The F Word

Here’s to the girl who knows you inside out. The work wife, our long distance confidant, and tea chat companions. To the one who is cripplingly honest, and the new friends we’re yet to meet.

When I look back on my life almost every decision, experience and memory comes with a female companion somewhere behind the scenes – supporting me, pushing me, or telling me outright that I’m in the wrong.

If I could offer one piece of invaluable advice for women and girls of all ages, it’s that there is nothing more important than creating and maintaining strong, positive and happy friendships with other women.

They might be complex and emotional, but they’re the mini love stories that make us who we are; they move us into new homes, out of bad relationships, through births and illnesses, and they shape us into the women we want to become.

The F Word is a celebration of female friendships… all strings attached.

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The F Word: A Personal Exploration of Modern Female Friendship by Lily Pebbles is the love letter to the strength, tenacity, complexity and fun of female friendships I’ve always wanted to read.  One of my besties sent it to me as an International Women’s Day gift.

Yep. I’m lucky like that.

It has bothered me for a long time the relatively low status that friendships have. We’re all about love and sex, as if those relationships are the only ones you need, so much so that, for some people, that becomes their truth. I think we’ve all had at least one friend who vanishes without a trace the moment they get into a romantic relationship. But for me, my female friends are some of the most important in my life – and not just because I’m single. In the past, female friendships have also been the sources of some of my greatest heartbreaks. I still feel a little bit sad thinking back to when I was 9 and my best friend at the time, Lara, told me that she didn’t want to be my best friend anymore, because I didn’t ride horses and Zoe did ride horses so she was going to be best friends with her instead. Brutal.

In The F Word, Lily covers all that and more. Through a collection of her own experiences interwoven with those of the women around her, she breaks down different kinds of friendships and the roles they play in our lives. She sketches familiar figures, from the ‘work wife’ and the ‘big sister friend’ to the BFF (it’s not a person, it’s a tier) and the BFFN or ‘best friend for now’.  Crucially, I think, she made clear that #friendshipgoals isn’t only one thing – it isn’t only the 90s Friends-style daily hangouts in your nearest coffee shop, sometimes it’s only seeing someone a couple of times a year but always being able to pick up right where you left off. Other times it’s organising Skype dates with someone who lives on the other side of the planet, or drifting away for a time only to come back together later on, when your lives are once again in sync. She makes clear that the length and depth of a friendship is much greater than a single Instagram post, which, in a world where something is only legitimate once it’s online, is important.

There is so much goodness in this book. Whether she’s discussing how to be a good friend, maintaining friendships even once you’re romantically attached or the thorny subject of toxic friendships, Lily approaches it all with empathy and a sort of calm wisdom I’m told you find once you’ve reached the end of your twenties. Lily, as anyone who has ever dived into her YouTube videos will know, is a very calming presence, and that sense of her is sprinkled all over the book. I can easily imagine myself returning to it on a rainy Sunday when I’m in need of a comfort read.

Most of all, The F Word leaves you feeling inspired by your community of women, and even more crucially, open to letting more into your life. This book is the perfect antidote to the Mean Girls crap we’ve been fed out whole lives. Female friendships are the best. I’m so happy we’re finally acknowledging it.

 

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Bridget Jones’s Diary

Meet Bridget Jones—a 30-something Singleton who is certain she would have all the answers if she could:

a. lose 7 pounds

b. stop smoking

c. develop Inner Poise

“123 lbs. (how is it possible to put on 4 pounds in the middle of the night? Could flesh have somehow solidified becoming denser and heavier? Repulsive, horrifying notion), alcohol units 4 (excellent), cigarettes 21 (poor but will give up totally tomorrow), number of correct lottery numbers 2 (better, but nevertheless useless)…”

Bridget Jones’ Diary is the devastatingly self-aware, laugh-out-loud daily chronicle of Bridget’s permanent, doomed quest for self-improvement — a year in which she resolves to: reduce the circumference of each thigh by 1.5 inches, visit the gym three times a week not just to buy a sandwich, form a functional relationship with a responsible adult, and learn to program the VCR.

Over the course of the year, Bridget loses a total of 72 pounds but gains a total of 74. She remains, however, optimistic. Through it all, Bridget will have you helpless with laughter, and — like millions of readers the world round — you’ll find yourself shouting, “Bridget Jones is me!”

