The Book Thief

Here is a small fact: you are going to die.

1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.

Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.

Some important information: this novel is narrated by Death. It’s a small story about a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, A Jewish fist fighter and quite a lot of thievery.

Another thing you should know: Death will visit the book thief three times.

I can’t really get into why, because it’s a massive spoiler, but The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is without question one of the most traumatic experiences I have put myself through by choice in recent history.

If you have read it, I have only one question for you. And it is this: what the fuck?

For everyone else, The Book Thief is one of those very famous international best seller types that you think you should read, but put off for ages because it’s long and it’s about Nazi Germany, so you know it’s going to be traumatic (but how traumatic you truly cannot imagine. Okay, I did only finish it yesterday, so I’m still in the first phase of my response but what. The. Fuck.), but eventually someone in your life pushes you (in this instance my housemate) and you finally pick it up, because It’s Time.

And you know what, trauma aside, it is an incredible book. Told by Death, in combination with the Nazi Germany of it all, means there is a constant sense of impermanence, of the looming end of it all that we all do our best to ignore day-to-day. That sense of something looming grows in time with the hate and aggression life under Hitler brings to the community. From Jewish-owned shops destroyed before closing down completely – and their keepers vanished – to the lady in the corner shop who will only sell you food after you first Heil Hitler, the bubbling fanaticism and anti-Semitism form a sinister undertone to Liesel’s every day – but as a nine-year-old it’s not something she thinks about a ton. Mostly, she’s concerned with where she and her best friend Rudy are going to go steal some extra food because her foster mother has been cooking nothing but pea soup for months.

But a normal childhood isn’t a luxury children in Nazi Germany get to experience, and there is something uniquely harrowing about the ways Liesel and Rudy lose their innocence as the war wages on, gradually wending its way toward their homes on Himmel Street. From Liesel, hiding the secret of the hidden Jew in the basement to Rudy, fighting the war with the Nazi Youth but actually fighting the war against the Nazi Youth, both children have a strong sense of justice instilled in them that the misery of their circumstances never quite manages to beat out. Their actions aren’t exactly powerful – reading to a huddled group inside a bomb shelter, standing up for your friend the Nazi Youth would call weak – but small as they are, in the depths of the despair of the situation, they mean everything.

The Book Thief is really a book about changing the world in small ways: saving the life of one Jewish man, even if only for a time; protecting one kid from the fists of the Nazi Youth bullies; leaving the window open so a young girl can sneak inside and steal your books; giving a dying man a teddy bear. It’s about one small street in Nazi Germany and how its inhabitants survived the hatred – and how they didn’t. People can change each other’s lives in ways large and small, and you see all of them throughout the scope of this expansive novel. When one person loses hope for a while another person picks it up and runs with it until they can do so again, and so on and so forth, until Death comes to visit.

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The Girls

TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault/coercion

Evie Boyd is fourteen and desperate to be noticed. It’s the summer of 1969 and restless, empty days stretch ahead of her. Until she sees them. The girls. Hair long and uncombed, jewellery catching the sun. And at their centre, Suzanne, black-haired and beautiful.

If not for Suzanne, she might not have gone. But, intoxicated by her and the life she promises, Evie follows the girls back to the decaying ranch where they live.

Was there a warning? A sign of what was coming? Or did Evie know already that there was no way back?

I know I need to find another space to take a photo, but I’m short on options in my new house

I can tell you the exact moment I fell in love with The Girls by Emma Cline.

It was about 100 foreboding pages in. I was waiting for a late-running train back to Devon for the weekend. I had resentfully purchased a £5 pasty from Bristol Temple Meads train station because my just under two-hour journey had suddenly become much longer – so long that there wasn’t even a projected arrival time – and I was hungry. The signs read only: delayed.

But me and my pasty-greasy fingers were utterly absorbed in this creepy, gut-wrenching, cult-joining, sexuality-exploring, absolutely gripping read.

I wouldn’t recommend reading The Girls if you want to feel comfortable.

“’You ever hear anything about Russell?’
The question didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t understand that she was trying to gauge how many of the rumours I’d heard: about orgies, about frenzied acid trips and teen runaways forced to service older men. Dogs scarified on moonlit beaches, goat heads rotting in the sand. If I’d had friends besides Connie, I might’ve heard chatter of Russell at parties, some hushed gossip in the kitchen. Might’ve known to be wary.
But I shook my head. I hadn’t heard anything.”

