolated – their other family lost to death or driven out by the baby ghost that shatters mirrors, ruins food and tortures the dog, and whose death at Sethe’s own hands has alienated the family from the rest of the community.

The second thing to know about Beloved is that it is a story about motherhood. In her discussion of the novel in The Source of Self Regard, Toni writes that part of what inspired Beloved was the conversations about reproductive freedom happening at the time, but rather than focusing on a woman’s right to be child-free, she was instead interested in writing about those women to whom the choice to have children “was the supreme act of freedom, not its opposite”. And so we step into the story of Sethe, and the vastness of her love for her children – a love so vast it drove her to kill one of them.

So, let’s talk a bit more about what the freedom of motherhood looks like for Sethe. As a slave, her children legally did not belong to her. They could be sold separately from her. Under such circumstances, for Sethe to choose to have her children and to claim them as hers was an act of revolution. And once she had them, she knew she had to save them from the life she and her predecessors had endured. So she does – taking a harrowing journey with them to freedom.

Freedom was hard to come by. During the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, owners went after escaped slaves like Sethe – their bodies, and their children still considered claimable property under the law. That’s what happens – Sethe and her children make it almost a month into their escape from their owners at Sweet Home when the slave master comes for them, and so Sethe takes her children out to the back of the house to kill them, starting with the newborn Beloved. To Sethe, to kill them is the only way she can save them. Ultimately, she only kills Beloved before she is stopped and arrested.

“If I hadn’t killed her, she would have died.”
Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is an intensely complicated and painful read. And I haven’t even got to what happens when Beloved returns to 124 (maybe? We don’t really know. It might just be some random lady who also happens to be called Beloved). From Sethe’s act of violence, to the all-consuming intensity of her relationship with the returned Beloved, to Sethe’s boyfriend Paul D’s subsequent deeply uncomfortable sexual relationship with that very same Beloved – all of the characters in this book resist the classifications of noble victimhood that modern discourse so often projects onto slaves, and what we imagine their survival to have looked like. They are survivors, yes, but survival is a messy thing, and it is that mess that Toni explores in Beloved.

Though Sethe and Paul D are physically free from slavery, they both remain imprisoned by their trauma. Sethe’s literally haunts the house, keeping her trapped inside of it and away from the outside world where she might find a means to start moving on. Paul D, meanwhile is afraid to really love, because to love would be to feel everything, and to feel everything would, he believes, destroy him. Denver, Sethe’s daughter, meanwhile did not grow up a slave, and yet the generations of trauma that her family has endured keep her as locked inside the walls of 124 as everyone else.

“Beloved might leave. Leave before Sethe could make her realise that worse than that – far worse – was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.”
Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is a deeply sad book, but it is not without hope. The ghosts probably won’t ever leave, but that doesn’t mean Sethe can’t ever step outside of her haunting.  

For a book named after her I know I haven’t written much about Beloved herself. She’s a tricky character to grasp, intentionally so. She might be a ghost or she might not – we’ll never really know – but what we do know is, she is a symbol for the 60 million and more lives lost in the slave trade whose names and stories we will never know. And even Beloved, in the end, is forgotten.

Yeah so, if it wasn’t clear, I adored this book. I know there’s nothing new about recognising Toni Morrison’s brilliance, but I am adding to the clamour to let you know if you haven’t picked up one of her books yet, you must.

Allyship is a verb: some resources for learning

For me, one of the biggest lessons of the past few years is that values kept locked inside aren’t really values. Speaking up, facing discomfort and an openness to learn are the vital ingredients of living a value-driven life.

As we all process and respond to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd among so many others, for a lot of white people now is a time where we’re thinking seriously about our anti-racist learning (something we should have been doing all along, FYI). This can have some complicated side effects for the black community, who are already dealing with a sort of trauma that we’ll never truly be able to understand. Now is a time where many well-intentioned but, to be clear, wrong, white people will ask their black and brown friends, and black and brown public figures to expend additional emotional labour teaching us how to be better people.

To be clear, that is not okay. Black and brown people don’t owe you emotional labour.

And there are already a ton of resources online so you don’t need to be sliding into anyone’s DMS demanding they educate you. The work exists, you just have to be active in seeking it out.

Today I wanted to highlight a few of the voices I turn to in my own anti-racism work. I want to caveat this post first with the probably obvious but I am just going to mention it anyway note to respect these spaces and, if you’re white, listen more than you talk.