Summary from goodreads

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I’m not a big New Year’s Eve person. I never have been. So, rather than going out, I have always been in the camp of people who stays home, watches movies and drinks mulled wine. NYE for me and my tribe tends to mean British rom coms from the early 2000s, specifically Love Actually followed by Bridget Jones’s Diary. So long as Hugh Grant is either fighting or dancing, we’re in.

I’ve read Bridget Jones’s Diary before, but years ago when I was still in my teens. I figured I was well overdue for a reread – especially now that I am, sort of, an adult.

Though it is an 90s as can be – at one point Bridget is battling with her VCR, and there’s a lot of discussion about calling 1471 to see if you’ve missed a phone call while you were out (landlines! Lol!) – Helen Fielding’s comic take on middle class single womanhood remains very funny in 2018. It’s kind of like Georgia Nicholson, but for adults.

Bridget Jones’s Diary is a masterfully crafted satire that takes shots at everything from the self-help industry, to feminism and TV news and, most of all, dating. The book manages to be even more ridiculous than the movie – at one point, Bridget’s mother is on the run from the law – and though he isn’t in it as much as I would like, Mark Darcy somehow even more attractive. If you’re into the whole stern man thing, which I very much am.

The book chronicles Bridget stumbling through successes, failures and embarrassments (favourite moment: when Bridget runs into her recently ex-boyfriend, Daniel at an art exhibition and tries to escape by running into a portaloo that turns out to be part of the exhibit ‘I burst into the cubicle and was just about to get on with it when I realized that the toilet was actually a moulding of the inside of a toilet, vacuum-packed in plastic. Then Daniel put his head around the door. “Bridge, don’t wee on the Installation, will you?” he said, and closed the door again.’ ).

It’s a sweet, funny, cringe-worthy and relatable read that I would recommend to any women I know. Lately it’s been difficult being a female-identifying person. The news is full of stories of sexual harassment, assault and coercion, and, of course, the inevitable #MeToo backlash, that the world can feel like kind of hostile place sometimes. It was really nice, in between cocktails with friends having the is it all men though? I know it’s supposed to be not all men but it’s really starting to feel like all men conversations, to pick up a book whose only real aim was to make me laugh.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is to let yourself laugh, and Bridget Jones’s Diary will certainly help you do that.

PS I also highly recommend The Edge of Reason. I haven’t read it since I was 19 and working in Caffe Nero, but I remember it clearly because one day I missed my bus to work because it was making me laugh so much. That was a fun one to explain to my boss.

The Answers

Trigger warning: sexual assault.

Mary is out of options. Estranged from her family, plagued by debt and beset by phantom pain, she signs up for ‘The Girlfriend Experiment’ – a mysterious project masterminded by a famous Hollywood actor who, frustrated by romantic and creative failure, hires a collection of women to fulfil the different roles of a relationship.

Mary is to play the Emotional Girlfriend, alongside a Maternal Girlfriend, a Mundanity Girlfriend, an Anger Girlfriend and, of course, an Intimacy Team. Each woman has her debts and her difficulties, her past loves and her secrets. As Mary and the actor are drawn ever closer together, the nature of the experiment changes, and the Girlfriend’s find themselves exposed to new perils, foremost among them love.

Here, then, is a novel of die-hard faith and fleeting love; of questions which plumb the depths of the human heart, and answers that will leave you reeling.

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“Sometimes it seems all I have are questions, that I will ask the same ones all my life. I’m not sure if I even want any answers, don’t think I’d have a use for them, but I do know I’d give anything to be another person – anyone else – for even just a day, an hour. There’s something about that distance I’d do anything to cross.”

The Answers by Catherine Lacey presents an unsettling premise as a means of exploring themes of identity, feminism and romantic relationships in one of my favourite reads of the year.

Mary has run out of options. Beset with a mysterious and debilitating illness no doctor could name or solve (“Whole hospitals shrugged.), on the recommendation of her hippy friend, Chandra, she turns to an alternative therapy: PAKing. PAKing (Pnuema Adaptive Kinesthesia) seems to work – though Mary suspects the placebo effect – the relief it brings her leaves her with no choice but to proceed with the cripplingly expensive sessions. In order to pay for her treatments, she signs up for a strange-sounding side hustle, The Girlfriend Experiment (or the GX, as it comes to be known) with a famous actor she has never heard of, Kurt Sky.