The Girls is about bored teen Evie Boyd. Apathetic about her friends, her upcoming transfer to boarding school, her parents’ recent divorce and well… just about everything. She mostly hangs out by herself, masturbating and thinking about all of the sex and excitement – though to her those things are one and the same – that are yet to come into her life.

Despite the madness of the scenario – charismatic cult leader, Manson family-style murder – everything that happens in The Girls feels grounded in reality. For however crazy her situation becomes – and it really does – Evie’s experiences and her thoughts about them never felt anything short of authentic.

Cline takes a razor sharp (read: painful) look at emerging sexuality and how it is so often experienced by teenage girls. A whole mess of influences like patriarchy, gender roles, coercion and the drive to always be pleasing play out in upsetting ways as Evie begins her sexual life. There is a sense that she is passive in her sexual experiences, manipulated by older men and complicit women in ways she isn’t yet able to understand. Won’t understand, in fact, until years later, when she is in her middle age and forced see the toxic patterns playing out again for another young girl. A tale as old as time – and a super fucking depressing one.

As so many cult reads (by that I mean literal cult), The Girls is a book preoccupied with power. Who has it – but more, really, about who doesn’t. It looks at the way masculinity can be wielded like a weapon – men who want to take advantage, men who think they know best, men who just want you to feel uncomfortable in the world, for no reason other than it makes them feel good. Men who really don’t care whether you want to have sex with them or not, so long as they get to have sex.

Watching Evie navigate that, from her teen girl summer to the snatches of her life as an adult we’re offered hurt to read, because it felt so familiar.

But this book isn’t all about men – it’s called The Girls, after all. Ultimately, though he is the sun around which everyone else orbits, cult reader Russell doesn’t really do it for Evie. He never did. What brought Evie into the fold was the unreachable Suzanne, who Evie wants in complex and ever-changing ways. From the beginning where she wants to be her – or at least the thing that she appears to be – Evie falls hard for a woman so deep in the cult that she is unable to love her back. Suzanne is too far gone, and watching Evie come to terms with that is a heart-breaking tale of unrequited love as cringe-inducingly familiar as everything else Cline writes in this novel.

“I was happy to twist the meanings, wilfully misread the symbols. Doing what Suzanne asked seemed like the best gift I could give her, a way to unlock her own reciprocal feelings. And she was trapped, in her way, just like I was, but I never saw that, shifting easily in the directions she prompted me for.”

Evie enters a bad world from one where the word’s previous definition came with an air of unreality. She says it herself at various points in the book: nothing bad ever really happens. That’s why she waltzes oddly thoughtlessly on in this never-ending investigating-the-noise-in-the-cellar book. We spend the entire time waiting for a monster, as yet invisible, to appear – and consume her.

It’s hard to get this one out of your head.

How To Stop Time

How many lifetimes does it take to learn how to live?

Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old history teacher, but he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz-Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen it all. As long as he keeps changing his identity he can stay one step ahead of his past – and stay alive.

The only thing he must not do is fall in love…

When I picked up How To Stop Time by Matt Haig, I was totally ready – unlike poor old Tom Hazard – to fall in love. Haig is such a popular author, and I’ve always really valued his perspective about mental health.

Sadly though, How To Stop Time just didn’t do it for me.

I really didn’t like it. The pacing was off, the characters under-developed, the twist so obvious as to be guessed from almost the first chapter, and the plot never more than hinted at in passing.

But I’ll get back to that.

Because for the sake of balance, I feel I should get into the parts I liked.

Structurally, it was an interesting read. Tom Hazard, as the summary says, has a rare and unusual condition that means he ages very slowly. At the beginning of How To Stop Time, Tom is “well over 400 years old”, and world-weary in a way I suppose unique to people who have lived for more than four centuries.

Following some terrible event in his life – the exact nature of which we never find out, unless I blinked and missed it – Tom has decided to start life over as a history teacher in a London secondary school. The plot jumps in time between his history lessons and the memories his classes inspire – from his experiences with witch trials in the fifteenth century to the time he met Shakespeare. It’s kind of like Slumdog Millionaire if Dev Patel were a school teacher.

Tom’s fluctuating mental health over the centuries, too, felt very realistic to me. It’s pretty easy to feel a certain level of despondency about the world – that the level you’d feel that would be amplified by hundreds of years of seeing the same patterns repeat themselves made a lot of sense. When you’re doomed to outlive (almost) everyone you care about, isolating would seem like the most sensible option to protect yourself from the pain of that.

