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.

The Incendiaries

Trigger warning: sexual assault

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet during their first month at a prestigious university. Phoebe doesn’t tell anyone that she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy transferring in from Bible college, waiting tables to make ends meet. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Haunted by her loss, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group – a secretive cult tied to North Korea – founded by a charismatic former student with an enigmatic past involving Phoebe’s Korean American family. Will struggles to confront the obsession consuming the one he loves and the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape. When the extremist group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

The Incendiaries is a powerful love story and a brilliant examination of what can happen to people when they lose what they love most.

20190215_142345-01

The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon is a vivid and deeply unsettling novel about loss. I enjoyed it in the way you enjoy every story you know will end badly – through half-closed eyes, ready to look away at any moment but never quite able to.

Kwon’s writing is gorgeous, at once poetic and deeply specific as her characters spiral slowly further out of reach. Though the novel is theoretically split into three perspectives: Will’s, Phoebe’s and cult leader John Leal’s, all commentary really comes from Will as he tries to get into the minds of his girlfriend and the cult leader he believes took her from him. This leant the entire novel a layer of unreliability that really spoke to the subject matter – ultimately sometimes we will never understand the events that lead people we love to leave us. Often we are left with only theories and that’s what The Incendiaries feels like – Will’s theory.

The summary describes the book as a “powerful love story” but I wouldn’t call it that so much as a searing break up novel. Will is not a good boyfriend. He arrives at the university having recently transferred from bible college after losing his faith, and, thus unmoored, attaches himself to Phoebe like she’s his new religion. He’s grieving the loss of the God who kept him going through poverty and an unstable childhood – until one day, He didn’t – and deeply inadequate, a scholarship student in a school full of rich legacy kids. He hides his part time job and his proselytising past and revels in his own shame even as he lies to Phoebe about it. In the end it makes sense that Will would recognise John Leal as a fraud – it takes one to know one, I guess.

Ironic then, that the ex-born again would fall in love with a girl about to fall herself into the clutches of another fundamentalist belief system. Phoebe is also grieving and unmoored by the loss of her mother. She clings to partying, then Will and finally, newfound religion. She comes off so desperate to belong again to something that she’ll give herself to anything, which mostly means men who manipulate and abuse her trust in a range of violent and upsetting ways. Perhaps worst of all is that she isn’t even allowed to tell her story herself – we get it second hand, half imagined by the ex-boyfriend she clearly wanted nothing more than to escape.

Which isn’t to say she is not responsible for her actions, as much as Will tries to push that narrative after the devastating bombings Phoebe is implicated in hit the news, but that ultimately Phoebe remains to us throughout what she is to Will: mysterious, hard to reach. Probably dead.

The Incendiaries is a novel of dark foreboding perfect for fans of The Secret History. Kwon’s beautiful writing hooks you in and demands your attention if not your sympathy as she explores the disturbing tale of that which inspires people to acts of evil.

The Accidental

Arresting and wonderful, The Accidental pans in on the Norfolk holiday home of the Smart family one hot summer. There, a beguiling stranger called Amber appears at the door bearing all sorts of unexpected gifts, trampling over family boundaries and sending each of the Smarts scurrying from the dark into the light.

A novel about the ways that seemingly chance encounters irrevocably transform our understanding of ourselves, The Accidental explores the nature of truth, the role of fate and the power of storytelling.

Processed with VSCO with g3 preset

So, The Accidental by Ali Smith. This was a funny one – not necessarily in a good way.

I picked it up in a second hand bookshop while I was on holiday, recalling how much I loved There but for the (a story about a man who locks himself in a room inside someone else’s house during a terrible dinner party and doesn’t come out for months) ready for another whimsical, and, if the blurb was anything to go by, uplifting ride.

That is not what I got.

The Accidental is a book split into three parts – the beginning, the middle and the end. Each part is narrated in close third person in Smith’s typical stream-of-consciousness style by the Smart-Berenski family members; Eve, the mother and writer with a serious lack of inspiration; Michael, her cheating university professor husband; Magnus, Eve’s teenaged son; and Astrid, Eve’s 12-year-old daughter and by far the highlight of this book.

They are, as the blurb indicates, on holiday for the summer in Norfolk, ostensibly so Eve can get some writing done (she isn’t writing so much as napping in her ‘writing shed’ for eight hours before coming inside for dinner) and the family can have that specific sort of bonding needed when dealing with teenagers and stepparents – in other words, the kind of bonding that is largely unwanted by all parties (not speaking from experience or anything…).