There is so much to love about The Answers: Lacey’s poetic yet sharp writing, the personification of the emotional labour of women with Emotional Girlfriend and Maternal Girlfriend as actual paid jobs, the irony of the title – The Questions would be a much more accurate name – and the off-putting, almost dystopic premise of the GX.

Early on, Mary states that “Love is a compromise for only getting to be one person”, a thought that forms a kind of mission statement for a book consumed with the reasons relationships fail. It is a study of variously damaged people looking to escape themselves  – Mary is unable to make meaningful connections with others because of the complete breakdown of her relationship with her parents whose religion dictates they must live ‘off the grid’; Ashley, another participant in the GX is angry at a world that will only define her by her beauty; Kurt is unable to move past the loss of his mother in his childhood and is consumed by his own toxic masculinity; Matheson, Kurt’s assistant, is stuck serving a man who will never love him back; Chandra is (probably) in a cult.

The GX is also more than it seems. Envisioned initially as the answer to Kurt’s, and perhaps, everybody’s, problems – “truly innovative technological solutions to emotional and psychological problems that were previously thought to be just part of the human condition” – it is derailed by a team of scientists with ulterior motives. Less interested in cracking the key to relationships, the scientists instead want to decode feelings, specifically how to not feel them, or to only feel those things that can be considered “useful”. Girls in the GX are manipulated into feeling love, anger, rejection – even Kurt is programmed to experience moments of emotional intimacy with the women he did not consent to.

Even as the plot veers into the bizarre, Lacey’s intense engagement with her subject matter leads to a work that is painfully human. It was impossible not to see your own feelings reflected in the novel – haven’t we all at some point wished to turn an emotion off? – your own questions, insecurities and feelings of isolation in a world increasingly geared toward leaving us separated from our own, and each other’s, truths.

It was funny to read a novel called The Answers that was so utterly devoid of them. But that, Lacey makes clear, is the point.

Sex and Rage

The popular resurgence of Eve Babitz continues with this very special reissue of her novel, originally published in 1979, about a dreamy young girl moving between Los Angeles and New York City. Sex and Rage delights in its sensuous, dreamlike narrative and its spontaneous embrace of fate and work, and further solidifies Eve Babitz’s place as a singularly important voice in Los Angeles literature – haunting, alluring and alive.

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I absolutely fall into the category of person who clicks on every single ‘books you must read in your twenties’ list Buzzfeed vomits out. If my teenage reading was characterised by a desperate need to escape, as I’ve progressed into my twenties it has transformed into a frantic search for… something. I don’t think I’m the only one. If teen must-read selections major on the paranormal, tragiporn and romance, for us recent adults, picks are more along the lines of coming-of-age amidst heartbreak.

I’m on a solid reading diet of both, and I’m super into it. As much as I love YA, there is a certain amount of self-reflection I enjoy in adult books that, I’ve found you can’t really appreciate until you hit twenty-two and the dust starts to settle into something like your personality. It’s the point at which all those oddities of yourself you were always told you’d grow out of actually become the things you grow into, and subsequently come to blame your parents for.

Or is that just me?

Sex and Rage is exactly the sort of book that would feature on a must-reads for your twenties list. It is deliciously self absorbed. Though it’s written in the third person, it’s one that is close to its protagonist, Jacaranda. The world we experience is entirely hers as she tries to figure out who she is by means of self-destruction and the men who fall for her.

She feels afflicted by youth but total dread at the thought of aging, so tries to live in a way that winds up being too much for her heart to handle. By the age of 23, after five years of living away from the sea she loves so much, immersed in music and the affair she has with a married screenwriter, she moves back to the beach and declares herself bored with rock and roll and in search of the next adventure. And that’s just the first thirty pages.

Sex and Rage is the July pick for the Belletrist book club, and as every month they featured an interview with the author, in this case Eve Babitz. In their conversation with her, it came up that in search of fun, many young women find themselves in completely miserable situations. This is exactly what happens to Jacaranda.