“This is the chief comfort of being four hundred and thirty nine years old. You understand quite completely that the main lesson of history is: humans don’t learn from history. The twenty-first century could still turn out to be a bad cover version of the twentieth, but what could we do?”

The rest of it, however, I just could not get behind. From the twist you could see coming from pretty much the first chapter, to the ending in which Haig attempts to squash an entire plot into a matter of pages – the result being that most things aren’t satisfactorily tied up, and things that are, are done so far too neatly – it was quite a disappointment to me all around. It was just weak, and I’m sad about that because the premise was so promising.

His approach to his subject matter of hope, existential dread and anxiety about the future also felt heavy handed, and awkward. How To Stop Time made universal worries peculiarly unengaging – by having Tom realise the meaning of life – essentially to live in the moment – through a very underdeveloped relationship with his Freda Pinto, a sexy French teacher with epilepsy (who teaches Tom life lessons by saying things like “who knows anything about the future? I don’t know if I’ll make it through the afternoon!” (I might be paraphrasing)).

So, How To Stop Time was kind of a dud for me, but I’m glad to have ticked Haig off the to-read list.

May favourites

May was something of a crazy month for me. I went on holiday to Venice for week, and then yesterday I moved to a new city to start a new job – after a manic few weeks finishing up any outstanding freelance projects before that phase of my life (thankfully) reached a close. For now.

I am a totally shy introvert, so moving to a new city full of strangers into a house full of strangers (I am living in a slightly weird place that used to be a B&B, with six other people) feels like a Big Deal. I’ve moved here for a temporary, but very exciting job, so I’m doing my best to put my anxieties aside (by which I obviously mean read lots of books and watch lots of TV and try not to think about them) and enjoy myself.

So far I’m not doing too badly. I took myself out for a coffee date this morning. Yesterday I made my room pretty.

It’s in progress.

Anyway, onto my favourites from May!

Travelling by myself

In the weeks leading up to Venice, whenever I mentioned I was going away, and then, when asked, revealed that it was by myself, I got some funny looks. I felt like I had to make excuses for myself. Reassure people that I did have friends. Mention that you have to do some things by yourself when you’re single as if that was something I felt regretful about.

The truth?

I fucking love going on holiday by myself.

Wandering aimlessly for hours, not worrying that I’m boring someone else, whether their needs are being met… it’s the best. I’ve been away alone three times now and every time I wait for myself to get lonely and I just… don’t.

There might be something wrong with me.

All I can say is it felt like freedom.

F Word

This is a series on the Soul Pancake YouTube channel about a queer couple looking to foster and perhaps adopt a child. It offers a fascinating insight into the foster and adopt process in the US, casting an analytical eye over systemic racism in the system – people of colour are much more likely to have their children removed in situations where white parents are allowed to keep theirs – the limbo potential foster and adoptive parents experience as they negotiate the system and the tensions between biological parents and foster parents. It is emotional AF (I cried. A lot.) and painful and hopeful and heart-breaking – and an invaluable look at a much under-represented experience. The episode where they interview bio parents fighting to get their rights to their children reinstated is particularly devastating and necessary.

See Something Say Something

The See Something Say Something podcast is back! One of the most tragic losses of the great Buzzfeed podcast cull of 2018, I was thrilled to see Ahmed Ali Akbar and guests back on the air as an independent outfit. See Something Say Something is a podcast about being a Muslim in the US right now. From their award-winning Ramadan series to interviews with some amazing guests like everybody’s fave chef, Samin Nosrat and author Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib AKA Carly Rae Jepsen’s no. 1 fan among many other great people, every episode is a blend of political commentary, pop culture (RIP Zayn and Gigi) and just a chance to spend time with some awesome people.

Aja Barber

Aja Barber is an activist-writer-stylist talking about systematic racism, sustainable fashion and saving the planet. Through her Instagram and Patreon accounts she dissects the role of white supremacy in the climate emergency, and how we can all hold each other accountable – most especially white people – for the role we are playing in the destruction of the planet. I feel really strongly about the destructive power of fast fashion, but for a long time I couldn’t find many voices within the sustainable fashion movement that really resonated with me. It’s a lot of very rich, mostly white women dancing in fields wearing flowing dresses and talking about veganism. And while that’s fine for them, the story a lot of those accounts tell lacked the urgency and complexity with which I wanted to see the conversation take place – also, to be frank, they showed a lifestyle totally financially unattainable to me. Then I found Barber’s work. She discusses the problem of fast fashion with the intelligence, nuance and analytical complexity I’d been looking for. She constantly challenges the white woman in her audience to be better, more accountable, more intersectional in their perspective and has pushed me to consider what doing my best really looks like. And, with her particular interest in second hand shopping, she shows that living sustainably is more accessible than we might think.