The entire scenario is shrouded in a cloud of ennui. While the family aren’t exactly miserable (Eve has made her peace with Michael’s constant cheating), they are alienated from one another and themselves in a way that felt very realistic to me. Problems that persist (Michael’s cheating, Astrid and Magnus’s vanishing father) are never discussed. There is a sense that things could be better if any of the family members were willing to try, but as is the case in most families, nobody is. Then Amber, a stranger arrives. Michael assumes she has come to interview Eve about her writing, and Eve assumes she is one of Michael’s girlfriends/students and she ends up staying for several weeks (this is either Smith logic re. There but for the or a comment on Britishness in general – not sure). Amber supposedly blows the lid on the whole situation – I’ll get to my thoughts on that shortly.

First, because I don’t want to be a pessimist and out of a sense of loyalty to There but for the, which I genuinely really enjoyed, I would like focus on the positives. Primarily, Astrid. Her voice felt the most authentic in the whole novel – her meandering thoughts typical of an isolated 12 year old sore at spending her summer in a way she didn’t choose, stuck for companions apart from her brother (and who wants to hang out with their big brother?) and her video camera. Smith has a beautiful way of describing minute details of meandering thoughts that make them feel important and somehow make the reader feel seen in even in their most mundane moments. Astrid’s thoughts veer wildly between her dislike of Michael, resentment toward her mother, questions surrounding her father, the girls bullying her at school – to wondering about asteroids, terrorism (the novel is set in 2003), filming everything from dead animals to every sunrise and trying to figure out who put the racist graffiti on the Indian restaurant down the road. She feels young and petulant, unnecessarily difficult in all the ways you are when you feel like your family has become something you don’t entirely recognise. Reading her put me right back into being 12 and somewhere with my mother’s partner at the time and feeling dreadfully affronted when a stranger referred to him as my dad (cue petulant ‘ugh, he’s not my dad’ (don’t feel too bad for him. He was equally as keen to point out that I was not his daughter)).

My point is, I loved Astrid, and I was always sad when her sections ended – they were by far the most engaging of the book.

My main issue with the novel came with Amber. The Accidental, friends, is a classic example of a manic pixie dream girl story. And, as I have covered on various occasions before, I just can’t stand that particular trope. The way that Amber changes the lives of all these family members has really very little to do with her actions (apart from fucking Magnus, which she does wildly and with abandon), but more to do with the ideas and thoughts that are ascribed to her by Michael, Eve and, to a certain extent, Astrid. Amber has very little agency, almost no backstory, save a couple of chapters where Smith is at her most ‘experimental’ (read: incomprehensible. To me, anyway) that, regardless, don’t really tell you anything other than that Amber has some sort of spiritual connection to movies because she was conceived in a cinema. She is one dimensional, hyper sexual, aggressive and without any sort of personality that you can pin down – MPDG down to a T.

Ali, I expected better. I am tired of this trope. I am tired of women being seen as a service – to make people feel a certain way (sexually and in terms of ego), look a certain way and be, somehow The Answer (you are not the answer*). It exhausts me, and nothing turns me off a book faster.

*This is a reference to The Type, one of my all-time favourite poems by Sarah Kay (and in general). You should read it. It’s like the anti-manic pixie dream girl read. I’m going to go read it now.

In all, The Accidental was a disappointment – even more so because I was prepared for full on book love. Sigh.

Welcome to Lagos

TW: sexual assault

Five runaways ride the bus from Bayelsa to a better life in a megacity. They are unlikely allies – a private, a housewife, an officer, a militant and a young girl. They share a need for escape and a dream for the future. Soon, they will also share a burden none could have expected, but for now, the five sit quietly with their hopes, as the billboards fly past and shout: Welcome to Lagos.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

Once again I have the fantastic Belletrist book club to thank for Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo. This was an absolutely delightful take on moving to the city/coming of age story set in the city of Lagos, Nigeria. Two military deserters, one former militant with aspirations to be a radio star (and a fake American accent), a student and a homemaker on the run from her violent husband come together as an dysfunctional family during their escape from the violence ridden Niger Delta. War wounds (from spouses, militants and corrupt military generals) weighing heavy on them all, they follow their (somewhat) reluctant leader Chike into their new fast paced, mystifying, occasionally beautiful (but mostly nonsensical) Lagos life.

In addition to our core runaway family, the novel also tells the story of Ahmed, upper middle class UK educated editor of the anti-government (and anti-money. It is totally failing and only allowed to continue because Ahmed’s father used to be pretty high up in the (corrupt) government he is so against) newspaper the Nigerian Journal, and Chief Sandayọ, the (not so) Honourable Minster of Education for the Federal Republic of Nigeria, recently vanished with most of the Ministry’s money.