Much of the narrative of the novel is defined by one man: Max. Jacaranda meets Max through an actor she’s sleeping with, and falls instantly in love with this older, charismatic man who lives a glamorous life and makes money through mysterious means that don’t necessarily seem to involve work. Though their relationship is never explicitly romantic – Max’s sexuality remains a point of mystery throughout – the intensity of it is greater than all of her other affairs.

Which means when it goes wrong – as always happens in Max’s life, it becomes apparent – the results for Jacaranda are catastrophic. Underneath his glamour and air of adventure, Max is a cold hearted bully with the ability to make you feel like the centre of the world one moment, and the next like you don’t deserve to live at all.

“The gold had washed off the surface and the Gates of Paradise had been melted down for private purposes no longer on public view. It was only art anyway. Max’s attitude seemed to say – a dismissal of all he’d been before – and suddenly he smelled like suitcases and dry cleaning, not a birthday party for an eight-year-old at all. She kept waiting for him to change back.”

Jacaranda is left deeply scarred by Max, who spent their time together undermining every aspect of her personality, from her appearance to her art – she painted surfboards for a living until Max told her she was a horrible painter – to her budding new love of writing.

As she spirals out into alcoholism and despair, even as her writing career picks up, it takes a long time for her to shed the negative beliefs about herself that Max installed in her. In so many ways, Sex and Rage is a novel of overcoming. Jacaranda’s writing is in defiance of Max and all the people who told her not to do it. To go and meet her publisher in New York – the city she knows Max is in – is to finally relinquish the fear of him that has controlled her life for the best part of a decade. To stop drinking is to know herself on a level she assumed no one would want after Max’s bitter rejection.

Sex and Rage is a sensuous, sexual, self-destructive time capsule of Los Angeles in the seventies. It’s one of those novels consumed with place as much as feeling and you can’t help but fall back into that time of seedy glamour and delayed consequences like sinking into a warm bath. You want to stay there forever, but you know it’s going to get cold and gross before you know it.

In the aforementioned interview with the Belletrist team, Eve Babitz said something that really struck me as emblematic of this book, and of optimism in general. She said:

“You’ll find yourself in a lot of miserable situations regardless, whether you’re seeking out a good time or not, but it’s better to try to enjoy oneself than give up all together and wither away. I have always preferred to look on the bright side.”

Yeah. That seems about right.

How to Be a Bawse

BAWSE/ ‘baus’/ n: a person who exudes confidence, hustles relentlessly, reaches goals and smiles genuinely because he or she has fought through it all and made it out the other side.

Lilly Singh isn’t just a superstar. She’s a Superwoman – which is also the name of her wildly popular Youtube channel. Funny, smart and insightful, the actress and comedian covers topics ranging from relationships to career choices to everyday annoyances. But Lilly didn’t get to the top by being lucky – she had to work for it. Hard.

How to Be a Bawse is the definitive guide to conquering life. Be warned: this book does not include hopeful thoughts, lucky charms or cute quotes. Success and happiness require real effort, dedication and determination. In Lilly’s world, there are no escalators, only stairs. Get ready to climb.

Consider Lilly a personal trainer for your life – with fifty practical rules to get you in the game. Told in Lilly’s hilarious, bold voice and packed with photos and previously untold stories from her journey to the top, this book will show you how to love life and yourself.

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In a culture in which overnight success is considered the only kind, Lilly Singh’s take the stairs, and life rewards hard work attitude is a breath of fresh air. In How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life, she tracks her career from point A: recent psychology graduate, directionless and struggling with depression; to point B: womankind’s answer to Dwayne Johnson with a literal empire of Youtube followers (over 12 million) to boot – and advises you on how to do the same (or, whatever your equivalent may be.).

This no nonsense, practical guide serves as a metaphorical foot in the ass of individuals like myself who have vague dreams but are intimidated by the stress involved in making them a reality.

But why would I write the authentic personal essays I want to write when I could just binge watch sitcoms and avoid my feelings? Are the sort of questions Singh spends this book giving the serious side eye. In every beautiful photograph scattered throughout, Lilly stared at me with a look that said: get your shit together, Tewkesbury.

I’m trying.

In her succinct, funny and pure style, Singh takes us through the qualities she’s cultivated that have helped her succeed. The word I would use to describe Lilly’s self-help style is: strident. She makes clear that she’s only there to give directions. It’s up to you, the reader, to get in the car and drive it. And if you don’t… well, that’s nobody’s fault but your own.

