Lauren Groff’s second collection of short stories, Florida, plunges us into a hot and humid world, where swamp creatures slither over the thresholds of human existence, and tensions drip from rain-soaked leaves. It stages a multi-faceted exploration of a domesticity fraying at its edges, eroded by a pervasive sense of societal, political and environmental anxiety. In her stories, Groff returns again and again to the central figure of the anguished wife and mother, whose impassive surfaces mask a raging, roiling fear: the fear of a world which creeps ever closer to its own destruction, while continuing to petrify her within the bounds of social expectations. She writes beautifully of the ungovernable chaos of the natural world, of the ‘seethe of insects’, the ‘stealthy bellying of alligators’, the ‘shiver[ing]’ force of hurricane gales. Mother Nature seems to whip itself into the type of frenzy that must surely be surging towards disaster, and human lives are menaced by the insidious encroachment of snakes and lizards, water, wind and darkness. Sombre, delicate and endlessly evocative, Florida is an elegant and haunting reminder of all the darkness which lurks beneath the seemingly benign normality of modern American life.
Jack is five. He lives in Room with Ma, the only other human he knows. He sleeps in Wardrobe, looks up at the sun through Skylight, and hides away from Old Nick, who visits at night, when he should be sleeping. The whole breadth and depth of Jack’s life is played out across the cramped surfaces of this sound-proofed, locked room, in which his mother has been held captive for seven years. For him, that’s how it is, until one day, it isn’t.
Narrated in the lovely, unworldly voice of this very unusual child, Emma Donoghue’s innovative novel, Room, is thrilling and gentle, heart-breaking and comical, all at the same time. In fervent, joyful prose, Jack proudly informs the reader about his day-to-day discoveries, inventing delightfully clunky phrases such as, ‘they’re the wide of my hand’, ‘I winned’ and ‘wonderfulest’, as he rushes through the sights and sounds of his little life. He manages to make his small world seem rich and full, describing, with delicious innocence, the beauty of a sunset glimpsed through Skylight in the lines, ‘I watch God’s face fall slow slow, even orangier and the clouds are all colours, then after there’s streaks and dark coming up so bit-at-a-time I don’t see it till it’s done’. Donoghue writes with a wonderfully perceptive attention to the detail of human emotion, creating characters that reach out of the pages and into our lives. In this way, she ensures that her story stays with us, long after we finish reading it.
Written from the most unique of viewpoints, Nutshell is the story of an unborn baby, who understands a lot more than we might suspect. While his mother Trudy plots a terrible crime with her lover, Claude, in a Hamlet-esque tale of betrayal, our narrator listens, trying to make sense of the very adult world which awaits him. He describes himself as a ‘blank slate’, but his narration is strangely erudite, reflecting a huge range of cultural, scientific and philosophical knowledge in lines such as: ‘long ago, many weeks ago, my neural groove closed upon itself […] and my many millions of young neurons […] spun and wove from their trailing axons the gorgeous golden fabric of my first idea […] my idea was to be. Or is not that, its grammatical variant, is’. It is as if, poised on the threshold of true existence, full of all the possibility and malleability of that life before life, he had been gifted briefly with infinite wisdom. And so, with a world-weary, scornful wit, he penetrates the superficial banality of human behaviour, revealing the emptiness dwelling within. However, while he paints a somewhat damning portrait of the world he is about to enter, he also lingers over its beauty. He turns words over in his mind as they drift in from the outside, pondering, for example, ‘unless, unless, unless – a wisp of a word, ghostly token of altered fate’. He even finds magic in the most commonplace of items: the ‘portable radio’, which ‘tinnily rasps’, igniting a ‘penumbral coral glow, a prolonged tropical dusk’ in his ‘inland sea and its trillion drifting fragments’. This baby’s suspicion towards the human world is always countered with these small passages of affection and wonder, a fact which makes for a luminous, heartening reading experience. This book is just another example of McEwan’s sickeningly clever knack for narrative and plot, and I can only hope that, one day, I might write with half of his level of precision and artistry.
Normal People (2018)
Never have I found a book so painful, and yet so utterly perfect, as I found Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People. When described in its simplest terms, this story is, ostensibly, just another coming-of-age romance, but Rooney’s prose is so stunningly perceptive that her narrative effortlessly transcends the reductive epithets often associated with this genre. The novel centres on the lives of two people: Marianne – fiercely intelligent, independent and strong, but also full of masochistic self-loathing – and Connell – affable, popular and kind, but far too concerned about the opinions of others for his own good. The novel charts their changing relationship as they move from the hateful hierarchies of school to the wider world of university, in a will-they-won’t-they tale of love, loyalty and betrayal. Marianne and Connell are quite obviously perfect for each other, but also somehow unable to be together, and the tortuous turns of their romance had me wincing in fascinated frustration at their seeming reluctance to arrive at their happy-ever-after. But Rooney’s great skill as a writer does not lie simply in her ability to delay readerly gratification: it stems from her extraordinary understanding of human nature, of the many conflicting skeins of character that shield our truest selves. She shines an unsettling light on the murkiness of Marianne and Connell’s most private and vulnerable thoughts, on their brokenness, so creating a captivating sense of intimacy, even in her third person narration. The descriptions and dialogue are so familiar, so real, that you are struck with the strange feeling that Rooney is writing about us as well, about the parts of ourselves that we don’t share, not even with our friends. It is for this reason that Normal People is so compelling, and so haunting.
The Argonauts (2015)
The Argonauts can only really be defined as indefinable, un-pin-down-able. As it charts author Maggie Nelson’s own personal experiences of love, sexuality, gender and motherhood, it establishes an effortless flexibility of style and tone, flitting between memoir, romance and academic criticism with ease. The narrative hinges most crucially on Nelson’s relationship with non-binary trans artist Harry Dodge, interrogating the way in which one partner’s gender fluidity might soften, destabilise and remould the contours of the other’s sexual identity. While contemplating this, she muses that, ‘once we name something […] we can never see it the same way again’, and this seems to be the central idea of her book, as it stages a movement away from ‘naming’ and towards inclusivity, forming an apologia for questioning, for journeying towards an answer that may never truly be found.
Nelson’s exploration of bodily definitions is informed and inflected by her account of the death of her mother in law, and the birth of her first child, Iggy, events which seem to dovetail into one, drawing meaning and momentum from each other. While labour sharpens Nelson’s senses, while her pain plunges ‘deeper’ until sensation is all-consuming, the dying woman’s ‘mouth need[s] less air, less often’; her death is an ebb to counter the flow of new life, an inescapable fact which binds bodies and beings together. As Nelson writes so beautifully: ‘if all goes well, the baby will make it out alive and so will you. Nonetheless, you will have touched death along the way. You will have realised that death will do you too. […] as the baby might say to its mother, as we might say to death: I forget you, but you remember me’ (Winnicot). The poetry of these meditations is modulated and enriched by quotations from intellectuals such as Roland Barthes, Judith Butler and Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose thoughts lend a critical quality to the intimacy of Nelson’s writing, making The Argonauts one of the most thought-provoking and stimulating books of the decade.
Words by Emma Morgan