Realities come crashing together when Chike and co. move into an apparently deserted basement apartment that just so happens to be the secret hideaway of that (not so) Honourable Minister. And the stolen money.

Welcome to Lagos an excellent portrait of survival in a city that wants to eat you alive. In equal parts funny and tragic, we see Onuzo’s complexly realised characters fight to be better in an environment that really only calls for them to be worse. Chike, who, after deserting the army that was his purpose for so long (until his superiors starting ordering kills of anyone who dared disagree with them) is searching for a new cause, anything he can cling to to make it all worth it; Isoken, the student searches for some means of survival after a violent sexual assault; Fineboy the wannabe DJ and the only male member of his family not to have committed suicide fights to see a different end to his story; and Ahmed, so determined to see an end to corruption in his country yet a beneficiary of his father’s corrupt money when he needs it. It’s a novel heavy on irony, with every character swimming the wrong way in a strong current but refusing to be swept away – it’s about the belief that the world can be better despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

“Then Funkẹ had had her religious experience and all that suffering had been put in an unsettling perspective. The sooner the world unravelled, the sooner the second coming of her saviour. Earthquakes, famine, war: all signs and precursors to glorious rapture. It was a rationale to explain a world that never got better. Despite one’s best efforts, despite one’s highest hopes: the world did not change.”

Despite it all it’s not a pessimistic book. It’s a book about trying, even when trying is stupid, even when trying seems to make the situation worse. It’s a book about redemption, and it how it can be found in unexpected places. Most of all it’s a book about not allowing yourself to be lost in the rush of a system or a city much bigger than you, a ‘how to’ guide for keeping your head above water.

“Most likely his doubts would return, with activity, with employment, but he would not regret these days of belief, these moments of faith when all seemed plausible and the world was made in seven days.”

THINGS TO NOTE

If you don’t know anything of Nigeria’s political history (I did not) it is easy to feel disorientated in this story. Fortunately for us, we live in the age of Google so things like this are pretty easy to rectify. You are not going to understand the entire complicated political history of Nigeria since its independence in an afternoon, but you can certainly learn a few things. Here are a few sources I found helpful:

A timeline of key events in Nigeria (starts in 800BC, which is a little early for our purposes but it interesting nonetheless)

This 2011 piece by Remi Adekoya is a good whistle-stop tour of the origins of Nigeria’s problems, particularly with regards to the effects of colonialism and the country’s crude oil, which is mentioned in Welcome to Lagos a few times

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an amazing book you should read anyway, but also paints a picture of Nigeria in its infancy as an independent country. Obviously I’m not saying read this one first, but having read it it gave me a bit more context for the history of Nigeria that was helpful while reading

As with any analysis of a country, all should be read with a critical mindset and an awareness of the authors’ biases, but the above helped give a bit of context when, during my reading, I would find myself feeling like I was misunderstanding vital bits of plot because of a lack of basic knowledge about the country I was reading about. Yay Google!

The End We Start From

In the midst of a mysterious environmental crises, as London is submerged below flood waters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, the family are forced to leave their home in search of safety. As they move from place to place, shelter to shelter, their journey traces both fear and wonder as Z’s small fists grasp at things he sees, as he grows and stretches, thriving and content against all the odds.

This is a story of new motherhood in a terrifying setting: a familiar world made dangerous and unstable, its people forced to become refugees. Startlingly beautiful, The End We Start From is a gripping novel that paints an imagined future as realistic as it is frightening. And yet, though the country is falling apart around them, this family’s world – of new life and new hope – sings with love.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter is a snack of a novel. At only 127 pages, I finished it in only a couple of sittings, and the spare beauty of Hunter’s writing along with the expansive yet simplistic story snapped me right out of the reading slump that’s plagued me throughout February. It was one of those reads where, when I reached the end, I closed the book and just sort of stared at it for a minute like ‘how did you do this to me?

The End We Start From is a Belletrist book club pick from a few months back – as much as I love Belletrist, I unfortunately cannot read along in real time because they pick literary new releases, which are always hardback and my bank account, sadly, just can’t handle that kind of abuse. Needless to say, Emma and Kara have done it yet again. This. Book. Is. Gorgeous.

Hunter began her career as a poet, something that is wholly evident throughout the book, which is both lyrical and simplistic in style. There is a deliberate vagueness to her writing that works to create just the right amount of intrigue and the right amount of universality in a book concerned with the ways in which people cling to normality when thrust into extraordinary situations.