That said, she is not an author without empathy. She just believes in the power of saving oneself. I guess it’s kind of like in the movie except Ares is your own ability to procrastinate?

Okay, I just realised that’s actually Wonder Woman. But whatever. My point stands.

Nobody is going to kill Ares for you. You’ve got to get that shit done yourself. Even if it means leaving your beautiful, women only island where misogyny is a weird myth you laugh about over cocktails (I assume).

How to Be a Bawse is far from pithy, Instagram quote-worthy. It’s, at times, a tough read in which Singh asks you to get real and put aside the bullshit you tell yourself in order to get to your actual emotions. And she doesn’t just tell you to do it, she does it herself, giving examples from her own life where she’s had to send the GPS deep, even when doing so was uncomfortable and difficult.

Like, maybe the real reason I don’t write those authentic personal essays is because I am afraid of rejection because I have been rejected a lot (#daddyissues) and so I’ve come to see it as inevitable?

It turns out a lot of the work most worth doing falls under the labels of uncomfortable and difficult. God damn adulthood.

How to Be a Bawse is inspiration, encouragement and some much needed admonishment packaged in a beautiful (and ridiculously heavy. This was not a fun one to lug around public transport, let me tell you.) hardback. You can’t help but finish the book with a sense that anything is possible, if only you’re willing to work hard enough.

And hard work is something we’re capable of, if we let ourselves be.

Marlena

The story of two girls and the wild year that will cost one her life and define the other’s for decades.

Everything about fifteen-year-old Cat’s new town in rural Michigan is lonely and off-kilter until she meets her neighbour, the magic, beautiful, pill-popping Marlena. Cat is quickly drawn into Marlena’s orbit, and as she catalogues a litany of firsts – first drink, first cigarette, first kiss, first pill – Marlena’s habits harden and calcify. Within a year, Marlena is dead, drowned in six inches of icy water in the woods nearby. Now, decades later, when a ghost from that pivotal year surfaces unexpectedly, Cat must try again to move on, even as the memory of Marlena calls her back.

Told in a haunting dialogue between the past and the present, Marlena is an unforgettable story of the friendships that shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to bring oneself back from the brink.

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Marlena by Julie Buntin is a poetically written coming of age set against a backdrop of rural poverty, drug abuse and the magical powers of female friendship.

Oof. This is not an easy read. To read Marlena is to live a few days with the particular sadness of getting to know a character with the knowledge that at some point in the book, they are going to die. Our willingness to inflict emotional trauma on ourselves is one of the odd peculiarities that comes with being a total story fangirl.

It’s rare that I talk about world building outside of the context of fantasy, but in Marlena, Julie Buntin has created one that is as immersive as it is oppressive. The bleakness of the landscape, occupied by, as so many spaces are, only the very rich and the very poor, seems to soak up the potential of its inhabitants. Though Marlena is undoubtedly a book of feelings – of love, rejection, shame and grief – it is also one of the all-encompassing boredom that comes with being a teenager in a shitty town in the middle of nowhere.

Unlike a lot of the stories I read written from the perspectives of teenagers, our protagonist, Cat, is telling the story as an adult woman looking back on the year that formed so much of who she became as an adult. This creates an awareness of adolescence that is necessarily absent from YA (because when you’re a teen literally the last thing you’re interested in is analysis of being a teen from people who no longer are one. Then you turn 22 and start realising you need to figure out your shit and then it’s all you want to read. Trust me on that.). Marlena is an exploration of adolescence from adulthood in which Buntin reflects with painful emotional honesty on sex, obsessive friendship, naivety and body image to the point you can’t help but feel, as Stephanie Danler writes, “sick to my stomach, with equal parts fear and nostalgia – stunned that any of us made it out of our adolescence alive.”