If you fancy catching up, this month I reviewed…

How to be a Craftivist by Sarah Corbett
The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X. R. Pan
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

How was your May? Have you ever moved to a new place for a job? Any tips would be much appreciated!

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

The book that sparked a national conversation. Exploring everything from eradicated black history to the inextricable link between class and race, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is the essential handbook for anyone who wants to understand race relations in Britain today.

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge is the book about race and Britain I didn’t know I needed.

So, a weird thing about the British education system – at least, back when I was in it – is that you don’t really learn anything about the history of race in the country. The UK’s colonialist history, the atrocities it has inflicted on other countries, how those wounds continue to be felt today were – and I am embarrassed to admit this, but I’ll be honest about it – things I learned entirely by accident through fiction.

I know how white I sound right now.

And yet even in the last few years, as I’ve learned chunks of a history that even now my country fails to be held accountable for, a lot of what I have learned about black history in particular has been through an American lens. It’s a phenomenon Eddo-Lodge describes in the book, the “heavy focus on Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad and Martin Luther King Jr., the household names of America’s civil rights movement felt important” to her, but far away from her own experiences as a black person in the UK.

Eddo-Lodge then sets up the history of black Britain in brief, from the slave ports dotted all over the country (one of them very near where I live that I had no idea about) to the black and brown soldiers who fought in World War One, promised the end of colonial rule in return for their service (a promise England broke), race riots and the utterly horrifying lynching of Charles Wootton – to which Britain responded by ‘repatriating’ (deporting, basically) 600 black people from the country.

In setting up the history of racism in Britain and its manifestation now, as a reader you can’t help but reflect on what’s changed – but more strikingly, what hasn’t. In 1900, the British government decided that the ‘solution’ to the problem of racist crime in the community was to send black people ‘home’ (to places they had been forcibly removed from by the British who enslaved them). Nowadays we deal with structural racism with a similar ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach – by pretending it doesn’t exist. As Eddo-Lodge says, white people “truly believe that the experiences of their life as a result of their skin colour can and should be universal.” And yet as she goes onto explain, with the stark disparities in educational opportunities, higher unemployment rates, harsher police responses (for example, black people are twice as likely to be charged with drug possession despite lower rates of use), disproportionate and inappropriate use of the Mental Health Act and generally worse health outcomes for black people, this narrative of equality we have invented quickly falls apart.

Every section of this book is fascinating and challenging, but none more so than the chapter about feminism – specifically Eddo-Lodge’s points about white feminism. That is, for the uninitiated, feminism that doesn’t take account of race. If you’re a white girl born in the nineties, in other words, the feminism that you were brought up on. Eddo-Lodge writes in detail about her experiences with white feminism, and in particular the way that white women often frame themselves as victims in a conversation about their own privilege (think Taylor Swift/ Nicki Minaj VMAs incident from a few years ago) in such a way that paints black women as ‘angry’ villains, effectively pushing them out of the conversation. As Eddo-Lodge puts it: “The white feminist distaste for intersectionality quickly evolved into a hatred for the idea of white privilege – perhaps because to recognise structural racism would have to mean recognising their own whiteness.”
White feminism perceives intersectionality as a threat to its identity. It’s the same old racism under new guise, and one that is rampant even in what many white people consider to be progressive circles.

Even if non-fiction isn’t your go-to, I think you should read this book. Eddo-Lodge’s work is important, powerful and deeply engaged with the political moment without pandering to the idea that racism is something that just happened in the last couple years – she’s very clear that it’s only white people who hadn’t noticed it before 2016. It’s a work that also serves as a call to action and a reminder, for white readers anyway, that the job of picking apart structural racism is the responsibility of everyone – most especially those who have spent their entire lives benefitting from it.
Reni Eddo-Lodge is a vital writer and Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race should be at the top of every intersectional feminist’s reading list.

Internment

Trigger warning: Islamophobia

It’s been one year since the census landed seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her family on the registry. Five months since the attorney general ruled there was precedent for relocation of citizens during times of war. And one month since the president declared that ‘Muslims are a threat to America’.