This is a story about the end of the world, yes, but that is only the backdrop. The lead story is that of new motherhood, of the sheltered world families go into when it is just them and their new baby. The catastrophe they are surrounded by is constant, but within that we sit in a strange oasis of calm where I raises her baby Z, and although the outside world encroaches, it doesn’t overwhelm – even if it does. Because whatever is happening outside, with the floods and the fights, I still has a baby to look after.

This is a gorgeous, strange, unique, haunting and ultimately uplifting novel. I can’t recommend it enough.

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.

20170719_120916[1]

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.

There but for the

‘There was once a man who, one night between the main course and sweet at a dinner party, went upstairs and locked himself in one of the bedrooms of the house of the people who were giving the dinner party…’

As the hours turn into days to weeks to months and the consequences of this stranger’s actions ripple outwards, touching the owners, the guests, the neighbourhood, then the whole country, so Ali Smith draws us into a beautiful, strange place where everyone is so much more than they at first appear.

20170412_140526[1]

A few weeks after I first read There but for the by Ali Smith, I went to listen to a talk she gave at my university. Afterwards, as is often the case, we were invited to go to a signing in the tiny Waterstones next door to the lecture theatre. I should mention at this point that I attended the lecture alone. I wandered down to the bookshop, copy of There but for the in hand, grabbed my free glass of book signing wine and took my place in the queue… Only to realise that a boy I had maybe sort of ghosted a few months previously was in line in front of me with his new girlfriend.

By the time I reached Ali I was in a state of extreme stress. The boy and his new girlfriend had gone by then – thank the lord – but the awkwardness would take me a few days to recover from.

I don’t remember what Ali and I talked about in the 60 seconds I had with her, only that she was very kind. Which, if you’ve read There but for the – and if you haven’t, you absolutely should – you probably had already figured out.

This all happened exactly 2 years ago. This time I returned to the book having lived through a couple of weeks that made me seriously consider the possibility of locking myself in a stranger’s guest bedroom for an extended period of time.

As covered in the summary, There but for the begins with a man, Miles Garth, locking himself in the spare bedroom of the home of a family to whom he is a virtual stranger. The story is started by him, but not really about him, ultimately. There but for the is split into four parts, each named after a corresponding word of the title, and narrated by an individual impacted by an interaction with Miles. The narrators are Anna, a woman Miles met as a teenager who has just quit her job vetting refugees at what she calls the Centre for Temporary Permanence (or, interchangeably, the centre of permanent temporariness); Mark, who invited Miles to the fateful dinner party after an encounter at the theatre, Mark, who’s long dead mother berates him in rhyme in his mind (if I had known, when I was twenty-four, that you’d grow up into such a godawful bore/ well – what rhymes with back-street abortionist?); May Young, an old lady with dementia who’s connection to Miles takes a while to become clear, but when it does, is the most devastating of all; and Brooke, 9 years old, Cleverist and the owner of all the best lines of the novel.

There but for the is a meandering, clever book in which Smith plays with language and metaphor, never committing to a specific meaning. In fact, in having almost everyone but Miles ponder his decision, Smith seems to reject the idea of specific meaning altogether. Instead of a concrete metaphor, it is a tangle of ideas.

There’s a George Orwell quote at the start of the book that says ‘The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly discourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.’

I was preoccupied by this quote through much of my reading. The question of a person’s preparedness for being, as Orwell says, defeated and broken up is something that the characters all appear to be calling into question.

It’s a truly terrible dinner party, full of the worst sort of people. White people asking black people where they’re from from, straight people furtively asking gay people about AIDS and what it was like before it was legal. Heavily rehearsed, aggressive discussions regarding the pointlessness of modern art. How are you supposed to prepare for other people – who you have been taught from day one to fasten your love upon, who you desperately wish to fasten your love upon – being so utterly disappointing? Even if you lock yourself away, at a certain point you come to realise – spoiler alert – that you can’t stay in there forever.

How do you go on, despite all the relentless disappointment? How to you agree to be defeated and broken up, and to continue in that defeated and broken up-ness?

That’s the question everybody in this book seems to be asking.

It’s a question I have been asking myself a lot in the past few months. It’s a question I didn’t actually have the words for yet, but was experiencing a vague sort of anxiety about that night two years ago when I, the ghost girl, was attempting to make conversation with the boy’s new corporeal girlfriend.

There but for the is a beautiful story that I can’t recommend enough.