It really annoys me when people say ‘this book isn’t what I expected’ and then write a negative review as if it’s the books fault that the reader had the wrong impression.
This book isn’t what I expected.
My review isn’t a negative one, but I do want to explain what I expected, in case others are similarly misled.
I thought this book was predominantly about words, and lost words, and gendered language. I expected the narrative to be driven by words and for them to be centre stage, or that they would somehow frame the narrative.
Books, and the development of the Oxford English Dictionary, are indeed important to the story. But words do not drive or frame the narrative. Esme, the main character, grows up around the men compiling the OED and herself becomes involved in that; she does find and compile ‘lost words’, in the varied senses of that phrase. The story, though, is the story of Esme as a young white English woman at the turn of the 20th century, and her experiences: with the OED, of sexism, of the women’s suffrage movement, of loss and love and friendship. She uses the words she finds to help navigate the world; she learns words from people of different classes in an effort to validate the existence of all words; and sometimes, of course, words are useless. Contrary to my expectations, words are secondary to the biography of Esme.
Having said all of that, this is a lovely novel. Williams writes beautifully, she does use the idea of words as gendered in interesting and meaningful ways, and Esme is of course living in a fascinating era. I wasn’t expecting the suffrage issue to be as significant as it turned out to be: I already know a lot about this as an issue, but for someone coming to it with little knowledge, this is a pretty great introduction to the actions (and words) of the suffragettes, and those who were opposed to their means.
You might notice that I don’t read a whole lot of realist fiction. When I do, I want it to do something interesting and clever and make me think. I have thought about gendered language, and about the gatekeepers of knowledge and language, so for me the ideas weren’t brand new. They are, though, presented in a deeply engaging manner, with neat intersections between ideas and with sympathy for different perspectives. I really enjoyed it.
I had thought that I liked travel memoirs. And I do – I can enjoy a good ‘and then we went here and experienced that’ story. But I’ve eventually realised that what I really enjoy is what I choose to call ‘domesticity in the exotic’. Exotic is a loaded word, but I use it here to evoke a sense of difference that I don’t think ‘foreign’ really captures; and I’m just as including a Brazilian or Nigerian writing about moving to Melbourne as I am a Londoner moving to Provence (I think Romulus, My Father arguably fits neatly into my category).
Before A Year in Provence or Under a Tuscan Sun came Mermaid Singing, by Australian Charmian Clift.
I read this book thanks to NetGalley. I’m incredibly pleased that it’s been republished.
Its most obvious parallel is My Family and Other Animals, and the rest of the Corfu Trilogy. Indeed, they were originally published in the same year, 1956. But ‘parallel’ is right: they seem to start similarly and go in the same direction – family moves impetuously to Greek island, experiences with Greek locals don’t always go as expected, genteel poverty etc – but they are fundamentally separated stories. Where My Family is written two decades after the events, Mermaid is contemporaneous. Where Durrell was the spoilt youngest son of the family and was off having adventures and occasionally going to school, Clift is a writer and a mother and a wife; while she has adventures, they’re not the focus, because she has the cares and concerns of an adult: both for her own family and the way she views the people around them.
My Family is a fond recollection of a childhood dream, /something something the world before World War 2 blah blah. Mermaid Singing is part ‘domesticity in the exotic’, but also a rumination on the hardship of Kalymnos life, and the difficulties of being a woman in the 1950s trying to forge and continue a career alongside motherhood.
Clift writes beautifully, and evocatively. Kalymnos is an island that largely relies on about 10% of its population going out on sponge-diving expeditions for 7 months of the year – a dangerous occupation and one that’s bringing back less revenue as, in the 50s, artificial sponges are taking over the market. It’s also an island still, in Clift’s experience, in the grip of patriarchal attitudes (and Clift herself is part of this as she notes she has no right to comment on whether someone has beaten his wife at the end of a drunken week). The whole reason for moving here is for Clift and her husband to collaborate on their third novel, this one to be about the sponge-divers. And they do manage to do this, in between drinking a lot of retzina and being closely observed by all their neighbours and seemingly endless rounds of engagements and baptisms.
This is no day-by-day account of life. Like A Year in Provence it follows a year, observing the changes to life as the seasons come and go. Clift observes moments: a friend giving birth, experiences in the taverna, the experiences of her two children during Carnival…. As a gifted writer, she uses these moments to reflect on life itself – and death; and she conjures a wondrous view of Kalymnos. Is this likely to reflect the lives of the people who lived there their whole lives? Perhaps not. Perhaps they would recognise some aspect of their lives but be confused by an emphasis or examination. It does seem like a genuine reflection of Clift’s experience – an an ex-pat Australian, a writer, a woman who didn’t quite fit the expected mould of womanhood on the island.
I’m inspired to buy this in hard copy if I come across it.
And then it just… ended.