Now, Layla and her parents are suddenly taken from their home and forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens.

With the help of newly made friends also trapped within the internment camp, her boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp’s Director and his guards.

Set in a horrifying near-future United States, Internment is a heart-racing and emotional novel that challenges readers to fight the complicit silence that exists in society today.

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Internment by Samira Ahmed is a chilling and powerful peek into a potential future America. Muslim Americans are forced to sign up to a so-called ‘Muslim registry’, book burnings of Islamic texts and literature by Muslim authors are a regular occurrence and exclusion laws are in place preventing Muslims from entering the country. People live under nightly curfew. Lots of Muslim parents have withdrawn their children from school, fearing for their safety in institutions that have turned against them. Muslims working in the public sector have all been fired from their jobs.

Soon the hostile environment moves into its next horrifying phase: internment. Layla and her parents are removed from their home at gun point and sent to a camp in the middle of the desert. There, people are separated into ethnic groups (classic colonialist move), given no access to the internet or any kind of news outside of the camp’s electrified fences and forced to adjust to a life of imprisonment and all the terror, random acts of violence and isolation that come with that.

Internment is very much Layla’s story. It’s an introspective look at her experience of internment: her constant fear, her frustration with her parents and their obedience to the rules of the camp – born only of course of a desire to remain safe, but nonetheless awful to Layla – and her growth from regular teenage girl to an activist and freedom fighter under duress.

Ahmed expertly crafted this book so as you read every page with baited breath, tense and unable to relax. It’s a relentless novel filled with dangers known – and perhaps even more frightening, mysterious. Some people are beaten by guards for all to see, others vanished from the camp without explanation. Even in moments of relative calm there is no escape from the ever-present feeling of danger. This is no more evident than in Layla’s developing relationship with one of the camp’s guards. A solider seemingly sympathetic to the plight of Layla and her fellow inmates, Layla’s relationship with Jake made me very uncomfortable. While Jake does act like a friend and an ally, he still works for the regime and the extremity of the power imbalance in their relationship makes every early scene between the pair – to me, anyway – almost unbearably tense and, for lack of a better word, icky. Yes, right now this man is acting as Layla’s ally, but it is impossible to forget that ultimately, he has power over her – in the form of a gun and a climate of disregard for the Muslims imprisoned in the camp. Basically, he could do what he wanted to her and no one would stop him – and even when he behaved kindly, that was impossible to forget.

Jake, unfortunately, is where my problems with Internment began. While it is a powerful story, I couldn’t help but feel that it could have been more. Though they would have been difficult to read, there were elements of life in the camp I felt could have been better fleshed out. The way internees had the potential to turn against each other, for example, was touched upon but not fully explored; different Muslim identities were acknowledged, but without much depth; in perhaps the part that upset me most, the sexual abuse almost certainly happening in the camp was acknowledged by Jake in a way that felt almost… throwaway. I think perhaps the reason these missing elements bothered me quite so much is because of the amount of the narrative that is dedicated to Layla’s relationship with Jake, the white guard. His arc of redemption was probably the least interesting to me, and, in my opinion, was dedicated far too much time and yet still not enough complexity – or criticism.

Then there was the novel’s tendency to fall into some of the tropes of YA. Layla took massive risks throughout to spend time with her boyfriend, David that felt… kind of unrealistic to me. Being forcibly separated from your partner is a kind of pain I couldn’t even imagine, but sneaking your boyfriend into an internment camp where both your lives are in danger for what basically amounted to a quick make out sesh… really?

Ultimately, Internment is an upsetting and necessary read about the impact of Islamophobia taken to one of its most extreme possible outcomes. It’s chilling because it’s realistic. I read Internment the week following the Christchurch shootings, in which there was an increase in Islamophobic hate crimes in the UK. A few days later there was a report in The Guardian from the UNHCR that 15 refugee children, mostly from Afghanistan, being held in Calais by the UK awaiting family unification – some of them for up to a year are currently undertaking a hunger strike out of desperation to have their cases finally heard. What’s upsetting about Internment is what could happen – but it’s also what’s happening now.

Internment, though imperfect, points out the ways that we are complicit in crimes being committed right now and challenges you to finally step into the fight.