Cat and Marlena’s friendship makes for a compelling and tragic read. They in fall in love through each fulfilling for the other a need they had never vocalised: for Cat, the need to be connected to somebody, to feel seen in order to feel alive (who hasn’t been there?) and for Marlena, to be loved innocently for the first and probably only time in her short, difficult life. Buntin skilfully maintains an insurmountable distance between the two girls using the comparative innocence that likely drew Marlena to Cat in the first place. The evil lurking in Marlena’s life is the meth addiction that has stolen so many people from her community, including her abusive father, whose addition controls his life. It also has her boyfriend, Ryder, who sells the drug, in its grip. This is a force that dominates Marlena’s life, and always has. It’ll lead to what seems at the end her inevitable death. Yet, when Cat first sees the improvised meth lab lurking in Ryder’s home, she has no idea what she’s looking at, she doesn’t see the fire that’s already burnt Marlena’s house to the ground.

Marlena is a beautiful and tragic book about sisterhood and grief. It is a story in equal parts sickening and compelling with a rawness concerning the darker aspects of girlhood that left me in pieces. Buntin has presented us with a difficult but thrilling debut that has left me excited – when I recover, anyway – for whatever she comes up with next.

Too Much and Not the Mood

On April 11, 1931, Virginia Woolf ended her entry in A Writer’s Diary with the words “too much and not the mood.” She was describing how tired she was of correcting her own writing, of the “cramming in and the cutting out” to please readers, wondering if she had anything at all that was truly worth saying.

The character of that sentiment, the attitude of it, inspired Durga Chew-Bose to collect her own unconventional work. The result is a lyrical and piercingly insightful cluster of essays-meet-prose poetry about identity and culture.

Informed by Maggie Nelsons Bluets, Lydia Davis’s stories, and Vivian Gornick’s exploration of interior life, Chew-Bose mines the inner restlessness that keeps her always on the brink of creative expression. Part memoir, part cultural criticism, Too Much and Not the Mood is a lush, surprising, and affecting examination of what it means to be a first-generation, creative young woman working today.

I read a lot of essay collections written by women. I treat them like instruction manuals for life; I return to them over and over and over again when I need to scratch a particular emotional itch.

You probably know the one I mean.

But in all the collections that line my bookshelves there is nobody quite like Durga Chew-Bose. It makes sense to me that she named her collection after a Virginia Woolf quote because Too Much and Not the Mood flows, bounces and draws up short in a stream of consciousness style that is distinctly Woolfian.

I was thrown off balance as soon as I started reading, finding the first essay, ‘Heart Museum’ (probably the most experimental of the collection) was 93 pages long. It’s Chew-Bose at her most whimsical. You don’t so much open the door into her world as tumble, Alice in Wonderland-style endlessly down into her interior life, wondering, all the while, how she managed to paint the inside of her brain in a way that makes introversion feel big instead of claustrophobic. The essay meanders through anxiety, writing, your woman friends who make you feel more connected than anybody else, so called ‘nook’ people and the purpose and beauty that can be found in, as she calls it, intentionally digressing.

In Too Much and Not the Mood, Chew-Bose is preoccupied by her childhood and her relationship with her parents in particular. In another standout essay, ‘D as In’, she writes about her experience of being a first-generation kid, and how being a woman of colour comes with ‘an assumption that I owe strangers an answer when they inquire’ but where are you from from? It is a beautiful piece about finding your identity while living in a society that so often imposes a limited one on people from minorities.

My copy of the book is filled with dog-eared pages. Durga Chew-Bose’s writing is like unwrapping a gift or sinking into a hot bath after a long day. There is something luxurious about existing in the interior space that she creates. A great example of this is the piece ‘On Living Alone’, which she writes of as an exercise in getting to know the person she’s spent her whole life avoiding: herself. She writes: ‘Living alone, I soon caught on, is a form of self-portraiture, or retracing the same lines over and over – of becoming.’

There were so many moments while reading that I had to put the book down and quietly wonder at her writing. There were other times I had to wave the book in the air and read out passages to the nearest friend or family member I could grab hold of. I took photos of quotes and sent them to my friends, to confused responses mostly. Chew-Bose has such a poetic way of cutting to the heart of a feeling in a way that made me catch my breath.

In the final essay of the collection ‘My Least and Most Aware’, she recounts meeting up with an ex, and the way that all of the old resentments she thought she’d moved past came rushing back to the surface. She writes:

 ‘We laboured, he and I, over niceties. Listening to him felt like work. It was as though we were both trying to retrieve a mutual tenderness that had fallen from our hands and rolled into a storm drain.’

I already know this is one I’ll be reading over and over.