Don’t get me wrong; I really am glad they got back to the Alpha Quadrant. I’m glad the writers had an opportunity to make that happen when, I assume, the show was cancelled (for all their faults, I think here of Firefly, and to a lesser degree Jericho). But. Wow. What a last episode. What a sudden, screeching halt. I guess if it had to be done that way, it was fine?
Don’t get me wrong #2: two Janeways? Who disagree with one another? I can’t be sad about that.
Janeway: I adore the fact that she’s just so damned complicated. I really, really didn’t like her for the way she went after that rogue Federation ship to the detriment of all. And the time she basically condoned genocide. And several other very dubious choices. But they were never choices she was forced into – that is, she actively chose those things, and believed she was right; it wasn’t a state of helplessness. And it was never being “emotional” in a silly woman stereotype. I am perversely pleased that I got a chance to be legit angry at her. I do not regret to watch all of Voyager mostly so that I had a chance to understand this pivotal character in Star Trek.
Chakotay: nothing will ever remove my pure love for this character. Nothing. He is a marvellous 2IC, he got some great storylines, and there’s basically nothing I would change.
Janeway/Chakotay: never in my life have I shipped a non-canon couple as completely, as wholeheartedly, as I ship these two.
I have taken to reading J/C fanfiction.
Seven of Nine: given my words above, you might think I am angry at Seven by the end of the show. You would be wrong, not least because I am capable of divorcing a character from the narrative choices made by showrunners. I do not like the Seven/Chakotay romance idea, but that’s largely because of the age difference (not necessarily a problem but made more problematic by her relative youth as a human) and the abruptness of it all. I was intrigued by the idea of her “practising” with a hologram of Chakotay (and can’t fault her choice), and choose to believe that she was continuing the experiment. ANYWAY, aside from all that, I do feel resentment that Seven was basically a long-running experiment herself, along the lines of “how long can we keep an actress in a catsuit OH LOOK AS LONG AS WE LIKE.” I liked a lot about Seven’s narrative arcs: her growth, her experiences, her comments on the rest of the crew… usually…
B’Elanna: I continued to enjoy her a lot, too. I like her attitude and her honesty and her competence.
B’Elanna/Tom Paris: dear God I came around to B/T. I can’t believe it.
Naomi Wildemann: I will never understand the seeming necessity for including a child character. That said, if there had to be one, Naomi was usually ok. I didn’t enjoy the one ep where she was hiding on the holodeck with the kids’ characters blah blah, but overall she wasn’t written too saccharine.
Neelix: eventually blended into the background, I guess? I still don’t really care for him but he did have some good moments. And quite a good end to his narrative, I thought.
The Doctor: continues to be a pain in the butt.
Harry: continues to just be a bit bland. Sorry, Harry; you are a henchman, not a leader.
Tuvok: I love that Tim Russ got to show a few moments of not being Vulcan; it made Tuvok all the more remarkable as a character. Like Seven, I like Tuvok for the contrast he provides with the rest of the crew, as well as for his own contributions.
I spent… a lot of the last few months pretty obsessed with Voyager. Clearly; seven seasons is a lot of television. And now it’s done. I feel somewhat bereft! (well, I would be feeling more bereft were it not for the admission made above about J/C…) This is the first Star Trek I’ve watched end to end, aside from Disco, which of course is not yet finished. I crammed seven years into about four months, which I would probably not repeat, but again – I don’t regret it. It was fascinating to see narrative choices, and reflect on late 90s tv choices, and all of those sorts of things.
And now that I’m done with Voyager, I can start of Picard.
I received this book as an ARC through NetGalley.
This novella is noted by Goodreads as number 7.5 in the Laundry Files series – it fills in a gap, basically, about one of the chief characters. For reference, I have read a few Laundry Files stories: I enjoy them a lot, but not quite enough to obsessively chase every single book down. I did enjoy this one a lot, which means that you could probably come to this with maybe even no knowledge of the rest of the books – as long as you’re happy enough not knowing some of the background (like who Mo is). I think there’s enough explanation about things like computers creating magical energy, and therefore background magical radiation increasing as computational power increases, that a reader who’s prepared to roll with it can do just that.
So, the story: Bob Howard is sent to Japan to help them deal with incursions of entities from other dimensions. These can take the shape of various things depending on mythology and so on in the surrounding area… and when Howard is given a hotel room that’s Hello, Kitty themed, alarm bells should have started ringing…
The Laundry Files are what I would consider very pop-literature. This is in no way a statement on quality! What I mean is that they’re fast-paced (very fast-paced, in this instance); there’s a lot of banter; there’s a lot of pop-culture references, some of which I admit I didn’t get but the general gist was obvious. This story just barges along and drags you along in its wake. And it’s a whole lot of fun. In fact, it’s made me start eyeing off the rest of the series…