Nova Reid
Nova is an inspirational speaker, writer, diversity and anti-racism campaigner. I came to her work through her new podcast, Conversations With Nova Reid where she and a range of guests talk about racism, allyship and what it looks like to really interrogate internalised biases. There are only 12 episodes at the time of writing, so it’s easy to catch up.
Nova’s background is in counselling and wellbeing, something that really shines through in her work, where she asks her audience to step into discomfort and be willing to be vulnerable in our examination of our internalised racism – something we all have, if we’re completely honest with ourselves. Something she has spoken of often that really stuck with me is how our fear of perceiving ourselves as “bad” holds us back from making meaningful progress in anti-racism work. For so many people that hold white privilege, the thought of being called racist is like our worst nightmare. It’s an understandable fear – I totally have it too – but rather than pushing us to be better, that fear really only manifests itself in fragility and an unwillingness to deeply look at the ways that actually we might be kind of racist. Nova’s message – if you’re willing to engage with it and really do the work (100% on you, btw) – is that rather than realising that your worst fears are true, you are in fact, “bad”, by facing your internalised racism you are actually uncovering all of the ways in which you might be better.
Feeling guilty about internalised racism pales in comparison to what it feels like for the people of colour who actually experience it.
Links to Nova’s work
Podcast: Conversations with Nova Reid
Nova’s Tedx talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8iNGeVyvUs
Instagram: @novareidofficial
Ways to pay for Nova’s work: [a lot of labour goes into creating resources like this, so it’s important to pay in any way you can. For some of us that means financially supporting, or, if that’s not possible for you right now, it’s spreading the word about their work] There are a couple! Nova has a paid for anti-racism course, which you can read more about at her website. If you aren’t able to afford that right now you can also send her some money via Pay Pal, paypal.me/NovaReid

Layla F Saad
I found Layla’s work recently when Aja Barber (who I’ll get to in a minute) was a guest on her podcast. Layla is most well known for her Instagram challenge and now book Me and White Supremacy, a work that challenges readers to dig deep into their own internalised racism and confront white fragility. I haven’t read her book yet, but I am absolutely loving her podcast, The Good Ancestor Podcast. Layla talks at length about what it means to be a good ancestor, which according to her means working to create a world that is better for future generations. It is a vital idea, and the podcast features conversations with a wide range of anti-racism campaigners, activists, change makers and writers having challenging and revealing conversations about what it means to live in a white supremacy as a person of colour.
Links to Layla’s work
Podcast: The Good Ancestor Podcast
@laylafsaad on Instagram
Book: Me and White Supremacy
Ways to pay for Layla’s work: Aside from the obvious (her book!), Layla also as a Paypal account, paypal.me/LaylaSaad

Aja Barber
I came to Aja originally through her work in the realm of ethical fashion. I quickly learned, however, that it’s impossible to talk about ethical fashion without also talking about race. Aja talks more about this on her episode of Layla Saad’s podcast that I’ve already mentioned so do head there to get this in more detail, but the fashion industry is completely bound up in colonialism. From shipping our waste clothes to African countries where they either undercut and damage the local garment industry or wind up filling up landfills, to the underpaid, unsafe, slavery-rife garment sector where the majority of big brands make their products, the industry is largely build at the expense of black and brown bodies – with the many of us turning a blind eye because we just love Zara so much.
Links to Aja’s work:
@ajabarber on Instagram
Read some of Aja’s writing on Eco Age: https://eco-age.com/aja-barber
Ways to pay for Aja’s work: Aja has a Patreon where she regularly posts about ethical brands as well as hosting discussions about news in the world of sustainability at www.patreon.com/AjaBarber

Munroe Bergdorf
Munroe was actually one of the first anti-racist activists I encountered when a few years ago she was fired as a spokesperson by L’Oreal after speaking out about white supremacy on TV (something that has been in the news a lot in the last couple days as L’Oreal have started using #blacklivesmatter to boost their own profile now it suits them). Munroe Bergdorf is a black trans activist, model  and UN Changemaker having challenging discussions about racism and white supremacy and how both those things intersect with LGBTQIA+ issues. As we head into pride month, make sure you follow Munroe.
Links to Munroe’s work:
@munroebergdorf and @goddessplatform on Instagram
Documentary: What Makes A Woman? (this is probably UK-only, sorry)
Ways to pay for Munroe’s work: She is pretty famous so she doesn’t have a Paypal or a Patreon where you can directly pay for her work, but Munroe is a patron of Mermaid, a charity here in the UK that supports trans and gender-diverse children, young people and their families. You can donate to them at mermaids.org.uk/donate

Remember that learning is a life-long thing. Allyship isn’t only engaging with anti-racism work when it’s in the media like it is right now, it’s following activists like these women and regularly engaging with their work. Respectfully. And staying out of their DMs.

Others actions you can take:

There is a live list of updated organisations in Minneapolis in need of financial support, which you can find here: https://bit.ly/fundthecommunity

If you live in the UK, like me, Zing Tsjeng, Vice UK’s executive editor has suggested the following to take action:


Since she tweeted this the report has been released but without any investigation into why this disparity exists or concrete actions that are going to be taken to address it, so the pressure to do more is still very much needed. Writing to your MP can be difficult if you’ve never done it before. If you’d like help or to use the email I wrote as a template then please let me know – my email address is tewkesbury.lydia@gmail.com

Commit to learning, listening and remembering that anti-racist work starts with the work you do on yourself.