I have read a lot of great books over the summer and I now have a massive backlog of reviews to catch up on. Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller tells the story of 51-year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius, who still live with their mother in rural isolation, until her sudden death forces them to confront some harsh realities of life in the modern world and the truth behind some dark family secrets. It’s quite a meandering novel, often melancholic in tone, but I really enjoyed Fuller’s richly descriptive prose which captures the oppressive atmosphere of the twins’ daily lives. ‘Unsettled Ground’ was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and while it wasn’t too surprising that the judges crowned ‘Piranesi’ by Susanna Clarke as the winner last week, I think ‘Unsettled Ground’ would have been a worthy winner too, and I will definitely seek out Fuller’s other novels.
Maybe I Don’t Belong Here by David Harewood is the Homeland actor’s account of his mental health breakdown in his early 20s shortly after leaving drama school and the racism he experienced growing up in the West Midlands in the 1970s and 1980s. The book follows the excellent documentary Harewood made for the BBC a couple of years ago called ‘Psychosis and Me’, and sees him reflect on the impact of racism on mental health and identity in the most harrowing terms. He was sectioned twice during his illness and says: “I’m absolutely convinced that had I been in America at the time of my breakdown, I’d most likely be dead.” The racist abuse he was subjected to as a child caused him to have “a Black half and an English half” and his fractured sense of self and identity was apparent in the nature of his breakdown where a psychiatric report states: “Patient believes he is two persons”. Even though Harewood made a full recovery and went on to have a successful career, making the documentary and reading his medical notes about what happened during his illness has clearly had a profound effect on him. Harewood’s informal and conversational style is very engaging to read. Many thanks to Pan Macmillan for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.
Published earlier this year by my favourite indie press, Bluemoose Books, Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters by Jane Ions is a comic novel about a middle-aged woman called Sally Forth who has taken a career break from her job as a secondary school English teacher. Her son, Dan, has returned to live with her after finishing a performance arts degree and her daughter, Laura, has recently had a baby and is shocked to discover how hard it is. Ions’ novel has been longlisted for the 2021 Comedy Women In Print Prize and is written with a very dry sense of humour. I particularly enjoyed the competitive parenting dynamic between Sally and her friends and the depiction of mothering grown-up children reminded me a bit of the BBC sitcom ‘Mum’ whose central character played by Lesley Manville is unappreciated by almost everyone around her. Overall, this is a light and amusing read.
China Room by Sunjeev Sahota is the author’s third novel and partly inspired by his own family history. In rural Punjab in 1929, Mehar is one of three teenage girls who have had an arranged marriage to three brothers, but they are not allowed to know which brother they are each married to. The women work in the family “china room” by day away from their husbands until they are summoned to a darkened room by their mother-in-law at night to conceive a son. Mehar eventually believes she has worked out which brother is her husband, but this has dangerous consequences for her. Seventy years later, the unnamed great-grandson of Mehar travels from England to India, initially staying with his aunt and uncle and later to the now derelict farm where Mehar lived, while he attempts to get clean from heroin addiction before starting university. Sahota subtly draws thematic connections between the narratives, with Mehar’s story being the stronger and more memorable of the two overall. I enjoyed Sahota’s second novel The Year of the Runaways which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015, and I was a little surprised that ‘China Room’ didn’t make the shortlist this year too (I have only read one other longlisted title so far though, so I can’t comment on the rest yet). Many thanks to Random House, Vintage Books for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.