Everything I Know About Love

When it comes to the trials and triumphs of becoming a grown up, journalist Dolly Alderton has seen and tried it all. She vividly recounts falling in love, wrestling with self-sabotage, finding a job, throwing a socially disastrous Rod Stewart themed house party, getting drunk, getting dumped, realising that Ivan from the corner shop is the only man you’ve ever been able to rely on, and finding that that your mates are always there at the end of every messy night out. It’s a book about bad dates, good friends and – above all else – about recognising that you and you alone are enough.

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I grabbed a copy of Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton on a whim at the checkout in Sainsbury’s. It was £3.99, I was stocking up on yoghurt and pasta. It made sense.

I knew very little about the book besides a few people I follow on Instagram posting about how great it was and assumed from the title that it was probably about boys. And, for the first couple of chapters at least, I was right. Dolly Alderton starts what very much appears to be a book about dating before she pivots into a much more complicated story about friendship, self-destruction, loss, grief, therapy and independence – and cooking. There is a macaroni cheese recipe in there that’ll make you lose your mind.

“Sometimes the gap between the little faith you have compared to the unwavering faith of others is a very moving thing.”

Everything I Know About Love is a series of funny, heart-wrenching and sometimes cringe-inducing personal essays about Alderton’s life, from her beginnings living in the outskirts of London counting down the days until adulthood finally begins, to her discovery of alcohol and its impact on her, some boys and, of course, her personal reckoning – with herself. These essays are broken up by recipes (I know I mentioned this already but the hangover mac and cheese is life changing), made up correspondence on everything from pretentious house parties to the nightmare that is the hen do in the social media age and everything Dolly knew about love between the ages of 21 and 30. From “Men love a filthy, wild woman. Have sex on the first date, keep them up all night, smoke hash in their bed in the morning, never call them back, tell them you hate them, turn up on their doorstep in an Ann Summers nurse’s outfit, be anything but conventional. That’s how you keep them interested.” (21) to “There is a reason why those with shared demons or who had similar childhoods or overlapping ancestry often end up together. I think everyone’s deepest emotional fingerprints reach out and touch each other on an unconscious level. This can be good and bad. This can lead to intimacy and connection, and co-dependency and drama.” (30). Each list is full of embarrassing misconceptions and deep truths I’ve been reflecting on ever since.

In ‘Being a Bit Fat, Being a Bit Thin’, Alderton details how quickly it is possible to fall into disordered eating habits. Always described as “a big girl” by her peers, Dolly hadn’t considered her weight in much detail before her first Big Break Up age 21. Struck down by unexpected heartbreak, for the first time in her life, Dolly found herself completely unable to eat. When she shed a stone in the first few weeks she grabbed hold of weight as one aspect of her life she could control. This is a difficult essay to read, as it speaks very directly to how ingrained diet culture is – in young women in particular. We have been so socialised into believing that thin equals happy even the most reasonable person is vulnerable to falling into that belief – and, as Alderton points out, it’s one that is incredibly difficult to ever be completely free from. Once you know something’s caloric value, it’s very hard to forget.

When I saw the title Everything I Know About Love, I assumed the love Alderton referenced was mostly the romantic kind, but the love story at the centre of her memoir is a platonic one. She and her best friend, Farley have known each other since they were children. They always functioned as two parts of a frenetic whole – that is, until Farley met her partner. Alderton writes with honesty and humility about how hard it was for her to see her best friend fall in love. It is one of the lesser spoken of aspects of friendship, but the particular heartbreak of suddenly becoming second to your friend’s serious partner is a real and horrible phase of life at whatever age it happens to you. Going from speaking to and seeing each other every day to suddenly having to fit into the newly busy schedule of your bestie can be unmooring, alienating and very, very lonely. But, slowly, you adjust to the new normal. The partner you’ve resented comes to feel like family.

Alderton illustrates that periods of closeness and distance are all a part of a long-term relationship, something that becomes very apparent when Farley’s life takes a completely unexpected and tragic twist – leading she and Dolly back to the kind of closeness they hadn’t had in years, under the most awful of circumstances. It’s not the kind of unconditional love she had always pictured, but, Dolly comes to realise, she and Farley have it. Alderton spends much of the book lamenting her supposed inability to maintain long-term love. Her life has mainly been without serious romantic relationships, and she wears her independence like a shield. But the idea that she doesn’t have forever-love in her life isn’t real. Farley is the great (platonic) love of her life – with all the joys, fights, complications and phases that entails.

All I can say to sum up this book is this: I was not ready.